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College Basketball

Indiana benefiting from hoops obsession of Vonleh, the other top frosh

Photo: AJ Mast/Icon SMI

Noah Vonleh ranks second among true freshmen with 10.4 rebounds per game.

Renell Kumeh had saved for a year to fly her three kids to Disney World. Her girls, Samnell and Aaronette were 13 and 7 at the time, and this was their dream vacation. Her son, Noah Vonleh, wasn't as excited.

As Renell rolled the rental car from the airport toward the park, 14-year-old Noah peered out the window and asked his mom to find a local YMCA. He had to play basketball. She figured he would change his mind after a day at Disney, so she dragged him to the park with his sisters. The second day, though, he insisted on playing basketball and she relented.

For five days, Noah was dropped off at the gym and picked up 10 hours later, perfectly content having spent the day with strangers instead of his family. To Renell, this was nothing new. From the time Noah began playing AAU ball in the fifth grade, it became clear to her that the hardwood was his home.

If it wasn't for his mother, Noah might never have left the gym. But she knew that the ball would stop bouncing eventually -- even if it was after a long career in the NBA. So while he practiced each day as if it were his final audition to play again tomorrow, she made sure he was prepared for the day when basketball would leave him behind.

On the final day of the trip, Renell nearly left Noah in Orlando. She wanted to go to Busch Gardens in Tampa before the family jetted back to Massachusetts. Along the drive down I-4, she got Noah to agree to go to the park instead of the gym.

When they got out of the car, though, he took one look at the roller coasters scraping the sky and said he would go in the park, but he would not get on any of the big rides. He told his mom: "I'm not going to die before I play college basketball."

*****

Four years later, Vonleh has arrived safely in Bloomington, where he has become one of the many star freshmen who are lighting up the sport. Vonleh, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward, has helped the rebuilding Hoosiers jump to a 6-1 start heading into Tuesday night's matchup at No. 4 Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. While he has not received the hype of Duke's Jabari Parker, Kansas' Andrew Wiggins or Kentucky's Julius Randle, he is nonetheless averaging a double-double with 12.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, the latter ranking second in the nation among true freshman behind only Randle's 12.5.

Although basketball bloomed in Noah, the seeds have been dormant in his family for generations. In his lineage -- his mother's great-grandfather was a president of Liberia and his paternal grandfather, Blashue Vonleh, was Paramount Chief of the Doe Clan -- you can find the foundation of his leadership. In his mother's 6-foot-3 frame, you can see why the doctors thought he'd be 6-foot-8 and were unsurprised when he surpassed that. In her sturdy hands, you can see how it came to be that his hands were the second largest ever measured at Indiana.

The first sprout sprung when Noah saw his cousin Jeremy playing basketball in the park by their Salem, Mass., home. Noah had cousins his own age, but he was drawn to Jeremy, five years his senior, for reasons his mother doesn't even fully understand. Together, the two cousins dissected Allen Iverson's dazzling game on TV and mimicked it on the court.

They played every day for hours, but Renell worked hard to make sure basketball wasn't Noah's only focus. Growing up in Liberia, her parents emphasized education and faith above all else. She passed those values onto Noah and his sisters. Nothing could come between Noah and basketball, but Renell made sure that those twin pillars always came before the game.

She worked as a surgical nurse when the kids were growing up. Renell and Noah's father, Samuel, got divorced when Noah was 13. Samuel and Renell remain friends and even watch their son's games together to this day, but the separation left Renell in need of extra money, so she picked up a second job. She would do her rounds, come home, take care of the kids after school and then return to the hospital again to file Medicaid claims and handle other administrative work. She was at work as often as Noah was at the gym.

When he started at Haverhill (Mass.) High School in fall 2009, Vonleh asked his AAU coach, Vin Pastore, to help him develop during his free time. One Friday night that fall, Vonleh blamed his team's loss on his poor shooting. He called Pastore, who picked him up on Saturday morning and spent two hours rebounding for him. Not two hours later, Pastore was home on his couch when he saw his phone light up. It was Vonleh texting him, asking if he knew of any gyms nearby that were open -- he still wasn't happy. Pastore picked him up, they drove 15 minutes into New Hampshire, and Vonleh shot for another three hours.

As a sophomore at Haverhill, Vonleh averaged 18.4 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks a game. Together with his mother and coach, he decided to transfer to New Hampton School in New Hampshire. The prestigious basketball school would send 15 players to college -- including Boston College's Olivier Hanlan and Notre Dame's Zach Auguste -- in the two graduating classes before Noah's. Since he was only turning 16 in August 2011 and since he was living away from home for the first time, he decided to reclassify and repeat his sophomore season.

At New Hampton, Vonleh shared a dorm with 17 other kids from all over the United States as well as from China, Korea and Spain. He learned to do his own laundry. He learned to order pizza because the cafeteria's three meals a day didn't quite keep him full. ("Everyone here loved Noah," says his dorm advisor Will McCulloch, "but the pizza place may have been the saddest to see him go.") He learned to step out socially, going from the kid who only sang in the shower to the one who dressed up as a lumberjack along with his roommates to sing made-up songs and compete in dorm cleanups. And he just plain learned -- at a competitive school with an International Baccalaureate program, he studied for two hours a night.

He also had unlimited access to a gym for the first time in his life. If he wasn't eating, sleeping, studying, watching basketball on TV or playing a basketball video game, he was in the gym. When he was home on breaks, he wouldn't be able to practice as much, so he'd mimic basketball motions with his hands. He would dribble, drive and dunk an invisible basketball while standing at his mother's bedroom door to wish her goodnight.

In his first season at New Hampton, Vonleh led the Huskies to the national prep championship, where he sank a game-winner over Nerlens Noel, now a 76er. That was also the year he started to receive scholarship offers.

It was clear that college basketball was in Vonleh's future, but his mother didn't want his high school experience to suffer. In May 2012, he wanted to compete in an AAU tournament in Las Vegas, but it conflicted with an experiential learning expedition at school. The school was OK with him skipping the camping trip, but Renell wouldn't let him. If New Hampton had it in the curriculum, her son was going to complete it. She took him to get a sleeping bag, a backpack and beige, size 17 hiking boots. She flew him back to school right after the last game, had his high school coach, Peter Hutchins, meet him on campus and hike him two miles into the white mountains of New Hampshire.

For four days, he got neither enough food nor a shower. But he did get two things that will stay with him forever. The first is a scar on his right knee -- he slipped and slashed himself on a rock but refused stitches -- that reminds him that being a basketball player doesn't make him better than anybody. The second is a life lesson. "Camping's not for me," he says.

For the rest of the summer, Vonleh played basketball. He earned MVP honors in the Adidas Nation tournament. In the fall, he decided he was ready to be a senior again. When he reclassified the first time, it was because he was unsure if he could compete against the 2013 recruiting class. Now he knew he could take on anyone at the high school level and felt he was ready for stronger competition in college.

He was such a strong student that he only needed to add an extra English class to put himself back on track to graduate in 2013 and compete again with Wiggins, Parker and Randle on the court. Several colleges, including Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio State, were eager to bring the big man onto campus one year sooner.

But it was the Hoosiers, led by the recruiting of first-year assistant coach Kenny Johnson, that earned Vonleh's commitment in November. Vonleh liked Indiana's commitment to make him a better player, and he liked that they were about to send two players into the top five of the NBA draft. Renell liked their graduation rates.

The fruits of Vonleh's lineage and labor were about to be borne: In less than 11 months, he would be playing college basketball.

*****

Most incoming freshmen don't arrive on campus until June. Vonleh asked if he could arrive in May. He flew with his mom to Bloomington four days after he graduated from New Hampton. Johnson greeted them on campus, but before he could direct them to the dorm, Vonleh asked his mom to come back in a couple hours -- he wanted to go right to the gym.

Vonleh had to wait until the second day to receive his ID card that granted him access to Cook Hall, IU's practice facility; when he got it, Renell had never seen him happier. Johnson has said that if he left a cot in Cook Hall, Vonleh would sleep there. Instead, he stayed with his mom in her hotel for the first week before moving in with fellow freshman Troy Williams.

Basketball had earned Vonleh a college scholarship, and Renell's lessons made him take advantage of it. In the summer, he took nine credits when he only needed six. And on Sundays, he texted Johnson to make sure they went to City Church in Bloomington together.

A little more than a month after Vonleh arrived at school, the entire team gathered to watch the NBA draft. They were waiting for Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, the stars of last year's Indiana team that finished the season ranked No. 4 in the nation, to be chosen. It didn't take long. Orlando drafted Oladipo with the second pick and Charlotte took Zeller with the fourth selection. When the commissioner read Zeller's name, Vonleh stood up, yelled, "That's what Hoosiers do!" and walked from the party to the gym.

As the season drew near, Renell returned to Bloomington for her son's 18th birthday. She met the entire team and then proceeded to read them scripture and pray for them. She left before she could see Vonleh's first game, but she watched on TV as he started his college career with four consecutive double-doubles. On Nov. 21, she drove from her home to New York City to watch him play in the 2K Classic in Madison Square Garden. Against Washington, Vonleh missed a double-double by one rebound, finishing with 18 points and nine boards.

The following day, in the championship game against UConn, Vonleh had his first bad game of the season. He found himself with four fouls in the first few minutes and couldn't hit a catch-and-shoot potential game-winner with .7 seconds left. He finished with no points and just two rebounds in 10 minutes.

At the team's first practice after that game, Vonleh was taking out his aggression on the court -- dunking every time he had the ball anywhere near the basket. In his next game he picked up 13 points and 12 rebounds while needing to play just 19 minutes of a 77-46 win against Evansville.

*****

Vonleh's early emergence as one of the best college basketball players in the country is no surprise to the people who know him best. And it's not hard for them to imagine Vonleh in the NBA soon. "My hope now with Noah and basketball," Renell says, "is that he would receive the results of his hard work." Maybe, she says, that means the NBA; maybe it means a college degree.

Noah politely sidesteps any questions about the NBA, saying only that he believes he will be good enough to make it. He's believed that about himself for a long time.

Renell remembers driving a 10-year-old Noah through Philadelphia with Jeremy. She pressed her finger against the window and offered to leave him at the Wells Fargo Center, home of his beloved 76ers, if he wanted. He didn't get the joke and immediately accepted her offer.

She drove on that day, and so did he. One day, he knows, he'll return.

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