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The Eulogy of Pittsburgh's Schenley Spartans

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Author Mark Hostutler details the 2006-07 Spartans championship season, which featured three future professionals, and puts into perspective Schenley's achievements in an era of transfers.

Read this free excerpt from "The Eulogy of Pittsburgh's Schenley Spartans."

I. The Rat Race
During the 21st century, high school basketball—specifically in and around America’s urban settings—has devolved into an arms race akin to what has been transpiring on the college level for decades. The rat race of Division I hoops has turned coaches into caricatures of used-car salesmen, equipped with all the unsavory recruiting tactics that reinforce every negative stereotype associated with the profession.

And since we all know what flows downhill, the scholastic ranks, supposedly the last bastion of amateurism and integrity, have gradually become the bastardized offspring of college basketball.

Charter schools and prep schools, private schools and cyber schools. These alternative approaches to education, while valuable in their own unique ways, have torn at the fabric of high school sports, especially basketball. The game’s five-on-five nature enables programs to quickly build something out of nothing, since it only takes a handful of great players for a team to become championship-worthy.

As a result, the nation’s best prospects are poached and rarely represent the communities that nurtured their development. Before high school games are even contested on the floor, they are done so in a high-stakes marketplace where teenagers, some not far removed from puberty, are lured away from their neighborhoods through the promise of a better future. That’s how the likes of Rod Strickland, Ron Mercer, Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, and Brandon Jennings—natives of New York, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, and California, respectively—flock to Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, hundreds of miles from home. If not for basketball, no one outside the region would even know that Oak Hill Academy—a 150-student boarding school in the Appalachian Mountains, near the North Carolina border—even exists. However, the powerhouse program, which also counts Carmelo Anthony and Jerry Stackhouse among its graduates, is nationally renowned, having finished No. 1 or 2 in the USA Today scholastic rankings 14 times since 1990.

Findlay Prep, a high school basketball team without a high school, is another hoops factory, and one that isn’t shy about its mission. The team’s dozen players are Findlay Prep’s only students, and they take classes at a separate private school across the street from their five-bedroom, four-bathrAmerican Christian Tyreke Evansoom house in Henderson, Nevada.

In Southeastern Pennsylvania, the tiny American Christian School in Aston Township opened its doors to high school students in the early 1990s, and it remained relatively unknown even to county residents until a fledgling star decided to enroll. And when he left, the school ceased to exist. Tyreke Evans—from Chester, the hoops-obsessed city that borders Aston—attended American Christian so he could begin his high school career in seventh grade. By his 11th-grade year, Reebok had won a bidding war to outfit his team, which resembled more of an AAU club than a scholastic one, as it barnstormed the country. They played almost 40 games, some of which were the college length of 40 minutes. Amidst criticism that the school, which operated out of a Baptist church and adjacent trailers, was a diploma mill and a vehicle for Evans, it survived not even one week without him. American Christian closed up shop days after Evans departed for the University of Memphis to embark on a journey that saw him become the 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year.

This, of course, shouldn’t be too much of an issue for people who hold the nostalgic view of scholastic sports being my town versus your town. Oak Hill, Findlay, and American Christian, after all, are or were independent of the Virginia High School League, Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association, and Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. Therefore, they cannot or could not prevent public schools, which are subjected to a different set of rules, from bagging state titles. Furthermore, it’s acceptable when a kid finds a school that can facilitate his growth better than the one in his zip code.

It becomes problematic, however, when programs of their ilk are permitted to vie for state supremacy alongside John Q. Public High School. For example, the PIAA, the Keystone State’s governing body of high school sports, allows almost every high school in the commonwealth’s 46,000 square miles to contend for state-championship hardware. That includes charter schools comprised of students who spend more time in commute than in class, and Catholic schools that suit up ringers who won’t be found in the communion line on Sundays.

Consider the charter school movement in Philadelphia that has completely altered the PIAA terrain. The school district’s perennially dire financial straits—coupled with its label as a failure, according to the criteria of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001—have ushered in an era of not only educational but athletic upheaval. (Charter schools have been draining resources from the cash-strapped city for so long that the 2013-2014 school year began with a $304 million deficit that forced the distribution of more than 4,000 pink slips to teachers, principals, and other support staff.)

Philadelphia’s tidal wave of change on the hardwood began to swell during the winter of 2001-02, when the Prep Charter basketball team became the first of a staggering number of charter schools that now compete on the varsity level. That season, the Huskies, as expected, were punching bags with a 3-16 record and suffered a pair of losses, 66-16 and 109-60. Four years later, Prep Charter, aided by the interior presence of twin forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris, earned the first of back-to-back state championships (Class 2A) with a 31-point blowout in the title game. The current members of the Phoenix Suns had engineered quite a turnaround for a school that was converted from a vacant supermarket.

All of these factors make what the Schenley High School basketball team achieved on the other side of the commonwealth during the 2006-07 season even more extraordinary. The players grew up within a stone’s throw of one another in the same hard-knock neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and had known each other since their first days dribbling a ball.

VII. The Anatomy of a Contender
With only one senior in their rotation, Schenley High School had a foundation of youth that had originally been laid when the boys were seven and eight years old and first getting to know one another in The Hill. At 6-6 and almost 250 pounds as a junior, DeJuan Blair was the fulcrum of an offense that punished on the inside and ran with the horsepower of a stock car on the outside. Regardless of whether it was in high school, college, or the pros, Blair has always played bigger thaSchenley DeJuan Blairn his height would allow, courtesy of broad shoulders, a sevenfoot wingspan, and outlandish strength that opens up paths to the bucket.

Blair’s current prowess on the highest level of basketball is remarkable, considering how he tore the ACL in each of his knees as a freshman and sophomore at Schenley and was sidelined for 16 months.

“I can still see DeJuan as a ninth-grader, hopping around the gym on one foot, trying to show everyone that he could still dunk,” Schenley head coach Fred Skrocki said. “His knee eventually healed, but the next year [in the state quarterfinals], he hurt the other one. For him to come back the way he did as a junior, it was just incredible.”

DeJuan and his other siblings gather their inspiration from DeMond, their brother who died when he rolled off the bed at three months old. And they got their game from their parents, Greg and Shari Blair. Greg, a teammate of Darrick Suber, graduated from Schenley in 1991 and played for Skrocki, while the former Shari Saddler averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds a contest at Serra Catholic in nearby McKeesport.

“I was never a troublemaker, but I don’t know where my life would be without basketball,” he said. “I’m glad my mom and dad put one in my hands.”

As a youngster, DeJuan was a fixture at the Ammon Recreation Center and at Kennard Park in The Hill, just like his future Schenley teammates were. It’s where they cut their teeth and inherited the swagger of their predecessors who never gave them any credit and swore they would never be as good.

As a 6-5 junior, D.J. Kennedy was a crafty southpaw, as resourceful as MacGyver, and a triple-double threat in every game he played. His father, David Kennedy Sr., won a PIAA title alongside NFL lineman Sam Clancy at Fifth Avenue High School, which shuttered in 1976.

An accomplished quarterback, the elder Kennedy concentrated on hoops in college at Cincinnati, and the Dallas Mavericks took a flier on him in the eighth round of the 1981 draft, although he never made the league.

“I had a lot of motivation early on to live up to my father’s name,” said D.J., who lived with his mother growing up. “I was always hearing from older dudes about how great of an athlete he was, but he didn’t push me. He gave me space to choose my own way.

“I looked up more to my brother [Derrick Holliday]. He was four years older than me, and didn’t make the best decisions with his life. He’s always  had good intentions, but he got caught up in a lot of bad situations. Regardless, he always shielded me from the streets and did whatever he could to keep me on the right track.”

Jamaal Bryant, nicknamed “Onion” since he was a tyke when one of his youth coaches said his head looked like a bulb, stood just 5-9 and weighed 140 pounds as a junior. An artist at the point, he used the floor as his canvas and mesmerized crowds with fancy ballhandling and no-look passing. The mercurial playmaker saw the floor as clearly as anyone in Western Pennsylvania back then and could toss alley-oops to Blair and Kennedy in his sleep.

“My role?” Bryant asked. “To do whatever it took to win. I had to win, needed to win. I couldn’t stand losing. It was like coming face to face with death. I used to cry for hours after a loss.”

As a sophomore at Schenley, DeAndre Kane tried to use every minute of the 2005-06 season to make up for lost time. Kane didn’t play as a freshman, because he refused to carry the upperclassmen’s bags, perhaps foreshadowing some of the troubles he’d have later on in his career.

“DeAndre had the mentality that he didn’t have to listen,” said Bryant. “He was definitely uncoachable at first.”

The enigmatic Kane blossomed into a 6-4 point guard at the next level. But as a 10th-grader, he was a few inches shorter, playing off the ball, and carving out his niche on the team, all while trying to not get swallowed up by the streets.Schenley DeAndre Kane

Like Kennedy, Kane had championship blood coursing through his veins, as his father Calvin had steered the Spartans to their last state crown 28 long winters ago.

“Life was difficult in The Hill,” Kane said. “Everywhere you looked, there were cautionary tales, examples of someone who could’ve been the one to make it big, but the streets took over. It would’ve been easy for me or any of my Schenley teammates to get stuck in that life and end up dead or in jail like so many others.

“Growing up, we were stupid, young and stupid. We’d go to parties wearing red bandanas, thinking we were gangbangers. With all the stuff I saw and what people were into, I’m fortunate to still be here.”

Kane had a girlfriend and another friend who were murdered in separate incidents during his youth. The former was killed in a drive-by shooting, and Kane made it to the scene in time to see paramedics covering up her body. The latter died when he and Kane were at a party, and tempers began to flare. They left the house just before shots rang out, and were running toward their car when Kane’s friend caught a bullet in the head.

Kane was and remains best friends with the last piece to Schenley’s puzzle.

At 6-2, Greg Blair Jr., another sophomore, never sprouted like DeJuan, but his appetite for physicality may have exceeded his brother’s.

“I was the guy who gave us the spark,” Greg said. “When we needed a hard foul, I was the one to do it. And I loved that role.

“I always played basketball in DeJuan’s shadow, but having him there was a blessing, because it took the pressure off me.”

Schenley’s offense fired on all cylinders when DeJuan was drop-stepping through traffic, Kennedy was gliding to the rim from seemingly impossible angles, Onion was slicing up his defenders with his crossover, Kane was bombing from distance, and Greg was whooping it up and bullying the opposition.

Hostutler's book makes a great Christmas gift for any Pittsburgh sports fan, or any basketball fan period. Order the complete book from Booklocker.com: http://www.booklocker.com/p/books/7808.html?s=pdf

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