As the sun rises over Hillcrest Prep, a handful of players are already in the gym lifting weights or working on their shots. Practice for the post-graduate team starts at 9:45 a.m. sharp every day, but players are often in earlier to hone their skills.
With high school no longer restricting their practice time, basketball has become their no.1 priority. Their job now is to get college basketball programs to notice them because after this, it’s all over.
This is the end of the road.
“This is a last chance for me,” said Emeka Udenyi. “I know I have to play hard every time and make the best of my opportunity.”
Udenyi’s style of play combines his intimidating size, 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, with his surprising grace, and punishes anyone who stand in his way. His smile lights up the room, and his booming voice echoes through the empty gym on an early Monday morning.
His story is not unlike that of many of his teammates. Udenyi was a good high school basketball player, starring on his local team and garnering mild attention and praise locally. But his college offers were lacking.
“I wasn’t getting the interest I really wanted,” said Udenyi. “I still felt like I was kind of slept on.”
Only Western Oregon and Cal State East Bay, two Division II programs, offered Udenyi scholarships. So instead of attending a less than stellar program or enrolling at a junior college, Udenyi utilized the one year of eligibility the NCAA offers high school graduates to try and improve as a player and elicit offers from more elite college programs. He bet big on himself, uprooting from Concord, California to attend Hillcrest to try and obtain that elusive Division I offer.
Other players on the team already had Division I offers when they graduated high school, but believed they were capable of more. Trevon Taylor is a lanky 6-foot-7 swingman with a funky shot that always seems to go in, and arms that stretch for miles. He received an offer from Norfolk State, a low Division I program, but instead decided to attend Hillcrest.
“All my coaches and my family told me if not a high major, I could be a mid-major guy so I just want to get one of those,” said Taylor.
The fundamental problem with a team of this nature is the inherent selfishness that plagues each player. Team success takes a backseat to individual success, because gaudy statistics get you noticed and impressive win-loss records don’t.
The relationship between players is more akin to coworkers than friends, as members of the team come from across the country to play for Hillcrest, stay for a year, and then jettison off to college.
Practices have a distinctly different vibe than that of a regular high school team. They’re more intense, they’re chippier, there’s less joking around and more scowling. There is a sense of desperation that shrouds the gym. Players look like grown men fighting for their lives because in reality, that’s what they are.
“We have a lot players who’s first and only objective is to score the ball,” said part time assistant coach Wayne Smith, whose son is on the team. “You look around at some of the higher levels of basketball and that seems to be all anyone cares about, so naturally it’s how these players think they’re going to get noticed.”
There are serious doubts about whether a program of this nature is beneficial to the players, or merely giving them a vehicle in which to extend their frivolous dreams of stardom.
There are success stories that emerge from teams like this, but they are few and far between. In the end, every player gets told eventually they are no longer good enough to compete at the highest level. For many of the players on this team, that moment is now.