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For Lewis, it's all about the promise

St. Mary's Chavaughn Lewis (40) attempts a shot

St. Mary's Chavaughn Lewis (40) attempts a shot as Will Regan of Nichols H.S. (Buffalo, N.Y.) goes for the block during the CHSAA state tournament at Adelphi. (Mar. 6, 2010) Credit: Frank Koester

There are countless ways to start Chavaughn Lewis' story - little threads of life that pay tribute to his athletic attributes, his basketball smarts, or that indescribable spark of something special that shows up every time there's a basketball in his hands.

He grew up playing ball in Queens, he went to St. Mary's High School in Manhasset to hone that skill, and he plans to do it for a very long time. But the beginning of this story, the one about how Lewis became one of the premier names in the Long Island game, led his team to a CHSAA championship and made recruiters stand up and take notice, has nothing to do with basketball.

It starts with a promise.

"Before my father died, I promised," he said. "I wouldn't make my mom pay for college."

Lewis stands by that promise with the vigor of someone who doesn't back down from a challenge. He doesn't like talking about his father's death, saying only that he died of "complications" two years ago and not elaborating. His name was Edgar, Lewis said, and he raised him in the time-honored tradition of boys playing sports with their fathers. His mother, Pansy, a former track athlete, attends all of his games.

"I don't let it affect me too much," Lewis, a senior, said. "I know what my father wanted me to do. He pushed me more toward tennis than basketball, but he supported me through all those years of basketball."

Now at 6-5 (closing in on 6-6) and in possession of an almost uncanny knack for getting to the basket or knocking down a jumper from three-point range, it was no wonder that basketball was the sport that stuck. He clearly is passionate about his game despite appearances. Sitting in a St. Mary's classroom clad in the school uniform of dockers, a white button-down and Burberry-style tie, he is soft-spoken, thoughtful and at times reticent, but is insistent when it comes to challenging himself at the very highest level.

"His upside is as high as he wants to take it," St. Mary's coach Bill Harkins said. "He listens. He may not agree with everything you tell him as a coach, but he's a good listener and . . . he picks up any imperfections that you're talking about."

He's all but unstoppable driving to the basket and is one of the team's best rebounders. When he was asked to work on his perimeter game, he did. Though he's had minutes running the point, Lewis now functions primarily as a two-guard, and also has become a threat from behind the arc. He's their big guard, but he blocks and rebounds like a post player. He is St. Mary's jack of all trades, master of most. The numbers support the theory: Lewis is averaging 24.8 points, eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks.

It hasn't been against soft competition, either. Though he preaches "one game at a time," Harkins makes no qualms about the Gaels' goals. He wants a state title this year and his non-league schedule is specifically suited to making his boys sweat: Long Island Lutheran, Xavarian, Wadleigh and others.

Lewis has done his part. He was named MVP of the Big Apple Basketball Challenge in December and is courting interest from Stony Brook, Hofstra, Canisius and a handful of other schools. His clutch 20-point display in a victory against Long Island Lutheran and Achraf Yacoubou on Thursday showed he can play against the best. "He has intestinal fortitude," Harkins said.

"He has 24 points per game against competition," he said. "That speaks volumes about the type of player he is. He is very talented and D-I calls are coming more and more now."

There are other things that speak volumes about the type of player he is. There's the muscle he built up over the summer, the way he's upped his defensive game, and the three days a week he spends getting to know the St. Mary's shooting machine. He'll take as many as 200 shots a session - enough to make your arms burn and your vision blur.

Lewis shrugs it off. Yes, it can get monotonous at times, but anything worth anything is worth fighting for, he said.

"I have high expectations for myself," he said. "To show your colors, you have to go up against the best."

He also has a need to push himself. That's the reason he's not at Christ the King or Holy Cross, though they boast historic programs and are both located near his hometown. Instead, he chose the school that, two years ago, went 5-22. They're 11-0 this season and 31-8 in the past two years. Call him the anti-LeBron, high school edition.

"Holy Cross and Christ the King had too many players involved," he said. "I didn't think I was going to fit. I decided to come to St. Mary's to make a name for myself."

For Chavaughn Lewis, it's about the name, it's about the challenge, and it's about the promise.

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