Kevin Armstrong
Monday April 6th, 2009

NORTH BETHESDA, Md. -- As the Findlay Prep players mugged for the cameras and cut down the nets Sunday evening, Cliff Findlay, the sun-burnt architect and financier of the three-year-old basketball program, contemplated his next project. A UNLV booster and millionaire auto magnate, he built the Pilots program outside Las Vegas with his own money, and now he was celebrating the inaugural High School Basketball Invitational championship. "We don't have a trophy case," Findlay said. "We'll have one shortly, though."

As the new-money winners of the prep hierarchy, Findlay fought off the bluebloods from Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) 74-66 in a made-for-TV matchup on ESPN of the nation's top two teams. Led by Avery Bradley, a soft-spoken, hard-charging guard bound for Texas, the eight-man roster of prospects from as far as Nigeria and no closer than Washington state, held off a late rally from the Warriors to capture the title. "It is a kid's dream come true," said Carlos Lopez, a 6-foot-10 forward from Lajas, Puerto Rico who will play at UNLV next season.

In navigating his team to a 33-0 record, coach Michael Peck, a former UNLV video coordinator, capped a two-year sprint that has seen his team go from unknown to unbeaten. Runners up in the National Prep Championships last season, Findlay dropped fifth-year players from its system and traveled more than 30,000 miles to take on challengers from eight states this season, including New York Federation champion Rice (Harlem, N.Y.). An elderly fan behind the Findlay bench held up a sign that read: "What happens in Vegas is now here. It's Findlay Prep."

"[Las Vegas residents] may not have sunk their teeth into us yet," Peck said, "but this means everything to us. It means the world."

The stage for Findlay's coming out party was also an opportunity to kickoff its own marketing campaign. Fans entering the Hanley Center on Georgetown Prep's 220-year-old campus were greeted by billboard-sized Nike advertising and a lobby that doubled as a sneaker show room. Not to be lost among the $15 Kevin Durant T-shirts was the mannequin dressed up in a green jersey of Montrose Christian -- a local power that Findlay defeated in the semifinals. By downing Oak Hill and Montrose, two brand-name powers, in back-to-back games, Findlay established itself as the premier Western force. "I think fans know the Findlay name now," said junior forward Tristan Thompson, a Brampton, Ontario, native who scored 12 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 23 minutes.

What the world knew of Findlay before last weekend was, in part, due to Thompson's arrival. Kicked off the team at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J., for "public insubordination" in early February, he transferred to Findlay three days later. Viewed as a waiver-wire acquisition for a team that could not scrimmage five-on-five most of the season, Peck said the program, which partners with The Henderson International School for academics, was open to accepting a player that met admission requirements. As Findlay stated, there are three prerequisites for acceptance: being a good person, displaying a willingness to work in the classroom and being a basketball player. "Tristan was a fit not just for now, but next year as well," Peck said.

Fighting for attention against UNLV and the lure of The Strip, the program's Web site boasts of amenities like fully-stocked refrigerators and the off-campus house where the players live with assistant coach Todd Simon and his wife. Bought by Findlay, the house is set in Henderson -- a town that Forbes listed as a top-10 boring city in 2009. "We welcome anyone to come out if they have questions," said Peck, who runs the team's day-to-day operations and confers with Findlay once-a-month.

The full measure of the Pilots' ascendant success could be seen in Bradley. A summer-time transfer from Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash., the 6-3 McDonald's All-American joined teammates for 5 a.m. workouts and afternoon lifting sessions over the last six months. It was a scrimmage during the month-long layoff between Findlay's regular-season finale and the NHSI opening round that Bradley showed his mettle. Peck watched his team, slow out of the gate, struggle on offense and fail to retreat on defense. After driving deep into the lane and missing a layup, Bradley raced back on defense when an opponent rose for a seemingly easy layup. Timing his jump perfectly, Avery leapt, elbow over rim, and blocked the shot. Turning to an assistant, Peck said, "That kid's ready to win a national championship. We don't need to light a fire under his butt."

Bradley, who scored 20 points and collected two steals before fouling out, earned the highest praise from Oak Hill Coach Steve Smith. "That's the best guard I've ever coached against," said Smith, who boasts five unbeaten teams in his 24 years at Oak Hill.

New to the scene no more, the Pilots had gained The Establishment's respect.

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