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Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Oregon boasts fantastic four

By Glenn Nelson
HoopGurlz

Jaime Nared, Jordan Reynolds, Mercedes Russell
Three of Oregon's nationally prominent women's college-basketball prospects, Jaime Nared (left), Jordan Reynolds (center) and Mercedes Russell (right), were invited to USA Basketball U16 trials.

OREGON CITY, Ore. -- The first summit between the state of Oregon's most extraordinary group of women's college-basketball prospects, probably ever, occurred last December. Three of the players had a mission to convince the fourth to join their club team. That meeting ended in a standoff fairly typical in the world of teenage girls.

Mercedes Russell
Ranked No. 4 in the 2013 class, Mercedes Russell returned from the USA U16 team with a handful of national records and oodles of confidence.
"I thought they were weird," said Mercedes Russell, the one being wooed.

"We thought she didn't like us," said Kailee Johnson, one of the three girls hailing from Portland.

Turns out, they all were wrong and the deal got sealed a week before the NCAA-certified summer evaluation period began in July.

So Team Concept, a club team based in the Portland area, is what it looks like when the moon is in the seventh house and all the other stars align in a small state like Oregon. Russell, of Springfield, Ore., outside of Eugene, is a 6-foot-5 post who is ranked fourth in the 2013 class by ESPN HoopGurlz, and Johnson is a 6-3 forward ranked right behind her. Jordan Reynolds, a 5-11 guard, and Jaime Nared, a 6-1 wing, are elite prospects who will be ranked when their time comes.

The foursome passed their first major test, guiding Team Concept to a championship at the End of the Trail tournament that opened the summer circuit. They now are competing in a more elite, and more national, field in the Nike Summer Showcase near Chicago.

"This state has had its share of great players, but it never has had four highly ranked national players at the same time," said Carl Tinsley, who operates the long-running End of the Trail tournament and once guided Oregon City High School to three straight national No. 1 rankings. "What makes them unique is their combination of size and athletic ability. I think the Northwest has been down the last few years and this group has elevated the level of play in Oregon."

Adding to the unprecedented nature of Oregon's fantastic four is the status of Michael Abraham, their Team Concept coach. Abraham has a "once-in-a-lifetime" team, according to Tinsley, but essentially is twisting through this unique opportunity in exile. While his brother, Todd, is on the bench, Michael Abraham directs the team from the stands because of an NCAA ban against coaches ever convicted of any felony.

Kailee Johnson
Ranked No. 5 in the 2013 class, Kailee Johnson is a mobile forward who can score inside and from the arc.
Abraham, 51, had met the previous NCAA standard of no violent felonies during the previous seven years. The seemingly slight change of wording had a dramatic impact on him because Abraham was arrested on Oct. 28, 1998, for drug trafficking. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute and was sentenced to 18 months.

At the time, Abraham's star shined nearly as bright as his present group. After a startlingly successful run as a high-school head coach in Oregon, he was a head coach at Cal State Northridge and previously had assisted at Long Beach State and Oregon. Abraham worked as an assistant coach with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks after serving his time.

"Because of my background, it has been a joy to give back through my [club] program," said Abraham, who has spoken openly about his previous addictions. It kills him, he adds, to not be on the bench. It kills him even more to think his background could be holding back the team he has waited all his life for.

The high-profile nature of his top foursome has forced Abraham to do something his Team Concept teams have never done -- venture off the West Coast to play exposure tournaments. The top team, Team Concept Heat, has been playing in the Nike Summer Showcase in the Chicago area. But that trip has financially tapped out its parents and Abraham, who along with his wife, Trisonya, a successful agent who represents many WNBA and overseas-bound players, picks up a lot of the program's costs. So the team will play the rest of the summer in Las Vegas and the Bay area because it can drive to both.

When lightning strikes, it's understandable that everyone might be caught a little off guard.

Jordan Reyolds
Jordan Reynolds, an explosively athletic guard, is a rising junior who will join club teammate Kailee Johnson at Central Catholic.
The closest Oregon has come to something like this is when Tinsley and Brad Smith, his longtime business and coaching partner, had a club team in the late 1990s that featured Chantelle Anderson (Vanderbilt), Keani Christianson (North Carolina State/Pepperdine), Brianne Meharry (Oregon), Ashley Smith (Vanderbilt) and Lindsey Yamasaki (Stanford). There were no national player rankings, at least publicly, back then, but Tinsley guesses that Yamasaki, a national college player of the year, and Anderson, who had a distinguished WNBA career, would have been top-10 caliber.

And, much as Oregon would love to claim her, Anderson hailed from across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash. Which adds to the unprecedented nature of Johnson, Nared, Reynolds and Russell, all of whom are Oregon-grown.

Michael Meek, now head coach at George Fox, had a group at Southridge High School in Beaverton, Ore., that may have been the last to be within even shouting distance. That team in 2005-06 had four players who would play in the Pac-10 -- Aarika Hughes and Michelle Jenkins (USC), JJ Hones (Stanford) and Alex Earl (Arizona State). But Hones, at No. 32, was the highest ranked of that group.

"Like anywhere else, it goes in cycles," Meek said. "There have been some good kids [from Oregon], but not nearly as much depth as this group."

It was Nared who first served notice that something unique was happening in Oregon. When she was just 12, Abraham was asked to remove her from an eighth-grade boys team competing in a spring league at The Hoop in Beaverton. It sparked a media firestorm that eventually led to a change of ownership and management at The Hoop, landed Nared on ESPN and "Good Morning America," and prompted her return to girls' basketball.

Nared and Johnson have been in the Team Concept program since they were in the third and fourth grades, respectively. Reynolds, who will team with Johnson at Central Catholic (Portland, Ore.) next year, joined as a fifth grader. Their arrival on the club scene has been tracked with no less anticipation than, say, astrologers for Haley's Comet.

Jaime Nared
Jaime Nared attracted national attention when, at 12 years old, she was banned from playing for an eighth-grade boys team.
What galvanized this group as a phenomenon was Russell, whom Kurt Guelsdorf, current head coach at Oregon City, terms as an "x-factor -- a once every 18 to 20 years kind of player." Russell averaged 24.5 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks while leading Springfield to the Oregon state 4A championship as a sophomore, but is playing against elite-level regional or national competition for the first time. She recently returned from the USA U16 team with a handful of national rebounding and shot-blocking records and enough expanded confidence to pose the possibility of rising to the very top of her class as a prospect.

While the rest of the country demands to know what the state of Oregon has been putting in its water lately, the four objects of these queries are so young, they lack any historical context or even notion that what they are doing is anything special. Questions of that nature are received with smiles and shrugs of shoulders.

But people like Guelsdorf understand.

"People ask me if I'm worried because I coach Oregon City," he said. "I think this is great for girls' basketball. It's great that people around the country are talking about Oregon basketball."

After all, how often does that happen?

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.