published Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Hawks aim for the top: Hamilton Heights reach across world trying to become a top basketball program

The Hamilton Heights basketball program is on year three of its process for national recognition. Over the next few days, the Hawks will get a better feel as to how much further they have to go.

Hamilton Heights, which has aspirations of becoming a Nike school, is one of five area teams participating in the Scenic City Shootout -- a three-day, 18-game event taking place at East Hamilton. Hamilton Heights headmaster Duke Stone and his son Michael, the East Hamilton boys' coach and a former Hamilton Heights star, are running the event along with Lady Hurricanes coach Derek Morris.

Three national programs -- The Rock, Faith Baptist and Central Park -- are going to play against Hamilton Heights, East Hamilton, Cleveland, McCallie and GPS. The action starts today at 5 p.m., with games in both the high school and middle school gyms at East Hamilton.

Duke Stone said the event will be not only a showcase event but kind of a "blast from the past" for nostalgic fans who remember how good basketball once was.

"I've been here for 20 years, and there's a level of basketball that we're familiar with," he said. "It's different from the TSSAA level and it's becoming more popular, and we want to expose Chattanooga to that level. When we first moved here, there were some really strong players and teams."

Stone grew up in Oklahoma and went to a lot of games at Oral Roberts. He remembers watching former Chattanooga-area standouts Alvin Scott, Anthony Roberts and Richard Fuqua play.

"They were plunking kids out of Chattanooga left and right," he said. "This is about getting to that level of play again. The kids can see what is necessary.

"We [Hamilton Heights] recognize that's the level we want to get to."

Hamilton Heights has created relationships with European countries associated with FIBA, the international basketball federation. Most recently they've reached out to Nigeria. With those connections, the Hawks teams have become stronger, and some of the players are able to get out of countries where there is religious persecution or other limitations, which goes well with the mission of the church affiliated with Hamilton Heights.

"We try to be real careful with public schools, because we don't want them to feel threatened, like we're after their students like some other private schools are accused of," Duke Stone said. "We're not trying to get a local kid unless he moves out of his district and was changing schools anyway, because we're not trying to deprive other schools."

The Rock boys' team has nine NCAA Division I prospects, including Joel Embiid, who at 6-foot-11 ranks as the No. 11 center in the nation. He has signed with Kansas. Faith Baptist is led by J.J. Frazier, a point guard who has signed with Georgia.

Central Park has a 7-foot center and a 6-10 power forward.

Duke Stone said becoming a Nike-affiliated school hinges less on team success than on individual player recognition, meaning a top-level prospect. Hamilton Heights looks to get that in a 6-11 Nigerian center who will be a freshman when he arrives in Chattanooga next month.

Once a school gains that affiliation, Nike pays for expenses to out-of-town tournaments.

"Do you have a kid that can go pro? If so, Nike will get you locked in and get him used to wearing Nike stuff," Stone said. "Of course, you have to continue to bring those types of kids in."

That exposure alone is a primary reason his school doesn't look for TSSAA accreditation.

"We would have to play Division II with McCallie and GPS and those schools, but we don't want to be limited to TSSAA game schedules," Stone said. "Since we just have basketball, we can play 35-40 games a year as an independent. What that forces us to do is have to play a lot more out-of-town teams, which equals more travel. Nike covers the travel expenses."

Some of the national prep schools don't get the attendance numbers of some nationally known public schools, in part because they don't have recognizable names in their communities. A lot of the players on those teams, like Hamilton Heights, come from other countries, and it's not unusual for one of those teams to play in front of 30 or so people, unless the game is televised.

The Scenic City Shootout not only allows area fans to watch some of the best talent in the nation but gives those visiting teams the chance to play in front of what could be some of their biggest crowds.

"Our hope is that the local schools are competitive," Duke Stone said. "We hope to provide a good environment and bring other national teams in so that fans in Chattanooga can see that level of high school."

Oak Hill Academy, Montverde Academy and Arlington Day School are on the list of potential future teams at the event.

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