Commentary

Taking a bite out of the Big Apple

Updated: February 1, 2010, 12:56 PM ET
By Ryan Canner O'Mealy | ESPN RISE

NYC CourtKelly Kline/ESPN RISE MagazineThis is Part I in a two-part series on the state of New York City basketball. Part II will run in March.

This story appeared in the New York Metro edition of the Jan./Feb. ESPN RISE Magazine.

New York City is never shy about asserting its dominance.

Just ask Frank Sinatra: "If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere."

Or Jay-Z and Alicia Keys: "No place in the world that can compare."

The basketball world is no different. Madison Square Garden is the self-proclaimed World's Most Famous Arena. Rucker Park justifiably considers itself the Mecca of streetball. And the reputation of the players the city produces is equally high.

"Everybody says New York City makes the best guards," says Doron Lamb, a New York native and Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) senior point guard.

But is the city living up to the hype?

At the high school level, yes. The CHSAA might be the best hoops league in the country, with Rice, Christ the King, Bishop Loughlin and others participating in epic battles almost every night. Throw in PSAL power Lincoln, and NYC seems to have a McDonald's All-American every year.

That success has led to a certain attitude when taking the floor.

Lamb
Kelly KlineDoron Lamb went south to Oak Hill, but hopes to resurrect the city's reputation of great lead guards.

"New York kids have a swagger and toughness," says NYC's top player, Bishop Loughlin senior forward Jayvaughn Pinkston.

But it's been a long time since The City That Never Sleeps produced an NBA star. The last NYC product to play in the All-Star Game was Ron Artest in 2004. And it's probably not a good sign that three of NYC's most high-profile prep-phenoms-turned-NBA-ballers are better known for, respectively, the ugliest brawl in NBA history (La Salle's Artest), YouTube insanity (Lincoln's Stephon Marbury) and marrying a Kardashian (Christ the King's Lamar Odom).

Is it because the media attention can bury a highly touted player before he has a chance to develop? Has the rise of AAU tournaments and the fall of pick-up hoops put everyone in the country on the same level? Or is it a cyclical thing that will be corrected eventually?

Certainly the hype that goes along with being a star in New York these days is immense, and not everyone is equipped to handle it.

"Things happen much faster and are more immediate these days," says 25th-year Holy Cross coach Paul Gilvary. "Years ago, it was much easier to be oblivious. You just had school and basketball."

Class of 2004 Lincoln grad Sebastian Telfair was once named the country's best fifth-grade prospect. By the time he hit high school, he was hanging with Jay-Z, posing in photo shoots and traveling the country with his AAU team.

Telfair has failed to live up to expectations since being picked No. 13 in the 2004 NBA Draft. Whether he was simply overrated or had his game and work ethic stunted by believing the hype is hard to say. But what's indisputable is that many can't-miss city prospects have indeed missed.

The worst thing for NYC's pro game is that Artest and Odom are on the wrong side of 30. Since they were picked in 1999, there hasn't been a single impact NBA player (outside of maybe Joakim Noah) drafted from the city.

Other cities have filled the void, churning out young, marketable superstars.

Los Angeles has veterans in Paul Pierce, Gilbert Arenas and Baron Davis, plus rookie phenom Brandon Jennings. Chicago has Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose; Baltimore, Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay. Atlanta has Dwight Howard and Josh Smith; Dallas, Deron Williams and Chris Bosh.

Philly and its surrounding suburbs have produced Kobe Bryant, Rip Hamilton, Jameer Nelson and Tyreke Evans. Even Prince George's County in Maryland, with a population one-tenth the size of NYC, is the home of Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley and Ty Lawson.

Maybe New York is ready for a comeback, though. Current college standouts like UConn's Kemba Walker, West Virginia's Devin Ebanks, Virginia's Sylven Landesberg and Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson could provide The League with an infusion of young city talent.

Stephenson & Telfair
Tim LlewellynSebastian Telfair (left) and Lance Stephenson starred at Lincoln, a national powerhouse in Brooklyn.

"I just think it's cyclical," says Gilvary, who coached Landesberg in high school. "We've had our share of pros, and over time, we will again."

Over the next few years, Stephenson could answer the question of whether it's still possible for a phenom from New York to thrive.

The Coney Island native arrived on the national scene before setting foot in high school, following a showdown with O.J. Mayo at the 2005 ABCD Camp. From there Stephenson went to Lincoln, following in the footsteps of Marbury and Telfair.

There were plenty of highs, including an unprecedented four consecutive PSAL championships, the state scoring record and a pair of state titles. There was also a fair share of lows: suspensions, questions about his maturity, a sexual assault charge (he pled guilty to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to three days of community service) and a drawn-out recruiting process that featured more twists than a Dan Brown novel.

But if Stephenson keeps his mind right and reaches his enormous potential, he'll prove that being a prodigy in NYC isn't a career-killer. Maybe that will convince more of the stars New York does produce to stick around.

Of the three New York City natives in the ESPNU 100, only Pinkston is playing ball in the Empire State. Lamb is No. 33, but he left Bishop Loughlin two years ago for Oak Hill. And Devon Collier, ranked No. 79, went across the river to St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.).

In the ESPNU Super 60 junior class rankings, Angel Nunez (No. 37) transferred from Cardinal Hayes to Winchendon (Winchendon, Mass.), while Sidiki Johnson (No. 44) transferred from St. Raymond to St. Benedict's (Newark, N.J.).

Rice and Christ the King are the teams to beat in NYC this year. But imagine a young St. Ray's team with Johnson challenging the league's elite. Or an experienced Bishop Loughlin squad with Lamb running the show and Pinkston cleaning up down low.

"I think we would have won state last year," Lamb says.

As good as the CHSAA is, the enduring image of the tough, take-no-prisoners New York baller was born on the playground. The city's best honed their skills in games featuring no referees, no coaches and the knowledge that if you lost, you'd be waiting a long time to get back on the court.

These days, top city players spend their summers the same way kids from North Carolina and Iowa do -- at AAU tournaments in Las Vegas and Orlando.

"I think in general, kids don't spend enough time working on their skills," Gilvary says. "They spend a lot of time playing games, and while it's important to play games, there's something to be said for going to the park and working on your skills or playing in a game that isn't adult-driven and supervised."

From the amount of coverage to where they play the games, lots of things have changed about high school hoops in the city over the years. As for the area's dearth of NBA stars, there's no clear-cut solution. But the answer may be something New Yorkers aren't known for: patience. Because while a lot has changed about New York basketball, the quality of play at the high school level, especially in the CHSAA, remains extremely high.

And if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.