At LuHi, boys and girls basketball is exercise in excellence
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Chris Atkinson settles into a desk in a basement classroom of Long Island Lutheran High School and pays close attention. Most after-school activities have been cancelled because of snow and slick conditions, but not basketball practice. When the PA announces the time and location, he pumps his fist in celebration.
"Yes!," he says, a smile expanding across his features. "We get the big gym."
It stands to reason that the boys basketball team, with its pedigree and seven federation titles, wouldn't have to vie for gym space. But this isn't like all the other schools. Where Atkinson plays, the competition is in-house.
In 2011, LuHi became only the second school to have both its boys and girls basketball teams win the New York State Federation title in the same season. Point guard Achraf Yacoubou, now at St. Louis University, was named the Gatorade player of the year then. Last season, forward Kentan Facey, now playing at the University of Connecticut, won the same honor.
This year, all five starters on the girls team are Division I scholarship players, coach Rich Slater said. They're the most recent federation winners, having claimed a title last season behind megawatt Michigan-bound guard Boogie Brozoski -- a potential WNBA player if there ever was one.
The boys squad has one returning starter in Atkinson, and is still considered a favorite for best team in the state.
But that's what it means to be Long Island Lutheran -- the tiny private school nestled among the hills and mansions of Brookville that has slowly managed to become one of the biggest powerhouses in the state.
Enrollment for grades 9 through 12 is a little over 400, but LuHi, with its college-style basketball program and indefatigable coaching staff, both nutures homegrown talent and attracts the attention of the ambitious and able.
This season the boys team boasts transfers in Devonte Green (little brother to the San Antonio Spurs' Danny Green), Robyn Missa, a 6-9 center from Germany, and Marvin Prochet, who hails from the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn.
The athletes who make the move like the atmosphere and the success, boys coach John Buck said, but also the value system. It's not for everyone -- not even necessarily for the best.
"The values are discipline and hard work and preparation," Buck said. "But I make it pretty clear to them that this is a place where you're going to be playing with a lot of talented players. Scoring is usually balanced.
"That in itself has probably led to some players not wanting to come here over the years," he said. "It's the team-oriented guys that have wanted to join our program. They're like, OK, this is not the best opportunity for me to score 30 a game. This is the best opportunity for me to have a great shot at a state championship and get prepared to play college basketball."
To wit, practice is six days a week. There's weight room training, film review and a heavy emphasis on keeping in line behaviorally and academically. Slater, a chiropractor by trade, recently sent one of his assistant coaches on a 10-hour round trip to Maryland to scout another team, and is usually up by 4 a.m. on basketball-related business. Buck, a math teacher, rarely goes to bed before 12:30 a.m. and is in class by 7:30 the next morning.
That dedication means that athletes like Brozoski and Atkinson, both junior point guards and faces of their respective programs, have matured quicker than their peers.
Brozoski, seasoned and poised, shakes her head and smiles wryly when she mentions the questionable and sometimes scholarship-threatening material some student-athletes post on Twitter these days. That would never fly on Slater's team, she says.
"It's a lot of pressure because you have to conduct yourself in a good way and you have to control yourself," she said. "Younger kids look up to me and it's great."
Added Atkinson: "Boogie's the leader and I'm the leader. We have to be the coach on the floor and it's a lot of pressure, but we're the point guards and what I do, the team does . . . so I have to be sure I'm doing the right thing."
Appropriately, after practice on the day of that snow storm, both the boys and girls teams headed to a Salvation Army in East Northport to help out in a toy drive that will benefit over 300 needy families. They do that type of thing a lot, Atkinson said. It's by design, Slater added.
"We ask them to represent the school on and off the court," Slater said. "I don't know about the pressure, but they should welcome it . . . The kids that come here want to be challenged and I think that what we offer here a lot of public schools and other schools can't in terms of scheduling and support from the administration. They're committed and they understand that they have to work hard and they can't turn it on and off when they want. The schedule we're playing wouldn't allow it."
Atkinson, soft-spoken and cordial, is one of the shiny examples of someone stepping up, and said the program has had transformative powers.
Once reticent to step on toes, the self-described "pass-first point guard" has committed himself to being a vocal leader. His grade point average has skyrocketed since his freshman year, he said, and he takes on the challenge that comes with handling a slew of transfers with eager aplomb.
"It's a fight," Atkinson said. "You have to practice to get better. You have to practice to see who has to start, and for me, I had to practice to get more vocal."
"And like now, I'm going to yell at you."