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Andre Curbelo leads a loaded LI Lutheran boys basketball team in quest for Federation repeat

Long Island Lutheran's Andre Curbelo

Long Island Lutheran's Andre Curbelo  Credit: HANS PENNINK/Hans Pennink

Andre Curbelo went from tears of despair to tears of joy in just three years at Long Island Lutheran. He is planning on more of the latter in this, his fourth and final boys basketball season with the Crusaders.

The despair he left behind as a freshman can wait a moment in a look at what’s transpired over just this past year for the 6-1 point guard.

His play turned him into one of the most-recruited floor generals in the country during last season. He capped it by piloting LuHi to a 25-2 finish that concluded with capturing the state Federation Class AA championship. After averaging 16.1 points, six rebounds, seven assists and four steals — and shooting 43 percent on three-point attempts — he was tabbed Newsday’s Long Island Player of the Year. Last month he signed with Illinois.

The streak of good fortune and accomplishment has an excellent chance of continuing as LuHi coach John Buck called this season’s version of the Crusaders “an incredible collection of talent and experience — with six returning players — and it could end up being our best.”

Curbelo certainly goes into the season a favorite to repeat as Player of the Year, but could find his greatest competition for the award among his teammates. Joining him in the starting lineup will be 6-8 senior forward Zed Key, who averaged 11.3 points and six rebounds and has signed to play at Ohio State, and 6-7 senior swingman Jalen Celestine, who averaged 10.2 points and 3.5 rebounds and has signed with Cal. A new Crusader with a high ceiling is 6-8 junior Kacper Klaczek from Poland.

LuHi always plays a national schedule and Buck considers this year’s among the toughest he has assembled. It includes tournaments in Hawaii, South Carolina and Florida and area games against Chaminade, St. Raymond’s of the Bronx and Thomas Jefferson of Brooklyn. In early February the Crusaders have a game in New Jersey against California’s Sierra Canyon, which features LeBron James’ son, Bronny, and Dwyane Wade’s son, Zaire.

“It was unreal to me last year with traveling to all these places to play games,” said Key, a Bay Shore native who transferred from Brentwood before last season. “I wanted to be ready for college basketball — the routine, the speed, the competition — and we have that.”

Growing up in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, Curbelo enjoyed many sports, but was exceptional at basketball. His father, Joel Curbelo, played professionally in Puerto Rico for more than a decade and was on its 1996 Olympic team so it was no surprise he took to the game. He and his family realized the potential for it to open doors for him and sought to put him in a high school in one of the states.

“A lot of the kids in my position went to high schools in Florida, but I wanted something different,” Curbelo said. “I didn’t want to play with all kids I knew from Puerto Rico and I wanted to play a different style of basketball.”

A family friend suggested Long Island Lutheran, Curbelo liked what he saw on a visit and the decision was made. His one big apprehension was that he spoke little to no English and that fear proved out quickly. Things spiraled downward fast.

“Freshman year was especially hard, being in a new culture and not being able to communicate and trying to take classes in English. I didn’t even talk for the first few weeks,” Curbelo said. “At one point nothing was going right. I was failing the three main — math, English and science — and basketball wasn’t going well either. I cried all the time. I felt like a nobody, like I was no good, like I couldn’t make it here.”

There was, however, encouragement from classmates and family; tutoring to improve grades; and his deep belief that if he could get through the hard times, it would be worth it. “People didn’t give up on me so I didn’t give up on myself,” he said.

His immersion in the American culture over his first two years at LuHi began to change things. “I just kept up with tutoring and asking for extra work to improve my grades,” he explained. “The more I was around people speaking English, the better I got at it. . . . Today everything in my mind happens in English.”

And as he grew comfortable, the tumblers fell into place to unlock his talents. Buck marvels at the player Curbelo has become.

“His instincts for so many aspects of the game are so far advanced from so many of his peers,” Buck said. “He’s the best rebounding guard I’ve ever coached. He’s a standout using ball screens. His athleticism allows him to get into gaps that you wouldn’t think a player could get to. And defensively he picks up steals that I wouldn’t teach other players to do because they wouldn’t be able. . . . Most people don’t have the anticipation or athletic ability to make them — it would look like they were gambling — but he can do that. And it all comes from him, not coaching.”

The tears of despair are now just a memory for Curbelo. What three years ago felt like his biggest mistake, instead turns out to be his biggest blessing.

“I was a lazy kid and didn’t really want to work on my game until I came here,” he said. “This place changed my life, changed me. When I go back home now, I am in the weight room and on the court every day no matter what. This place has done a lot for me.”

Newsday’s Top 10 teams

1.Long Island Lutheran

2.Brentwood

3.Holy Trinity

4.Center Moriches

5.Amityville

6.Portledge

7.Uniondale

8.Chaminade

9.Elmont

10.Deer Park

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