This story originally appeared in the Holiday issue of ESPNHS magazine’s New York edition.
There’s something in your heart,
And it’s in your eyes
It’s the fire, inside you
— “The Fire” by The Roots feat. John Legend
It’s an unseasonably warm October afternoon in Queens, the type of day that has you itching to get outside the second the school bell rings.
But on this day, the best basketball player in New York City is inside the Christ the King gymnasium drenched in sweat. Royals senior guard Omar Calhoun is here for open-gym practice with a handful of his teammates. It’s a voluntary workout, and as a player who has committed to defending national champ UConn and is rated the nation’s No. 27 recruit in the ESPNU 100, Calhoun has every reason to take a day off.
But Calhoun didn’t get to this point by taking days off. And he isn’t about to start now, especially since Christ the King suffered a heartbreaking loss to Mount Vernon in last year’s state Federation Class AA final. In fact, Calhoun was in the gym the day after falling to the Knights, trying to improve the aspects of his game he felt had failed him.
“He wanted to work out,” says fourth-year Christ the King coach Joe Arbitello. “But even if we had beaten Mount Vernon that day, he would have called me the next day to work out.”
Determination is something every elite athlete has, but you’d be hard pressed to find a high school hoops player more driven than Calhoun. Satisfaction just isn’t in his vocabulary. So even though he helped guide the Royals to a state Federation title as a sophomore, he chooses to focus on his failure to repeat as a junior. And despite being ranked among the best players in the country, the 6-foot-5, 190-pound Calhoun works every day trying to be better than the 26 players rated ahead of him.
“I want to reach my potential,” he says. “It’s what drives me every day to work hard and focus on my craft. I want to be recognized as one of the greatest players in Christ the King history.”
He’s on his way to reaching that goal. Calhoun entered this season with 1,078 career points, just 598 off former Royals star Khalid Reeves’ career record of 1,676. Calhoun scored 604 points last season, so a similar output this year would put him at the top of an elite group. And Reeves, who was an All-American at Arizona and a first-round pick in the 1994 NBA Draft, will have a front-row seat to the show as a varsity assistant with Christ the King.
“My record is going to be broken this year,” says Reeves.
Calhoun never would have reached this level of play without his work ethic, which was instilled in him at an early age by his father, Omar Sr. He dreamed of being another in a long line of great players from New York, so his dad pushed him to reach his lofty goal.
Calhoun spent most of his days hoisting jumpers and going through various drills at the playground of MS 51, a school close to his home in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Calhoun practiced with his dad and his sister, Sierra, who’s now a sophomore at Christ the King and rated the nation’s No. 11 recruit in the Class of 2014 by ESPNHS HoopGurlz.
“I’ve learned a lot of things from him,” says Sierra. “I’m trying to get on the stage he’s on.”
Her older brother prepped for the high school stage by playing AAU ball in middle school, and in the eighth grade he was competing against 16- and 17-year-olds.
“He played in a lot of hostile environments,” says Omar Sr.
By the time he reached Christ the King, he was ready for the ultra-competitive CHSAA, one of the country’s most talented leagues. But the Royals don’t allow ninth-graders to play on the boys’ varsity team, so Calhoun dominated on the freshman squad, scoring a school-record 44 points in a game against Xaverian.
Calhoun stepped into the starting lineup as a sophomore and was the picture of consistency, leading the team with 15.3 points per game. But he was at his best during the postseason, especially in the state Federation Class AA championship against Boys & Girls.
The unflappable Calhoun seized the moment, pouring in a game-high 20 points while hitting all eight of his free throws, including what proved to be the game-winners, in a 52-49 win. He was named state tournament MVP for his efforts.
Calhoun seems to play his best when the stakes are highest. Last season, he led all scorers with 16 points as Christ the King earned its third straight Brooklyn/Queens Diocesan title with a win over Holy Cross. He followed with 18 points in a win over Rice in the CHSAA Intersectional Class AA final. And while he’s hard on himself for the loss to Mount Vernon, he did rack up 33 points in the game and hit a 3-pointer with 21 seconds left to force overtime.
“He never gets rattled,” says junior guard Isaiah Lewis.
He’s also proved to be just as poised off the court. His coaches rave about his demeanor and his work in the classroom. (He has a 92 average.) And this fall, Arbitello received a letter from the principal of Bishop Ford, where Calhoun took his SAT, praising the Royals star for helping a girl on crutches carry her books to her car.
“If my son grew up to be like him, I’d be the happiest guy in the world,” says Arbitello. “And that’s without the basketball. It’s as a student, a kid and a friend.”
Calhoun credits his parents for keeping him grounded and focused on the task at hand. Right now, that’s leading the Royals, who entered the year ranked No. 24 nationally in the POWERADE FAB 50 ESPNHS Team Rankings, to another state title. So forget about the nice weather outside. Calhoun is on a mission — and you better not get in his way.
“I look at myself as the predator and they’re the prey,” he says. “The work I put in beforehand gives me confidence. I don’t want to ever have the feeling that anyone is working harder than me.”