East Northport's Luke Petrasek of Columbia has basketball in his blood
Family members who watched Luke Petrasek grow up in East Northport always marveled at the similarities. Every time they looked at him, they were reminded of his late grandfather, former Knicks and Celtics center Connie Simmons: the lanky features, the quiet demeanor, the wry sense of humor.
He lately has developed another likeness: Petrasek can play some hoops, too.
He immersed himself in basketball before his senior year at Northport High School and led his team to the 2013 Suffolk Class AA title with 30 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in the county championship game. Then he helped Northport win the Long Island title with 14 points.
This season the freshman instantly played his way into the Columbia University starting lineup -- and made a YouTube-worthy slam in his first game.
"Oh my goodness, he really is a spitting image," said Honore Petrasek, Luke's mother and one of Simmons' seven kids. "My father always talked about team play. He would be so happy to see Luke on Columbia because they really, really play team basketball. I'm proud, and I know my dad would be, too."
Most of the Simmons clan was present Saturday, watching the 6-10 young man contribute 12 points, five rebounds, a team-high four assists and a block in 31 minutes of a 65-59 loss to St. John's at Barclays Center in the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival. "It has kind of hit me all at once: I was just in high school and now I'm starting in Division I," Petrasek said.
Not everyone could foresee him playing nearly 23 minutes a game and averaging 8.6 points and 3.4 rebounds entering Saturday's game. He was named Ivy League rookie of the week Monday after scoring a career-high 20 points and blocking three shots in an 82-59 win over Fairleigh Dickinson on Dec. 21.
Petrasek was not highly recruited. Columbia coach Kyle Smith received an email with a video link of Petrasek playing in high school.
"We get about 10 of those a day. But here was someone 6-10, on Long Island. I said, 'We better get in on this deal,' " Smith said. "I saw a stringbean who was very skilled and had a good understanding of how to play the game, which we really value. We feel like we can make him stronger and tougher over time."
Petrasek said he liked what Columbia offered academically and liked that the Lions' coaching staff measures players with "hustle stats" after every practice. "Luke sold us more than we sold him," Smith said. "He loves basketball and likes being known as a basketball player."
He comes by that naturally, as did his female cousin, Connie Simmons, who was named after her grandfather and starred for Syosset High School and Dowling. But Petrasek is like their grandfather in that he is something of a late bloomer.
Family members say the patriarch, who died in 1989, merely had driven his brother John to Celtics training camp -- but was so impressive in a pickup game that the team signed him. As a rookie in 1946-47, he led the Celtics in scoring with 10.3 points per game. Later, with the Baltimore Bullets, he won a title in what then was called the Basketball Association of America.
Smith heard of the lineage when he was recruiting Petrasek. "You know," he said, "that's never going to hurt."
Petrasek's mother said of her son, "He could dribble with either hand when he was 3. Everyone just expected that he would play."
While the game was in his blood, it wasn't foremost on his mind until the summer before his senior year of high school. "I guess I just fell in love with it," he said.
"He follows my father's advice," Honore said. "Just use God's gifts and you'll be OK."