Oak Hill is one of a handful of rural private schools that draw topflight inner-city basketball talent. Young hotshots end up in Mouth of Wilson for several reasons: the oft-cited "rising tide of mediocrity" that plagues many of the nation's public schools; the flood of destructive forces that prey on city kids; the no-slack academic standards set by the NCAA to govern eligibility for college freshmen. At Oak Hill and schools like it, the rules are strong, academics are all-important, and college scouts come in droves.
Look around. Philly's finest, 6'7" power forward Brian Shorter, who has committed to Pitt, and New York's top gun, 6'5½" swingman Sean Green, who's bound for N.C. State, both go to Oak Hill. One of the top juniors in the country, 6'9" forward Kenny Williams of Elizabeth City, N.C., is prepping for North Carolina by spending an extra high school year at another Virginia private school, Fork Union Military Academy. Perry Carter, a 6'7" power forward and Washington, D.C.'s best player, is taking a postgrad year at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, Maine.
"There's no question that the prep and military academies are having a big impact on college basketball," says Arizona coach Lute Olson. "If I were the parent of a kid who had basketball ability and was not going to make it eligibility-wise in public schools, I'd send him there."
There are many theres from which to choose. There are all-male military schools that preach discipline. There are postgraduate programs that offer an outlet for the overaged and the underexposed; Fork Union (which handed Oak Hill its only defeat this season) is a prime example. A slightly different approach is followed by demanding Flint Hill, a tiny, tony, college-prep palace in Oakton, Va., whose team is rated No. 1 by USA Today. Flint Hill's most sought-after player is 6'7" do-it-all Dennis Scott of Reston, Va. Like many of his teammates, Scott has attended the school since his freshman year and has repeated a grade, getting in an extra year of ball. Morgan Wooten, coach of perennially powerful DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., refuses to play Flint Hill because the team includes fifth-year players. "We'd be sending our 17-year-olds against the equivalent of college guys," says Wooten.
Another prep basketball stronghold is predominantly black Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute, which in the '60s produced such future college and pro stars as Jimmy Walker and Charlie Scott. More recently Laurinburg raised eyebrows by conferring a diploma on the NBA's troubled Chris Washburn, who had struggled at Fork Union for a year. Some basketball people say that Laurinburg is a haven for shortcutters. However, Laurinburg claims that 80% of its students graduate from college, and the principal, Sammie McDuffie, who's also the mother of the basketball coach, says, "I imagine there are a lot of questions in [recruiters'] minds, but we are doing the same things we've always done. When an athlete comes to Laurinburg, he's a student first."
In a catalog of prep hoop powers, Oak Hill belongs on its own page. Unlike Laurinburg, it is largely white; of its 15 black students, 7 are basketball players. Oak Hill doesn't have the trappings of the military schools (its dress code, if you can call it that, bans jeans with holes and shirts without collars), and it doesn't permit postgrads, although most players come just for their senior seasons, so the team turns over practically every year. The academy has a folksy faculty and the decor of a neglected rumpus room. It trades in rehabilitating the wayward, and for the most part it honorably discharges that mission. An average of 70% of the graduating class goes on to college. Many of those who do so would not have considered college had they not come to Mouth of Wilson.
"Our clientele is primarily underachievers," says Ed F. Patton, Oak Hill's current president. "But we are also working with another group, those students who are not really underprivileged, but the neighborhood they live in, the peer group they're with, the school they attend leave them no way they'll ever be successful."
Oak Hill, the team, has emerged out of the mandate of Oak Hill, the school. Most players go to there for the same reasons that the majority of nonathletes do, at $6,600 a pop: to improve their grades and study habits, escape a rough home life and get motivated. Basketball players are able to blend in quite well, even if they are enrolled only for a year.
That's why Shorter sacrificed a season in the sun to attend Oak Hill. At Simon Gratz High he stood 384 points shy of surpassing Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia schoolboy scoring record of 2,252. Had Shorter stayed for his senior season and remained healthy, he would have had Wilt's record by now and been assured of schoolyard immortality.
Off the court, though, Shorter was struggling. Something of a loner, he had been living with his mom in a house in Nice-town that sometimes didn't have running water. He also was having trouble maintaining the 2.0 grade point average he needed to be eligible as a college freshman under NCAA Bylaw 5-1(j). So Shorter looked for an alternative. He had read about an Oak Hill player from New York, Chris Brooks, now a West Virginia freshman, who had portrayed the school not only as a good place to learn but also as ascetically chic. "Blackboards and backboards," was the way Brooks put it. Shorter contacted Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, who encouraged him to come. A month later Shorter went packing off to boarding school. Boarding? folks would say. You already do that 16 times a game.