An Academy Devoted To Playing Basketball

"Our plan was to start a team and outscore the academics," founder Jason Niblett said of his Heat Basketball Academy, which doesn't offer classes. (The Roanoke Times)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- After two hours of basketball practice, a group trip downtown to pay the electric bill, grocery shopping, napping and the second hamburger-centric meal of the day, school finally started here at the Heat Basketball Academy.

Sort of.

At 2:15 on a Friday afternoon, eight basketball players dispersed throughout a suburban duplex that doubles as their home and classroom in this faded textile and furniture industry town near the North Carolina border. They sprawled out across couches and beds and turned on their laptop computers.

Rashad Coleman, a 21-year-old former college student from Atlanta, logged in for his Internet math class. Corey Jones, a recent high school graduate from Roanoke, studied for the SAT online. Twin guards Sammy and Teddy Schickel consulted a textbook for the correspondence class they take through Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. A few other teammates, Australians enjoying their summer vacation, listened to music and watched "SportsCenter."

The team's coaches herald it as the ultimate independent study.

Two years ago, around the same time the NCAA began scrutinizing high schools that offered elite basketball competition but shaky academic credentials, a former college basketball player named Jason Niblett had an idea that he believes will transform prep basketball: Instead of starting a school with a basketball team, Niblett thought, why not start a basketball team that includes some students?

The Heat Basketball Academy doesn't own a school building, doesn't offer classes, doesn't employ teachers and doesn't issue grades. Rather, it's a haven for 17- to 21-year-olds who want to play elite basketball while pursuing their own academic agendas. Some Heat players are enrolled at a local private high school; some have graduated high school but lack qualifying scores on the SAT; some have attended college but want attention from bigger universities; and some are just visiting from Australia and Nigeria.

The Heat plays almost exclusively against prep schools, but its own educational offerings are made clear on an informational tab found on the Heat Web site: Academics (Optional).

"Our plan was to start a team and outsource the academics," Niblett said. "I'm a basketball coach, and I know basketball. So we thought, 'Let's concentrate on building a great basketball team, and let's leave the academics to the people who do academics.' "

Niblett said he consulted officials at the NCAA before starting the program, and Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of membership services, confirmed that the Heat's setup is not in itself problematic so long as athletes meet academic eligibility standards through other classwork. "You see this model for some individual sports, where individuals elect to pursue their athletics independent of high school," Lennon said. "But it's safe to say in basketball we just haven't seen a lot of that."

* * *

The idea came to Niblett in a dream two years ago -- "God-given in my sleep," he said -- and the coach woke up devoted to fulfilling it. A former high school star in Martinsville who helped East Tennessee State advance to the second round of the 1992 NCAA tournament, Niblett played professionally for six years in France and already had a diverse network of local basketball connections. He had been a head coach at nearby Bassett High School and at a Martinsville community college. Three months after conceiving of the Heat, Niblett lured talented players from Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland and Roanoke.

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