SoCal High School & Prep Report
A Day At
Alameda St. Joseph's
With Gordie Johnson, Ray Young, et. al.--(November 24, 1997)
I had to be up in the Bay Area today. So I stopped by St. Joseph's-Notre Dame High in Alameda. Alameda is at once an immediate contrast to the adjacent Oakland area. Alameda is really an island (really)--you get there by crossing a bridge. And it's an island in more ways than one, without peer in the world of NoCal High School Basketball. While Alameda's right next to the Oakland airport and Coliseum complex, it's more like a small town in the midwest. Tree-lined streets, neatly dressed folks, kids in their school uniforms, strolling the wide, pleasant streets. Sturdy, no-nonsense middle and working class homes, neatly kept. A start contrast to the more industrial areas surrounding the island. But you get the feeling it's a nice place to be. An island.
I pulled up to the school and went into the gym, and was immediately greeted by Gordon "Gordie" Johnson. Everyone calls him Gordie, even a few of the players and assorted students. A warm and friendly guy, he was just about to start a freshman P.E. class, so he invited me to sit on the well-worn couch in his office while I waited for him.
For those of you not familiar with Alameda St. Joe's, it is the alma mater of many well-known high school prep stars, but is most recently known as the alma mater of NBA star Jason Kidd. They've won more State and CIF Division I Championships than any team besides perhaps Mater Dei (and possibly Crenshaw). The school has an enrollment which would allow it to compete in Division 5 in CIF and the State Championship. But it's long time coach Frank La Porte, who recently died of cancer, would never compete at anything but Division I. Gordie's taken over this year at St. Joe's following the death of La Porte in September. He was Frank's head assistant for the last 15 years, and was the head JV coach during that same time. This year, the JV is coached by Calvin Byrd, himself an alumnus of St. Joe's (and a very well-known one at that). Calvin himself was the State CIF Player of the Year in 1989.
Sitting in Gordie's office is a bit like entering a basketball shrine. Actually more like a shrine to La Porte's hard work, and to Jason Kidd. Everywhere you look there's Kidd. Framed pictures of a young Jason, as a freshman, as a sophomore, signed NBA photos; signed basketballs, framed newspaper clippings. There are posters of the State Division I Championship teams from 90-91 and 91-92, both of which featured Kidd. There's the trophy plaque given to La Porte in 1992 by the Atlanta Tip-Off Club to commemorate Kidd's being selected as the 1992 Naismith Award winner. And there's the plaque given to Frank La Porte by the California Coaches Association in 1993 when he was elected to the Hall of Fame. And there, sitting in three large boxes were. . . the big wheels.
Big wheel? As in little tricycle, Mattel toy, Big Wheels? Yeah. Seems that every year the team does a fund raiser and holds an alumni game, with various contests, and this year the Big Wheels are going to figure quite prominently. I'm not sure how, but they will. Probably in between the little kids clothing and shoe shot contest, in which little kids will have to put on one of the players uniforms, size 17 or 18 shoes, run across the court and dunk a ball into a trash can--first one to make it wins. Just another reminder that even amid all that fame, amid all the D-I prospects on the team this year (there are currently four, and possibly a fifth), it's still just a high school, and a small one in a Catholic parish with a very local, small town feel.
But back to the team and the school. Gordie is a very accessible and approachable fellow. We talked about his team, the players, how he wants them to forget summer ball and focus on team basketball. "The summer is all about just running up and down the court and shooting the ball whenever you get it," says Johnson. "High school ball, at least at St. Joe's is team ball, not me ball. I'm going to get that through to these players or there will be adjustments made to playing time."
About halfway through our conversation, Lee Conboy, from Blue Sky Sports, who supplies teams and institutions with uniforms and athletic equipment wandered into the office, and sat down in the coach's chair. He and Gordie reminisced about Frank, about the great players, about how Frank had left O'Dowd high school and came to coach at St. Joe's, and about Frank's illness. Clearly, La Porte was a man who inspired strong emotions and strong loyalties and Gordie and Lee were two of his most ardent admirers. And for good reason. He was probably the most successful coach in Northern California basketball history, at least in high school ball; in fact, next to Pete Newell, it's hard to think of another coach at any level who was more successful.
I asked Gordie to name for me his All-Time Hall of Fame from St. Joe's. Surprisingly, the first name he mentioned was not Jason Kidd. Nope, it was Calvin Byrd at the 4, then Jason at the 1, Miles Tarver at the 5, Lacobe Phillips (who played at Santa Clara) at the 2 and Adrian Eli at the 3; he also mentioned many others, most too quick for me to name, but I caught a few: Rashaun Foulcher, Terry Yancy (Montana), David Victor, Chris Stone, and others. He told me that he's working for next year on setting up a sort of "East-West" high school showcase tournament, and has some major players and backers involved. . . but I promised him I wouldn't say any more about it until the details were finalized. But you will want to see this when it happens. I guarantee it.
We talked about the chemistry on this team, and about where Gordie expects them to end up. "I expect that we will end up at the State Championship finals again". Although he didn't sound like he was bragging at all, he did say that this year's team is deeper and stronger than the team which made it to the finals last year, losing to Crenshaw by only 6 points. That team had a 31-4 record, and in addition to Crenshaw, lost only to nationally ranked powerhouse teams, including at team from Provo Utah (by 8 points), St. Patrick's from New Jersey (by 3 points), and Mater Dei (by 2 points). This year they could very well go undefeated.
Gordie gave me the "official" bios and information on each of the players. I won't pretend to give you my impressions of them, and so we'll just reprint the official bios and info for you. But in addition to the usual prognostications and descriptions of the players we feature in such reviews, the experience with St. Joseph's was unique, if only because after we got done talking about national rankings and such (St. Joe's is variously ranked as No. 9 in the US (The Sporting News], No. 14 [USA Today], No. 3 [Student Sports]), Gordie invited me to stick around to watch the game films of their practice scrimmage from Saturday with all of the members of the team.
So, we strolled across the campus to the computer lab, where a special projector was set up which displayed the VCR tape from the game film. Gordie went on ahead, while I walked and chatted briefly with Hondre (pronounced like Andre) Brewer, the Pilot's incredibly tall '6'11" center, who committed to the University of San Francisco for next year. He was walking with a cane, and was a bit slowed. So what happened to you, I asked. "Turned my knee in a pickup game at USF" said Hondre somewhat dejectedly, in recognition of the fact that he now won't be able to play for a while. How long? He's not sure, but he's certain he'll be ready for the start of the season. He's listed at 6'-11", but he's got that look that makes you believe he's not done growing yet. A really big player.
We sat in the film room for about an hour, Gordie, Ray Young, Blandon Ferguson, Rene Jacques and the rest of the team, watching game films, laughing, talking, and learning. Gordie led off the session by telling his players "I am not happy about what I see on these films. Yeah, there's some good stuff. But our spacing is really off. And you guys are going to have to forget that summer ball stuff," he said. "I will not tolerate mediocrity. You guys are very athletic" he told the team. But he warned "Your athleticism is not enough to get you by the better teams. You must and will play solid, fundamental basketball. If you play fundamental ball, and combine that with your natural talents, you'll be successful."
Then Gordie reminded everyone of the obvious again. "This is not summer ball. This is team ball, and there's no "I" in team. You will adjust, or I will make adjustments to your playing time."
Watching how he interacts with his team, and watching these young men at work, I was struck by just how serious and how much hard work they're putting into developing their games. They're a fine group of young men, polite, intelligent, fun to be around, and really funny at times. Ray is clearly the leader, the top guy, and it shows when they're together. Blandon is the worker, the student of the game, with the most questions for the coach about where he should have been, how to run a particular play, absorbing, learning and asking. Jacques is the confident one, the guy who knows, and in the film I saw, he's clearly one of the best passing points and one of the best offensive players on the west coast. I could go on and on about these guys.
After the conclusion of the films, we walked across the street, back to the gym, talking about the upcoming season, league play, CIF playoffs, state championships, out-of-state holiday tournaments, and the competition. Again I was struck by just how much these guys are becoming a team, and what a great job Gordie is doing with them this early in the season.
I shook hands with Ray Young, wished him well this season, and told him we'd be looking forward to seeing him next year at UCLA with Baron, Earl Watson, Rico, Travis and Matt Barnes. He smiled, a big grin across his face, and said, "Yeah!"
They listen, they learn, and now they'll play. Look out 'Shaw, look out Westchester, St. Joe's coming. Better get ready. 'Cause they'll be ready to play.
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