One of the top high school basketball teams in the country calls this industrial city of 50,000 on the banks of the Ohio River home. Huntington Prep has many of the trappings of other top high school basketball teams — a fancy Web site, international players, sponsorship by a major shoe brand.
Huntington Prep is different from most high school teams, however: It’s not a high school. Rather, it’s a collection of 12 teenage boys who have come to this town on the western edge of the state solely for basketball. The educational aspect of their high school experience is farmed out to St. Joseph’s Central Catholic High School, located just blocks from downtown, where the players attend class each day.
“People think Huntington Prep is our school but it’s not where we go; it’s a name we have on our jersey,” said Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a top junior guard from Scarborough, Ontario, who already holds scholarship offers from such colleges as Arizona, Kansas and Connecticut. “During the day, we’re St. Joe’s students. After school, we’re part of the Huntington Prep basketball team.”
The legitimacy of the team has come under question. West Virginia’s governing body for high school athletics won’t recognize it; the team’s schedule is entirely made up of out-of-state teams or college junior varsity squads. ESPN will not consider Huntington Prep for its national rankings, eliminating it from earning a spot in its National High School Invitational tournament in April. The NCAA has also taken notice.
“We don’t consider [programs like this] as being a part of high school basketball programs in this country,” said Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which represents state high school athletic federations.
The brainchild of Coach Rob Fulford, who created the team in 2008, Huntington Prep is the latest attempt to create a basketball powerhouse for high school-aged boys while staying clear of the NCAA’s efforts against diploma mills, high-powered teams loosely associated with schools with little or no emphasis on education. There are a handful of similarly organized teams around the country.
The idea behind them is simple: Recruit a talented team from across the globe and send the players to an established school for their education while competing as an independent entity. The goal: Build a national powerhouse and secure Division I scholarships for its players.
Some basketball observers are skeptical of Fulford’s motives, but the 38-year-old former pharmaceutical salesman says he simply loves to coach.
“Coaching to me is a passion,” said Fulford, whose Express (24-2) are part of a showcase event Saturday and Sunday at Trinity University in Northeast Washington. “I’m not in this to make money or I would have jumped to college long ago. We scramble from paycheck to paycheck.”
The model for Huntington Prep was started in 2001, when the International Management Group created a basketball academy in Bradenton, Fla., to go along with its golf, tennis and baseball endeavors. The best-known program of this type is Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., an enterprise financed by a Las Vegas car dealer. La Jolla Prep opened for business this school year outside San Diego.
“From 8 until 3:15, Huntington Prep doesn’t really exist,” Fulford said. “We’ve never tried to hide the fact we’re not a school. That’s one of the issues that people bring up — it’s not a school — but at the same time we want to make sure everyone understands these kids are not in Huntington not in school, waking up at 11 o’clock and going to the gym and doing an online class whenever they can do it.”
While much has been made of schools whose entire student bodies were composed of basketball players doing online or home-schooling course work, Huntington Prep’s players are regular St. Joe’s students during the day, then are whisked off to practice by Fulford or assistant coach Lazar Milinkovic in a van following the afternoon bell.
“As years go by, more and more are going to be popping up,” said Gary Trousdale, the founder and coach of La Jolla Prep, whose team includes a mix of high school students and players who have graduated from high school.
There is little governing what these teams can do, from the players they bring in to their training regimens to their schedules.
“There are a lot of these that are starting up and unfortunately they don’t have the right strategy or plan in mind and they come and go pretty quick,” Fulford said. “The biggest problem we see in some of the ones popping up is there is not an academic component for it. We are recruiting kids for basketball, but there is an academic component.”
Fulford, who formerly coached at the defunct Mountain State Academy in Beckley, W.Va., has filed paperwork to set up Huntington Prep as a nonprofit; he said the Internal Revenue Service recently requested additional information, such as teacher’s salaries, and he had to explain that the program does not employ teachers.
Fulford says his salary is $35,000, and it takes about $200,000 annually to keep the team afloat. While he accepts donations from anyone willing to pitch in, two area businessman have underwritten much of the cost since Huntington opened.
The team pays the $6,750 tuition for most of its players to attend St. Joe’s and also picks up their room and board. Only one player pays full tuition, Fulford said. Most of the players either live with Fulford, one of his assistants or with host families. Two players share an apartment in the same building as two assistant coaches.
Said Fulford: “Findlay was so successful, so quick on the national level that it started posing questions: Is this right? They’ve continued to be successful and now that we’re also getting into the top fives and things like that, the question is posed: Are these things legitimate? I can speak on my behalf and Findlay’s, because I know those guys — these two programs are legit. Not everyone agrees, though.”
The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association recognized Findlay only after getting the okay from the NCAA. The West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission does not recognize Huntington Prep. “It’s basically an individual who has put together a few young men who are playing basketball for him,” said Gary Ray, the commission’s executive director. “Kind of like an AAU team.”
“One thing we do when we can identify a setup like [Huntington Prep] has been created . . . is communicate to those high schools to ensure that preferential treatment has not taken place,” said Jeremy McCool, the NCAA’s assistant director of high school review. “That they are not trying to establish some sort of athlete-specific academic program that is less than the academic program they offer to the general student body.”
At St. Joe’s, Huntington Prep’s players follow the same school rules as the rest of the 140-person student body, including removing earrings and covering any tattoos in the red brick school, which opened in 1932..
“What is Rob doing that’s different between this and a tennis academy or golf school?” St. Joseph’s Principal Bill Archer said. “I look at them as students. . . . They get no special privileges.”
Still, blending a dozen tall, mostly black teenagers into the mostly-white school can be a challenge.
Negus Webster-Chan, a senior guard from Ontario, said “I wouldn’t say that” he feels like a part of the school. “I’m just not like them, I guess. . . . [But] I wouldn’t change it. I’m glad I came here. It’s changed me as a person.”
St. Joe’s fields its own basketball teams; the girls’ squad has won three consecutive state titles. But the gym is small, with just three baskets and little room on either sideline. Fulford rents a court on non-game days at the three-year-old Marshall University Recreation Center, where a trainer also runs players through strength and conditioning exercises three days a week.
Getting players is not a problem for Fulford, who spends the summer attending travel-team tournaments and recruiting players. He has developed a relationship with the Canadian club team CIA Bounce, attracting many of its top players. This season’s 12-player roster includes six Canadians, two Africans and just one player from West Virginia.
Senior forward Stefan Jankovic and Webster-Chan, both from Toronto, signed with Missouri. Senior forward Elijah Macon, from Columbus, Ohio, signed with West Virginia. Senior guard Javontae Hawkins, from Flint, Mich., signed with South Florida. Then there is Andrew Wiggins, a 6-foot-7 guard from suburban Toronto who is considered by some to be the top player in the 2014 high school class.
Wiggins, like his teammates, struggled at first with what seems like a basic question: What do you say when asked where you go to school?
“When I first came here, I thought I was going to be playing for St. Joe’s and be a part of the Irish guys,” said Macon, who attended a public school in Columbus the previous three years. “My friends in Columbus, they think . . . that we don’t go to school, all we do is practice. But we don’t get grades for free. I do have to go to school here. I can’t come down here and do nothing and just go to practice in the afternoon. Then I would be fat, because I would eat fast food all the time. It’s harder than a public school.”