The Greatest Game You’ve Never Seen
How did Brewster, a sleepy academy in a rural New England town, spawn the best high school basketball team in the country?
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.”
The national media began investigating these diploma mills, eventually forcing the NCAA’s hand to clamp down on bogus operations. By 2007, new rules required that athletes earn at least 15 of their 16 core courses during their first four years of high school, driving prospects to all but graduate on time even if they elected to do a fifth, postgraduate year.
An established boarding school in the same academic league as Exeter and Deerfield, Brewster regularly sends its non-athletes to colleges such as Bates, Lehigh, and Cornell. Course work is rigorous and extracurriculars are plentiful. The schoolhouse on top of a hill is the pastoral image of a boarding school one would expect to see on a postcard. And as the more-egregious diploma mills closed up shop thanks to the tougher NCAA rules, prep schools such as Brewster became even more attractive to players.
Boarding schools have long offered a postgraduate year, typically to wealthy teenagers seeking atonement for scholastic sins. It is a valuable way for students to bring up their GPA and improve their chances of getting into college. For athletes, the promise is twofold. They have a chance to boost their grades with two more semesters of high school—and also an extra year to be recruited by top college basketball programs. Furthermore, for players who feel they want extra time to hone their game and lift weights, a postgrad year serves effectively as a red-shirt year, because it does not start a player’s NCAA eligibility clock the way junior college does. Currently at Brewster, nine out of 15 players are in their fifth year of high school, either as postgrads or reclassified seniors. The NEPSAC talent pool has never been deeper. “There’s an old expression: If you’re the best player at your playground, you need to find a new playground,” says John Carroll, head coach at Northfield Mount Hermon. “I think our league is the top playground in the country.”
Take Brewster’s top point guard, Jalen Adams, a skinny kid from Roxbury with a fuzzy ’fro. His parents, an electrician and an MBTA bus driver, started him at public school in Melrose before he transferred to Cushing Academy prep school in western Massachusetts. After leading his team to a pair of NEPSAC Division AA championships and accepting a scholarship to play at UConn, Adams graduated and decided one more year at Brewster would give him the confidence he’d need to run an offense on his own. Before enrolling, he had heard rumors that Brewster treated its basketball players like celebrities. “I thought we were going to be chauffeured around and everything,” he told me, laughing. “Nah.” Instead, Adams and his classmates trudge through the snow like monks for early-morning classes and draining fall conditioning sessions. Pushed by teenage vanity and legitimate ambition, the Bobcats also find novel ways to compete with one another: who can make the most consecutive free throws at practice, who can finish their shuttle runs quickest, and who can dunk the hardest. “If I know [one of my teammates] is doing something, I want to match it,” Adams says. “I don’t want to be the weak link in the chain.”
It wasn’t always this way. Back when school administrators and trustees were figuring out how to get basketball off the ground, they knew they had a tough road. How were they going to talk kids into coming up north to the middle of nowhere? They were confident, though, that it would be worth the investment. Michael Cooper, Brewster’s headmaster, says the school ultimately decided to spend resources on basketball with the hope that, if done carefully, it would pay for itself in other ways: diversifying the student body, fostering school spirit, and, in corporate speak, building the Brewster brand. Conceptually, it made a ton of sense. Just one problem: They needed a coach.
Head coach Jason Smith works in the back of Brewster’s admissions building, a two-story clapboard house with green shutters. If it weren’t for the Sports Illustrated and Slam clippings taped above the wooden desk, his office wouldn’t look out of place in a country bed-and-breakfast. Smith, a baby-faced man with a black crew cut and a shy grin, doesn’t seem to mind his unobtrusive surroundings or the anonymity. Brewster’s soft-spoken head coach, now in his 15th season, is not the brash Texas football type. Sitting across from him, it’s clear that on most days the 41-year-old would rather shovel wet New Hampshire snow than talk about his central role in the academy’s rise to basketball prominence.
Smith was an unlikely candidate to build a basketball dynasty—hell, basketball wasn’t even his number one sport. The son of a sheriff and a credit union loan officer, Smith grew up in Boscawen, New Hampshire, about 80 miles northwest of Boston. He played point guard for his local public high school, where he was a two-time state champion, before giving up the game to play baseball at what is now Southern New Hampshire University. In his spare time, he dabbled as a coaching assistant at a nearby prep school and at Plymouth State University. In 2000, after his sister told him about an opening in the admissions department at Brewster with an opportunity to coach, Smith forwarded his résumé. He didn’t even realize that Brewster was beginning to take a concerted interest in the sport he’d loved as a kid. Reclining in his office chair, Smith still marvels at the serendipity of it all: He accepted the job 40 miles from his hometown and went to work.
The early years, Smith recalls, were intense. He traveled to amateur showcases, spending warm summer days holding a clipboard inside dimly lit gyms, searching for diamonds in the rough or benchwarmers from firmly established NEPSAC powers. Though introverted by nature, he went out of his way to forge relationships with coaches’ assistants and members of the media, anyone who might later feed him tips or referrals. “There’s great attention to detail,” says Brewster’s athletic director, Matt Lawlor. “He’s incredibly organized.” Smith pounded out emails, texts, and phone calls around the clock, sometimes 15 or 18 hours a day. Young and green, he relished what he calls “beating the bushes,” trying to find families willing to take a chance on him and his budding program.
Smith remembers his first team vividly: Mike Smiley from Swampscott, a 6-foot-3 shooter—now an assistant coach at Division II Le Moyne College—who played well enough to land a spot at Holy Cross. King Ogbogu, a guard who suited up at Cornell before entering medical school. Point guard Ryan Graham, a 5-foot-9 walk-on at American University who earned a scholarship by the end of his college career. That team went 14–10. Just three years later, in 2003, Smith engineered a postseason upset of longtime heavyweight Maine Central Institute, the alma mater of former NBA all-stars Caron Butler and Sam Cassell. Brewster advanced to the NEPSAC title game the following season, and thereafter, Smith says, interest in the program “just exploded.”
These days, Smith receives more than 800 inquiries a year from players and their parents hoping to land a spot on his team. As a result, he hasn’t traveled to a summer league event for high school prospects in five years. There’s no longer any need. “Bigtime players see other bigtime players go up and have it work out for them,” says Eric Bossi, the national basketball analyst for Rivals.com. “It becomes pretty easy to sell [Brewster] to those types of guys.”
During one of our conversations, Smith set aside his phone for all of 25 minutes. When he finally picked it up, he’d received texts from five different college coaches. It’s not just the talent: Colleges appreciate how boarding schools like Brewster mimic the socially and academically demanding aspects of college life. Boarding school programs were once considered an afterthought, but in less than a generation, these historical and serious institutions have become basketball breeding grounds, like stuffing an all-star team inside the pages of A Separate Peace.
Thanks to tougher regulations, the diploma mills are dying off. Next year, the NCAA is tightening its eligibility rules yet again, in an effort to crack down on shady operators. (An athlete in the class of 2016 still must complete 16 core courses to qualify, but he or she will need to finish 10 of those before the start of senior year. No late cramming, in other words.) As a reliable, well-staffed institution, Brewster is unlikely to suffer much from the stricter rules. If anything, NEPSAC schools might look more attractive to bigtime players who need to study for multiple seasons at an accredited establishment.
The Brewster admissions department talks so often about the “Good Kid Factor” that it’s become a campus buzzword. “What is their character, their motivation, their maturity, their responsibility?” says Lynne Palmer, the director of admissions and external affairs. “Those are things we look at really, really carefully here.”
A decade and a half into his tenure, Smith has the luxury of targeting ballplayers who won’t cause him to lose any sleep or rush over to the local jail with a fistful of bail money. “I always tell the kids in the fall: You’re not the 12 most talented players that wanted to come here,” he says. “We want kids who represent our school and our community well.” Smith says the admissions team also looks for players who can pay a chunk of the school’s tuition. Even though 31 percent of all Brewster students receive financial aid—with the average award for boarders hovering around $35,000—every family, including basketball players, pays at least a portion of the hefty $51,400 annual tuition bill. And still, they travel in droves to this quiet New Hampshire hamlet, from stable homes far away or smaller boarding schools up and down the coast, for an opportunity to reach what New England Recruiting Report editor Adam Finkelstein considers the “absolute pinnacle” of prep hoops, sticker shock be damned.
Shooting guard Donovan Mitchell is a perfect example. It’s gloomy outside and spitting rain, but the two-year starter and school senior prefect (student-body president, essentially) hands me his personalized business card, white with a blue border: “Admissions Gold Key Society Tour Guide.” He is eager to show off his home away from home. He adjusts the Louisville hoodie layered over his shirt and tie, and hikes the cuffs of his black dress pants up over a giant pair of throwback Jordans. Ushering around name-tagged strangers seems like an odd hobby for a big man on campus, even a relentlessly personable one, so I ask the fourth-year senior how he picked up the gig. “I went on a few tours and watched, and the rest of it is me knowing the path,” he says. “I love the school so much, to be honest with you. Coming from a different boarding school, I know the difference.”
Mitchell first laid eyes on Brewster in August 2013, two weeks before the official start of classes. The White Mountains stood dramatically in the distance, and Lake Winnipesaukee gleamed. “I’d never seen a [prep school] campus this big before,” Mitchell recalls. “And then the lake—it was during the summer, the sun was out, it was a warm day. Beautiful.” The son of an ex–Major League Baseball player, the 6-foot-3 guard from Greenwich, Connecticut, was rehabbing a broken wrist that kept him sidelined during the summer league circuit. A college recruiter pushed Mitchell to contact Smith. The boarding school he’d attended his freshman and sophomore seasons was adequate, and he had a few offers from small Division I programs, but he wanted to challenge himself on the court and in the classroom. Smith, coincidentally, had one open roster spot, so Mitchell and his parents rushed over transcripts and teacher recommendations. The acceptance letter arrived with six days to spare. “Coach Smith was talking to me about the players coming in, and I had known who some of the other guys were just from their highlight videos,” Mitchell recalls. “To be honest, before I came here, I didn’t really think I had the talent level as those guys. To come here and start was a surreal feeling.”
Every December, Brewster hosts the Trey Whitfield Invitational, a small holiday tournament. This time around, teams from Florida, North Carolina, and Massachusetts made the trip. In the semifinal, Brewster’s ball reversals were quicker, its cuts to the basket sharper. But it was the team’s defense and unselfishness that truly set it apart. Up eight points early in the first half, the Bobcats forced an ugly jumper from their opponent. Off the miss, Mitchell outleapt everyone in the paint for a monster rebound, pivoted 180 degrees, and uncorked a 50-foot baseball pass to Crisp—all in one motion—for an uncontested lay-up. Simon, one of the 30 best high schoolers in the country, saw only limited minutes throughout the evening, but he never pouted about it. As Crisp finished off the play, his University of Arizona–bound teammate hopped off the bench and whipped a towel over his head like he’d just won an NBA title.
Watching these kids play in a gym with virtually no distractions is a recruiter’s nirvana. Brewster’s backcourt is the country’s best, hands down, and arguably the best in NEPSAC history. They are clever and outrageously fast. Smith doesn’t let any of them off the hook either, one of the reasons players of this high caliber seek him out. “He gives them enough rope to mature and grow and make mistakes,” says ESPN college basketball reporter Jeff Goodman. “But he’s not going to give them too much rope.”
Jeff Depelteau, president of the New England Prep School Men’s Basketball Association, thinks Smith doesn’t get enough credit for the job he’s done in Wolfeboro: “People will say, ‘Oh, he’s got the most talented teams.’ Well, you try managing a team with 15 D-I players, where some of them don’t play, and managing egos and expectations. That’s a lot harder than a lot of people think.”
Unless the administration does an about-face and inexplicably ends its commitment to the sport that’s put the school on the national map, Smith’s Brewster career is probably just getting started. The New Hampshire native tells me, unequivocally, that he harbors “no desire to leave” for the college ranks, even as he approaches 400 wins. He and his wife, Elizabeth, who works alongside him as a college office assistant, are a “Brewster family.” “People ask me that all the time, of Jason [leaving],” says Lawlor, the athletic director. “He enjoys it. He likes it. And what’s not to like?”
Near the end of the holiday tournament’s championship game, a contest Brewster will win by 12, I realize that I haven’t seen the Bobcats trail for even one second over 120 minutes of action. That, however, is not nearly as impressive as watching how hard these young men—a college all-star team, really—are working together on the court, in front of paltry crowds. For now, at least, it’s not about future sports cars, million-dollar mansions, or girls. They play for pride, for their dedicated coach, and for the chance to improve. They play with fire.
Before each season, Smith always lays out three overarching goals for his Bobcats: “We don’t lose at home, we don’t lose back-to-back games, and every tournament we go to, we want to win the championship.” So far, so good.