The following were the biggest stories in high school basketball in 2011. Some were tragic and some were uplifting, but they all captured the attention of the basketball world.
Go East, Young Man
Damon Harge Jr. moved from Modesto, Calif. to North Carolina to start his high school hoops career at Christian Faith Center Academy (Creedmoor, N.C.). Sounds ordinary, right? Oh, there is one detail we left out -- Harge Jr. is beginning his varsity career as a sixth-grader. He's also learning from NBA star John Wall.
We've heard of seventh-graders playing on the varsity, such as former McDonald's All-Americans Demond "Tweedy" Carter, who went on to play at Baylor, and 2007 ESPNHS Mr. Basketball USA O.J. Mayo of the Memphis Grizzlies, but not a sixth-grader. Although some state associations allow middle schoolers to play varsity, Harge Jr.'s move raises questions about the media's responsibility in hyping young stars and whether or not it's healthy to rank junior high school-aged players.
In March, Wes Leonard capped off an undefeated regular season for Fennville (Mich.) by hitting the game-winning shot in overtime against Bridgman (Mich.). But shortly after his heroic moment, the 16-year-old junior collapsed on the court after suffering a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital, where he passed away.
The sudden shift from triumph to tragedy gripped an entire nation, as Leonard’s teammates rallied in his honor to win three postseason games. The inspiring and courageous way Fennville persevered through unimaginable tragedy makes this our choice for No. 1 story of 2011.
The Resiliency of Austin Hatch
Showing a resiliency far beyond his years, Austin Hatch persevered through great tragedy in 2011. Over the summer, the Canterbury (Fort Wayne, Ind.) basketball player survived a small plane crash that killed his stepmother and his father, who was piloting the craft.
Hatch had also been in a 2003 plane crash that claimed the lives of his sister, brother and mother, so going through such an ordeal for a second time caught the attention of the entire nation.
Hatch suffered a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a punctured lung and a serious head injury in the June crash, so he isn't playing ball this season. But the junior forward and Michigan recruit is determined to make it back on the court.
A Season to Remember
The La Verne Lutheran (La Verne, Calif.) boys' basketball team ended its season with a California Div. III state title. It was a remarkable achievement for all the Trojans went through. The team dedicated its season to Kevin Payne Sr., the father of reserve wing Kevin Payne Jr. Payne Sr. was killed in a car accident on Sept. 3, 2010.
And the Trojans nearly lost senior Xavier Jones. On the day before Thanksgiving, "X" collapsed and was revived by head coach Eric Cooper Sr., who the previous night used an iPhone application to learn CPR. Later that year, Jones, who wore an electronic defibrillator, had the device go off three minutes into the state title game against Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.) and was rushed to a local hospital.
With 1:24 remaining in the game, Payne Jr. hit a 3-pointer that gave Lutheran a 61-59 lead after trailing 59-58. Payne Jr. pointed to the sky in honor of his father. He then noticed his mother, Theresa, getting emotional in the stands. But he still had enough fortitude to knock down another 3-pointer with 1:04 remaining to effectively ice the game. Payne Jr. quickly embraced his mother after Lutheran clinched its second-consecutive state title. And thankfully, Jones was OK and made it back to celebrate with his team.
Mitch McGary was a nondescript power forward at Brewster Academy (Wolfeboro, N.H.) his junior season. He didn't even start for his team, but a breakout summer led him to rise to No. 2 in the ESPNU 100. He's rewarded with an invitation to the end-of-summer Boost Mobile Elite 24. He wasn't able to play in the game, however, because he shattered a glass backboard during warm-ups that required over 25 stitches. After some scrambling to replace the backboard, the game finally is played live on ESPNU. Justin Anderson and Kyle Anderson lead the Marques Johnson squad to victory, but the clear winner is McGary. Without playing a minute, he becomes one of the nation's most popular high school athletes.
Higher Schooler Beats Pro Dunker
Recent No. 2 NBA Draft pick Derrick Williams of the University of Arizona via La Mirada (La Mirada, Calif.) competes in the Under Armour Slam Dunk contest as part of the Boost Mobile Elite 24 festivities. If you ever seen him throw one down for the Wildcats, it's easy to see why you'd think he would blow away the field. Doesn't happen. Against a strong field, Shaq Johnson of Milton (Milton, Ga.) takes top honors and deservedly earns a spot in "SportsCenter's" Top 10 plays.
Perennial FAB 50 power closes its doors
This summer, Catholic school boys’ basketball power Rice (New York) shut down, leaving a big void in the New York high school basketball scene. The alma mater of 2011 NCAA MOP Kemba Walker and 1994 Mr. Basketball USA Felipe Lopez, Rice finished ranked No. 2 in the country in 1998-99. Rice is the latest parochial school unable to withstand the country's troubling economy and the numerous lawsuits around the country involving priest scandals that are being paid out by the Catholic church.
Wroten Jr. Shows the Power of Social Media
Tony Wroten Jr. of Garfield (Seattle) talks a big game, but fortunately for the No. 17 player in the 2011 ESPNU 100, he also plays one, too. When it comes to his Twitter account (@TWroten14), however, Wroten Jr. got a bit carried away last year. His tweets led to revelations the University of Washington recruit was enrolled and received credit for a Spanish class that didn’t exist. As a result of the investigation, Garfield's athletic director was fired and Wroten was placed in a three-person remedial Spanish class in order to make up the credit for the bogus class. High-profile recruits, college and professional athletes all use Twitter to connect with their fans and give their opinion on popular topics in the world of sports, but student-athletes found out from this case it's probably not a good idea to sit in class and tweet.
Khadeem Lattin Goes Global
At 6-foot-9 and still sprouting, Lattin had apparently grown too big for Texas hoops. So the Houston native and sophomore F/C took his burgeoning game elsewhere. In November, Lattin left Westbury Christian (Houston) and enrolled at the Canarias Basketball Academy in Spain. He follows the route taken by Jeremy Tyler of the Golden State Warriors, who played overseas his senior year of high school.
Lattin, who’s rated the nation’s No. 21 boys’ basketball recruit in the ESPNU 25, is the grandson of David Lattin, a member of the legendary Texas Western squad that captured the 1966 NCAA championship.
The Austin Rivers Show
Rivers finished up his highly scrutinized prep career in the spring, one that’s been filled with naysayers believing all the attention he’s received was due to his family name - - his father, Doc, is the head coach of the Boston Celtics. Now a freshman at Duke, Rivers somehow handled the hype and the attention, capping his senior season at Winter Park (Fla.) with a state title and following up with various national awards.