The Greatest Game You’ve Never Seen
It’s a few minutes before tip-off on a chilly December night outside Brewster Academy’s Smith Center, a 50,000-square-foot athletic complex in New Hampshire with panoramic mountain views, but inside the athletes are heating up. Fifteen-foot jump shots fall softly through the iron, one after another, touching nothing but net. Players soar through the air like Cirque du Soleil acrobats, slamming down ferocious windmill and tomahawk dunks. Given the level of talent on the court, though, the atmosphere in the stands is remarkably dead.
There is no pep band here, nor cheerleaders, and no fans in face paint. There is no admission fee, either. For tonight’s game against New Hampton School, a rival in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) Class AAA division, the media presence consists of a single cameraman from the local public-access station and a pair of student broadcasters who stand behind the bench, their microphones plugged into an outlet in the floor. Even though the weeknight entertainment options are limited here, barely 300 students and locals walk through the front door. On a card table near the entrance to the gym, several pale hot dogs spin rhythmically in a warming machine. Friday Night Lights and the glamour of bigtime high school sports feel a world away.
Unnoticed by the modest crowd, Kansas State men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber has settled into the unforgiving wooden bleachers. Just 20 hours earlier, his Wildcats, perennially among the nation’s top teams, won their fifth game of the year. Yet here he sits, holding a smartphone in one hand and a photocopied roster sheet in the other. When asked why he flew some 1,500 miles from the heartland to scout a game in rural New England, during the middle of his own grueling season, the only man in the building with a Final Four appearance under his belt smiles. “These kids,” he says, “are awesome.”
Their names now are mostly unknown, though it’s a good bet that “these kids” will be playing in NCAA tournaments for years to come. Brewster’s first bucket comes seconds into the game when lefty David Crisp, who will suit up next season at the University of Washington, steps into a passing lane and knocks the ball free before threading a pass to guard Jalen Adams, who will attend the University of Connecticut next fall. Adams bursts up the floor and scores on a reverse lay-up. Brewster’s opponents are no slouches: New Hampton forward Tyler Lydon has elected to play at Syracuse, and his teammate, A. J. Turner, will attend Boston College. But tonight the Huskies are no match for the Bobcats. In addition to Crisp and Adams, the team is sending guard Justin Simon to the University of Arizona and guard Donovan Mitchell to the University of Louisville, both ranked in the top 10. Ten minutes into the first half, Brewster takes a double-digit lead and never looks back.
Two hours north of Boston, nestled along the eastern bank of Lake Winnipesaukee, Brewster Academy sprawls over 80 acres in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, a sleepy yet sophisticated retirement community of 6,300 that bills itself as the “oldest summer resort in America.” Just around the corner from the academy, Mitt and Ann Romney spend their summers in a six-bedroom “cabin” that rests on 11 acres and is valued at a cool $10 million. Down the road sits a 63,000-square-foot, $49 million compound built by the founder of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Jimmy Fallon proposed to his wife at her parents’ place, just across Wolfeboro Bay.
Brewster Academy, home to 357 boys and girls, has operated as an independent boarding school since 1820. Only in the past decade has it emerged as arguably the best high school basketball program in the country. Inside Brewster’s impressive gym, the evidence is scattered about. Three National Prep School Championship banners from 2010, 2012, and 2014 adorn the wall behind the Bobcats’ bench, next to the NBA jerseys of five alums, including current Portland Trailblazers teammates Thomas Robinson and Will Barton. (They’ll need more space: Three Brewster boys—Oklahoma City’s Mitch McGary, Philadelphia’s JaKarr Sampson, and Phoenix’s T. J. Warren—made their NBA debuts last fall.) A clip-art poster pinned in a hallway outside the locker room lists colleges—elite destinations such as Kansas, Michigan, Georgetown, and UCLA—that have offered scholarships to recent graduates. Since 2002, 43 Brewster grads have played basketball professionally in more than 20 countries. This year’s roster alone features seven players who are among the top 150 prospects in the country, according to Rivals.com, an authoritative rankings list—as many as the vaunted national basketball factories Oak Hill Academy, Montverde Academy, and Findlay Prep combined. Over the past seven seasons, Brewster has won more than 90 percent of its games and, through February 4, it had claimed 44 of 45 games dating back to last season, a stretch during which it knocked off traditional northeastern powers like Northfield Mount Hermon and St. Thomas More. In a region that relentlessly celebrates its athletic champions, Brewster’s basketball team is simply the greatest sports show in New England that nobody ever sees. But how on earth did an isolated little school in one of the Northeast’s toniest ZIP codes start churning out the finest high school basketball players in America?
For much of its existence, Brewster Academy was an athletically unremarkable mid-tier boarding school, competing for applicants with other prep schools such as Proctor Academy and Kimball Union Academy. The most skilled guards and forwards rarely drew interest from March Madness mainstays. Occasionally, a few of its players went on to play ball at Division III colleges such as Middlebury or Williams. The absolute best a Brewster grad could hope for—and it was almost unheard of—was to land a full ride to the Ivy or Patriot leagues, small Division I conferences and perennial blue-chip punching bags. But that was about it.
Over time, however, a few of the 172 northeastern prep schools that make up the NEPSAC regional confederation began to establish themselves as attractive outposts for rising basketball stars. The trend started around 1983, when Leo Papile, former head scout for the Boston Celtics and influential coach of the wildly successful Boston Amateur Basketball Club (alumni include Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing and current Celtic Phil Pressey), suggested that Eugene Miles—a forward from Dorchester struggling with the books—spend a postgraduate year at Brewster’s rival school, New Hampton, getting his grades up in hopes of landing a Division I scholarship. It worked. Miles received some favorable attention on the court and eventually thrived at Cleveland State, kicking off a movement that has been accelerating ever since.
Brewster administrators joined the party later than some of their peers: They didn’t make basketball a priority until the late 1990s. Internally, it’s now designated as a “leadership sport,” which means the school sets aside extra money from its operating budget and its $15 million endowment for things like travel and need-based financial aid.
The academy’s new focus came at a transformative moment in high school hoops. At about the same time that Brewster jumped into the mix, a slew of unconventional and largely unaccredited prep schools were opening across the country, catering mainly to basketball players. These “diploma mills” were often marketed similarly to NEPSAC schools, but in reality their sole function was to qualify gifted players with poor grades and college boards for scholarships by any means necessary. And universities, desperate for talented players no matter their academic standing, were happy to look the other way. Instead of an ivy-covered brick façade, these so-called prep schools were housed in community centers and churches. Lessons were remedial at best. At Eldon Academy, in Michigan, and Lutheran Christian Academy, in Philadelphia, for instance, basketball players were the only students at the school, and coaches were the only teachers. Students at Eldon never had more than two hours a day of class, and at Lutheran Christian, the instructor just handed out workbooks for students to fill out. As one student at Lutheran Christian told the New York Times in 2006, “I thought prep school was supposed to be hard.”