Veritas Prep Is Reshaping American Basketball With Latino Flavor
Deiman Reyes sits down in front of the computer. It’s the first time he is being interviewed and, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, it’s going to be through a computer’s lens, the face staring back at him through the Zoom call is my own.
I’ve been told that one of his coaches will sit in to translate. His English is sparse as is my Spanish.
But Reyes isn’t about to do things the easy way. He brushes off his coach. He’s got this. He’s always had this. We end up chatting for 30 minutes.
“I want to play (at a) high level, because I want to help my family,” Reyes said. “Because I have not (seen) my family for many years. So, it's hard.”
This 18-year-old is as tough as they come; you have to be when you leave home at 14 and drop feet first into a culture far removed from the one back in Colombia.
You have to be tough to make it through an initial U.S. school experience where you didn’t eat unless chores were finished. You have to be tough to know that you aren’t going to see your family again until you either succeed after years of toil or flame out and head home.
Deiman Reyes is a basketball player whose home is Veritas Prep. His family is his teammates, which in itself is a misleading term. These kids are more like brothers than colleagues.
Tucked away in Santa Fe Springs, a community just southeast of the bustle of East Los Angeles, lives a thoughtful experiment.
How can the American prep school model incorporate some of the best athletic talent from Latin America? How can a school bring kids into the United States and prove that with proper education, support and mentoring you can cultivate something special?
But it’s a near-insane proposition. Consider the money issue. Kids coming from places like Chocó, Colombia don’t have the means to fly into the U.S. nor have the ability to expense their lives once they get here. There is a culture shock exacerbated by the language barrier, even within the confines of Spanish-speaking friendly Southern California.
Then there is the time frame. A prep school would need years to nurture raw talent. Veritas is doing it in two. A blip on the developmental calendar and raw talent becomes Division I greatness.
“(We appreciate) how hard it is for these kids to come over with no money, no understanding of English and basically get on a plane and kiss their families goodbye and not really have any idea of where they're going to sleep, where they're going to eat, where they're going to play,” explains Veritas head coach George Zedan.
We’re all getting used to self-isolation and chatting with family more through phone calls than the usual in-person gatherings. However, these kids have been going through school and rigorous training for years without getting a hug from mom or a pat on the back from a sibling.
“I think we just underestimate how hard that is,” Zedan continues.
The 43-year-old speaks with the pace and positivity of a motivational speaker. Stick around him long enough and you might want to get into the layup line and get some reps in.
He’s also stretching the bounds of versatility. In a world where people are just trying to get by, Coach George, as he’s called by his players, wears a lot of hats. It’s kind of mandated when you’re a coach, a steward and mentor to young men who are currently far from home.
He’s most definitely the tyrant coach who demands the most of his players the second their sneakers hit the hardwood. He’s also the laidback head of Veritas Prep, approachable, helpful and engaging.
He’s a mentor, an all-encompassing support system and father figure to young men who, due to financial reasons, will not see their parents in person until they go to a university, one with the means to grant family trips.
The other option is failure, which comes with both a complementary blow to the ego and a return home.
“These kids are playing for more than just the thrill of competition.” Zedan said, “Success on the court could open doors for them and their families that could last a lifetime.”
Zedan’s work has led him to this place, a location in Los Angeles where he can finally mold the kind of talent that needs molding, the kind of athlete that just needs a chance.
He inherited a 2-25 team in 2011 when he took the helm at Montebello’s Cantwell-Sacred Heart High School; he made them a 27-win team his first season as head coach and almost overnight made Cantwell-Sacred Heart a top contender. In 2014, his Cardinal team suffered a 66-59 overtime loss to national powerhouse, Mater Dei of Santa Ana, in California’s ultra-competitive CIF Southern Section Open Division playoffs.
By the time he left Cantwell-Sacred Heart in 2017, he had amassed 118 wins for the Cardinals. In the offseason, he also served as the AAU head coach at Earl Watson Elite (now West Coast Elite), widely considered one of the top AAU programs in the western United States.
Eighty kids that have called Zedan coach have gone on to play at Division I programs. Three, Nico Mannion (Arizona), Josh Green (Arizona) and Cassius Stanley (Duke), have the chance of becoming first-round NBA draft picks this year.
Many of those kids, by coach’s admission, would have excelled to a great extent regardless of who coached them. They had talent and means. It’s the latter that is missing for so many potential human highlight reels living in places like the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Panama.
To create a place that would give Latin American kids a chance to refine and showcase their talent against some of the best young basketball players in the United States was an all-consuming dream for Coach Zedan.
“George Zedan is building a new untapped pipeline of world-class basketball talent from Latin America,” says Gary Acosta, co-founder and CEO of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) and founder of Latino business conference L’ATTITUDE.
The two found one another through, you guessed it, basketball. Acosta’s son Aaron, a sharp-shooting guard, currently at Colorado College, played for the West Coast Elite program in 2017-2018 on another team that was not coached by Zedan.
The latter’s success piqued the former’s interest and they began a rapport that would include Zedan expressing his interest in starting an American prep academy that would welcome the wealth of talent living in Latin America.
“With NAHREP and L'ATTITUDE, I spend my days searching for Latino talent in business, media and sports,” Acosta continued. “George has spent years coaching some of the best high school players in the country. He is the perfect guy to groom the talent and elevate the profile of Latino basketball players in America and around the world.”
Acosta’s role in all of this is as an advisor, but more importantly as a champion of the program, introducing people to Veritas in the hope that they’ll become a sustainable entity.
Right now, Veritas doesn’t have the corporate sponsorships of other more renowned academies. It relies heavily on the contributions of donors, which is a constant source of stress when you consider it takes about $250,000 annually to house the team’s foreign students, educate, feed and clothe them. And when it’s a bunch of athletes in the house, annual food costs soar to about $60,000.
“We're in year two and we're struggling trying to think of ways to raise money,” Zedan said.
They are funded by a non-profit that welcomes all manner of donations, and they are also supported by the adjoining Veritas Training Academy. But it remains a difficult proposition, especially in the age of COVID-19 when showcases and leagues are shuttered.
Competing in the west region of the Grind Session, Veritas has had an immediate impact. The team went 25-7 in the first year and 23-11 in the second.
The Grind Session is more than a proving ground. It’s an elite league teeming with success stories. It’s seen 2,100 students go on to receive scholarships in college. Out of the 450 players in the NBA, 72 have played in one of the league’s events. It also touts diversity, welcoming players from over 87 different countries.
“Our teams average over eight Division I players per team,” Grind Session founder and director Dan Hudson said. “You're going against the best.”
And when you’re thrown into a gauntlet of top talent, you either sink or flourish quickly.
“What I feel like it does is it expedites the process of getting the guys ready for whatever next level it is, whether it be college, whether it be the G League, whatever they're planning on doing,” Hudson said. “But it expedites the process because they have to play against eight guys on that other side that are Division I. That's tough.”
For the uninitiated, a prep academy like Veritas is tested constantly.
“There's just three tiers of high school basketball,” Ball is Life editor Ronnie Flores explained.
There’s neighborhood basketball, the public and parochial schools that draw talent from the area. The next level up is the more elite nationally covered schools—about 10% of neighborhood schools, the veritable cream of the crop.
“And then you got prep independent academy-type programs,” Flores said. “Where the level of play is even higher. Sometimes you have guys who come off the bench that are going to play college basketball.”
In two seasons, Veritas has already sent the likes of Iverson Molinar to play at Ben Howland-led Mississippi State. Molinar who hails from Panama, possesses the kind of athletic skill that is already attracting the attention of pro scouts.
The 20-year-old came to this country when he was 15 and played ball at Oaks Christian in Westlake Village, Calif. before making the transition to Veritas.
“I made that move because I wanted to be in a prep level,” Molinar tells En Fuego on Sports Illustrated. “I wanted to play against prep guys and because that's the closest [level] to college.”
Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland described Veritas through the lens of someone who expects great things from one of its recent graduates.
“He can really score the basketball,” Howland said of Molinar. “Both driving as well as shooting the ball.”
But what really impresses Howland is Molinar’s dedication to studies: “He just finished his first complete year at Mississippi State and above a B average for the year. He did a really good job in the classroom. Very, very committed student who works hard.”
Success is a Necessity
Deiman Reyes is a big kid. At 6’8” and 235 pounds, he is big on paper. But he stands taller and commands more attention when running the paint with other players his age.
“I’m good on defense,” he says with a smile. It’s not hard to see that imposing his will in the paint is a source of pride. It’s easy to forget that he is also an 18-year-old high school student with the weight of a family and country on his shoulders.
His family is counting on him to be successful. “I want to play at a high level because [I haven’t seen] my family for many years,” he says. “It’s hard.”
The drive for a player like Reyes is simple. Making it in America means alleviating the burden on his parents back home, parents that work 10-12 hours a day for little pay.
Out of the recent players, homesickness hit Reyes the hardest. Coming to the United States from Barranquilla, Colombia, at 14, he first played at an east coast school that put more of an emphasis on household chores than teaching basketball. Nutrition and morale slipped.
At Veritas, Reyes has excelled. Initial malaise and bouts of homesickness have resulted in a player who savors accountability.
In the case of Jaret Valencia, a stark realization of the power of the present and this undeniable opportunity came amid gut-wrenching heartache.
The budding talent is still grieving the recent passing of his father, former University of Houston and Philadelphia 76ers player Alvaro Teheran.
“It was real hard,” Valencia says of the death that occurred this past May. “I keep grieving, you know.”
At a school like Veritas, loneliness and heartache are helped by an earned trust between the players and coaches.
“I mean, this is just like a family,” Molinar said of his time at Veritas. The Mississippi State standout is talking to me on a recent trip he made to Veritas, a random drive up from San Diego just to check in with a place he now considers an extension of home.
“I mean, they care about you,” he said. “Other prep schools, they just want your talent. And as soon as you’re done with them, you won't hear from them again. I feel like this is a lifelong relationship that we have. It's a friendship, you know?”
It would make perfect sense for some to pull out of the school and go home. But Veritas is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not only get an American education but a top-tier basketball experience.
Zedan tells me that he approached Valencia once his father passed and asked him if he would rather go home. Valencia told him, “I got nothing there; I've got to be here in the U.S.”
Back home, Valencia is a name, one synonymous with basketball success. To those in Chocó, Jaret is the second coming of his father. In Los Angeles, he can train under anonymity.
“Here in L.A., he's just a 6’8” basketball player. But back home there's a lot of pressure for him to be successful; there's a lot of pressure for him to live up to the expectations of his father.”
“I was told my dad had cancer,” Valencia said of his father. “He was fine, was chubby and always happy when he called me. He didn't show any signs of well, you know. Then, he had to fight against the pain, all of that stuff, he was getting skinny every time. They (loved ones back home) made him a memorial, which I am grateful to the people that did it.”
Veritas players don’t hide from looming shadows of parental success. It’s not in the equation. There’s no time to wallow when the only way back home is with one’s head held high and an offer from a Division I school.
It’s a tumultuous road for some. “I was a bad kid,” explains 16-year-old combo guard Lewis Duarte. “fighting and arguing with people older than me.”
The Dominican Republic native left Santo Domingo for the states when he was 14, then bumped around three schools before landing with Veritas, which puts an emphasis on basketball but gets their kids ready for college with online classes and English immersion.
His first few years in the U.S. were difficult, characterized by the behavior of someone who didn’t trust the people with whom he was living.
At Veritas, things are different.
“I feel home here, because we're in the house together and we speak Spanish, like almost everybody speaks Spanish, so I feel like home,” he explains.
Coaches from his recent past didn’t quite pass the smell test. “He can sense bullshit,” coach George explained.
Duarte is in the middle of explaining to me that he is particularly thankful of the coaching staff here, because past coaches weren’t genuine in their affection. To him, they saw someone who would lift the program and nothing more. Another number. Potential stats in a uniform.
These coaches are different. Zedan’s different. “He loves every one of us,” Duarte says “He takes care of us on and off the court.”
Veritas has earned Duarte’s trust. And its coach, who affectionately refers to Duarte as his problem child, explains that after going from one traditional school to the next, he came to the prep school with a chip on his shoulder, “it took a long time to convince him that we weren’t going to hurt him.”
Under Coach Zedan’s tutelage, the 6’5” Duarte has emerged into a Top 100 recruiting prospect in his class.
A Fractured System
Luis Turcios came to the United States in 1991, missing the end of the Salvadoran Civil War by a year but not missing the apex of its devastation.
“We lived in an area that was really affected by the guerrilla warfare and we struggled with my family and our businesses,” Turcios says. “We were doing well, but at that time they began bombing in the streets, affecting the electricity and we couldn't make ends meet.”
Turcios is 43 now, the director of operations in Latin America for Veritas. His is a remarkable story. His mother left El Salvador when he was 7 years old, entered the U.S. and began working in Beverly Hills. He wouldn’t see his mother until he left the country himself several years later at 13. Sometimes you do what you have to do.
His mother made a home over those years through hard work, eventually carving out a place for Turcios and his siblings, who would attend Beverly Hills High School.
Much like the boys he would later scout, he didn’t understand a word of English. His trial by fire was English by immersion in one of the more upscale parts of Los Angeles.
He quickly discovered basketball in his new country, which then led to finding new friends, a spot on the high school team and later opportunities at Whittier College and coaching professionally in Mexico, where he currently lives.
It’s from Mexico where he now coaches, mentors and scouts new talent. He’s especially well-positioned to answer one of my initial questions: How is no one else jumping on talent tucked away in places like Ecuador, Mexico and Colombia?
Moving to Mexico and coaching there was an eye-opening experience, “and that's when you realize how minimal the basketball apparatus is, not only in Mexico but in Latin America and why we started getting involved with both kids and coaches.”
There are plenty of reasons basketball coaching is a very early-stage enterprise throughout the region. Economics and infrastructure are certainly part of the problem. Kids are either playing in unsafe areas or playing on outdoor courts, many of which don’t even have nets on the rims. And the good courts in the area are shared with myriad programs.
Getting time on the court is problematic and then you run into the issue of competition. Great players are playing against subpar opponents, hardly the elixir for improvement.
“Basketball coaches in Latin America are not yet on par with their American counterparts. It's a combination of a lack of resources and inexperienced leadership,” Turcios said. “I was lucky to find great mentors when I moved to the United States that have guided me throughout my career. Most of the coaches in Latin America don’t have that. At least not yet.”
“It is clear to us that there is a tremendous desire to learn, the coaches want to get better, just like the players. They just haven’t had access to the highest quality knowledge and systems” Turcios said.
So, while the true goal is to find great players, what you sometimes end up getting are talented athletes with abysmal fundamentals. By the time you spot talent, they’re a 21-year-old wing with sublime talent but rudimentary skill. It’s too late at that point for that player.
What Veritas hopes to bring to the region are camps and programs that will address the problem from the top down, giving coaches the tools they need to shape players at a younger age.
Veritas is in a unique position. They are not beholden to the economics that force decisions by other programs. And, comprised of Latino staff, there’s a sentimental connection to cultivating talent through Latin America.
“We are creating a coaching and educational platform that is long overdue,” said coach Zedan, “One, that will cultivate elite basketball players and coaches from a talent-rich but overlooked region of the world.”
Building a Future
Jimmy Olguin is a stout man wearing a baseball warm-up and cap when he walks into screen as I chat with Zedan.
As a co-founder of Veritas, he’s understandably smitten with the progress the players are making and astonished at how well they do considering the distance from family and the chasm in culture.
He tells me about a barbecue they had for the kids last year, burgers and dogs mostly. But out came a pack of bacon to throw into the mix. The kids were astonished, asking coyly if they might try some.
On the car ride home, Olguin explained to his own kids that some of these Latin American players aren’t used to items like bacon being abundant, not used to even the occasional McDonald’s run.
Yet to hear Veritas players talk of home, you can’t help but yearn through their own words to visit these places yourself, destinations where mom, dad and siblings are waiting.
It took Valencia two years and letters from the coaches to finally convince the state department to let him enter the U.S. with a visa.
When players finally do get here, there’s no money available to send them back for visits. The next time they will see family outside of Zoom calls is when they make it.
The other way is by not making it, getting the boot from Veritas or just quitting. None of the players interviewed remotely considered that as an option.
“I want to be an NBA player,” explains 19-year-old Carlos Rosario, who signed a national letter of intent with Washington State University, where he will enroll in the fall.
Getting there on talent is one thing. Toughing out loneliness is another. “It's hard to leave your house and your family,” Rosario says. “It's hard to be here, you know, like, alone. It's kind of hard you got to be like ready for all this.”
There are a few constants that run through this ballclub. Some are symbiotic, such as the Spanish language the teammates share. It’s both a hindrance to their English development but also a great comfort to boys who haven’t seen their families in a few years.
While some of us are accustomed to checking in on mom and dad weekly—OK, more regularly thanks to self-isolation demands—each one of Zedan’s players call back home daily.
A reminder that they also share more than kinship of language but one that puts an emphasis on family.
It takes a special kind of player to stick it out.
“They got to work many times very hard to get seen because they didn't come up through the American system where a scout or people know them from fifth and sixth grade,” Flores said of the Latin American players that play at Veritas.
These are players who are playing for more than personal success.
“He (George Zedan) doesn't get the guy who's anointed as the next savior of basketball. He gets players that are here to work hard to try to improve their lives and in many times to try to improve their family lives," Flores continued.
Players molded by loving families and carved by their communities lean on their new normal, a six-bedroom house in Artesia where they all call home. Frequented by Coach Zedan’s own son, 22-year-old Elias, who also serves as a big brother to the team.
It’s this house that has quickly become home to kids who had to grow up instantly.
“It's helped me a lot because we all live together in the same house and we help each other with our classes and other stuff,” Rosario continues.
As for the bond, each player offered a similar sentiment as Rosario, “we are like brothers.”
It’s helpful, being in the initial throes of a promising career with a bunch of guys who are also missing home, also love basketball, also speak in not just the same language but with the same affinity for Latin American culture.
“When I'm with my teammates, that helps me a lot because I forget about all my family,” Rosario says.
What he means to say, as I discovered, is not that he ever forgets about his family. He forgets, for at least some time, about the pain of missing them.
It’s erased when he is with his brothers, all of whom have eyes on the next level and the level after that.
They lean on one another when they need to, the term 'team' transcending the normal definition.
“We already have a bond because we speak Spanish,” Iverson Molinar explained. “And just playing with them and just spending time with them is a good feeling because it reminds you of home. And you don’t get that opportunity everywhere in the states. I just see them like my little brothers.”
Veritas would be a monumental undertaking if these athletes weren’t so motivated. To these players, players who get scolded at halftime and then come back to win back their coaches’ confidence. Players whose families bought food on credit back in the Dominican Republic. Players who didn’t understand one lick of English when they stepped off the plane in the United States.
Raw talent is polished. Interviews are conducted without a translator because, hey, there’s always something to prove to yourself.
Veritas is a prep school. It’s a steppingstone. But it’s also a fraternity. More than anything, it’s a brotherhood of men joined by a common goal.
“I want to be the best player in the country,” Valencia tells me about his goals over the next two years. After that? “The best player in the NBA.”
Deiman Reyes says he used to be lazy, foregoing optional night shootarounds. Not anymore. He’s motivated like the rest of Veritas. Dismissing translation help, Reyes continued.
“I want to be the best player in the country,” he says at the end of our interview. “In my country and this country. I want people to know my name.”