Published Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
Updated Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010 | 9:30 a.m.
There was no warning, not even a whiff, of what was developing on the campus of Henderson International this week.
As normal, the 10 teenage boys who make up the vaunted Findlay Prep basketball squad attended classes and then practiced for Friday’s night game against a team from Arizona. If anything was in the air, the young athletes — among the best in the country — may have been indulgently looking ahead to April, when they will play in the ESPN National High School Invitational in Washington.
This was old school for them. Findlay won the national prep basketball title last year and is ranked No. 3 nationally by USA Today. It was making everyone’s list of standout high school programs, and for good reason.
Findlay is a basketball factory.
It has lost only three games in the past three years. A 45-game winning streak was snapped this season.
Its players are rated as the best in their recruiting class, and alumni are thriving at respected universities such as Texas, Kentucky, Florida State and California.
But the really remarkable thing about Findlay is that these ballplayers are students first. And it was just as likely that the members of the squad, The Ten, were just as focused on their classes this week as they were on their basketball drills.
At Findlay Prep, academics are as important as athletics, books as valuable as the boards.
And life seemed good Friday, until after classes were done for the day and the e-mails arrived on home computers. Parents swallowed hard and their lanky sons wondered what would come of them and their team.
“I’m writing you today with some difficult news,” said the e-mail from Brian Siegel, head of schools for Henderson International, which serves students from preschool through high school.
And the news, on reflection, seemed inevitable. Findlay Prep had finally confronted an adversary that was unbeatable and instead of being called the Tigers or the Bears or the Wildcats or Eagles, this one was called the Great Recession, and it had finally snatched the great Findlay Prep and the rest of the 102 high school students attending Henderson International.
Yes, just 102 students.
And that, you see, was the problem. Even with tuition at more than $17,000 a year, the revenue wasn’t sufficient to keep the high school a viable institution. It would have to be closed, Siegel told his school family in e-mail that was as compassionate as e-mail can be. Instead, he said, all attention would turn to the children, the students in preschool through eighth grade.
“This decision came after much thoughtful consideration,” he wrote. “The extreme economic challenges facing Las Vegas — including record number of foreclosures, high unemployment, and relocation of many families out of the area — have taken their toll on many Henderson families and also resulted in lower demand for our high school.”
There was a glaring omission in his e-mail, not that it really mattered: Even as the campus struggled for more students, there was plenty of competition to be accepted into the school’s basketball program — called Findlay Prep. It took its name from Cliff Findlay, the Las Vegas automobile magnate and former UNLV forward who was the team’s primary benefactor, right down to offering full-ride scholarships to The Ten.
Every year, 500 kids or more would write letters to Findlay Prep, seeking admission. And the school would only take three or four or five, however many needed to replace the graduating seniors.
To get admitted, these kids would first have to get past Daron Gallina. He’s not the coach, or an assistant coach, or even the chaperon at the house across the street where the boys live during the school year. (That task goes to an assistant coach and his wife.)
Gallina is the team’s academic adviser. He goes over the candidates’ academic transcripts and weighs in on whether the boys might have a chance at Henderson International — not on the basketball court, but in the classroom.
They won’t need him anymore.
But maybe another school, somewhere, can mimic the model built at Findlay Prep, a program that benched you were you to fall behind in your studies. Gallina wouldn’t care how many three-pointers you could toss if you couldn’t maintain a 3.0 grade-point average on your college-prep coursework.
Tristan Thompson knew this when he arrived.
He’s a 6-foot-10 senior forward who’s on the 24-man McDonald’s All-American team and is rated as one of the nation’s top 20 college prospects by several evaluating services.
And Thompson says he came here as much for the academics as for the athletics.
“Education is the key for me,” he says. “It’s just as important as basketball. For me, it starts with my mom. She will call coach (Mike) Peck to see how I’m doing in school. If he tells her that I’m struggling, I can’t play. She wants me to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree.”
This is how savvy, how balanced, this kid is: “You can’t play basketball forever. The ball starts dropping when you are around 34 years old. You still have 40 years of life after that.”
Thompson won’t be affected by the school’s closing. He’s signed on at Texas.
But consider the plight of 15-year-old Nigel Williams-Goss, who moved here from Portland, Ore., to join the Findlay team last summer. His parents came too, and bought a house — hey, the economy works both ways and houses are a lot cheaper here than they used to be.
“Going to school here is a lot tougher than people think,” Williams-Goss said earlier in the week, before anyone knew that this would be his first — and last — year at Henderson International. “I came from a public school and the teachers there didn’t have the time to give you individual attention. I felt like I was behind when I got here.”
The school will have its legacy, at least, and it will extend beyond the bright lights of a professional sports career.
All 17 players who have graduated from the program in Peck’s three years have been academically qualified to play Division 1 collegiate ball based on grades in 16 core classes and standardized test scores.
“I’m the first one to say the credit has to go to the guys,” Peck said earlier in the week, not betraying whether he knew what was in store on Friday. “I’m not the one taking the tests.”
If another school adopts the ethic that was embraced at this one, there will be no tolerance for slackers; thanks to rigid daily monitoring reports signed by teachers in every class, a late homework assignment, a poor test score, poor classroom participation or bad behavior would catch up to the player before he hits the court for practice that afternoon.
And once a week, an assistant coach would check in on the players’ grades, e-mailing their teachers for updates.
“The kids have to be self-motivated,” Peck said. “If you don’t do the work and if you don’t study, guess what, you aren’t going to qualify.”
Once in the door, the players received all the tools to get the work done. Each athlete was equipped with a laptop computer — valuable for coordinating with teachers during road trips — and there were 90-minute study hall sessions most evenings after practice. The school also enlisted tutors to help the athletes prepare for college exams.
Before he knew that he’d be looking for another job, math teacher Charles Allen said he relished teaching potential professional basketball players.
Those boys will remember the biggest lesson of all for young athletes: “I tell them that there are a lot of people out there whose sole objective is to keep you from your money,” Allen said. “Even if you are an NBA player, you would sure like to be an educated NBA player.”
That may be one of the enduring legacies of Henderson International School and the stars of Findlay Prep: They came to play, but they also came to learn, and they did both, very well.
And suddenly, that ESPN invitational in Washington in April seems very, very important to 10 very good, and smart, ball players in Henderson.