By Zach Schonbrun
The road to the South Kent School is windy and narrow and shared by a dairy farm, and little else.
It weaves in solitude along a ridge across the bucolic Litchfield Hills in northwestern Connecticut, past the town square with its stone Civil War obelisk and the sharp westerly bend in the Housatonic River.
Past the covered bridge and the naked trees and frozen fields. Past the low stonewall, and the solemn creek murmuring down a hillside toward a small pond dotted with ice fishermen.
And past the house with a boulder near its steep gravel driveway where the words “Wit’s End” are painted in red lettering.
There are any numbers of ways to reach the South Kent School — a historical marker notes that George Washington once rode across those ridges on horseback — but none are easy. All require a trace of patience, an absence of urgency, and a trip along the same solitary road until, finally, the road crests, unveiling a small campus upon a hill. There is a white clapboard church, a dormitory, an infirmary, a dining hall, a science building, a library, a hockey rink, and, at the end of a branch of sidewalk, apart from it all, a basketball gym.
The school was founded in 1923 by Reverend Herbert Sill, who paid $10,000 to buy 400 acres of farmland across the valley from the private boarding school he had already started in the town of Kent.
The first thing he built on the South Kent campus was a chapel. In the subsequent decades, South Kent has held firmly to many of its founding principles: it remains tiny, private, boarding, and all-boys. Church services are mandatory multiple times per week. Students still wear jackets and ties for class.
Within the last decade, though, South Kent has grown popular with a different kind of student, ones whose primary focus is earning a scholarship to one of the 347 Division I college basketball programs across the country. These athletes migrate from all over the world, typically staying for one postgraduate year. And their success rate is staggering.
From 1992 to 2002, just one South Kent student went on to play Division I basketball. But since 2004, 38 players have landed on the rosters of Division I basketball programs— an average of more than five per season — and two, Dorell Wright and Andray Blatche, went straight to the NBA.
It has put South Kent in the upper echelon of high school basketball in the country, a perch that has enabled the tiny school — with a $7 million endowment and 145 students facing $43,000 in tuition — to move into the national sports limelight. Enrollment has risen as well as its endowment, and it is now one of only a handful of private schools sponsored by the sports apparel giant, Nike.
But concerns about the transformation of the program linger. Alumni have expressed unease about a change in the school’s primary focus shifting toward basketball. Several players arrived at South Kent with questionable disciplinary backgrounds, and many others were unsure how exactly they got to South Kent at all. Furthermore, 11 of the 38 Division I-caliber players were subsequently dismissed or withdrew from their colleges for disciplinary, academic or eligibility reasons.
The program was jumpstarted in 2003 by headmaster Andy Vadnais and his hiring of Raphael Chillious, who had ties to Nike and short-lived success at another prep school in Maryland. The postgraduate basketball program he began there was disbanded after three seasons.
South Kent’s current head coach, Kelvin Jefferson, once offered a coaching position to the rap icon, Phife Dawg, who has claimed to be a “recruiter” for the program and coaches an AAU team in Oakland, CA, that belongs to a program funded, in part, by the basketball agent Aaron Goodwin. Jefferson was also for a short time employed by the sports agency, Octagon.
The current star on South Kent’s team, Maurice Harkless, who will be going to St. John’s next season, has a close relationship with Nate Blue, a well-known figure in the New York City grassroots basketball scene. He has twice been cited in NCAA investigations involving the University of Connecticut.
Both Chillious and Jefferson are considered superlative recruiters. That seems like a necessary prerequisite. For why else would a young basketball star decide to take such a long and solitary road along the ridges of obscurity to attend the South Kent School?
On a Sunday afternoon in early January 2011, South Kent carried a four-point lead into halftime over another prep rival, Winchendon, a tiny boarding school in central Massachusetts, before Xavier Pollard took command of the game. The 6-foot-2 shooting guard from the Bronx calmly slipped into passing lanes, disrupted shots and finished strong drives to the rim with a left-handed flourish.
Along the sidelines, Jefferson remained calm, even as he watched Pollard’s point total push into the 30s. He wore a charcoal grey suit, blue shirt, yellow striped tie, and for the first eight minutes of the game sat on one of the team’s maroon folding chairs, legs crossed. Upon standing, he paced slowly in front of his bench, hands usually in his pockets, voice rarely rising above the restful level of a conversation at a cocktail party as his team lost its fourth game of the season, 79-72.
It is Kelvin Jefferson’s third year running the nationally notarized program at South Kent. He is 6-foot-5, with some light grey hair atop a round face and a few more pounds around the midsection than when he was a conference rebounding leader for Southern Connecticut State University in the mid-1990s.
After his playing career ended, Jefferson, 37, a native of Norwalk, CT, weaved his way through low-level coaching ranks, bouncing through three jobs in four years before landing on the staff of Tom Brennan at Vermont as his No. 2 assistant.
“I kind of knew I had him on borrowed time,” Brennan said in a telephone interview. “I used to say to him all the time ‘I can’t wait to see where you are in ten years.’”
Jefferson stayed at Vermont for two before he left for American University under Jeff Jones, and four years after that went to Stony Brook University as a top assistant for Steve Pikiell, whom he had coached with at Division III Wesleyan University in 1995-96. Pikiell called Jefferson his “outside guy” — on the road often, looking to lure viable basketball players to Long Island.
So it did not really surprise him when Jefferson opted to leave Stony Brook after one season to work for a management firm in McLean, VA, called Octagon, whose NBA clients include Rudy Gay of the Memphis Grizzles, David West of the New Orleans Hornets and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
“He had been doing the recruiting thing and now he could recruit first-round draft picks,” Pikiell said in a phone interview. “I think that excited him a little bit. I think he liked the challenge and the idea of trying to sign NBA guys.”
Sitting in his office in South Kent’s administration building in early February, Jefferson explained he made the move mostly as a family decision — he was weary of too much time spent on the road recruiting for colleges and thought a desk job with an agency would allow him more opportunities with his wife and two young kids. He stayed at Octagon for only 30 days.
“I was wrong,” Jefferson said. “With that type of business, you’re on the road, traveling, you’re going to college games meeting with people and doing the same things. So I decided to cut ties early.”
Jeff Austin, Octagon’s lead basketball agent and Jefferson’s former boss, said he has hired coaches in the past with typically the same result — they return to coaching shortly thereafter. He could not specify what Jefferson’s role at Octagon was. “He was expected to be on the road a lot,” Austin said by phone. “I like Kelvin a lot. I think coaching was more suiting to him and what he’d rather do.”
Jefferson was hired by South Kent in April 2008, after a year as an assistant coach at Colgate, following a national search with over 200 applicants, according to athletic director Owen Finberg. “He had a lot of experience, had good recruiting connections, had connections to the area,” Finberg said. “He interviewed very well.”
Around the same time that Jefferson was a rebounding champion in Connecticut, a skinny left-handed point guard named Ralph Carter was leading fast breaks for Lafayette College in Easton, PA. Though they had never met, they are forever linked. Carter, who now goes by the name Raphael Chillious, became the South Kent coach in 2003 before Jefferson took over five years later.
Carter grew up in Olney, MD, a suburb of Washington, DC, in what his former Lafayette coach would only describe as a “challenging” background. His mother was killed in a car accident when he was a teenager. Carter was largely raised by his aunt, grandmother, sister and older cousin, Darnell Myers [Carter’s father, Myers said, was not around much in his youth, declining to elaborate further].
Myers coached the basketball team at Sherwood High School in nearby Sandy Spring, MD. Carter played some football and was a sprinter on the track team but drew more attention on the basketball court. Former Maryland assistant coach Jeff Adkins, then the head coach at West Nottingham Academy, a small boarding school in northeast Maryland, saw him play and liked his potential.
To improve his recruiting prospects, Carter opted to take a postgraduate year at West Nottingham. He soon signed to play for coach John Leone at Lafayette.
Carter’s career at Lafayette was not as smooth as Leone said he would have liked. Early in his freshman year, Carter complained of knee trouble and ended up requiring surgery, forcing him to sit out the season. The next year, he struggled to adjust to Leone’s slower offensive scheme and wound up spending more time on the bench.
“Ralph was a raw player,” Leone said in a phone interview. “He was physically gifted but he was not playing as much as he would have liked. And the direction he was getting suggested he try someplace else.”
Carter, 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, transferred to Pfeifer University, an NAIA school outside Charlotte, N.C., to find more opportunity to play. Within a year, though, he was calling Leone to ask if he could come back to Lafayette. Leone accepted and Carter finished his career as the team’s starting point guard.
“He was a real student of the game,” said Fran O’Hallaron, who replaced Leone as coach for Carter’s senior year, in a phone conversation. “He was one of those young men that stay involved with you forever.”
Carter played a year of professional basketball in Canada and then for the University of Victoria program, where he was studying for his master’s degree in coaching studies. He began referring to himself more as Raphael Chillious, his given name [Carter, his mother’s maiden name, had been the name he assumed after her passing].
He was Raphael Chillious when he returned to West Nottingham in 2001, this time to start a prep basketball team that would travel nationally and compete against other top programs. He brought in Josh Boone, a 6-foot-8 center from Mount Airy, MD, and Cheyenne Moore, an athletic forward from Baltimore, both of whom were highly ranked prospects, and a roster filled with talented postgraduates from around the country.
Chillious taught an ethics class, lived in a dorm and even worked in the admissions office at West Nottingham. He eventually rose to Dean of Students.
But the prep basketball team became a problem for some of the longstanding faculty members at the school. Most players were postgraduates and teachers were concerned the older students were not meshing with the rest of the student body. “We are an academically minded school,” Ward Tatnall, West Nottingham’s Dean of Faculty and a teacher there since 1984, said in a phone interview. “There were teachers who felt [the players] were not part of that program and were taking away from that program.”
Kenneth Brown, West Nottingham’s interim headmaster from 2000 to 2002, hired Chillious and denied allowing the basketball team any special privileges. “They had to go through our admissions office,” said Brown, who now serves as postgraduate dean and Director of College Counseling at South Kent, when reached by telephone. “If they needed financial aid they had to apply for it as any other kid. There was no preferential treatment and there was not funding beyond the normal.”
By 2003, after Brown had left, the Board of Trustees and its President, George Heiney II, eliminated the prep program. When reached by telephone, Heiney declined to comment on what happened with the team.
It did not matter much to Chillious. He was hired by South Kent to restart another prep basketball team, one that would immediately blossom into one of the top teams in the country. And he brought two of his top players, Moore and a talented sophomore named Gilbert Brown, with him.
Andy Vadnais is about 5-foot-7, trim, with wire-rimmed glasses, high cheekbones and a light-hearted personality that tiptoes toward playfulness. On a cool morning in early February, he wore a shirt and tie but had his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, seemingly ready to bound into a pickup soccer game at a moment’s notice. He readily showed off his new iPad.
In his office on the second floor of South Kent’s 85-year-old administration building, Vadnais, 52, quickly cued up a video on the iPad highlighting the school’s latest business venture: a $2 million campus expansion program, the first of its kind in nearly eight decades, thanks to two large alumni donations.
Vadnais calls this “Phase Two” for South Kent, though he is a bit more vague about what he believes was the first phase. It could be the dramatically reshaped curriculum he pushed when he took over for John Farr as headmaster in the summer of 2003. Or it could be his decision to build a prep basketball program that could compete with the nation’s elite.
Vadnais, who attended Williams College, grew enamored with the idea of rebuilding alumni interest through a basketball team that had a nationwide profile. “I saw [at Williams] that you could have high-level athletics and high-level academics — they’re not mutually exclusive,” he said. “I liked the idea of creating a basketball program here. It’s another thing for the community to rally around on those long winter nights.”
The first move was finding the right coach.
“I hadn’t even advertised the position at all,” Vadnais said. “I was up in my house in Vermont during our four day break in February and I get a call on my cellphone and I call it back and it’s Connecticut basketball. I thought it was a joke.”
No joke. It was Jim Calhoun, the head coach at the University of Connecticut.
“He basically said ‘I understand what you’re trying to do there. It’s a great thing. I understand you’re going through some coaching issues. I’ll be happy to help. I can’t obviously tell you anything other than who some good coaching candidates might be,’” Vadnais said. “I said I’d love to hear it. He gave me like five or six names. One of them was Raph’s. So I called Raph.”
Vadnais interviewed five or six others for the position but he was impressed by the confident and outgoing Chillious. For his second meeting, Chillious brought several West Nottingham players up to campus, including Moore, the 6-foot-6 dunking sensation, and they worked out in front of an awestruck Vadnais.
“It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen,” he said. “These kids were taking off from the foul line and I just went ‘Oh my god.’ And Raph said that’s what big-time high school basketball can be.”
It can also be seedy and cutthroat, and Vadnais said he was not entirely aware of what the New England prep school basketball scene had become. A year after Chillious’s arrival at South Kent, Finberg, who was Chillious’s assistant at West Nottingham, took over as South Kent’s athletic director. Later, former West Nottingham headmaster Brown would become South Kent’s postgraduate dean.
Vadnais, Finberg and Jefferson each differed in their view of how Nike’s sponsorship benefits the school and the basketball program. Jefferson said he uses Nike as a recruiting tool to attract players. “I don’t think we get any kid just because we’re affiliated with Nike,” he said. “But it’s nice when a kid comes here to say we wear Nike sneakers and warmups and things like that.”
Likewise, Finberg, whose ties to Nike go back to West Nottingham, said he knows the impact that the company’s name can have. “We’re certainly one of their schools,” Finberg said, adding: “I think certainly it helps from a recruiting standpoint just to say we’re a Nike sponsored school and we get nice gear from them.”
Vadnais was less ready to give Nike any credit for luring athletes on campus. “The only thing we get are uniforms and shoes and basketballs,” he said. “Nothing [else]. I’ve never heard — there’s no bump from that that I can see. None of the kids come here because it’s a Nike sponsored program.”
A Nike spokesperson said the company does not disclose details on sponsorship deals and therefore would not be able to comment on what a high school sponsorship package typically entails or what it spends on a school like South Kent.
There is also the matter of the rapper Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, a member of the popular group A Tribe Called Quest. In two media reports, Taylor claimed an affiliation with the South Kent basketball program. Taylor also coaches a 14-year-old AAU basketball team in Oakland called the “3-D Ballaz”.
“I’ve never heard of the guy,” Vadnais said. “I saw the [Slam Magazine] article and I went to Kelvin and I said who is this. He said he’s just a friend of mine. I said ‘why is he mentioning us?’ He said ‘I don’t know.’” People say all kinds of stuff. I can’t be running down all these sorts of leads. Who cares what they’re saying? It’s just too much. Anybody can say anything you they want.”
Finberg acknowledged Taylor’s connection to South Kent through Jefferson, but did not think his relationship with the program was anything substantial. “I think casual recruitment at best,” Finberg said. “He’s not employed or actually out there. I think he’s just another peer in the basketball world. I wasn’t concerned when I read [the Slam Magazine article]. I would really have to look back at the exact text. I haven’t met him.”
But Jefferson indicated that Taylor is a bit more than just a fan of the program in passing. In fact, Jefferson brought the rapper on campus and offered him a position as an assistant coach.
“He wanted to come and help us out,” Jefferson said. “I said, hey, Phife, if it’s something I want to do and something that you can swing I’d love to have you. Unfortunately, Phife lives in Oakland. He’s still doing the music stuff — he’s putting together an album now. It just never materialized. But the door is still open: if Phife wants to come and be a part of our program, I’d love to have him.”
Taylor, who is the cousin of Jefferson’s longtime friend, even went on a recruiting trip for South Kent two years ago. “We went to the Rumble in the Bronx and he sat and watched some games with us,” Jefferson said. “I guess from there on he became ‘the recruiter’. Since that trip, he hasn’t been able to do any recruiting or basketball work for us. Unfortunately his tenure as recruiting guy for South Kent was 24 hours, maybe. But like I said, I’d love to have him, the doors are open.”
That trip was eight years after Taylor released his first solo album, “Ventilation,” which featured tracks such as “Drugs,” “Club Hopper,” and “Bend Ova.”
Several phone calls to Taylor through his AAU basketball club were not returned.
The lyrics in “Bend Ova” say, “I’ll just have you know that I’m a lesbian too/ So wiggle your ass here and swing over them titties/ If you need to pay bills take your ass to Magic City.”
“Runnin’ through life and not givin’ a fuck,” goes the chorus in “4 Horsemen.” “Gotta get your paper, never mind these sluts.”
The basketball players who come to South Kent often share similar storylines preceding their arrival. Most were highly touted high school prospects who either did not initially qualify academically for the colleges that were recruiting them or were hoping a prep year could improve their game, making them more attractive for potential Division I suitors.
And they often share another characteristic in their personal narratives: some haziness in recounting in phone conversations just how and why exactly they all wound up in the same town in Connecticut, on a campus with spotty cell phone reception, sit-down meals and no girls.
There was David Hicks, a 6-foot-1 guard out of Mendota Heights, MN, who said: “I had never heard of South Kent in my life. When I got there I thought it was the boondocks, there’s nothing there, crickets at night, no city. I was real shocked.”
And Jackie Carmichael, a forward from Manhattan, KS, said: “They thought I would have to go to [junior college] or they thought I’d do the AAU circuit and then would go to Kansas State. I had never visited the school before. Kelvin Jefferson came to my house. He talked about how it’s a boarding school and a religious school, which my mom liked. I got an offer to go Missouri but at the last minute I decided to go to South Kent in August.”
And Mike Walker out of Iowa City, IA, said: “Coach Chillious was there at [Nike camp] he saw me play, he liked how I played, he recruited me a little bit. Then after my junior year I took a visit out there to see what it was like and I decided to transfer.
“My dad [Rich Walker, former assistant coach at Iowa] told me it was a good school. He had actually recruited a couple players that ended up going there, like Dorell Wright. But I hadn’t heard too much about it. I did some research and it wasn’t too hard to figure out it was a good school. I think they were two or three in the nation at the time. They were on ‘60 Minutes’ for being a good school. I heard a lot about it after that.”
Or Mike Burwell, of East Brunswick, NJ, who said: “Coach Jefferson came to me and told me about his school. He was looking for new players, it was sort of a new program. It just kind of fell in my lap I guess … I visited, it seemed like a nice, cool place. It’s a good environment … It’s the type of place where you can be focused and get the job done and do what you got to do.”
And Calvin Haynes, from Los Angeles: “It was a class thing — I was one class short. My dad didn’t want me to go to JUCO. I didn’t really know where I was going. Coach Chillious started recruiting me before I went to Oregon State. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know anything about what the school was about. I didn’t have any info.”
Chillious or Jefferson would often pick the new arrivals up at Bradley Airport in Hartford and drive the hour or so west toward campus. As the city skyline of Hartford faded deeper into the background, many of the players immediately had second thoughts about what they were heading into.
“Riding there, man, you see mountains and a bunch of different things, it’s like, wow, this is really out in the middle of nowhere,” said Walker, now a senior at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It took a lot of getting used to. Iowa City’s like a campus town, there’s a lot of activities going on and a lot to do. You go out there and there’s nothing for miles.”
“It was surreal — I was like, ‘what have I got myself into?’” Carmichael, a sophomore at Illinois State, said. “I was getting really nervous. There was no cell phone reception. It was definitely one of those things where I don’t know how I did that.”
“Damn — what have I done to myself?” Haynes remembers thinking. “The first thing I remember is having no phone service. No phone service ever. It was in the middle of the woods. It was nothing there.”
“I was like, where’s South Kent at?” said Carmichael.
Initial adjustments to life on campus were not easy either. South Kent dearly holds its traditions and dedication to regimented student life. Students have class six days a week [half-day on Saturday] and attend church four days a week. In all-school meetings three times per week, students take turns reciting the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by memory.
Daily schedules are structured, too. Students must rise at eight, eat at sit-down meals, wear coat and tie, attend proctored study hall and be in bed by 11, according to Dean of Students Gonzalo Garcia-Pedroso.
“It was pretty difficult at first,” said Hicks, a senior at Long Island University. “You kind of have to rely on your teammates, that’s what you do, that’s what you’re there for: to play ball. I was really close with Isaiah Thomas and Mark Lyons. We’d hang out with each other every day. There’s really nothing else to do.”
“The first adjustment is that it’s an all-boys school,” Walker said, laughing. “I was used to going to school with girls. That was the first. Second was having to get up every morning and put on a suit and tie and be proper, go to chapel once a day, two times on Wednesday, learn this Chaucer poem to memorize and say it, you have to go through all these different students who say the Chaucer every morning, it was crazy.”
“The gym was like a miniature gym,” Haynes said. “Classrooms were miniature. It was like a movie.” He added: “It was so cold. I had never seen snow. The cold bothered me. The dress code bothered me. Going to a school with like all Asians, except for the guys on the team. It was a big change.”
The players relied heavily on each other and, as time wore on, the adjustment seemed to ease. Classes got into full swing.
“[Classes] were more in depth,” Haynes said. “All classes weren’t lectures. Teachers liked to teach. That’s probably one of the best things. Teachers could be personal with the students. My study habits definitely got better. Reading, writing, math got better.”
Walker said: “You definitely go and talk to teachers when you don’t understand something. I’d say it was a plus. You only have 110 students total or something. You got 30 faculty members. The more people you get on campus, to make it seem like it’s not just a school but a living community, the better.”
“Classes weren’t very difficult because I had graduated the previous year so I had already taken my calculus, my strenuous classes,” South Florida sophomore Burwell said. “We had four classes a day, church, practice. It was very scheduled out daily. You had a morning meeting with the school, classes, church afterwards, then lunch, everybody had to be at lunch, then practice, then dinner, everybody had to eat dinner, then lights out.”
Kevin Parrom, now a sophomore at Arizona, said: “All the teachers lived on campus so if I had problems I could to go to their house and there’s just more access than I could ever have in the city. It was really an advantage for me.”
“The teachers and faculty there are the most lovely people I ever met in my life,” said Jermaine Middleton, who is playing basketball professionally in an independent league in California. “The most caring, lovely people. They really took us under their wing to prepare us for college.”
Chillious would take the players on trips into neighboring towns like New Milford to go to Wal-Mart or Danbury to go to the mall. Occasionally, he would take the team on trips into New York City.
“As for being with the team all the time, it was good — you get to be brothers,” Carmichael said. “Up close with no distractions, it made us really get to know each other and hang out with each other most of every minute of the day. I think it’s a great bond for us, so when we got on the court it just carried over.”
Burwell said: “Facilities are great, they have what you need. They basically had everything I needed. I’d use the gym late night or early in the morning. I might get in there real early before we have morning meeting, like 6 a.m. just to get shots up, or I’d go in there after dinner.”
“The best experience of my entire life,” Haynes said. “Those guys are like family to me now.”
“South Kent helped me grow as a person and develop as a man,” Middleton added. “No regrets at all. It taught me how to be very independent, to grow up fast. And a bunch of great people.”
“It really did surprise me [level of play],” Carmichael said. “We had guys from the cities who were Mr. This and Mr. That. I really enjoyed the basketball out there.”
“I wish I could do it again,” Parrom said. “It was a family setting and I grew to love it. It was excellent.”
Of the long litany of characteristics most commonly associated with the New England boarding school — puritanical rules, austere dress codes, oak-paneled dining halls, to name a few — basketball is an unlikely one.
For years, there was football — strong ties to the once-powerful Ivy League programs of the early and mid-twentieth century set up gridiron feeder systems through prep schools across the northeast. As Ivy League football influence waned, a different sport — with different colleges, motives and authorities — shifted the tide for a new generation.
And within the fervent basketball scene among prep schools in New England, South Kent is a relative newcomer.
The consensus from high school and prep basketball analysts is that the shift began at an unlikely cornerstone program in the heart of Maine, a nonsectarian boarding school with fewer than 500 students.
When Max Goode came to Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, Maine, in 1989, the school was in its 123rd year, in a provincial old mill town of only a few thousand residents along the last legs of Interstate 95. Within 10 years, though, Goode had produced 87 Division I basketball prospects, including future NBA players DerMarr Johnson, Sam Cassell, Brad Miller and Caron Butler.
Goode had been following the lead of boarding school powerhouses in the South such as Oak Hill Academy, Hargrave Academy and Fork Union Academy in Virginia, and Laurinberg Institute in North Carolina. He got Nike involved as a sponsor and his team would travel nationally for tournaments. It would not take long for the competition to come to him.
Athletic transformations happened at New Hampton School in New Hampton, NH. Then St. Thomas More in Oakdale, CT. Then Winchendon in Winchendon, MA.
Tiny New England boarding schools, some with fewer than 300 students, began coaxing their basketball programs into powerhouse recruiting hotbeds. Word traveled. Goode had started a trend.
“Prep schools have always been there,” said Clark Francis, the founder of the basketball recruiting web site, HoopScoop.com, in a phone interview. “But they never had the popularity and were never a socially acceptable alternative. I think the guy that really made it really legitimate was Max Goode.”
An NCAA eligibility rule allowed high school seniors to take an extra year before attending college, ostensibly to shore up core class requirements, boost SAT scores or perhaps delay the inevitable transition toward adulthood. Athletic teams, however, saw it as another tool to improve their fortunes on the field: load rosters with postgraduates, essentially college-aged freshmen, and watch what happens.
The trickle-down effect was substantial. Colleges could essentially have their recruits take a redshirt year without having them on campus. Students could improve their transcripts by loading up on core requirements. Junior Colleges suffered — kids went to prep schools where they did not have to waste two years of eligibility. And, in time, the system was manipulated.
“When people started to realize you could repeat a year, it was ridiculous,” said Mike Byrnes, an assistant coach at Robert Morris University. “There were kids who in theory were seniors and were going away to prep schools and going back to their junior year. They’d go for two years and resurrect their transcripts.”
Byrnes, who spoke by phone, was the head basketball coach at the Winchendon School from 1995 to 2009, winning two New England Prep School Athletic Conference (NEPSAC) championships and sending over 100 players to Division I schools over that time. He arrived well tuned to the intricate landscape of upper echelon prep basketball: he had played at Fork Union and then coached at Hargrave. When he replaced Scott Spinelli at Winchendon, the program was in its fourth year. But Byrnes quickly assembled a team that could compete with New Hampton, St. Thomas More and MCI.
And he immediately noticed a difference in New England teams compared to those in the South. “The prep schools in the south, there’s not a league,” Byrnes said. “It was very difficult to get games. So you played a lot of JV programs or Division III programs, NAIA situations. It wasn’t very competitive. You’d lose maybe two or three tops 5 games, just because the teams you were playing for the most part were weak.”
Meanwhile, a very intense league was burgeoning up north.
In 2001, Notre Dame Prep, a Catholic school in Fitchburg, Mass., with fewer than 50 students, leapt to No. 2 in the nation, led by the star forward Ryan Gomes, a future second-round NBA pick of the Boston Celtics. In 2002, Brewster Academy, in Wolfeboro, N.H., sent a top prospect to North Carolina and another to Duke a year later. In 2005, Bridgton Academy, the nation’s first solely postgraduate school, in southern Maine, sent seven players to Division I programs, including Kansas, Virginia Tech and Arkansas.
The top-tier Class A division of the New England Prep School Athletic Conference had morphed into an eight-team caldron of bubbling rivalry and competition [prior to the 2010-11 season, NEPSAC changed the name of its top tier to Class AAA].
“When I was coaching Yale in the ‘80s, there were some prep schools around but it wasn’t anything like it is now,” Brennan said. “It just blew up. The prep schools started to get in an arms race with themselves.”
A preseason tournament was organized each November in New Haven, CT, which brought in top teams from around the country. It quickly became a must-see event for college coaches, scouts, media and fans. “That’s where you go and kind of watch and babysit and see if anybody catches your eye,” Francis said.
Tom Konchalski, the longtime editor of the HSBI Report, a high school and prep basketball scouting report, said the migration to prep schools by many of the nation’s top basketball prospects began as a necessary step to reach colleges. “Usually they go there because it’s their last resort,” Konchalski said by phone. “They have to get into a more structured environment with fewer distractions to meet initial NCAA eligibility requirements.”
As the New England schools gained in popularity, fledgling programs with little or no academic requirements also popped up on the scene, draining talent back out of the boarding school pool. In February 2006, an investigative story by the New York Times examined the notion of “basketball factories” and the NCAA formed a list of 16 so-called “diploma mills” from which it would no longer accept transcripts.
Three high-profile New England schools were placed on a subsequent NCAA list of 22 programs subject to further review: St. Thomas More, Notre Dame Prep and Bridgton Academy. “It brought attention to things that had been happening for a long time,” said Sonny Vaccaro, a powerful former sports marketing executive with Nike and Adidas, of the Times story. Speaking by phone, he added: “[The] expose brought to the forefront that some of these things were ridiculous at best.”
By then, South Kent had already sent two players directly to the NBA and taken its team to the NEPSAC men’s basketball finals. The CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes had done a feature on how its retooled basketball program had helped save the school from financial ruin. The team was loaded with 10 future Division I prospects.
“I think basketball has been instrumental to the school’s growth and survival,” said Adam Finkelstein, founder and editor of the website New England Recruiting Report in a phone interview. “The school had some fiscal problems when they decided to invest in the basketball program. The basketball program was a big part of helping the school get through that time.”
Around the time Chillious returned from Canada to start up the prep program at West Nottingham, he became acquainted with Sherman Dillard, a former head coach at James Madison University and Indiana State. Dillard, in September 2004, then took a position as the Global Camp Director at Nike, where he ran the Nike All-American Camp and LeBron James Skills Camp, among others.
Dillard was not Chillious’ only connection with Nike — in his second season at West Nottingham, he recruited a postgraduate player from Oregon named Marcus Merritt, the son of Nike’s Vice President of Global Basketball Marketing, Lynn Merritt.
That connection helped forge a relationship that would remain with Chillious throughout his time in Maryland and Connecticut. Nike supplied West Nottingham’s prep team with gear.
Dillard hired Chillious to work at Nike summer camps in various parts of the country — a terrific perk for a young coach with relatively little sideline experience at the time. It was a setup that allowed him access to some of the top basketball prospects in the nation, and South Kent would soon join MCI as the only New England prep schools to earn a sponsorship from Nike, according to Chillious and two other sources.
Those that know Chillious remark about his gifts as a communicator and recruiter. He could relate to young athletes with his own stories of rising above personal struggle and had a graduate degree in coaching studies with a concentration in sports psychology. “I saw somebody that had all the intangibles to be a leader,” said Fran O’Halloran, Chillious’s former college coach.
In January 2008, Chillious suddenly left South Kent. He took a job as a business manager for Nike Elite Youth Camps, the branch that runs the company’s signature basketball camps. It was presumably a pay raise: in his fourth and final year at South Kent, Chillious had the fourth-highest salary at the school, $60,000, according to public financial documents.
Chillious said in a phone conversation in early March 2011 that he never used his Nike connections as a recruiting tool for South Kent, and he said Nike’s main commitment to the school involved uniforms, shoes and workout clothing.
He also recalled his time at West Nottingham and said he was surprised that the program had been disbanded, hinting that racial tension could have been a factor with several black players representing a predominantly white school.
“When I’m retired from coaching college basketball, I think I’m going back to New England prep schools,” Chillious said. “A lot of coaches don’t want to teach at those schools— I loved being a teacher. One day I see myself being in New England being a teacher, regardless of basketball.”
In May 2009, Chillious was hired as an assistant coach at the University of Washington, one of Nike’s top-flight college programs (eight months before he was hired, Washington signed a 10-year exclusive extension with Nike worth $35 million, among the richest in the country, according to a school press release).
Furthermore, at Washington, Chillious joined two former players he coached at South Kent, guard Isaiah Thomas and forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning — a connection that made perfect sense to those who understand the world of college recruiting.
In his five years at South Kent, Chillious recruited players from five different continents with a number of different backgrounds. The story of Rob Thomas — a prospect from the Bronx who arrived on campus with a deeply troubled legal and family history, severe dyslexia and a fifth-grade reading level — was widely publicized after Thomas worked his way to graduating and earning a scholarship to play at St. John’s. But other examples of risky admissions to the basketball program do not turn out as well.
Cheyenne Moore, one of the star prospects Chillious brought to South Kent from West Nottingham, was a self-described “wild kid” — according to published media reports —from Baltimore. He committed to Clemson, was suspended for his involvement in an on-campus fight his freshman year, and then transferred to George Washington, teaming up with former South Kent center Jermaine Middleton while there. Moore’s tenure did not last long. He was dismissed after his junior season for academic reasons. Moore played for the Venezuela Toros of the Latin Professional Basketball league in the 2010-11 season.
“Certain expectations are placed on our players both on and off the court,” GW head coach Karl Hobbs said in a statement following Moore’s dismissal. Moore did not respond to messages through Facebook.
In 2006, Chillious brought in Manuel Cass, a 6-foot-7 forward from Carbondale, IL, who had had a turbulent high school career in Chicago. After leading Carbondale High School to the state title game in 2005, he was kicked off the team for what media reports labeled a dispute with his coach and enrolled at Boys to Men Academy, a school that would later be shut down by the NCAA. Cass signed a Letter of Intent to play for DePaul but Jerry Wainwright, then the coach, wound up committing an NCAA violation by visiting Cass during a no-contact period. Cass reopened his recruiting options before going to South Kent.
Cass then signed with the University of Texas-El Paso, but his time there would be brief as well. He was dismissed from the team after his freshman season. A spokesperson at UTEP could not remember the specific circumstances for Cass’s dismissal and no press release was ever issued.
Cass enrolled at Kent State in December 2009 and practiced with the team. But over that summer, he abruptly transferred to junior college.
In 2007, Chillious had Kene Obi, a 7-foot-2 center he had brought in from Nigeria by way of Senegal, France, Belgium and Virginia. Obi played for DePaul for two seasons but transferred for unspecified reasons to a small Division II program in Georgia. Before ever suiting up for Young Harris College, though, Obi was gone again. Head coach Pete Hermann said Obi never told him where he intended to go. “He decided he felt the school was too small,” Hermann said by phone. “I don’t care about him. He’s gone now.”
Kevin Parrom was a highly recruited junior at St. Raymond High School in the Bronx when, in mid-May 2008, he was arrested at the school’s gym after hitting his coach Oliver Antigua in an altercation that was widely publicized by New York’s media. Parrom was subsequently expelled from St. Raymond. In less than three weeks, he announced that he was heading to South Kent. Parrom is now a sophomore at Arizona.
On this year’s South Kent team, Egi Gjikondi, who is originally from Albania, was suspended by his previous school, Malden High School in Massachusetts, from playing for a year after hurling a racial epithet at an opposing player. He transferred to Cushing Academy and then to South Kent in the fall of 2010.
Vadnais said before admitting Gjikondi he “had an hour-long conversation with the AD at Cushing and said ‘what’s the story with this kid?’ He said, ‘he made a dumb move, it was a stupid thing, but he’s a good kid. Kids make mistakes.’ I asked ‘do you think a fresh start would benefit the kid?’ He said absolutely.”
When told this, Cushing Athletic Director William Troy denied ever speaking with Vadnais about Gjikondi. When asked where he thought Vadnais got that quote, Troy said, “I have no idea.” Troy had no further comment on Gjikondi.
Cushing’s basketball coach Barry Connors said he spoke with somebody at South Kent about Gjikondi but could not remember the person’s name.
South Kent’s athletic director Owen Finberg said part of the school’s credo is often about taking young men with difficult backgrounds and teaching them discipline. “We live in America — it’s the land of the second chance,” Finberg said, adding, “I think we set our bar of expectations pretty high when they get here. But we can’t go back and change the decisions that they made as a 16- or 17-year-old.”
Vadnais conceded that South Kent’s admissions policy for athletic recruits has recently changed. “It used to be when Raph was here we gave a lot of sway to what the coach said,” Vadnais said. “Now the coaches will identify the kids and then they come to the admissions office and the admissions office has to run down all the stuff. But a lot of stuff we just don’t know about.”
In the interview in his office, Vadnais said Nike does not influence players’ decisions to attend South Kent or contribute to the school anything more than shoes and clothing. In an email several weeks later, he elaborated on what South Kent’s financial aid policy entails.
“We follow the concept of ‘need-based’ financial aid,” Vadnais wrote. “We give away as much as our financial aid budget will allow.”
While South Kent, according to Vadnais, does not offer scholarships, students can apply for financial aid through the National Association for Independent Schools, a nonprofit that assesses financial need. According to Vadnais, about 65 percent of South Kent’s student body receives some amount of financial aid.
“The basketball kids are no different,” he wrote. “Some, over the years, have received generous financial aid packages based on what their families could contribute. Others are full [tuition].”
Vadnais said he personally looks at the applications of those deemed “questionable”. But he does not regret taking risks in admitting some players. “These are good kids,” Vadnais said. “They may have issues from the past, but they’re good kids.”
In 1960, when Bob Martin arrived at South Kent as a 14-year-old ninth-grader, there was an annual autumn tradition performed in the farmland nearby campus: potato picking.
It was, Martin said, an effective form of discipline. Students eventually had South Kent’s unofficial motto — “self-reliance, rightness of purpose, simplicity of life” — so well embedded in their mind that they would recite the familiar refrain to each other at alumni functions decades later, like a handshake for an exclusive club.
Succeeding at South Kent was one of the toughest challenges of his life, said Martin, a Navy veteran. That is partly why he remains so faithful to the school today.
But the rapid flowering of South Kent’s basketball program concerns him. “I don’t want South Kent to fail, I want it to succeed,” Martin said in a telephone conversation. “But I want it to succeed while being faithful to its ideals. Why is all that necessary?”
Martin was one of several alumni — from different generations — interviewed for this story. Many expressed concerns about what direction South Kent has taken with its basketball program. They brought up unease about the school’s affiliation with Nike, its reliance on so many postgraduate students, the high number of players who faired poorly after graduating South Kent, and the school’s willful approach to admitting more high-risk players.
“My concern right from the get-go is that, alright, you’ve got a ‘professional’ team on campus, everybody else can just sit around and watch,” said Jim Merson, ’64, who lives in Fresno, CA, by phone. “What honor is this bringing to the school? What salutary effect does this represent? I don’t know.”
“I believe that along the way there were undoubtedly compromises that most of us would not be comfortable with,” an alum and former trustee who requested anonymity said. “I would’ve liked to have seen more transparency. How is this being financed? What’s going on here? … Obviously you can have 30 or 40 percent of your school receiving some financial aid, but if 25 percent of the people receiving financial aid are all coming from one team and they’re getting pretty much full rides, that doesn’t make any sense.”
When informed about a few of the players’ backgrounds, South Kent alumnus Ricky Ford was visibly disturbed. Ford graduated from the school in 1995 and walked on to the basketball team at Iona, where he played sparingly for four seasons. He had been keeping up with South Kent’s dramatic reshaping of its basketball program and been relatively impressed. He grew concerned, however, when apprised of some of the incidents involving former players.
“It’s a little disappointing,” Ford said in his office in New York City, where he is a lower-school physical education instructor at Bank Street College. “I guess there was a certain standard that South Kent had, that they wouldn’t allow some things to go on in the school.”
Ford is from a markedly different era at South Kent: from 1992 to 2002, he was the lone student to go on to play Division I basketball. He had been a football star at Dewitt-Clinton High School in the Bronx before a knee injury ruined his senior year. So Ford decided to take a postgraduate year at South Kent, the type of insulated academic environment that would afford him extra tutoring attention and an opportunity to play competitive sports. He visited the campus with his parents before enrolling.
“When I was there, even playing on the football team or rowing crew, it was a real brotherhood,” Ford said. “We’re on one team, we’re in this special school for a reason. I thought it was really tight-knit.”
Ford played basketball for Jaye Beebe, who coached the varsity team from 1992-2002. At the time, South Kent played in the Class D league, the lowest level in the NEPSAC, and games were against schools like Millbrook, Storm King, Worcester School, and New York Military Academy. Beebe, who taught history and was a dorm parent, estimated he won 100 games in 10 seasons.
Beebe, who now works at Kiski School in western Pennsylvania, said he occasionally returns to South Kent for alumni events and hears complaints about the effect the basketball program is having on the school.
“Yes, I get that feeling,” Beebe said in a phone interview. “But I also get the feeling from people that are there that they enjoy most of the basketball players. The kids who are coming in to play basketball, they were asked to be good kids. There were some, as there are in every situation, who were not very nice kids.”
Older alumni were quick to point out their feelings are not simply based on nostalgia; they understand the school’s need to adapt and were aware of South Kent’s prior financial uncertainties. But they question the motives behind the emphasis on basketball.
“It troubles me,” said Martin, a former editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “That’s not just what schools ought to be about. Schools ought to be about building character.”
“Where’s the payback, you know?” asked Bob Gilliam, a retired South Kent alum living in Richmond, VA, by phone. “The graduates [players] have not been financially supportive alumni. And the financial support has continued to come from the ‘old guard’ who are more interested in seeing money spent on [academics].”
Philip Schuck ’63, author of the book, “A Ricochet from Circumstance,” which was based loosely on his time at South Kent, remembers the school for its focus on ethics and he has concerns that that focus has changed. But while the program bothers him, he believes it is better than the alternative.
“It was a survival issue,” Schuck said in a telephone conversation. “That’s how I understand it. But I think they took an avenue without realizing inch by inch what it’s doing to the school.”
“You’re really looking at two separate entities,” Beebe added. “There’s the South Kent school and South Kent’s basketball program.”
Maurice Harkless is tall and lanky, with a pair of twiggy arms that droop midway down his thighs. Those are currently valuable features in basketball circles where a certain mold is sought: the angular athlete, popularized by NBA stars like Kevin Durant and Rajon Rondo, with length, quickness and an unexpected supply of bony strength.
According to Scout.com, the 6-foot-7 Harkless is the No. 13-rated small forward in the country, though that is largely based on conjecture. His lean limbs could allow him to blossom into something far greater.
Or he could be just as over-hyped. In a mid-winter showcase game against Notre Dame Prep, Harkless was sloppy handling the ball and shot poorly. He was overshadowed by Prep’s Khem Birch, a smooth McDonald’s All-American headed to Pittsburgh. And Harkless could also have been overwhelmed by some nervousness, seeing as his future college coach, Steve Lavin of St. John’s, was in the stands watching.
Harkless signed his letter of intent to St. John’s during the November signing period, after reneging on a verbal commitment to the University of Connecticut in June. According to a source, the decision was strongly guided by Nate Blue, who is considered to be Harkless’s “adviser” and has been influential in his career since the summer after his freshman year at Forest Hills High School in Queens.
Blue is a well-known New York City grassroots basketball luminary, whose name has been associated with two NCAA violation scandals, both involving Connecticut. The NCAA first looked closely at his relationship with Huskies recruit Charlie Villanueva in 2003. The second surrounded his receiving six tickets to away games from Calhoun, former associate head coach Tom Moore and former assistant Andre LaFleur in 2007, according to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations to the school.
Less than a month after the ticket incident was revealed in a story in the Connecticut Post, Harkless de-committed from the Huskies. “I just wanted to really open it up because I wasn’t that sure and there’s a lot of stuff going on with Jim Calhoun, his health and all that,” Harkless told The Sporting News in July, adding that Blue informed Calhoun for him.
Harkless is also one of seven South Kent players in the last three years to play for the New York Panthers AAU program, run by Gary Charles.
Jefferson was not shy about speaking of his apparent pipeline of prospects from New York City. “New York has been very good to us since I’ve been here,” Jefferson said. “I love New York and I want to continue to have New York be a focal point of what we do.”
Whatever there is to say about South Kent’s roster — tall, diverse, coveted — it is also often in flux. Players arrive and depart with mystifying frequency. The team began the season with a revered center, Kadeem Jack from Harlem, but he left in early November, opting to attend Central Jersey Each One Teach One (CJEOTO) Academy before enrolling early at Rutgers. Ricardo Ledo, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard that Scout.com ranks at the top of the Class of 2012, left school in January after missing several games due to an academic suspension. He enrolled at Notre Dame Prep. Gjikondi also quit the team and withdrew from school shortly after Ledo.
On South Kent’s roster this season, only one player had returned from the year before: center Nemanja Djurisic, a 6-foot-8 bruising force from Montenegro. The rest were new, including a forward from Turkey and a guard from Japan.
The Cardinal finished its 2010-11 season at 18-14, a subpar record compared to the winning seasons they have grown accustomed to in the last eight years. The team lost seven of its last 10 games. The season came to a woeful end with an 80-52 loss to St. Thomas More in the first round of Class AAA NEPSAC playoffs on March 2.
Perhaps the tumult of so many roster changes cost South Kent another chance at challenging for a league title. It is uncertain how far the Cardinal could have continued had Jack, Ledo and Gjikondi remained on campus.
Here is what is certain, though: After the season winds down, after those postgraduate prodigies on the South Kent School basketball team take that same solitary road out from boarding school life, a new group of stars will roll in, riding up past the covered bridge and the pond, flowing toward the gym. And the sounds of basketballs will fill a new fall with promise, and some cheers may even echo down the frosty hillside, finally reaching the dairy farm as softly as a whisper in the night.