Editor’s note: Following is the first of two stories on the 2012-13 Lone Peak High School boys basketball team. Today’s story focuses on the influence of faith on the boys and their development outside of basketball. Part 2 will focus on how these players have thrived, even though young men in the broader culture face significant personal, educational and economic challenges.
Talon Shumway had something to say.
The senior was in class at an LDS seminary building next to Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, part of a clean, quiet, affluent community nestled below a towering Mt. Timpanogos and not far from a Mormon temple. The instructor had asked for a volunteer to share a spiritual message as part of an opening devotional. Shumway immediately raised his hand.
For almost 20 minutes, the young man talked to his peers about having just finished reading the Book of Mormon for the first time. He spoke about kneeling by his bedside and praying to God to know if the book was true. He felt nothing and continued to wrestle with the question late into the night. He described how he was about to give up, but was then overcome by a powerful, reassuring feeling of peace. It was overwhelming and he couldn’t deny it, Shumway told them.
"Talon testified of the Book of Mormon and challenged the other students in the class to find out for themselves," said Dwight Durrant, a religious educator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was teaching the class and recounted the moment for the Deseret News. "As a seminary teacher, if I tell that same story, it wouldn’t mean as much. But Talon Shumway ... he’s a rock star. The students were hanging on every word.”
For months, Shumway had been standing on the pinnacle of athletic success. He and his Lone Peak High School basketball teammates had finished the season with a 26-1 record, including wins over several of the top high school programs and players across the country; a third-straight Utah state title and, ultimately, a national championship. The team had been featured in the New York Times and appeared on the Today Show. Shumway had signed a letter-of-intent to play football at Brigham Young University. Three of his teammates — Nick Emery, Eric Mika and T.J. Haws — were considered elite prep basketball recruits and had all accepted scholarships to play at BYU.
The 2012-13 Knights took their basketball seriously. They trained hard and crushed opponents, often winning by more than 30 points. Athletics seems destined to be a big part of the future for many team members, as well. But for these decorated prep athletes, true success had more to do with living a balanced life, making good choices and serving others, according to many parents, teachers and other observers who followed the team's journey. It meant being a good example to others, putting an arm around the team manager with special needs, displaying sportsmanship and deepening their religious convictions.
“Basketball is such a small part of who they are,” said Marty Haws, father of T.J. and a former Utah prep standout and BYU basketball player. “Yet it has been a vehicle to do the things they want and aspire to.”
They were “a team of lanky, long-armed teenagers who looked only slightly more imposing than a chess club,” according to Dan Frosch of the New York Times, who wrote about Lone Peak last February.
Yet the Knights earned national respect with their play.
As the squad traveled the country and faced off against some of the top competition in the nation, Lone Peak was praised for its team-oriented style of play.
But some observers were also curious about the players for other reasons, according to Debbie Lewis, the wife of Lone Peak head coach Quincy Lewis.
“People would say they look so clean cut, they are such gentlemen and so respectful. We loved hearing that,” Debbie Lewis said. “Some people asked questions about the LDS Church because Eric Mika and Nick Emery had talked about going on missions. I loved that everywhere we went, we stood out to people.”
The Knights caught Zack Samberg’s attention when Lone Peak won against Archbishop Mitty (Calif.) in the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., in January 2013. Samberg, then an eighth-grader, was amazed to see “this unassuming, small team from Utah” dominate star player Aaron Gordon (now a freshman with the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats) and his team by almost 40 points. The young New York native researched the Knights on his cellphone during the game and wanted to meet the Lone Peak players afterward but assumed they would be overwhelmed with media. To his surprise, all the cameras and reporters followed Gordon. Samberg was able to speak briefly with Emery, Haws and Mika as the team hurried out to catch their flight home.
“I knew there was something special about this team,” Samberg wrote in an email to the Deseret News. “I knew there was a story to be told.”
In the weeks that followed, Samberg became consumed by the idea of filming a documentary about the Knights. With his parents' permission, the ambitious 14-year-old tracked down an email address for coach Lewis and pitched his idea.
Samberg was impressed by how long the team had played together and how well it competed against top programs despite having an overall smaller lineup. Another unique aspect for Samberg was Mormonism.
“I learned a lot about Mormonism from doing this project, and I honestly think that played a huge role in Lone Peak’s success,” said Samberg, now in ninth grade. “Being a high school kid, I know what goes on outside of school, and for the most part it isn’t good. Being Mormon, according to the kids, really kept them in check and kept their priorities straight. They weren’t getting into trouble and doing bad things on weekends because they were working and playing basketball.”
One special memory for LeeAnn Payne was seeing her son Tanner cut down a piece of the net after Lone Peak won a state championship at the Dee Events Center in Ogden.
Tanner, affectionately referred to as "T-Payne," had been around Emery, Haws and Conner Toolson since elementary school and loved the game of basketball. He had followed the Knights' program for years, and after watching his older brother Kimball win back-to-back state titles in 2007 and 2008, he dreamed of the day he would cut down his own piece of the net.
With the community cheering and cellphone cameras recording, T-Payne climbed the ladder, but he was unable to cut the net.
Before he was born, Tanner Payne suffered a stroke that resulted in cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. But he became the Knights' team manager and performed his daily duties at a high level.
Seeing his buddy's struggle with cutting the net (Payne has difficulties with fine motor skills), Emery climbed the ladder and assisted T-Payne in securing his souvenir.
LeeAnn Payne captured a photo of the priceless moment, but the scene will forever be etched in her heart.
“That encapsulates these boys,” she said. “They were there for Tanner. They made him feel like a teammate. That's invaluable to a kid that looks up to a group of boys like Tanner did. They were a unique group, a sweet group.”
In a letter she wrote, LeeAnn Payne thanked the players for the kindness they showed her son.
"When you are the parents of a special needs child, you constantly have a prayer in your heart that your child will be surrounded by a group of people who will protect his innocence, shield him from criticism, include him and love him as much as you do," she wrote. "Our hopes and desires have been met by an amazing student body, faculty and staff, and basketball team at Lone Peak High School. We cannot adequately thank his peer group, and his dearest friends of the Lone Peak basketball program enough for accepting Tanner for who he is. He loves you like brothers and looks up to you like the heroes that you are."
Coach Lewis said Payne swept the floor before practice, managed equipment and guarded each trophy until it reached the school's trophy case, a duty that practically made him a celebrity.
"He is like everybody’s brother, one of the family,” said Lewis, who also serves as a bishop’s counselor in his congregation, the Cedar Hills 12th Ward of the Cedar Hills Stake. “He always had things ready to go. He is very loyal to Lone Peak, and it was fun to have him be part of it.”
When the 6-foot-10 Mika sat out his junior year after transferring from another school, Payne oriented him to the job of team manager. Mika came to admire his always-cheerful attitude. When he didn’t feel like practicing, Mika only had to observe Payne's diligent hustle on the job.
“He had a good influence because he put everything into perspective," said Mika, who used to play one-on-one and practice half-court shots with Payne. "He was there every day and helped us stay humble.”
The Christofferson collision
Jay and Maxine Christofferson are still impressed two years later with how members of the Lone Peak basketball team treated their son following an incident in a February 2012 game.
In the first quarter, Haws and Lehi’s Ryan Christofferson were involved in a violent collision where they hit their heads together and fell to the floor. Haws had a one-inch gash over his eye, and Christofferson was dazed and bleeding from his mouth. Medical personnel thought Christofferson may have suffered a concussion and broken some bones in his cheek, his mother said. The Christoffersons spent a long night in the emergency room at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center while Haws received stitches and returned to finish the game.
After finding out there were no broken bones and that their son would be fine, the Christoffersons were able to appreciate the genuine concern displayed by several Lone Peak players toward their opponent. Immediately after the incident, Emery and other players stayed close to Christofferson to offer support and encouragement while he remained on the court. After the game, the opposing players sent text and Facebook messages to ask about his condition.
These small acts of kindness led the Christoffersons to nominate Emery as Utah Gatorade Player of the Year.
“We were so impressed with the way the boys treated the situation," said Maxine Christofferson, who called coach Lewis to express her admiration for the Lone Peak program. "It was cool. They didn’t have to do that, but they were his friends. As parents, we appreciated that.”
Fruits of seminary
The Lone Peak Seminary is one of the largest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The 15-teacher faculty caters to roughly 2,200 students, about 90 percent of the school’s student body.
Seminary is the cool place to be at Lone Peak.
“The culture here is that you take seminary,” said Jonathan Hall, the seminary’s principal. “That’s different from other places I’ve been.”
That includes the athletes. A handful of the teachers have benefited from having members of the basketball team in their classrooms, where they have been admired for their friendliness, humility, spiritual maturity, willingness to participate and overall positive influence on other students.
“They are not perfect, but they don’t mind coming across as goody-goody or righteous, and not in a showy way," Durrant said. "They are not ashamed of the gospel. They all come from wonderful backgrounds and families, and that’s why they are who they are.”
Mike Preece, another seminary teacher, recalled dealing with a disruptive student who had behavioral problems. Without being asked, Mika sat next to the student to encourage better behavior. One day, the young man said he didn’t want to take part in a class activity. Preece asked Mika to be his partner.
“The kid yells out, ‘The giant’s not mine!’ Eric thought that was hilarious. He was called ‘the giant’ multiple times,” Preece said. “These guys were willing to participate, to lift and to strengthen others, but at the same time they were teenagers who had fun and joked around.”
Mika is now a starting freshman on the BYU basketball team, and his seminary teachers have continued to stay in touch with him.
“Our teachers were awesome. They had a good influence,” Mika said. “Seminary really helped me.”
For Haws, who is a senior at Lone Peak this year and recently broke the school’s single-game scoring record with 40 points, seminary provides a much-needed escape from the stress of school, basketball and life. He has also appreciated bonding with his brothers from the team in a spiritual environment. On a few occasions, they visited the Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple before school.
“It’s special that we can have so much fun, but when it’s time to get serious, we can all help build each other’s testimonies and grow together,” Haws said. “It’s definitely a cool experience when your guys on the court are your boys off the floor as well.”
Before arriving in the LDS Texas Fort Worth Mission, Toolson wasn’t into books and reading. Spending Monday nights at "family home evening" was annoying.
How times have changed.
During a recent morning study session in a one-bedroom apartment, the now 19-year-old full-time missionary picked up “Jesus the Christ,” one of a handful of books outside of scripture that missionaries are permitted to bring when they leave home. The book was published 99 years ago and has 768 pages with 1,596 footnotes, as well as many references to works published more than 135 years ago.
“I never liked to read," Elder Toolson said in an interview. "Now I want to read ‘Jesus the Christ.’ ... Missions get you reading and studying."
He has also changed his mind about spending time with his family.
“I was always complaining Monday nights about my parents keeping me in," Toolson said. "I used to see that as a pain and annoying. You start to realize how important your family is when you’re away from them. I’d love to have family night with my family now, especially with all the gospel-related stuff I’ve learned on my mission.”
Toolson is one of four Lone Peak players from last year's team currently serving a full-time Mormon mission. Emery is in the Germany Frankfurt Mission, Braden Miles is in the Washington D.C. South Mission and Shumway is in the Texas McAllen Mission. Mika and Haws are both in the process of submitting their mission paperwork and expect to receive assignments soon. Tanner Payne is also serving a mission at the Bishops' Storehouse in Salt Lake City.
Emery is currently working in Darmstadt. The former Deseret News Mr. Basketball recipient has been in the mission field for about nine months, and despite some nagging problems with ingrown toenails, he’s having the time of his life.
“My family and the gospel have taught me it’s not all about ‘me,’ but it’s about loving others,” Emery said in an email to the Deseret News from Germany. “And when we focus on others, that’s where we find our true selves. That’s when I really am happy.”
In a recent letter home posted on his missionary blog, Emery wrote, “I had an awesome week. It has been some of the best times in my life. I love the mission so much. If I had to tell anyone who was thinking about it, I would tell them, ‘GO!’ It’s the best experience you could ever experience. It’s harder than I expected but I have never felt so rewarded in my life. I have finally found what’s important in life. Sports are still in my life for sure, but the gospel is the No. 1 thing in my life.”
Contributing: Tad Walch reporting from Fort Worth, Texas