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"People kept telling me I should stay," Shorter says. "They kept telling me all this stuff, but they forget my academics. If I break Chamberlain's record, but then I don't make it through college, they'd say they knew I was going to fail."
Places like Oak Hill don't work academic miracles. "I don"t see how they can undo in one year what it took a youngster 11 to do," says Temple coach John Chaney. Indeed, of Oak Hill's seven Division I signees last season, four, including Brooks, came up short of the 700 combined SAT score required for them to play as freshmen.
Oak Hill officials acknowledge that they can do only so much for athletes who spend just a year on campus. And they concede that they have admitted some students who don't belong. One was Lloyd Daniels, the New York City player who recently enrolled at Nevada-Las Vegas. Daniels had two stints at Oak Hill and also attended three other high schools, including Laurinburg. "We don't want a kid who has only a snowball's chance of making a 700," says Smith. He and other school officials say that although they screen players' academic records before admitting them, there is no way to be sure how well a student will do before he enrolls.
"You always get kids calling who just want to play basketball, and they think by coming here to a small, closed environment they're going to get bailed out academically," says Smith. "It doesn't work that way. I want to win for my personal pride, for the players, for the tradition here. But that's not the end of the line. The most important thing is for them to go to college and make it."
That last sentiment alone is enough to make Oak Hill an oasis of hope for the academically deficient. The small classes (the teacher-to-student ratio is 12 to 1) ensure that truancy or unfinished homework doesn't go unnoticed. Lagging students are required to attend extra sessions. There is a mandatory two-hour study period every weekday. The school offers two four-hour seminars on the SAT before each testing date. Shorter took the seminars last fall but scored only 540. He'll try again next month. "It'd be my fault if I don't make it," he says. "They teach you the right things here. It'd be because I didn't listen or didn't comprehend what was on the test."
To be sure, academics aren't every Warrior's reason for going to Oak Hill. Green had the books licked, but his mother didn't think that Long Island City was a safe environment for a 17-year-old, even one so tough that he has calluses on his fingers from hanging on rims. Mike Rodgers, a 6'4" guard from Ocean, N.J., who has signed with Fairfield, wanted stiffer basketball competition. Keith Swanston needed the exposure to college recruiters he wouldn't get in his native Virgin Islands. And Harkeem Dixon, of Mattapan, Mass., whose brother, Zachary, is a former NFL running back and whose sister, Medina, was an Old Dominion basketball star, thought he could improve upon the Division II offer he received last year. He's repeating his senior season and already has had a few Division I feelers. "Going Division II is not living up to the family name," Dixon says.
Dawn Cawthon was a chronic truant on the verge of failing her junior year in Hayes, Va. Her parents sent her to Oak Hill; now Dawn wants to be a math teacher. "Everyone gets helped," she says. The mostly middle-class student body operates at a docile hum, as if it has been either soothed with love or intimidated with threats. The hottest issue the student advisory committee has taken to the administration lately is a plea to make large tables out of the small tables in the cafeteria.
At Oak Hill, success comes from structure. Breakfast is at 7 a.m., and school is in session till 3:25. Lights—and TVs—go off at 10. Outgoing phone calls are limited to one a week. All campus activity is monitored, and there are strict Baptist prohibitions against kissing in public and entertaining students of the opposite sex in dorm rooms. Both offenses are grounds for suspension or expulsion. Students must get permission to head "off Hill," and the academy's jurisdiction doesn't end at the Mouth. A basketball player from New York City found that out last fall. He had spent part of his weekend leave with a coed in a Wytheville, Va., motel room. He and the girl were expelled. Some speculate that they were thrown out because he is black and she is white. But another black player says simply, "He knew the rules."
Certainly basketball hotshots no longer get the preferential treatment they once did. The principal, Steve Cornett, says that when the school first went big time, it admitted players who could read on only a "first-or second-grade level." Some subsequent Oak Hill officials, ego-bent on assembling the nation's best team, accepted postgrads who would quit school as soon as the season ended. According to Smith, then-president Isner even objected to players' making early commitments to colleges because that meant fewer coaches would pay recruiting visits. Clearly, the tail was wagging the dog.
Smith's predecessor, Larry Davis, now an assistant at Delaware, says, "When I got to Oak Hill I would call schools for scheduling, and the first thing I got was, 'You guys are a bandit school.' [Isner] saw basketball as a way to promote the school. He was willing to do what it took to have a good team." Says one rival coach of Oak Hill's in-and-out personnel in those days, "You could scout one team in October and see another team in December."