The first game of the Adonai Hood Classic basketball tournament is over, and the victorious alums of Rainier Beach High have retreated from the August heat into the subterranean locker room of their old rival Garfield High. New York Knicks guard Nate Robinson is searching for a particular tattoo on his sweaty and extravagantly decorated limbs. There it is: a 206 inked on his right wrist. Terrence Williams, the New Jersey Nets' most recent lottery pick, counters by showing off the Space Needle etched into his left forearm. Atlanta Hawks guard Jamal Crawford doesn't have a tattoo of either Seattle's area code or its most famous landmark, but, he says almost apologetically, "I do have a mural of Seattle in my house!"
This is an article from the Feb. 22, 2010 issue
Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry, Franklin High '95, strolls in to say hello before he joins a squad of his school's alums in a game against Garfield's. He thinks he might have started the branding craze. "One day I came home from college," he says, "and I had the 206 tattooed on my chest, and everyone was like, Oh, that's cool!"
The Hood Classic, a more-or-less annual alumni tournament among three Seattle inner-city public high schools and a nearby Catholic school, O'Dea, has no agenda other than to entertain friends and neighbors. There is no prize, apart from bragging rights. But the NBA players who are alums wouldn't miss it. Rockets guard Aaron Brooks (Franklin '03), whose tattoo of a 206 overlaying the Space Needle takes up most of his left arm, flew in from an endorsement appearance in China on the second day of the event. Jet lag be damned, he drove in straight from the airport to play in the second half of the Quakers' game against O'Dea. He entered the stifling gym in a baggy black-green-and-white uniform, waved to the crowd and then made a flurry of pinpoint passes and launched a cluster of cold-blooded bombs as fans oohed and the Quakers crushed the only team in the field without a player earning an NBA paycheck. Brooks, his eyelids drooping, stuck around for the three-point shooting contest before departing to grab a nap. "I am so tired," he told a friend as he left.
Such are the sacrifices you make when you belong to the hottest fraternity in basketball: hoopsters from the Emerald City. The Seattle area has 13 players in the NBA, tied for fifth among the country's metro areas even though it's only 15th in population. Instead of wearing letter sweaters, brothers display their affiliation on their skin, on their walls, even around their ankles. "Guys wear 206 socks," says Garfield point guard Tony Wroten Jr., who was a top five recruit in the class of 2011 until he tore his right ACL in September.
Membership in the club is ecumenical: It includes players and coaches, pros and amateurs, inner-city blacks and white suburbanites, and even a few residents of area codes that neighbor the 206. There are public school kids and private school kids, towering bangers and fleet sharpshooters. Their mission? To give back to their community and to keep the city's promising young players on track to a college education and perhaps a pro career.
The Sonics may have departed for Oklahoma City, but Seattle is as flush as ever with basketball talent. In the last five drafts the area has produced eight first-rounders (chart, below). During the 2008--09 season the region had three McDonald's All-American guards: Franklin grad Peyton Siva, now at Louisville, and Abdul Gaddy (Washington) and Avery Bradley (Texas), who played together in the backcourt of Tacoma's Bellarmine Prep before Bradley left to spend his senior year at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas. Among former Rainier Beach stars, 6'1" point guard Reggie Moore is the second-leading scorer (13.6 points through Sunday) for Ken Bone (Shorecrest '76), the first-year coach at Washington State, and 6'4" shooting guard Aaron Dotson is starting for coach Trent Johnson (Franklin '74) at LSU. Coming up behind them are Wroten and his Rotary Select summer teammate Joshua Smith, a 6'10", 270-pound center from Kentwood High in Covington, who will suit up for UCLA next season (page 70).
Terry credits the boom in talent to "everyone working hard," but there are other factors, including coaches who stress fundamentals, a down-to-earth local ambience and, oddly enough, the area's geographic remoteness. "Because we're kind of tucked away, guys here aren't as tainted by the trappings of success," says Seattle University coach Cameron Dollar.
Of course, being tucked away was a big reason Seattle historically was not a national hoops hotbed. Until recently few college coaches outside the region or the Pac-10 bothered to scout the area. Occasionally Seattle players made names for themselves in the NBA, notably Steve Hawes (1974--1984) and James Edwards (1977--96), both of whom starred at Washington, and Clint Richardson (1979--87), who came out of Seattle U. But a first-round pick from Seattle was so unusual that after the St. Louis Hawks picked Seattle U's Tom Workman eighth in 1967, it took 25 years before the Sonics plucked former Rainier Beach High star Doug Christie out of Pepperdine with the No. 17 selection in 1992.
National recognition at the high school level was just as rare. In the first 30 years of the McDonald's High School All-Star Game, Washington had only three participants: Kim Stewart of Seattle's Ballard High in 1974 (when the game was called the Capital Classic), Quin Snyder of Mercer Island in 1985 and Luke Ridnour of Blaine in 2000.
But since 2004 there have been nine McDonald's All-Americans from the Seattle metro area alone, including Smith, who will play in the game this year. What happened? "There was always talent here," says Francis Williams, a former high school and AAU coach who is now a grassroots basketball marketing consultant for Adidas. "We just weren't doing a good job of getting the kids in this area the exposure they needed."
For years Seattle had just one elite summer traveling program, run by celebrated Mercer Island High coach Ed Pebble. In part because players were expected to pay their own expenses, which were close to $1,000 a summer, Seattle's inner city was only sporadically represented. That began to change in 1994 when Francis Williams started his own team with $8,000 donated by Jim Heckman, the owner of Sports Washington magazine, and gear donated by Adidas. A few years later Williams merged his squad with Sonics coach George Karl's Friends of Hoop foundation and the Rotary Boys and Girls Club program started by Dan Finkley and Daryll Hennings. When the resulting team, starring O'Dea standout Doug Wrenn, walked into a gym in Southern California to play in a spring tournament, former Black Coaches Association president Rudy Washington told Williams, "I had no idea you had that many black kids in Seattle!"
In 1999 Rotary and Friends of Hoop amicably split into separate programs. Even as other traveling teams have cropped up—Williams estimates that there are 20 to 30 of them in the area—Rotary and Friends of Hoop, both now sponsored by Nike, continue to showcase the best talent. The coaches, Hennings at Rotary and Jim Marsh at Friends of Hoop, maintain a harmony with each other and with area high school coaches that is inconceivable in some other places. Aside from organizing schedules with high school coaches to avoid conflicts, Hennings and Marsh have agreed not to recruit each other's players, though moves do happen. A few years ago Dotson moved from Rotary to Friends of Hoop, with Hennings's blessing. "Rotary had a glut of talent, and Aaron fit in so well with us that it was a perfect marriage," says Marsh. "What made it so nice is that Darryl was as excited as I was for Aaron's success."
At one of Rotary's standing-room-only games in Las Vegas in July, Nate Robinson found a spot to watch along the baseline, where he stretched out so close to the action that a referee had to shoo him back a few steps. After a particularly thunderous dunk by Joshua Smith, Robinson jumped up and bumped chests with him. "That's the kind of thing kids in Seattle are growing up around," says Washington State's Bone. "Nate is right there, he's accessible, he loves those kids. When I ran into him later, the first thing he asked was, 'How's my guy Reggie Moore? Have him give me a call.' What NBA guy does that?"
Mentoring seems to be in the Seattle pros' DNA: Many of them assist players coming up, just as people once helped them. Their guidance, which can range from quick text messages to significant investments of time, is often inspired by school affiliation. Kentwood High's Smith is a laid-back soul who resists playing pickup because "the guys are too scrappy," but he jumps when Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey, a Kentwood grad, calls him to go work out. "The older guys see themselves in us," says Smith. "They want us all to make it."
When then Sonics guard Gary Payton showed up at one of Terry's high school games, it made an impression on the younger player. "When a guy who you look up to is watching you and later says, 'Great game,' how does that make you feel?" says Terry. "I remember that feeling, and I wanted to give that to Nate, Jamal and the others."
So when Robinson was a star guard at Rainier Beach, Terry once gave him an NBA ball and continued to encourage him. After Robinson was drafted in 2005, Terry bought him five new suits. In turn Robinson (and Crawford, who was also with the Knicks at the time) provided Washington guard and Tacoma native Isaiah Thomas with a home-away-from-home in New York City when Thomas was attending prep school in Connecticut from 2006 to '08. Robinson also attended Louisville's games at Madison Square Garden to give Terrence Williams pep talks. Williams, in turn, nags Washington guard Venoy Overton, a junior who graduated from Franklin High, to get into the gym more often. "Whenever he sees me, he asks, 'When was the last time you worked out?'" says Overton. "If I say, 'Yesterday,' he says, 'Why not this morning?'"
Once day last summer Terry had Siva meet him at a track at 6 a.m. "The first morning he said, 'You really do this?'" recalls Terry. "He made it through the workout, and the next day he called me and said, 'Let's do it again!'" The next week Terry invited Siva to Dallas to work out with him. Was it any surprise that Louisville coach Rick Pitino declared Siva his best-prepared freshman at the beginning of this season?
Siva, in turn, has shepherded a flock of Seattle high school underclassmen, including promising sophomore guard Rio Adams of Franklin High. "I call them my little brothers," says Siva, who has a tattoo of 206 over the Space Needle on his left arm (page 66). "I take them to work out with me or to eat. I take them to their games. It's a sense of responsibility and brotherhood we have around here."
Terry doubts that other cities' hoops communities are so familial. "A lot of guys in the NBA are so competitive [that] they think, I don't want this guy from my town to be better than me," he says. "But [we do, and] that's the reason we come back and give back. We know we're not going to be able to dribble forever. Somebody has to carry on the legacy."
Says Garfield coach Ed Haskins, "It's an incredible thing to watch. Brandon Roy, Jamal, [former Garfield and UW guard] Will Conroy, even Spencer Hawes, who came from Seattle Prep—all those guys at one time or another have said, 'If you need anything from me to help him out, let me know.'"
One heir apparent to their legacy is Wroten, who is experiencing a pressure none of the current pros ever knew: He has been hyped as the next big thing since his freshman year at Garfield, when he was rated the top player in the nation in his class. A sculpted 6'5" point guard, Wroten has an enviable athletic pedigree: His dad, Tony Wroten Sr., was a tight end at Washington in the early '80s, while his mom, Shirley Walker Wroten, ran track for the Huskies and later at Arizona State. An aunt, Joyce Walker, was a two-time All-America guard at LSU before becoming one of the first female Harlem Globetrotters. And Nate Robinson is his second cousin.
Aside from superb athleticism, the thing that most distinguishes Wroten, says Haskins, is that "he sees things like professional players see them." Little wonder: Wroten has been playing with pros since he was 10. Hennings recalls a day a few years back when Wroten, then in eighth grade, was playing one-on-one against Roy at a gym on Washington's campus. "They must have played seven games, and Tony was mad because he couldn't beat Brandon," says Hennings. "He didn't care that he was going against a lottery pick."
Wroten hurt his knee playing receiver in his first football game for Garfield in September, and the surgery and subsequent rehab have kept him off the court this season. Once he gets healthy, the parade of big brothers such as Roy, Crawford and Conroy will show up at his house to take him to work out. "Sometimes they don't even tell me they're coming," says Wroten. "It's just, Let's go."
Anyone in Seattle's basketball circle will tell you the community has been lucky—in the humble, hardworking character of the guys who have reached the top ranks of the sport and set an example for younger players, and in the quality of the area's coaches, many of whom grew up together and share a hard-nosed, team-first philosophy. Even the region's long history of being overlooked is an advantage. "Maybe coaches around the country know about Seattle's talent, but players don't," says Aaron Bright, a senior point guard at Bellevue High who has signed with Stanford. "When they see FRIENDS OF HOOP SEATTLE on our jerseys, it doesn't exactly strike fear in their hearts. 'Seattle?'" He wrinkles his nose as he mimics the doubters. "I'm sure we'd get more respect if we said we were from Texas," he continues. "It makes us want to prove something."
Haskins says that playing with a chip on your shoulder is a fundamental skill in Seattle. "We teach our kids that," he says. "When you get on the court, you do have something to prove. Especially when you're playing kids from other areas. [Seattle is] not yet seen as a Chicago or a New York or an L.A., a basketball powerhouse. But we all feel like we can take the best 10 from Seattle and beat anybody in the country."
Players are also encouraged to let their results, not their style, speak for them. In a town where Gore-Tex and fleece pass for fashion statements, bling isn't just uncool, it's folly. "It would just get covered up with a sweater or a raincoat," says former Garfield coach Wayne Floyd with a laugh.
Nobody sees much need for posses, either. "You always see a lot of people around guys like LeBron, but these dudes here act like normal people," says Thomas, a former Friends of Hoop player who sports a tattoo of Tacoma's area code, 253. "They have money, but you see them around, they're friendly. They aren't surrounded by people or wearing a lot of jewelry. They're low-key. That's what the Seattle vibe is."
Here's low-key: When Brooks graduated from Oregon in 2007, he held his graduation party in the '50s-era gym of the Rotary Boys and Girls Club in Seattle's Central District, where he grew up. He still shows up at the club when he's in town. "He'll go in there, get a snack, go up to the computer lab," says Hennings. "You'd think he was one of the kids. These guys let the kids know that they are regular people and that what they've accomplished is attainable, if the kids do the right things."
Crawford spent just over $100,000 renovating the gym at Rainier Beach High four years ago, and he has taken over sponsorship of the pro-am league that Doug Christie started several years back. He also hosts a citywide July Fourth barbecue, holds an annual kids' basketball camp and raises money through his foundation to fund the salaries of 10 public school athletic trainers. He also bought defibrillators for each of the 10 area high schools. As if that weren't enough, this year Crawford hosted a back-to-school hoops clinic, a free event that included basketball instruction and backpacks full of school supplies for hundreds of kids. "This is what I feel like I'm supposed to do, give back to the community I came from," says Crawford. "I love doing it."
Roy has started a foundation to provide disadvantaged kids with academic tutoring and access to affordable athletic training and facilities. But he also does a lot of what Floyd, his former coach, calls "small things with a gigantic impact," such as calling a player to offer encouragement. "These aren't the million-dollar-check stories," says Haskins, "but if you want to know the secret to Seattle's success in basketball, that's it."
Giving back takes many forms. Marsh, who played for USC in the '60s and then, briefly, for the nascent Portland Trail Blazers, worked as an assistant coach at Utah for seven years before being hired as a Sonics TV commentator in 1981. An executive for Costco, Marsh runs a company program called Washington State Mentors, and he volunteers as the coach of Friends of Hoop. What does he get out of it? "The relationships I have with players blow me away," he says.
In 2004, when he had what was probably his best team—it included future NBA draft picks Hawes, Martell Webster and Jon Brockman as well as future McDonald's All-American Micah Downs and Stanford-bound Mitch Johnson, as well as Isaiah Thomas—Marsh learned he had Parkinson's disease. Once he told the team, he says, "Martell wouldn't let me pick up a bag again."
As Marsh tells this story, his eyes fill. "Maybe it's the medication I take," he says, "but sometimes I get a bit snivelly." A week earlier his latest team had played its final game of the season, a loss, in a tournament in Phoenix. Afterward the team went to a Sonic drive-in for dinner, and the players sang Auld Lang Syne. Then Bright said, "Coach, we have something for you." It was a thank-you card, signed by all the players and their parents.
"That, to me, was manna from heaven," says Marsh. It was, in other words, just a small thing with a gigantic impact.
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THE NEXT LEVEL
Puget Sound has become the NBA's Northwest pipeline. Though only 15th in population among U.S. metro areas, Seattle and its environs have produced the fifth-most NBA draft picks since 1999, with 12 players selected in the first round and four second-rounders. All but one of the first-rounders—Eastlake High's Curtis Borchardt, who spent three seasons with the Utah Jazz and now plays for a pro team in France—are still in the league.
HIGH SCHOOL Franklin
DRAFTED BY Dallas, 1999 (10th pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Rainier Beach
DRAFTED BY Cleveland, 2000 (8th pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Eastlake
DRAFTED BY Orlando, 2002 (18th pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Blaine
DRAFTED BY Seattle, 2003 (14th pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Bremerton
COLLEGE North Carolina
DRAFTED BY Atlanta, 2005 (2nd pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Seattle Prep
DRAFTED BY Portland, 2005 (6th pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Rainier Beach
DRAFTED BY New York, 2005 (21st pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Garfield
DRAFTED BY Portland, 2006 (6th pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Kentwood
COLLEGE Eastern Washington
DRAFTED BY Detroit, 2007 (15th pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Franklin
DRAFTED BY Houston, 2007 (26th pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Seattle Prep
DRAFTED BY Sacramento, 2007 (10th pick)
HIGH SCHOOL Rainier Beach
DRAFTED BY New Jersey, 2009 (11th pick)
Avery Bradley, Texas
HIGH SCHOOL Franklin/Findlay Prep (Nev.)
Reggie Moore, Washington State
HIGH SCHOOL Rainier Beach
Aaron Dotson, LSU
HIGH SCHOOL Rainier Beach
Venoy Overton, Washington
HIGH SCHOOL Franklin
With several top prospects moving up the school ranks, Seattle is poised to remain a hoops hotbed
Joshua Smith and Tony Wroten Jr. (above, left to right) aren't the only reasons college recruiters are keeping their eyes on the Emerald City. Gary Bell Jr., a 6'2" junior point guard at Kentridge High in Kent, is a top 75 Rivals.com recruit who "won't wow you with athleticism, but works hard and does everything well," says Daryll Hennings, Bell's coach at Seattle Rotary. So far Bell has offers from Gonzaga and a half-dozen Pac-10 schools. Like Wroten, Brett Kingma, a sharpshooting 6'2" junior at Jackson High in Mill Creek who has several D-I offers, has impressive bloodlines: His mom, Gail Volk Kingma, was a top U.S. marathoner, and his dad, Gregg, was a star guard at Seattle Pacific in the early '80s. His older sister, Kristi, is a starting guard at UW. "Brett can stick it from all over the court," says Friends of Hoop coach Jim Marsh.
The class of 2012 includes the long-limbed Rio Adams, a 6'2" guard who scored 41 points in a win over Nathan Hale High on Feb. 9, and Darien Nelson-Henry, a 6'8" center at Lake Washington High and one of the few highly touted post players in the area. "Darien doesn't realize how much he could dominate if he flexed his muscle a little bit more," says Hennings.
Also on the horizon is D.J. Fenner, a son of former NFL running back Derrick Fenner. An exceptionally quick and strong 6'5" freshman guard, Fenner leads Seattle Prep with 18 points a game.
But no area player has created as much buzz as 14-year-old Allonzo Trier, a 5'8" seventh-grader from Federal Way whom recruiting guru Clark Francis has anointed the best prospect in the class of 2015. Trier, who was the subject of a New York Times Magazine cover story last March, is obsessive about practice, making 450 shots each day. "He's the hardest worker I've ever seen, and he shoots the ball like no other kid in his age group," says Hennings, Trier's former summer coach.