De Matha High School in Hyattsville has had many great basketball players through the years, including All-Pro Adrian Dantley of the Utah Jazz and Kenny Carr of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Several other players are in the midst of impressive collegiate careers, including Sidney Lowe and Derek Whittenberg at North Carolina State University and Percy White at Western Kentucky University.
The latest standout player for the Stags is Adrian Branch. If the last name sounds familiar, it should. His two older brothers, Charles and Phil, also played for De Matha. Phil later became a key player for Bowie High, and Charles was named All-Met his senior year.
From the start, the slender, 6-foot-7 Branch has been destined for success. He led the Stags' freshman squad to an undefeated season and made the varsity team his sophomore year.
As a junior last year, Branch led his team to a 26-4 record, averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per game. He hit 58 percent of his shots from the floor and was named to the All-Met squad.
Branch possesses all the tools of a top college forward. He is quick, handles the ball well for a player his size, has a good outside shot and rebounds well. He poses a problem for opposing players because he is a southpaw.
Basketball is important to the Branches, who live in Upper Marlboro. Adrian's father, Charles Sr., is a coach in the Catholic Youth Organization League and has played a significant role in his sons' lives. He coached Adrian from the time he was 6 until the day he entered De Matha.
Branch says he thinks that having his father as a coach was "a definite advantage."
"He was far more critical of our game than someone else would have been," Branch says. "He was sort of tough on us. As a matter of fact, we had to call him 'coach,' just like all the other players, when we played in the CYO league."
Branch adds that his father constantly reminded him that he would have to be prepared to deal with other coaches and their personalities.
De Matha coach Morgan Wootten, who has coached many All-Mets and All-Americans, has nothing but praise for Branch.
"No question, Adrian is one of the most outstanding players to ever play at De Matha," Wootten says.
"He is a solid defensive player; he is a fierce competitor and shows strong leadership for someone his age."
Branch's abilities have not gone unnoticed by scouts. He has been rated one of the top high school players in the country by several publications, including Street & Smith's Basketball Yearbook, which named him a third-team All American.
After receiving all these plaudits, Branch might be expected to gloat a bit. On the contrary, he says a humbling experience last summer has made him view things differently.
"I tore some ligaments in my thumb that required surgery," he recalls. "It was the first time that I have ever experienced a serious injury. I wasn't able to play summer ball, so I had a lot of time to think things out. All kinds of things went through my mind, things like would I ever be able to play again or would I ever be the same.
"Now that I look back on it, I think it was a blessing in disguise. It made me realize at a young age that nothing is definite except death. Since then I think I've stopped taking things for granted."
After receiving offers, letters and visits from colleges all over the United States, Branch narrowed his choice to three schools: North Carolina, North Carolina State and the University of Maryland.
Rather than keep these schools waiting, Branch announced last week that he would attend Maryland.
He says several factors led to his decision to play for the Terrapins. "This area has been good to me. I've enjoyed a lot of exposure, and no matter where I've gone in my travels to different places, there is still no place like home. Besides, I want to play in front of my family and friends."
Branch adds that Maryland worked out a plan for him to get training in his desired field. "I want to drive trains, and Maryland was able to work out something in their curriculum so that I can take classes in that field and get credit for on-the-job training," Branch says.
He adds that the team's style of play, the coach's philosophy and the school's facilities were also considerations that affected his decision.
Branch was one of may student athletes who announced their college choice as juniors. Branch says he did so to relieve some of the pressure during his senior season, which should help his and the team's performance. He adds, "I didn't want all those schools who were interested to waste their time and efforts. By eliminating me from their list, they can go after someone else whom they have a better chance of landing."
Meanwhile, he will continue attending to business, leading the Stags through another season. De Matha has been ranked as high as No. 1 in the country in some preseason polls. Alongside Branch will be Charles Minor (6-7) at center, Phil Coles (6-5) at power forward, Kelvin Johnson (6-1) at the point and Bob Ferry (6-5) at the wing. Tom Graves (6-3) is the sixth man.
But Branch is the key to the Stags' hopes of capturing the national title. His poise, experience and leadership qualities give the team an extra dimension.
"He is the type of player who makes the other four players better just by being on the court," explains Wootten. "That's why he's a team captain."
In conversation, Branch, 17, gives the impression of being much older. He carefully chooses his words and often looks at things philosophically. "I've had the opportunity to look at various experiences that my brothers have had. In some cases, their losses are my gains. I know that it all means something significant. I've come to the conclusion that I'm the 'chosen one' in my family," he says.