It's justafter¬†seven when the lights flicker on at Red Bug Park, just outsideOrlando. The players spill onto the asphalt of this pickup haven slowly atfirst, but by the time the full-court runs begin some 40 players are waitingfor their turn on the court, while dozens more are happy just to watch. Most ofthe players on the sidelines will do more waiting than playing because onefive-man team is accustomed to holding court till the lights go off at 10. Thatpickup squad has a trio of blue-chippers--Nick Calathes, Chandler Parsons andJoey Rodriguez--and has ruled the Red Bug run for a couple of years now. Thethree stars have been doing nearly as well on their Lake Howell High (WinterPark, Fla.) team, a 2006--07 state championship favorite that has helped turncentral Florida into a two-sport megastore for college recruiters. Football isstill king on Friday nights in this area, but hoops is staking its claim to therest of the week.
Calathes was insixth grade when he first played with Rodriguez. They met Parsons at LakeHowell a few years later, and, says Calathes, "by the end of our freshmanyear we were doing everything together." Their chemistry off the court paidimmediate dividends on it: Calathes, a smooth-shooting combo guard, andRodriguez, a bulldog point guard, were key role players as freshmen in theSilver Hawks' run to the Division 5-A state finals in 2004, and Parsons, a6'9" forward who joined the varsity as a sophomore, helped propel them backto the final four the following year. "We were just some skinny kids,"says Parsons. "But we were beating up on everybody."
The Lake Howellprogram was moribund until coach Steve Kohn took over in 1989. "When I washired, they said I should try to get to .500," he recalls. Kohn did betterthan that. The Silver Hawks were conference champions in Kohn's third season."It helped that our best player lived at my house," says Kohn, whoseson Josh, went on to play at UNC-Asheville. In 2003 the Silver Hawks made thefirst of four trips to the state final four.
In '04 Kohnhanded the team over to his youngest son, Reggie, a former Silver Hawk (classof '99) who holds the school record for assists. When Reggie became director ofbasketball operations at the University of South Florida last summer, Steveagain took over.
As SI's pick towin their first state championship, Kohn and his players will rely on a simplebut proven formula: Calathes (27.2 ppg last season) scores, Rodriguez (9.2assists) passes, and Parsons (8.5 rebounds) cleans up the mistakes."Getting to the finals was great," says Rodriguez. "But we don'twant to be the Buffalo Bills--we want to win one." A Lake Howell titlewould be yet another step in the emergence of central Florida as a basketballpowerhouse. The area has produced several NBA stars in recent years--TracyMcGrady (Auburndale), Vince Carter (Mainland High) and Amaré Stoudemire (LakeWales). (Calathes and Parsons have committed to play for top-ranked Floridanext season; Rodriguez with Virginia Commonwealth.) The area now has top-flightfacilities such as the Disney Sports Complex, which opened in 1997 and is hometo the region's AAU tournaments. Four years ago Carter donated $2.5 million tobuild a new gym at Mainland High.
It's getting tothe point where the basketball players are even crowding the footballers ontheir own turf. Recently Calathes, Parsons and Rodriguez put their undefeatedflag-football record on the line against a team of Lake Howell footballplayers. "The quarterback's girlfriend was talking smack in mathclass," Rodriguez recalls with a laugh. The result: a 10--7 win for thehoops team. "Hey," says Rodriguez, "whatever we play, we're playingto win."