Thursday, May 14, 2015

Life Lessons In NBA Training Taught At Elev8

Lil Wayne's "Let The Beat Build" pumps vociferously through the speakers inside the built-in, 94x50 court at the D-Plex in Coconut Creek.

The man once synonymous with high school basketball in Kentucky, Darius Miller grapples through discernible fatigue while launching a series of 20-footers.

The music is cranked up a notch, mirroring the intensity which only the waning stages of a workout can necessitate.

Miller continues to let fly a fusillade of deep jumpers.

A sea of onlookers, with Elev8 Ganon Baker Basketball emblazoned on their shirts, paste star struck eyes on Miller.

Miller's form won't waver, the motion of his wrist and his release point steadied.

 Critics once pegged the lack of a deep jumper as the notable knock in Miller's game, albeit the issue seems rectified just about now.

Sweat cascades down Miller's XL white t-shirt profusely.

The 2011 SEC tournament MVP at Kentucky and the state's Mr. Basketball of 2008, Miller's role has been reduced to supplementary piece the last six years of his career.

A bruising and perilous scorer, blessed with Wolverine-sized hands and the build/athleticism blend of a tight end, Miller continues to fire in shots.

Rebounding and doling out passes is Cody Toppert, the professional basketball trainer who has diligently propelled him through three painstaking workouts this afternoon.

One of few homegrown products to play for head coach John Calipari at Kentucky, Miller was an integral piece on the Wildcats 2012 NCAA championship team.

Miller was simply a 10PPG scorer, he of the knack for floating above defenders and crunching home lob passes from Jeff Teague and Doron Lamb, though his role went well beyond that.

Miller was the vital veteran presence on a squad laced with callow freshmen.

 He was there for direction, praise, and the occasional earful that Coach Cal needed him to provide.

The glory of that championship is well in the rearview mirror.

Miller has yet to return to that stage of basketball nirvana.

Miller's hard-to-guard arsenal, underscored by a natural ability to bulldoze smaller defenders into the paint, vaulted him to local hero status in tiny Maysville, Ky.

 The road to sustained life in the professional ranks hasn't been as easy, with ditches and detours along the way.

In late November of 2014, Miller was cut from the New Orleans Pelicans. It was the first time in his life he'd been "cut," so to speak.

 For a guy who won a state championship and NCAA championship and garnered countless MVP and personal accolades along the way, it could be considered the considerable setback.

 Though it may have initially dented his psyche, Toppert's work helped Miller discover an inner X-factor.

There was no question, Miller wanted his second chance in the NBA. He could have weighed his professional stock overseas, penning a six figure deal without even glancing in the rearview.

With the help of Toppert, known for molding NBA draft prospects and fringe players for the rigors of the 82-game schedule and playoffs, Miller's NBA focus hasn't faltered.

At the D-Plex, sources of motivation are hard to find.

Distractions seem overwhelming.

There's a sparkling outdoor pool bordering the gym.

A quartet of scantily-clad women smack a volleyball around in the back entrance.

With the chlorophyll-green hibiscus plants and adorning the property and the white Range Rovers and souped-up BMWs stacked behind each other like dominos, there is a sense of South Florida prosperity to the joint.

Whether it is in-your-chest defensive pressure or excessive hand-checking, Toppert will not let Miller's focus wither.

Toppert, while pushing him through three hard workouts alongside Ganon Baker and Tony Falce, has helped smoothen over some of the mental aspects with Miller.

Using analogies and original motivational adages to hammer home his point, Toppert has also reminded Miller of the priority list he must subscribe to.

Miller now understands it. He's cognizant that he must hit corner three-pointers.

He must fight through sweat-soaked times and surf the chaos of intensified pressure. He must be a reliable source for knock down duties during those waning moments. He must make fitness a workaday commitment and more importantly, a life style.

If he adheres to these, Toppert reminds him, he'll be capable of turning a 10-day contract into an eventual 10-year contract.

As the music intensifies, the bass kicking in, so does the one-on-one workout. Heavily contesting Miller's shots and providing draping pressure, Toppert (Cornell's second all-time leader in 3-pointers with 237) ensures that every bucket must be earned.

"We've been applying drills like that to keep (Miller's) motor up the entire 50-60 minutes," said Baker, a world renowned NBA skill development guru, with clientele such as Lebron James and Kobe Bryant.

"Miller's heart rate is up. He's getting transition work. He's getting defensive mobility work. He's getting cuts, he's getting contact."

Molding the physical and mental toughness of young minds is Elev8's Tony Falce.

Possessing the build of a bar room brawling behemoth, Falce has helped push Miami Heat big man Chris "Birdman" Andersen out of his comfort zone.

 Falce's system has helped propel Andersen, once the introverted kid who toiled into obscurity. Initially failing to utilize his 6-foot-10 body to his advantage, Anderson has revitalized his career in the form of former CBA to NBA cover boys such as Ben Wallace and John Starks.

Incorporating the right footwork and manipulative post moves and awareness to his game, Andersen fled from the journeyman lifestyle.

No longer entrenched in a town-to-town basketball odyssey, including stops at Blinn Community College, The IBL, and the D-League, Andersen surfaced as a key cog on the 2013 NBA champion Miami Heat.

Once a 3-point triggerman at Cornell, where he and a core of highly-touted recruits passed up bigger offers to alter the Ivy League program's culture, Toppert's initial passion has evolved into a livelihood.

If the pressure of Ivy League academics seems overbearing, try playing for then-coach Steve Donahue.

Compliments do not come easy under either the coaching staff or the recruiting class with which Toppert emerged. Being able to handle excessive criticism in positive fashion, having the mental fortitude to withstand hardass discipline, which many confuse as "pressure," is essential for day-to-day survival in an environment which forever altered the perception of a once-downtrodden Ivy League program.

Thin skin, insecurities, and a failure to buy into team concepts would get you exposed in this system.

The militaristic meticulousness of the coaching staff, along Donahue's hardened style, were essential ingredients in resuscitating a program that struggled mightily prior to Toppert (Donahue's first recruit) and his class' arrival.

A fiery little guy with unbridled adrenaline surfing through his veins, Donahue was hard but fair.

 His no-nonsense style helped Cornell thrive, years after taking a back seat to Fran Dunphy's balanced, hot-shooting UPENN teams.

"We flat out learned the game," said Toppert, touching on his experience with Cornell's culture shift.

"We learned the habits necessary to win. He wanted us to create the future of Cornell Hoops and there was no option but to outwork everyone."

He continued, "Shootouts were all-out wars and we took some lumps and long bus rides, but the work paid off. Coach D's genius game planning kept us in game's against talent-rich programs."

Imploring him to realize the respect must be earned, Donahue had a simple understanding with his most reliable 3-point ace. Toppert would have a titanic green light with Donahue, as long as he didn't disappear or put together a clank fest on big stages.

Toppert answered, burying 7-for-10 from beyond the arc against Carmelo Anthony, Hakim Warrick, and Gerry McNamara-led Syracuse.

Prior to this, Toppert seized the hot hand in a nationally televised home-opener against Georgia Tech, connecting on 4-of-7 from beyond the arc.

 Toppert poured in 21 points against New Mexico, pulling-and-popping from way beyond the arc.

 Fran Fraschilla, the head coach of New Mexico at the time, did not recruit Toppert despite his stature as one of the state's highest all-time scorers, lethal for his spurt-ability.

For much of the 03-04 season, the tandem Ka'ron Barnes and Toppert were the second highest scoring backcourt in the nation.

The first? St. Joe's (Pa.), a then-sleeper team featuring pitbull guard Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, both of whom went on to the NBA.

Donahue could be confrontational, demanding, ultra-tough and even personal. Toppert values their relationship to this day.

If not for Donahue and the unparalleled work ethic he ingrained in his first recruiting class at Cornell, Toppert's all-or-nothing style may have never surfaced.

"What I learned from (Donahue) never left my mind, my game, or my willingness to work," Toppert said.

 "It's no surprise the tides turned and Cornell became an Ivy League powerhouse."

The NBA may seem like a cushy and care free lifestyle. There is fame. There is  fortune.

There is shoulder-rubbing with other celebrities across the world.

 There is a surplus of cash and freedom with money like few other professions. There are high-horsepower Range Rovers and Bentleys and the mansions, many of which seem well-suited for MTV cribs.

Baker and Toppert's work ensures that the workaday grind, as well as the high-order commitment to the physical, mental, and skill-set aspects of the NBA don't wither.

Stay tuned for more on NBA Pre-draft.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Legends Don't Die They Only Become Immortal: The Rise of Carcaterra

Growing up in Yorktown, Brian Carcaterra never hit the local sports memorabilia shop or devoured sports highlight reels.

 Despite his status as a young athlete, Carcaterra had no real preferences for professional teams.

His boyhood sports heroes were not a remote click away.

 Iconic figures, as he acknowledged them, were not found in historic stadiums in the Bronx or sparkling 30,000+ seat arenas in Manhattan or at super-sized ice rinks across the Hudson River.

They were simply a leisurely 5-mile drive from his Yorktown home.

The product of a legendary lacrosse bloodline, Carcaterra spent his childhood years traipsing the sidelines of Charlie Murphy Field.

Possessed by the exploits of original program poster boys such as Rick Beardsley, Roy Colsey, Tim Nelson and myriad others, Carcaterra was hooked rather rapidly.

There was a unique allure of the cross-town rivalries, the annual Murphy Cup battles, the high-powered offenses and the wowing saves. It was during these embryonic stages of Carcaterra's youth development that he discovered his future livelihood.

While Yorktown was a rather safe community, a barrage of bullets were frequently sprayed at the short, bone-thin kid’s dome.

Those bullets were in the form of lacrosse balls.

 Carcaterra was tasked with (he didn't have much of a say in the matter, as he would explain) stymying and stoning hard rips from his older brothers, Paul and Steve Carcaterra.

Entrenched in long, tiring, mentally-draining, and trash talk-sprinkled battles with his older brothers and their lacrosse clique, Carcarterra was never allowed to dip out early.

The older horde launched shots at him all afternoon, testing his grit.

The plan was to expose this cocksure, loudmouth little brother.

 Deeper than that, however, the objective was to ready him for the challenges of the next level.

As his performances gained their respect, the older Carcaretta boys ramped up the task.

Brian was forced to dispatch the helmet and gear, using his bare hands for stops and deflections.

The hobby became more of a job following Brian's fifth grade Christmas.

A lacrosse stick was waiting for him under the tree in Santa-red wrapping. That, as he recalls, was truly the turning point on his lax timeline. He went to work at safeguarding the cage.

Goaltending helped channel the deep and pent up adrenaline and endless supply of teenage energy flowing through Carcaterra, who developed a deep interest in professional wrestling.

His lust for lacrosse grew after he witnessing a chills-inducing, 21-stop performance from Hopkins goalie Quint Kessenich during the 1987 NCAA championship.

An understudy was born.

Absorbing constant guidance from his older brothers, accepting intensified hounding and constructive criticism,  the intangibles for a mental savvy were instilled in "Carc."

Everyone had Carcaterra pigeonholed as too tiny to be effective on the grand stage.

There was no indication that he'd see quality minutes or even earn a scholarship at Hopkins.

 Once the underachieving, no-scholarship freshman buried on the depth chart, Carcaterra materialized as the nation's most electrifying and multi-faceted netminder.

His knack for dazzling open field moves enabled the high-risk, high-reward recruit to beat guys downhill and create.

Carcaterra masked pebble-like size with deceptive athleticism and a blurring fleet of foot.

Gambling and leaving the cage wide open, there was a thrill element to his game.

He captivated crowds with the pizazz, flash and fancy dishes. Carcaterra's loose style of play taxed his coaches’ patience at unprecedented levels.

 Quarterbacking the defense, Carcaterra's rapid-firing motor mouth seemed incapable of shutting.

The road to a stellar senior campaign did not come without ditches and detours.

Having arrived at Yorktown his freshman year 105 pounds soaking wet, Carcaterra was already well-schooled on battling adversity.

The lack of size and strength at such a position forced him to outwork the rest.

At Hopkins, his role increased following a rollercoaster freshman season.

Carcaterra was forced to shed patterns of inconsistency during his sophomore campaign.

Blue Jays goalkeeper coach Brian Holman demanded four quarters’ focus.

And though Holman cited a blend of “spectacular saves” and a habit of “letting in some goals he shouldn’t have,” Carcaterra was lasered in when the stakes heightened.

During a string of 11 games with 15,000+ fan attendance, Carcaterra registered a .635 save percentage.

Fending off bigger, dieseled-up trigger men gunning to exploit his leafy, 5-foot-8 frame with high-arching blasts, Carcaterra would prolong his career in the MLL.

Carcaterra is quick to acknowledge that his path was dictated by Yorktown’s knot-tight culture.

His development was pushed and propelled by lifelong friends Rob Doerr, Dom Fin and John Harrington, cornerstone wing men.

Doerr was a stabilizing force alongside Carcaterra at Hopkins, a three-time All-American as a lockup man.

 He wound up authoring a professional career with the Baltimore Bayhawks of the MLL.

Harrington was a three-time national champion and two-time All-American at Princeton.

Fin ascended to near-GOAT status at Syracuse, with a First Team All-American nod during his apex as a middie.

Without this troika, Carcaterra’s rapid ascension from unknown to nationally-blown never happens.

“Yorktown is a special place, filled with special people,” Carcaterra said.

“Anytime I have ever been in need there is always someone from that community that has helped. Further, my parents have been the best parents we all could have asked for. Super affectionate and supportive, not overbearing and could care less if we won or lost or if I played great or sucked.”

We caught up with Carcaterra this week, canvassing his lacrosse evolution, college days, and his brother Paul’s career as an ESPN lacrosse analyst.

ZS: How did lacrosse shape both yourself and your brothers and how does the game continue to keep the competitive juices flowing within the family?

BC: It’s been everything for us. From a holistic point of view, it has
 rounded us all out in such a balanced way. I would say beyond everything, the game gave me a fiercely independent spirit.

ZS: Most memorable career moments?

BC: A few that stand out for me:

1997- starting as a freshman in the Carrier Dome against Paul, who was the captain (of Syracuse) along with Rob Kavovit.

1998- beating No.1 Maryland at Homewood in front of 15,000 fans and playing to the best of my ability

1999- opening the season by beating No.1 Princeton at Princeton. They had won the previous three championships and only lost two times in three years and never lost at the stadium we beat them in. I made a save with one second left to win the game.

2000- losing to Syracuse in the Final Four. Although I played OK, it was one of the toughest, hard-fought games I have ever been in.

1998- playing in the World Games for England and breaking the FIL record for saves against USA (31)

ZS: How about the experience of watching your HS program celebrate a 2014 state championship? The prestige of the Yorktown program isn’t the same without that shiny NYS championship souvenir…

BC: It is tougher and tougher to win championships in New York State and everywhere else for that matter. Their accomplishment this year matches all the wins we have had in the past.

Being a part of the ride and being close to this team throughout their journey was special. Each player and coach attended my Mom’s wake, I bought the team pizza before the state semi-final game, I support them anyway I can. I am truly a fan. I particularly liked this team and its make up. Tough, athletic, confident, great leadership… I wouldn’t have wanted to have to beat them in the tourney. They wouldn’t be denied. 

Beyond all that, they are just great kids that come from great parents. The fabric of Yorktown lacrosse is as strong as ever. It’s the people, not the wins and losses.

ZS: Can you get a free 30 seconds with Paul during that NCAA championship week?? I’d imagine his time is limited then.

BC: Paul always makes time for me.

ZS: What are some of the changes you’ve witnessed in lacrosse from your time at Yorktown to current day and is the game growing across the country? Is it evolving outside of the traditional hotbeds? Will it get bigger going forward?

BC:I miss the takeaway check and I haven’t seen a goalie make 20 saves in God knows how long. Technology and athleticism has made it a more offensive game.

ZS: As a goalie at Hopkins, you were known as a risk-taker, never afraid to leave the cage. How did that style benefit the team and what about your game between the pipes separated you from the rest?

BC: I grew up dreaming about being a great lacrosse player, not just a great goalie. My idols growing up were guys like Dom Fin, Ric Beardsley, Bill Dwan, Roy Colsey, Tim Nelson etc. I had pictures of those guys playing on my walls, not Joe Montana or Magic Johnson. I didn’t want to be just a goalie. I wanted to do everything my heroes did.

ZS: I imagine Paul and Steve fired a lot of shots at you during those backyard battles. How much did that prepare you for a career and when did the games start? When did the action intensify?

BC: They bought me a goalie stick my 5th grade Christmas. The previous summer, they shot on me all day and all night in a goal made out of PVC pipe by our plumber neighbor. It wasn’t until that Christmas morning that I discovered there is a goalie stick (they made me get in there with a short stick).

I never got to a play another position. They enjoyed shooting on me and having their friends come over and do the same thing. I wouldn’t wear equipment and just beg them to shoot as hard as possible on me.

ZS: Describe the MLL experience.

BC: Best lacrosse on earth. Nowehere to hide…

ZS: Guys have joked that Paul was always inquisitive growing up, noting he’s always had a heavy interest in the game and the behind-the-scenes factors while evaluating players/teams. Did you ever envision he would take it as far as he has, being an ESPN analyst and revolving much of his life around the game?

BC: Paul is highly focused and very determined. He doesn’t allow for a lot of distractions in his life. When he puts his mind to it, he accomplishes a lot. No surprise he is doing so well. I am immensely proud of him.

ZS: Five most lethal scorers you’ve ever had the daunting chore of negating?
1) Josh Simms
2) Jesse Hubbard
3) Mark Millon
4) Tom Marachek
5) AJ Haugen

ZS: You’ve probably heard a lot of Quint Kessenich comparisons. The similarities aren’t too difficult to discover. You guys are both about 5-foot-8, both led Hopkins during prominent periods in program history, both have had to make up for lack of size with athleticism and open-field acumen that bigger, stronger goalies can’t pull off. How much did Kessenich influence you as a player and did you ever develop a relationship with him?

BC: Quint was everything I wanted to be in a goalie. He was athletic and played outside his crease. I enjoyed emulating him. Nice to have him in my life as Paul’s colleague.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Elev8 Guard Takes Leadership Role Out Of The Woods

First Matt Woods pulled off a nifty cross over, carving his way into an open lane and depositing a lefty layup.

 Capitalizing on the opportune timing, Woods' move gave Elev8 Black a sudden momentum head rush and 62-58 halftime edge.

In the second half, the 6-foot-2 point guard whipped a one-handed pass to Brandon Simmons for a traditional three-point play.

With the pressure steadily mounting and his focus intensifying, Woods bucketed an 18-foot corner jumper.

Nine seconds later he took a steal three-quarters of the court, drawing an at-the-rim foul on a left-handed surge.

Woods knocked back both free throws, knotting matters at 80-all.

Ultimately it was not enough.

 Defensive lapses and a few untimely turnovers plagued them in a 90-86 loss to Coastal Academy Grey.

 Woods finished with 16 points, five assists, and four steals. He had his fingerprints on every magnified possession.

It was purely a dizzying battle throughout, with lead changes, spurts, and plenty of counterpunching.

 Elev8 Black/Coastal Academy Grey had less talent, yet the matchup had the most entertainment value of a blowout-filled Thursday afternoon at the Aquatic Complex in Palm Beach Gardens.

The biggest thorn in Elev8's side was put there by Martin Jones' shooting hand.

Jones had 19 points on the strength of five long treys, firing in from near NBA range in the first half.

 Matt McMorris had 23 points, scoring in a variety of ways from pull-ups to baseline drives.

Simmons, a stretch four type, paced Elev8 with 22 points (9-for-11 FT). Imposing in the  paint, Simmons erupted following a quiet first half.

There's no question Woods needs a touch--if not every possession, as many possessions as possible--to align the wheels of Brett Newman's offense.

In entrusting both Woods and three-point specialist Cody Kelley with back court leadership, Newman gives each a jumbo green light.

 Kelley, a country boy out of Wyoming, had four 3-pointers in Thursday's loss.

The communication between Newman and Woods, who possesses the high-moral fabric and beyond-the-years maturity you can liken to an Eagle Scout, is pivotal.

Yet their relationship is rooted beyond that.

Newman coached Woods' older brother, Mike Woods Jr., as an assistant under Pat Esteep at Division-II Cedarville (Ohio).

The squad, immediately adapting to a new stage following years in the NAIA, won the school's first-ever NCCAA Championship in 2012.

A long 6-foot-3 combo guard, Woods Jr. and Cedarville obliterated teams by an average of 18 PPG in the post-season.

Matt Woods' familiarity with Newman helped bring him to Delray Beach, Fla. from North Carolina.

 He averaged 19 points at Asheville Christian Academy last season.

Newman, who played for the U.S. military all-stars, always holds his point guard to a high standard.

Tough and confrontational on arguably the team's most important influence with the ball, Newman preaches leadership values.

 Dictating a game defensively. Being a vocal leader which teammates eat off of. These are the essentials of the role.

Raised in a faith-first family, Woods relishes the structure and accountability because it took his play up the pegs in high school.

 After all, it's nothing new to him.

Unrelenting guidance from his father, Mike Woods Sr., taught him the value of player/coach relationship.

 The former East Tennessee State guard, Mike Woods Sr. has nurtured his son's development while emphasizing the power of a high hoops IQ.

At Elev8's campus, an enclave of signed or scholarship-hungry student-athletes, players needn't conceal their pride or competitiveness.

Thus, those who set off that an inner toughness from Woods are the same cats with which he shares the breakfast table: Elev8's top-tier Red team.

There's a considerable talent drop-off from Elev8 Black to Elev8 Red.

Elev8 Red's roaster is soaked with Division-I talent, underscored by Kobie Eubanks (UCLA, Missouri, Texas, Oregon, UCLA), high-rising Jamal Gregory (VCU, Maryland, South Florida among others expressing interest), J.T. Escobar (headed to Ole Miss), Caleb Tanner (Radford-signee), Leroy Butts (Rhode Island-signee), Yankuba Sima (Maryland, Arizona, Louisville in pursuit), Shane Eberle (committed to Columbia).

Every time Woods' Black team goes against the more-hyped and clearly more recruit rich Red team, he's eyeballing an upset worth mega in-house bragging rights.

Newman could talk all day about Woods being your typical "safe bet" recruit.

On his assessment of Woods' next level placement, it's a bit different.  Newman is swift, clear, to the point.

"He is," said Newman, "A Division-I player."

Woods On His Role

Basically, I'm tasked with being a leader. As a point guard, you have to know the offense and to get your team going. You have to put your teammates in the best position to score. You really have to be a floor general and see the game like a coach. In addition to knowing all five positions on the court, you have to bring the energy both offensively and defensively and set a tone.

On The System

Coach Brett is really big on consistency, so he emphasizes that in practice. He's big on bringing more and more energy every day. Since high school, that's one thing that has kind of stuck with me. I'll ask myself, "How can I get better each day?" Trusting the system is really the most important thing. We've all bought into that.

On His Scoring

It's really a mixture of both my shots and being able to attack. My mid-range game I think is the best part of my game. In this era, you don't see a lot of mid-range because everyone wants to shoot the three. It is kind of a lost art. I think I can do my part and help bring it back.

On Goals, Expectations, and Focus

We're such an unselfish team and that's something we really thrive off. I honestly think we're the most unselfish team here at Elev8. It benefits us. I've never been the guy to want to get my shots all the time, I like just as well and it fits with our focus.

Really our goals and expectations are to be the best team and leave here without any regrets. We ask each other this question all the time, "What would we play like if there was a million bucks on the line? That's something we learned from Brett.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Catching Up With: Mike Kach, Part II

ZS: What kind of impact did (former Holy Cross guard) Torey Thomas have on you? How did he help propel your game?

MK: Torey Thomas is somebody I have a huge amount of respect for. He was the sole reason I played AAU for the Connecticut Flame. He's somebody that has done amazing things on the court overseas, but more importantly amazing things in the community of White Plains. Just really a solid dude...

As far as from a player's perspective, there's no point guard I would go to battle with more than Torey. He's a crazy competitor, and a point guard that prides himself on making his teammates better around him.

 We had a couple of years with the Flame where Torey and I were just going crazy in the national tournaments. Like I said before, If I'm going to take a point guard on my team--I say it all the time without hesitation--Torey Thomas.

ZS: How intense was the Mahopac/Carmel rivalry in those days? How did your role grow from being an inexperienced freshman to a 1,500+ point scorer against the hiked up Section 1 competition of that era?

MK: The Carmel/Pac rivalry was crazy. Talk about two teams who really hated each other...

I remember for me as a player, I was the leading scorer for a 4-16 team my freshman year. Mahopac went to the County Center that year (2000) and played against Ben Gordon and Mount Vernon. I have always thought Ben to have the smoothest, most effortless game I have ever seen. He elevated like three feet on his jumper.

 I loved his game and loved watching him play. I knew right then I needed to be there at some point in time throughout my high school experience. My senior year (2003), we beat Mahopac pretty good both times we played them. We ended up going to the County Center against White Plains.

In terms of big-time players in high school, just like I said I would take Torey as a point guard on my team, I will also say that I haven't played against anybody as skilled as (JFK Catholic guard) Donnie McGrath. To this day, I know he's an NBA player, somebody I have the utmost respect for.

ZS: What's your experience now training with young players and what habits do you try to instill?

MK: My training with kids is a little different than how I train myself. I work with younger kids so I try to instill in them confidence, perseverance and understanding of the game. They have enough pressure on them from coaches and their parents that I won't add to.

 Don't get me wrong, I'll snap on them if they're not listening or respecting my knowledge of the game. Yet it has always been very important to teach life skills along with basketball skills. Because at the end of the day, all of us won't be Division-I players...But we can all be great people, and nothing has taught me more about life than being a part of the team and playing sports.

ZS: What has your brother John's resiliency and courage in the face of adversity, his survival with meningitis taught you about life?

MK: My brother's resiliency has been integral in my development as a person. 

Every time I get in a situation where I feel things are going to be tough, I think about what he had to go through in order to survive, and I try to push on with whatever I'm doing. 

He's always gotten a kick out of my jumping ability. He couldn't jump over a phone book but he had much better skills than I did. I always say that if you can combine my athleticism with his skills, it would be a wrap...

ZS: How did you initially react when learning of when he was sick?

MK: When he got sick, it was the hardest time in my life. When a doctor is looking you in the eyes saying you have to say goodbye to your hero, to your you're best friend, that's a tough thing for a 14-year-old kid to go through.

 And then after his amputations, after seeing him struggle during the first couple of see him in that dark time was absolutely gut-wrenching. But I always knew that John would change the world not with his hands or his legs, but with his mind and his spirit. And that's exactly what he has done.

ZS: How has the culture changed from the time you were at Carmel to the current day? In which ways has social media shifted a change in today's athlete?

MK: I think social media has had a huge impact...10 years ago today, if you had a good game then it is in the newspapers the next day, end of story. 

If you have a good season and average a lot of points, among the leading scorers in the Section, it will be listed every Sunday, all of that stuff.

Nowadays, kids have access to all different types of immediate information, recruiting websites, etc...Which can do one of a few things...

 It can over-inflate the athlete's idea of how good they really are...

It could make somebody want to do more things on their own for personal recognition, and place less emphasis on a team win. 

Those aspects are definitely the issues with young athletes nowadays. 

However, you're never going to hide true competitors. 

What the internet has also done is spark a fire in people who aren't getting the recognition they deserve. 

And those people will just work that much harder. Shoot a few more jumpers than the others may. Stay in the gym longer. When it comes to athletics, the most important thing is to be a competitor.

 And there's always going to be competitors out there no matter the day and age it is...the cream always rises to the top.

ZS: Is the game still there? Can you still put someone on a poster?

MK: Yeah, I still play. If I'm doing basketball lessons I feel it is in my best interest to continue to play and be somewhat capable. I can still do all the dunks I used to do.

 I can still do the 360s and the wind mills and all that. But now, at 30 years old, it's on a much smaller scale and it hurts a bit more when I land..

But, I definitely continue to try and do all that stuff whenever I can because I know that eventually it won't be there anymore. I know it is a pretty unique thing to be able to do. I still appreciate it.

"Grasshopper" Brandon Simmons' Elev8s Game In Delray Beach

The primary issue Brandon Simmons poses for Elev8 coach Brett Newman is one every coach in America would love to have.

For a day. For a week. For a season.

"I can put him (Simmons) anywhere on the floor, so it's hard to keep him in one place  ," said Newman of the versatile, 6-foot-8, 190-pound forward.

Nevada, Florida Atlantic, FAMU, Long Island University, Rice, and several others have expressed interest in the quick-footed Simmons.

"'Grasshopper' is his nickname. He's lightning on his feet. On this team, they play above that level on which their talent capacity shows. That's because they play the right way. Since Day 1, I've said, 'this is not about me or my system.' This is about you guys learning to play the right way."

Newman served in the U.S. Marines, so he knows a thing or two about discipline, brotherhood, and immense sacrifice.

 He's survived and endured the harsh realities and lingering pain of combat.

From Newman's journey, which saw him go from a prominent dual-sport high school athlete in New Mexico (he's lived in 30 different states) to an around-the-clock coach/trainer, there are plenty of life lessons to dispense.

An adept passer at 6-foot-8, Simmons has unfurled a barrage of step-back jumpers and created matchup difficulties, adding on to his Division-I toolbox since arriving at Elev8.

With his length and size, he can sky for rebounds and finish at the rim with relative ease.

With a knack for stepping out and popping the 3-pointer and acclimatizing to the point forward fashion has made "grasshopper" a linchpin in the team's fast-paced attack.

With his shot and shot creation off the dribble, he's suddenly drawing post defenders away from the rim.

Newman was once a bullish JUCO guard/forward, leaving a playground legacy on courts such as Memorial Park in rough-and-tumble Compton, Calif. as well the fabled asphalt of Venice Beach.

Newman likes to say he was 'Billy Hoyle," Woody Harrelson's hot-shooting, trash talk-spewing character in White Men Can't Jump, before the movie's 1992 release.

Offensively, Newman's approach is far from laissez-faire.

He charts various statistics such as steals, deflections, high-percentage shots, risky passes, and touches on the ball before the shot release.

 He ensures the ball is moving fluidly.

Newman despises the one-on-one game, quick with a tongue lashing for anyone too enamored in their own numbers.

The slightest speck of flashy over-dribbling-- though it was this style with which he once thrived on courts from Kansas to Mexico City--has the potency to draw his ire.

Simmons' squad has the potential to outduel foes with layered depth and balance.

"The biggest, most crucial aspect is this..." explains Newman, a longtime friend of University of Georgia coach Mark Fox.

"The percentage is the one number that outweighs statistics. We look at playing vs. production. You can play, but your product shows who you are."

Elev8 has steadily earned a selfless identity this season. They've had seven games where they've dealt out 21 or more assists as a team. Newman was elated after Elev8 kicked in 20 assists with just one turnover.

Forging a patchwork group into an overall team seemed like an arduous task.

 Many of them were accustomed to being primary scorers and ball handers on their respective high school teams, forced to defer or and surrender individual stats for team shine for the very first time.

The team quickly developed a rapport on and off the court. Buying in, ultimately, would entail making defensive aggression a lifestyle.

Newman said the gelling process was "not at all that difficult."

With the off the ball defensive ferocity and backcourt leadership of Matt Woods, Newman has cashed in on the high-efficiency categories. He preaches them early and often, the southern twang ringing in his players' ears well after the performance.

Woods, who averaged 19PPG has become more adept in all areas--including rebounding and field goal percentage. He's shooting just a thread below 50 percent from the floor, 45.5 percent from beyond the arc.

With skinny arms as long as stickball bats, Simmons' feathery touch and ambidextrous passing has helped him subscribe fully to the Mr. Everything role which Newman laid out for him.

  Simmons averaged 15 points and 10 boards at Teaneck High (N.J.), eventually bolting for the prep scene.

Staying longer in the weight room and working at more repetitions and focusing on shorter increments, Simmons is preparing for the augmented physicality of the ensuing level.

 He passed up JUCO after JUCO, many of them nationally ranked, to enhance his game under Newman and world renowned NBA skill development trainer Ganon Baker.

 Baker, who trains the likes of Lebron James, Chris Paul, and newly-acquired Dallas Maverick Amar'e Stoudemire, has developed an international reputation.

Alongside former Cornell shooting guard Cody Toppert, the two will host NBA pre-draft camp in Delray Beach this summer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Turnback Tuesday: Brady Heslip's Monstrous AAU Run

July 24, 2009:

Grassroots Canada, the herb which yields the basketball seed in the hockey hotbed of Toronto, has enjoyed a scalding July in the NCAA's open evaluation period.

A number of high-major programs are digging into their pockets and paying attention to one of the world's prospect-packed AAU programs. The program is grooming a torrent of homegrown talent like never before.

One-time NBA all-star Jamaal Magliore and former UConn guard Denham Brown are prime examples of area products who have thrived in Grassroots Canada, which has elevated from another so-and-so to a veritable Division-I launchpad.

While Grass-roots came in waves and waves this weekend, nobody made the brand name stick like crafty guard Brady Heslip.

The gym rat nephew of Jay Triano, Heslip's quick-strike 3-point shooting has opened up mega interest.

"The phone has been ringing off the hook," explained Ro Russel, the program founder and Heslip's current coach.

"The way he's been shooting the ball, everyone is looking at him."

Heslip morphed into the mad bomber in Cincinnatti, scoring 37 points in the opening matchup.

 Opponents threw a variety of schemes at Heslip, an all-men-aboard clamp down operation.

Nothing stuck.

Great frustration was etched across the face of each man tasked with neutralizing Heslip.

 This was most notable during Heslip's individual 17-0 spurt.

"He was on fire no matter what they threw at him," Russell said.

"He's really starting to blow up. He's like a Mark Price, Scott Skiles type. He's the last one to leave the gym, always. He'll shoot all day."

Fast forward to March of 2012.

Heslip, sporting that eyesore highlighter-yellow Baylor uniform, gets a momentum jolt after finding a fortuitous bounce open 3-pointer.

 The lucky roll is a portent of what is to come.

 Yet "lucky" should never be listed in the same sentence as Heslip.

Not even the same paragraph, the same pages, the same chapter.

Pushing himself through his own maniacal work rate, amped up to silence all detractors, Heslip had a janitor's supply of gym keys in high school.

He traipsed the sidelines of Raptors games as a youth, watching the likes of Chris Bosh.

 He watched the Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Jerome "The Junkyard Dog" Williams teams before them, sold on a franchise rebirth.

During a hot streak this past winter, countless comparisons for the floppy-haired shooter emerged.

Gerry McNamara. Colin Falls. Steve Kerr. Andy Rautins. Kyle Korver. Steve Novak without the height. (Enter known white 3-point specialist here).

Yet on Baylor's tournament opener against Colorado, Heslip separated himself from his uncle's brand name and every other quintessential kick out shooter.

Heslip pieced together a shot-after-shot clinic, decimating Colorado to the tune of 27 points (9-for-12 3FG).

 The Boston College transfer got the annual adrenaline pumping for the tournament, as Baylor scored an 80-63 victory over balanced Colorado.

Back to the future.

Playing for the Reno Bighorns in the D-League, Heslip averaged 24.5 points per game.

 And that deadeye shooting, which spurred Canada's blurring bolt into AAU relevance, escaping obscurity well before the day of Andrew Wiggins?

It's helped Heslip twice break the D-league record for 3-pointers made in a game.

His performances have become emblematic of the true sniper role.

After bagging 11 3-pointers in a game, Heslip shot 13-for-20 from beyond the arc in a single game.

In transition. Off the dribble. Quick catch-and-sticks, you name it.

The same draping coverage, to the extent of face-guarding, has done little to change the form or trajectory of Heslip's shots.

Heslip is currently in Bosnia, emerging into a 30-Point+ threat for KK Igokea of the Adriatic League.

He's had his fair share of doubters, drawing on about limitations.

At the same time, he's been pigeonholed as strictly an outside shooting specialist.

Heslip's perseverance has turned the critics into crickets, as the superhuman workload has never tailed off.

"What Brady has is what I call a blackout work ethic," said NBA trainer Cody Toppert, who has helped cultivate Heslip's development and focus, pushing him through the wear and tear of innovative one-on-one workouts.

"It's a non-stop, relentless work ethic. In High School, he was doubted. When he went to Baylor, he was doubted. He has a perpetual chip on his shoulder."

Toppert as well as world-renowned NBA skill development trainer Ganon Baker have seen the competitive juices spike with Brady, though his insatiable everyday hunger has yet to peak.

Remember, he's only 24.

He's slayed the odds and thrived in the fiend-like face of adversity much of his career.

Despite his scoring exploits, despite his will to prolong his career in the pro ranks, Heslip will not want to hang them up with a clichéd "tried everything within his capabilities" swan story.

"He's one of the best shooters on the planet," Toppert said.

"He's got an NBA skill shooting the ball. He's a better ball handler than people think. He's a better defender than people think. I'm sure he still wakes up with fire in his heart knowing he wants to get to the NBA."

Monday, March 2, 2015

Catching Up With: Mike Kach, Part I

The subject, "Section 1's best dunker of all time" is certainly open to debate.

Yet any true fan of Section 1, one who has stood the test of time that is, understands all discussions are whittled down to Carmel's Mike Kach and White Plains' Ra'Shad James.

You may remember Kach levitating above helpless and awed defenders, finishing in ways only rarified athletes are capable of.

You may recall Kach pulling off extravagant displays of athleticism, handling the high-pressure moments en route to scoring 1,500+ career points during a four-year stay at Carmel High.

Knifing through double teams and gutting out a rash of injuries as a battle-tested senior, the high-rising Kach helped pilot Carmel to its last County Center berth in 2003 (their only other appearance was 1979).

 Kach's soaring dunks and loud finishes evoked gym-wide eruptions across Westchester County, as he cracked the Section's top scoring charts alongside Mount Vernon's Ben Gordon and JFK-Catholic's Donnie McGrath.

Football was his intial labor of love, but playing against top-level AAU competition with pitbull guard Torey Thomas ingrained  new competitive flames and special appeal in him.

Winning over the toughest crowds of adrenaline junkies, turning stern cold stares of defenders into respect and near-visible intimidation, Kach's focus changed.

The Ivy League grad is still teaching the game on the grass-roots level, but most importantly using basketball as a device to help deliver life lessons...

ZS: At UPENN, you were a rare breed as an Ivy League guy with a game predicated on athleticism. How did you find your identity and which were the most memorable aspects of your career?

MK: It was an adjustment at first definitely. A lot of these guys slowed the game down and made quicker guys like me get ahead of ourselves and make mistakes. I definitely had to get used to seeing my man at all times, because the first two month or two I was getting killed with the backdoors.

But in general, it is a huge leap from high school basketball to Division-I college basketball. Athletically I wasn't intimidated by anybody but cerebrally, there was an adjustment. Prior to my back injury (L4 L5 herniation), I fit right in, to the point where I started my first game as a freshman. I think I filled that niche that coach (Fran Dunphy)  was looking for at the time.

ZS: How'd you get the bounce? When did it become clear you could out-jump a significant percentage of the guys you were up against?

My leaping ability was something I was born with. I never worked out my legs prior to college, but I could just jump higher than other people. It came very natural to me. I realized I was on a different level than most people during those time where I began going to Five Star Camps and Eastern Invitational and things like that.

 It was probably around sophomore and junior year when it took off...

I would be at these camps watching other kids do dunks in between our station work. It would be kids fro the Bronx or New York City or top-notch prep schools throughout the country, so initially I was too intimidated to try and dunk with them. I mean there were some kids who were Top-50 in the country, I just didn't feel comfortable being a white kid trying to test these dudes. After the first day I was kind of thinking to myself, "that was kind of whack" and I truly believed that nobody could hang with me in that setting. 

That's not to say I was as good as some of these kids-- they were terrific players. Yet in a dunk contest type of setting that was my world.

The next morning, I came to the gym and people did the same thing. They started dunking and all that...So I called for the rock! 

You could hear people giggling and laughing and expecting me to put down some old man dunk and get no applause. And that to me is the best part--earning people's respect in about three seconds.

It's hard to describe the feeling...So I remember my first dunk and I remember it like it was yesterday.

 I threw it up, a self alley oop, and it was a bad toss. A little bit high. A little bit further from the hoop than I wanted. But it turned out to be perfect because I took off from a little bit deeper than I usually would, and threw down some reverse windmill that I sort of improvised and people just went crazy. And then the rest is history, I pretty much became known as the white kid with bounce, pretty much to this day.

It was always a way for me to earn respect in a setting with people who otherwise wouldn't give me a second look. To me, there has been no better feeling than to have people look at you like you're an alien, like you should not be able to do that. It's an adrenaline rush that I can't describe with words.