Throughout practices for April’s Capital Classic high school basketball all-star game, five players on the U.S. squad kept begging Coach Harry Martin to scrimmage together. Each time, he steadfastly refused. But Martin finally relented during the fourth quarter of the game itself, inserting the quintet of close friends — three big men and two guards, all headed to Maryland — much to the crowd’s delight.
For three minutes in a 105-93 win over the Capital All-Stars at T.C. Williams High School, Seth Allen, Sam Cassell Jr., Shaquille Cleare, Damonte Dodd and Charles Mitchell dominated. Cleare finished with 14 points, and Cassell and Allen combined for 22. They ran pick-and-rolls and threw down alley-oops, grinning and pumping fists as the fans chanted “Let’s Go Maryland.” Afterward, they lingered for nearly an hour, signing autographs for red-clad kids and adults.
The friends haven’t entirely been reunited at Maryland: Dodd is taking a post-graduate year at Massanutten Military Academy, and Cassell was deemed a non-qualifier by the NCAA. But Mitchell, Allen and Cleare all have become instrumental contributors to this season’s Terrapins squad, which enters Saturday’s ACC opener against Virginia Tech on a 12-game winning streak, buoyed by a bench stacked with Coach Mark Turgeon’s inaugural recruiting class.
And the Capital Classic? It was where a friendship was formed, foreshadowing one of the most tight-knit groups Turgeon has ever coached. Unlike typical bonds at summer basketball camp, where promises to write and text and remain best-friends-forever fall by the wayside, that weekend in Alexandria was the inception of something truly special.
“We didn’t leave each other alone the whole time,” Mitchell said. “It was friendship, team chemistry since the moment we met.”
Longing for sleep after a late flight on April 19, Cleare had barely trudged into the Alexandria hotel lobby when he heard Mitchell’s thundering laugh.
They were AAU rivals. Cleare was the prized big-man recruit from Texas with the famous first name, Mitchell the tank-bodied forward from Atlanta. Both knew Sam Cassell Jr. because of Sam Cassell Sr., a former NBA player of 15 seasons, but had no idea what to expect from Allen and Dodd.
Mitchell flew from Atlanta with trepidations, nervous about meeting his future teammates for the first time. He traveled solo, much like he did on the AAU circuit, and arrived at the Holiday Inn first. Hearing a knock on his door, Mitchell opened it and saw a middle-age man staring up at the 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward. “Uhh, how may I help you?” Mitchell asked. Around the corner, Allen exited the elevator, finally catching up to his father. Mitchell’s confusion dissipated. “Oh Seth,” he said smiling, recognizing Allen from highlight tapes. “What’s good?”
Everything, it seemed, was perfect that weekend. Allen and Mitchell have roomed together ever since. And once Cleare, Cassell and Dodd arrived, the five were inseparable. They wolfed down a late-night pizza over television, sat together for dry-rub ribs the following afternoon and watched the romantic comedy “Think Like a Man” from the front row, giggling until their stomachs hurt. If basketball flows through their veins, laughter was their oxygen.
“Chuck will never stop talking, laughing with everyone, running around the hotel eating Snickers and stuff,” Cleare said of the group’s dynamic. “Seth will never stop laughing. Sam will always be on the phone. Damonte’s making crazy, random comments all the time. I was just laughing at everyone the whole time.”
During down time, they talked school and girls, trading basketball stories and dreams. Dodd learned that Cleare also played drums at his local church. Cleare trained Allen to speak in a thick Bahamian accent, while Allen’s YouTube highlights had Mitchell wondering how the guard slipped under the recruiting radar.
“Good group of guys,” Dodd said. “You can always tell from a first impression on how a person is, how they act when we first meet. When I met all of them, they were all cool. I didn’t have different thoughts, they were pretty much all the same, same personalities, just all-around good people.”
Every Maryland fan seems to have a favorite freshman now. Maybe it’s the lefty Allen, with his speed and pencil moustache . Perhaps you’re drawn to Cleare’s deadpan jokes and shot-blocking prowess, or Mitchell’s charming grin and rebounding tenacity . Most likely, though, your choice changes daily.
“You get a chance to coach guys going to big-time schools like that, you sit back and look at it,” said Martin, the boys’ varsity coach at Baltimore’s Patterson High School. “Definitely being a Maryland fan, suffering the last couple years, you could see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Maryland’s media sessions offer a peek into their friendships, which have diffused throughout the roster. Spread two players across a room, and whoever finishes first inevitably sneaks up behind the other, intruding on photographs or engaging in some type of bear hug. On road trips, they post pictures of one another sleeping to Instagram, sometimes adorned with the caption “Nobody safe.”
“We all like to have fun,” Allen said. “We all clown each other, joke on each other. That makes it easier, that we’re all similar. From a serious point of view, if one of us is messing up on the court, if one of us is not getting something, it helps that we all have similar personalities, because we’d be the first one to say come on, you have to pick this up. We can take constructive criticism from each other.”
There’s still plenty of work to be done. Allen’s electricity can backfire through forced turnovers, while Cleare and Mitchell continue searching for consistent post performances. That Turgeon freely offers criticism of his youngsters to reporters, however, speaks as much to the coach’s Midwestern honesty as it does to his belief in them as the cornerstones of his program.
Following the Capital Classic, the U.S. players drove to a McDonald’s, where each family settled before a different table. Allen sat with Andrew White, a close friend who now plays for Kansas, but kept bouncing across the room, visiting other booths like he was speed-dating. Allen had a 20-minute drive home to Woodbridge that evening but, like everyone else it seemed, couldn’t bring himself to leave. He kept reflecting on the game, promising to stay in touch. He wanted to stay just one more night.