CHRISTMAS: A traditional time for sharing, family, self-reflection...exploding fake volcanoes, half-naked cocktail waitresses, casinos with inexplicable medieval themes and lots of guys named Manny. While all across America youngsters were going to bed on Christmas Eve dreaming of yuletide stockings and gifts to be exchanged on Christmas Day, the Warriors of Oak Hill Academy, one of the nation's highest-profile prep school basketball powers, were slumbering with visions of Shecky Greene and Don Rickles dancing through their heads.
Oak Hill is a private prep school of 175 students in tiny Mouth of Wilson. Va. (pop. 100), and over the school's Christmas break, which ran from Dec. 15 to Jan. 9, its basketball team was on the road for 16 straight days, playing 10 games during that stretch at tournaments in Jackson, Tenn., Las Vegas and San Diego. Had the Warriors not been eliminated early in Las Vegas they would have played two more games on the tour. All of which goes to show that the big-time high school basketball road show has reached a fevered pitch that would be considered unacceptable even by NBA standards.
It is left to Oak Hill coach Steve Smith to explain why a group of high school students should spend much of their free time barnstorming the country at such a pace. "College coaches always tell me that Oak Hill graduates adjust much better than other kids," says Smith, who has a nifty 237-15 record in his nine seasons at Oak Hill. "Our job is to get them ready for college life. They play hard and they study hard. This is a prep school."
Indeed, Oak Hill does send a high percentage of its players, most of whom receive some form of financial aid from the school, to Division I programs. This year's Warriors are led by the backcourt of Curtis Staples, a brilliant shooter headed for Virginia in the ACC, and point guard Tarik Turner, who has committed to St. John's in the Big East. Last year Staples and Turner played their prep ball at St. John's Prospect Hall in Maryland, but they beelined it to Oak Hill because, as Staples explains, "we liked their style of play, and it seemed like better exposure." Presumably they liked the school too.
Smith says he never recruits players but he acknowledges that private schools like Oak Hill are burdened by fewer rules than public schools; in fact, they aren't governed by many rules at all. Such schools can play national schedules—the Warriors will visit 10 states this year—and transfers can play immediately. Even for Oak Hill, however, there are certain limits: Because three Warriors accepted gifts during a Nike-sponsored tournament last September, they cannot play in two games scheduled against Virginia public high schools this season.
But, hey, it's Christmas—and no, Santa Claus, this isn't Virginia. The Las Vegas portion of the Warriors' trip started smoothly enough with an opening night pummeling of the Venice (Calif.) Gondoliers, who played about as well as their Venetian counterparts might have. The next morning Oak Hill faced another Los Angeles-area team: the Dominguez Dons. When the Oak Hill players entered the gym at Durango High with their 54-game unbeaten streak in tow, there were oohs and aahs from the spectators.
But soon a funny thing happened. Despite a game effort by Staples and forward Alex Sanders, Dominguez proceeded to beat the tuition out of the Warriors, who found themselves in the unusual predicament of being too large. The relatively tiny Dominguez players ran circles around them. It didn't help that the Warriors were clearly exhausted from a road trip that could only be described as Odyssean.
After the 65-48 loss it took the crestfallen team an hour just to get dressed. Then the players had to face a more existential crisis: Does a road trip exist if there isn't a game? The tournament final was scheduled for Thursday, two days before Christmas, but the Warriors were knocked out on Tuesday—and they weren't leaving town until Saturday. So there they were, a roving band of energetic postadolescents trapped in a Holiday Inn a token's throw from a mud wrestling emporium, numerous casinos and America's biggest Egyptian-style pyramid.
After group outings to every conceivable theme-park hotel in town before and after a consolation game victory over Las Vegas's Cimarron-Memorial on Wednesday, Christmas Eve morning found several Warriors milling around the hotel, assaulted by endless Muzak versions of O Little Town of Bethlehem. After breakfast in the hotel restaurant, everyone headed off for practice at Durango High. "What else are they gonna do?" joked assistant coach Sid Finklea. "Play blackjack?" Afterward, as Christmas grew ever closer, the players could be found hanging around the hotel, which was mercifully free of slot machines. (During a past visit to a different hotel, Smith found the ninth-grade team manager frantically feeding quarters into the slots 10 minutes after check-in.)
In one room Turner napped as guards Michael Brewer and Ira Becks flicked the remote from channel to channel. "Man, this is weird," sighed Becks, who's from Stanton, Va. He stared out the window at the world's largest replica of the Sphinx. "I've never been away from my family at Christmas," he said.
As darkness fell it was time for the Vegas equivalent of midnight Mass. There they were, the whole Oak Hill ensemble, in front of the Mirage hotel and casino, worshiping at the altar of the world's largest fake erupting volcano. Then, inside the Mirage, they caught a videotaped glimpse of Siegfried and Roy, the frosted, lion-taming cultural oddities. "Are they men or women?" asked Sanders.
The players then spent the rest of that special night cruising through casino after casino, peering over the shoulders of people who would wager on airline crash death tolls if the odds were right. After center Mike Brittian sauntered past the tables at the Flamingo Hilton, a guest vomited on himself, then fed another dollar token into the slot machine. Around midnight, as some delightful civic representatives offered players fliers advertising "entertainers" with "Sexx Appeal," the team headed back to the Holiday Inn with images of royal flushes dancing in their heads.
Ah, Christmas morning at last. After the spiritual uplift of the previous night, most of the Warriors slept and watched cartoons. Just before noon they were visited by Coach Smith's son, Sean, who gave them each a goody bag filled with cookies and candy. Then they hurriedly packed their belongings for their yuletide trip to...the Las Vegas airport, where they feasted on overpriced chili dogs and Snickers bars. The grueling Vegas trip had finally come to an end and now, thankfully, it was time to board that plane and head to...another tournament, in San Diego.
The Warriors soared past most foes but a loss in Vegas left them loose on the Strip.