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Sunday, December 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Finishing school: Popular route to college hoops

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Keeping busy


Matthew Bryan-Amaning will arrive at Washington next season via the South Kent School in South Kent, Conn. Here's a look at the product of Surrey, England's daily schedule, which doesn't lack structure. (Schedule varies slightly depending on the day.)

7 a.m. Wake up, go to breakfast, clean, get dressed.

7:45 a.m. Basketball team meeting.

8 a.m. Classes begin.

Noon Chapel.

12:20 p.m. Lunch.

3 p.m. Classes end.

3:30 p.m. Basketball practice or study hall, depending on the day.

5:30 p.m. Dinner.

6:30 p.m. Basketball practice.

9 p.m. Study hall.

10 p.m. Free time.

11 p.m. Sleep.

Isaiah Thomas calls from Sea-Tac Airport in November. He sounds nervous. That's normal. Two airplanes and a van will take him some 3,000 miles from his Tacoma-area home to a small preparatory school in the middle of nowhere, an all-boys boarding school in Connecticut with a campus straight out of a Rockwell painting.

His basketball career at the University of Washington, his future, depends on his academic success there.

Thomas came prepared, a heavy winter coat draped over his bony shoulders. And still, he already feels homesick, already called his parents from the airport — twice.

"I'm like, man, I don't know how I'm going to do this," Thomas says. "I don't want to go. But I have to. To better my future. To get to the UW."

From Curtis High School to South Kent School in Connecticut, Thomas is part of an old trend that only recently reached our corner of the country — the prep school basketball phenomenon.

Clustered mainly in the Northeast, traditional prep schools date hundreds of years, and were created to prepare and qualify students for Ivy League colleges, to foster family pipelines and educate future presidents, intellectuals and diplomats.

The basketball boom came recently. And with it, came a host of basketball-related reasons for attending. Among them: a fifth year to play and get stronger that doesn't count against college eligibility, academic help to meet NCAA eligibility requirements and increased national exposure.

"It's amazing the number of kids that flourish in that situation," says Max Good, the first big-time prep school coach, at Maine Central Institute, who now coaches at Bryant University. "They had a sense of entitlement [in high school], a lot of enablers around. These kids are screaming for discipline."

They find it at traditional prep schools. They wear jackets and ties to class. They do laundry, attend chapel and shave daily. At South Kent, Thomas washes dishes, same as the rest of his class, and he will memorize the first 14 lines to the Prologue of Chaucer and recite it to the school.

Classes are small (10 students maximum), study halls are mandatory and teachers are accessible (98 percent live on campus at South Kent). Another basketball-related bonus: He can retake classes at South Kent that he struggled in at Curtis and apply the new grade toward NCAA requirements. He wouldn't have been able to do that at Curtis.

Gone are the distractions, the enablers, the hangers-on. All because of the common denominator UW coach Lorenzo Romar points to — traditional prep schools are in the middle of nowhere. Woods and farms surround South Kent, where students are required to get permission to go into town.

Rules abound. At the Winchendon School in Massachusetts, an unexcused absence earns players 20 suicide running drills in 20 minutes from coach Mike Byrnes.

"Eighty percent of the kids figure it out, and they're successful," Byrnes says. "If they're here for six weeks, a month, no one has to tell them what to do. The others don't, and they don't make it."

Under the traditional prep-school system, in an ideal world, everybody benefits. The players meet NCAA eligibility requirements and get a fifth year of high-school eligibility. They also test themselves in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Conference, the toughest prep league around, where Winchendon boasts 13 potential Division I players on a 15-man roster.

The colleges then get players who are adept at independent living, already away from mom's cooking and coddling, essentially college sophomores with four years of eligibility left.

And the prep schools see a boost in morale and enrollment. When Raphael Chillious took over the South Kent basketball program, 108 students were at the school. The revamped basketball program helped swell enrollment to 142 — at $34,500 annually, less any financial aid.

The fifth season is especially important, as prep schools become what junior colleges used to be — the primary breeding ground for basketball talent.

Traditional prep schools increasingly find themselves on the defensive, lumped together with nontraditional basketball factories or diploma mills exposed in The New York Times last February.

"Storefront schools is what they are," Good says. "Let's be honest."

In its investigation, The Times found one school that offered a spelling class, another where the only teacher was the basketball coach and another where class lasted only two hours a day. Many of the schools were affiliated with churches, making it harder for the government to regulate.

These schools produced dozens of Division I players, all eligible in a head-scratching sort of way.

"It makes it difficult talking to reporters and parents," says Chillious, the South Kent coach. "I feel like I have to go in with my boxing gloves and headgear on, duck and move and defend the traditional schools. There are a lot of instances where kids come and find out how different it is here. Those are the ones who don't make it. They leave."

The trend of basketball-centered schools gained momentum when Tracy McGrady jumped from Mount Zion Christian Academy, a traditional prep school in Durham, N.C., to the NBA in 1997. His Adidas contract called for $300,000 to the school and nearly $1 million to his coach.

The financial windfall combined with recent NCAA legislation to create the climate. In 2000, the NCAA started allowing high-school administrators to decide the legitimacy of their core courses. In 2003, it started allowing students to compensate for low test scores with higher grade-point averages — a sliding scale.

The result in many cases is what Andrew Vadnais, the South Kent headmaster, calls pop-up academies. He prefers to minimize the number of such schools on South Kent's schedule in hopes of avoiding guilt by association.

Romar can tell the difference the minute he steps inside a school. Like the time he saw 13 students in one class, all basketball players. The next class? The same 13.

"A lot of those schools want to get famous and have become infamous," Good says. "Without the combination of academics and basketball, it's just totally meaningless. If it isn't legitimate academically, you're killing the kid."

Core courses represent a key difference between traditional and nontraditional schools. The NCAA requires 14 core courses — including four years of English, two years of math and two years of science.

At some basketball factories, students complete as many as 10 core courses a year. At South Kent, they never complete more than five. So when Thomas says he hopes to complete his course work by the end of this school year, Chillious disagrees.

"He'll be here for two years," Chillious says. "There's no way. If he wants to do that, he's at the wrong school. We have to slow it down, not speed it up. Basketball is the least of my concerns."

Earlier this year, the NCAA commissioned a task force charged with separating the solid prep schools from their questionable counterparts. Prep schools without state oversight are now under additional scrutiny, along with academic records that present abnormalities.

Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president for membership services, runs the task force, and he says it already made an impact. He points to schools that shut down and more independent evaluation of student records. A proposal also is in the works that would encourage, maybe even require, students to graduate high school in eight semesters.

"The majority of prep schools are solid academic institutions with a long history of preparing kids for college life," Lennon says. "The challenging part of our job is to separate those out. The word is out among young people that they shouldn't just chase eligibility. Your motivation for going to school ought to be to get yourself ready for college. That's different than trying to meet the NCAA minimum."

Chillious applauds the NCAA, harkening back to something his grandmother used to say — what doesn't come out in the wash will eventually come out in the rinse. That's why he watches kids from basketball factories to see not if they make it to college, but how long they stay.

The choice: After averaging 19.6 points for Jackson High School in Mill Creek last season, Drew Eisinger either had to accept a Division II scholarship offer or go to prep school in hopes of attracting Division I interest.

The decision: Easy, because prep school afforded him a fifth season without losing college eligibility. So he started looking and ended up at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio — about as west as he could find.

"There aren't any on the West Coast," Eisinger says. "I figured that out pretty quick."

Not for long if Mike Mahoney has anything to say about it. A venture capitalist, Mahoney started a boarding school and a basketball program last year at a day high school, Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley, Calif., which is 41 years old.

The budget for basketball alone runs $100,000 annually, $75,000 of that for travel. School and housing costs push the total to about $300,000. Add an NCAA audit — Mahoney says everything checked out — along with a brutal travel schedule, and the West Coast prep basketball experiment faces its share of issues.

Mahoney isn't one to be deterred, though. He made his money fixing flawed companies, and he maintains this business model isn't one of them. He admits his experiment is a work in progress, but his goals are ambitious. He conducted the first prep-school tournament west of the Mississippi this year, and wants to raise $2 million and build a 35-bed dorm, cafeteria and gym for the school.

With the right combination of money, coaches and academics, Mahoney envisions prep schools in Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Washington. That would cut down travel costs and minimize time spent away from class — two issues facing any West Coast start-up.

Romar says the idea is viable, as long as the base is built on academics.

"The West Coast deserves it," Mahoney says. "The business need is there. I'd love to see a prep school in Seattle. There's so much great basketball up there."

While Thomas and other local talents export themselves to prep schools in the East, the University of Washington recently began its trend of importing prep players. The Huskies' roster includes three players from traditional prep schools — Justin Dentmon, Joel Smith and Joe Wolfinger. Next year, Thomas' South Kent teammate, Matthew Bryan-Amaning, will join the Huskies.

"Washington works the prep schools better than just about any school," says Jeff Goodman, a senior college basketball writer for FOXSports.com.. "West Coast schools don't get out to the East Coast prep schools enough. [The Huskies] have. And look what happened."

A player like Dentmon arrives on campus, a sophomore in terms of study habits and basketball skills, with four years eligibility remaining.

Dentmon doesn't exactly remember his days at the Winchendon School fondly. Up at 6:45, lights out at 10:30. No cellphones, no television in the room and the toughest coach, Byrnes, you ever met. But Dentmon also realizes he wouldn't have started as a freshman at UW if not for prep school. Says Romar, "It helped him so much."

"I couldn't wait to get out of there," Dentmon says. "Even if there's 19 inches of snow, you've still got to go to school. In the summer, you have class on weekends. But it helped me a lot. It helped me mature."

Romar says the trend just happened that way, that he doesn't prefer prep-school players over traditional high-school players. But he does recognize the benefits.

"Before this gained notoriety for basketball, prep schools have been in existence for a long time," he says. "That doesn't mean that it's some prison where everyone is struggling. They've got brilliant kids out there with the goal in mind of being better prepared for college."

Romar and Chillious have known each other since 1996. They respect and trust each other, which is how a kid like Thomas ended up in Connecticut, in a situation that potentially could benefit South Kent, Washington and Thomas, if all goes according to plan.

Chillious notes that Thomas suffered from homesickness in November, but he can see the structure and discipline and focus sinking in. Off the court, Thomas washes dishes, goes to study hall, wears his jacket and his tie. On the court, Chillious says he's like Nate Robinson, only more advanced at 17 years old, and left-handed. He's averaging about 22 points and eight assists, but that's not really what's important here.

"Wait until February," Chillious says. "Speak to Isaiah. He's going to be a different kid, if he comes here and buys into everything. Kids just change when they get here."

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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