Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Northwood U: Home Of Birdman's Evolution

During his career at White Plains High School (N.Y.), Ra'Shad "Birdman" James was known for his maniacal aerial abilities.

Widely regarded as "the best dunker in the state," the generously-listed 6-foot-1 guard won over crowds with electrifying and prodigious hang time.

 A walking high school highlight film of his heyday, James played alongside current Brooklyn Nets guard Sean Kilpatrick under defensive tactician Spencer Mayfield.  James' nomadic collegiate career included stops at STAC (where he averaged 16.8 points per game) and briefly Iona. James' game ultimately flourished at little-known Northwood University here in West Palm Beach. 

Showcasing NBA-caliber athleticism, James averaged 23 points and six boards per game under Rollie Massimino, spearheading Northwood to a 30-4 overall record, a Sun Conference championship and a berth in the 2013 NAIA Division-II National Championship.

Shooting the ball at a 55 percent clip and opening up a 20-foot and long range jumper considerably, James the explosive James was named NAIA Division-II National Player of the Year. In high school, James was able to survive on athleticism alone. In college, most notably at Northwood, he grew as a multi-tooled scorer who could turn in 20+ on any particular night.

"He's been dunking consistently since the eighth grade," said former White Plains teammate and 6-foot-1 guard Jamell Cromartie, who is currently playing in Brazil with the America Esporte Club. 

"I'd say I've seen him do pretty much every kind of dunk there is. He was tremendous to have off the ball because of his ability to guard multiple positions defensively. When the bigs were in foul trouble, we would always count on him to rebound." 

Former White Plains point guard Dave Boykin, who also plays for America esporte club, struggled to pinpoint James' most memorable dunks.

"There's too many to recall," Boykin said.

"I do remember a summer league game at the Greenburgh Center. I was in college (Bridgeport) and he was headed into his senior year of high school. I hadn't seen him in a while, so I didn't know his bounce got that crazy. I threw him an oop that I figured was a terrible pass. He caught it with two hands easy and finished, so that always sticks out."

James cemented his legacy as easily the best Section 1 dunker of all time. Others, such as Mike Kach (Carmel) and 5-foot-7 Daequan Brickhouse (Peekskill) deserve an honorable mention.

"Ra'shad James is by far number one in this area in terms of dunkers that I've ever seen at the high school level," said MSG Varsity's Kevin Devaney Jr., who has covered high school basketball in the Westchester County area since 1998.

"Mike Kach was a guy that I always remembered because you just didn't expect it. If someone told you he could dunk, you'd be surprised. Then you see how he could dunk and that kind of set him apart. Ra'shad had the best dunks I've ever seen, but Daequan Brickhouse had the best moment in a dunk contest I think I've seen. Palisade Prep had Isaiah Ward a few years ago, who was terrific, a really good dunker. (Mount Vernon's) Jabarie Hinds had a great dunk in the Sectional quarterfinal game a few years back."

John Malone, also of MSG Varsity, said James is worthy of the "Section 1's best Dunker" title. Malone, a devout Section 1 fan, has been attending games since Elton Brand starred for Peekskill in 1997.

"For the longest time, I thought (Beacon product) Roberto Macklin was the best in-game dunker I've ever seen in Section 1 but then James came around," Malone said. "It's mystifying to see someone, especially of his size, get off the floor like that' He's ferocious at the rim."

James was forced to work consistently on adding new facets of his game. At the next level, he needed to develop into a dependable shooter and learn how to navigate bigger, stronger defenders and amplified coverage. Still adept at knifing to the rim and finishing with contact, the kid they call "Birdman" transferred from STAC to Iona vowing to become a different player.

Devaney learned of Birdman James' purely by surprise.

"The first time I actually ever saw him play, he was on J.V. as a freshman. The varsity game ended and I kind of hung around. In the first quarter, this kid dunked. I had never seen a J.V. kid dunk in a Section 1 high school game before."

Synonymous with Section 1 basketball is Mount Vernon product Ben Gordon, the former professional known for his career at UConn and the Chicago Bulls. Gordon showcased unparalleled leaping ability, as the rise on his jumper (typically 2-3 feet off the ground before the shot release) demanded respect.

In The Journal News' Josh Thomson, who has been covering the Westchester County for over a decade, Devaney's words resonated.

"He's easily the best dunker I've ever seen in high school," Thomson said. "I remember seeing him pick up a loose ball under the basket and dunk it. You see guys 6-10 do that, but never anyone his size, even in the NBA. It was unreal."

"I never doubted (James') work ethic," Devaney said. "I realized he was a kid who you just constantly saw growth with...If you told me he would have played professional basketball, I would have thought he was going to be a Harlem Globetrotter. That's the type of dunking ability he had. I never imagined in high school that he would play in the summer league, play in the D-League and be that good. I always think back to that day (at White Plains High School)."

Cromartie called the opportunity to pursue a professional career (especially with a fellow White Plains alum) a "gift." While over the waters, he still keeps tabs on homegrown professional products Kilpatrick and James.

"I was elated and happy for them," he said, recalling the moments when he learned Kilpatrick had signed with the Nets and James penned with Westchester.

"I still am. To see their hard work and dedication pay off is priceless."