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January 25, 2011

Georgia public schools taking private approach

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ATLANTA - Twenty minutes after the Alpharetta (Ga.) Milton boys basketball team carved up Seattle powerhouse Rainier Beach, 66-50, last Saturday night, the winners walked to their ride waiting on the curb.

It was a yellow school bus, No. 372, with the name "Fulton County Schools" on the side.

The bus was about the only thing that made Milton resemble your old-school, traditional public hoops program.

The Eagles boast six players on their roster with Division I skills, including Ohio State-signee Shannon Scott and Georgia Tech-bound Julian Royal.

They play an ambitious schedule that already has taken them to Ft. Myers, Fla., and Springfield, Mass.

And they are one of the best high school teams in the country, sitting at No. 5 in the latest RivalsHigh Top 100 ranking that increasingly finds more private schools near the top.

But while Milton is an anomaly in the country, it is the norm in the greater Atlanta area, where three public schools are ranked nationally and a fourth just fell out of the Top 100.

  • Norcross (Ga.) High, which won three AAAAA state titles from 2006-2008, has enough credibility as a national player that it could attract schools from across the country to last weekend's Marriott Atlanta/Norcross Invitational. It has been ranked nationally this season.

  • Decatur (Ga.) Columbia, which has won three state titles in the last four seasons (2 in AAAA, 1 in AAA), travels routinely to play outside competition. It won the Arby's Classic in Bristol, Tenn., over the holidays beating a team from Ulm, Germany for the title. The Eagles have traveled to Alaska this season. In 2009-2010, they went to Hawaii. It currently ranks No. 48 nationally.

  • Then there's Lithonia (Ga.) Miller Grove in southern DeKalb County. According to coach Sharman White, its roster has seven Division I prospects. The Wolverines travel nationally and have won the last two state titles in AAAA. It currently is ranked No. 3 nationally.

    But how did it happen? How did public schools rise to domination of the Atlanta hoops scene?

    Probably the biggest factor is the area's liberal transfer rules, which make it easy for players to go where they want to go in the public system.

    All of the area's top public school hoops programs have players that have lived elsewhere and moved in to play basketball.

    And that's not necessarily a bad thing, said DeKalb County schools athletic director Ron Sebree.

    "Parents are going to take their child where they feel it is best for he or she to go to school," he said. "People don't realize there are transfers in the student body for academic reasons, too. If families are moving into an attendance zone, our hands are tied.

    "This is America, people can move if they want to. I am on the committee for the GSHA (Georgia High School Association) that hears appeals and we deny many transfers. And how do you prove a kid is transferring for athletic reasons? That is not an easy thing to do."

    It's helped put the public schools on par - if not ahead - of the private schools in Atlanta.

    Columbia coach Phil McCrary, who won his 500th career game last weekend, knows he can compete.

    "Private schools have come in to try and get one or two of our players, but there is nothing there they can't get here," he said.

    Milton coach David Boyd said the public schools feel they can even out-sell private ones.

    "You get the best of both worlds when you come to a place like Milton," Boyd said. "You get the academics where you have 600 kids in AP courses and you get the basketball, which includes a great schedule and great teammates."

    As for those teammates? Boyd thinks that's another big factor, especially with the strong ties of the summer AAU program.

    His star guard, Scott, transferred in from Atlanta (Ga.) Lovett, a private school, as a sophomore to play with his AAU teammates Royal and Evan Nolte. Nolte has always been a resident in the Milton school zone.

    The other two big names on the Milton roster are also transfers. Dai-jon Parker, who has signed with Vanderbilt, came in from Marietta. Jordan Lloyd, who will attend Furman, is from Marietta.

    Once those players are in the program, however, it's more than just the friendships that keeps them there.

    It's the ability to travel to face good competition too.

    Columbia's McCrary - who won his milestone game while on a road trip to West Virginia - said being able to travel is key. Many of his players are also from the AAU circuit who are accustomed to traveling the country and playing top competition.

    "They are geared toward that so we and try and play a good schedule where they get to travel," McCrary said. "Public schools did not use to do that. We've played [Mouth of Wilson (Va.)] Oak Hill and other top programs."

    And then there are the academics and the facilities, both of which are top-notch and would rival those of many private schools elsewhere across the country.

    Columbia sophomore guard Tahj Shamsid-deen, a Stone Mountain resident, is able to attend the school due to its Magnet program.

    "They have the STEM program here in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and that's what I'm in," he said. "I get the basketball and STEM."

    McCrary said Shamsid-deen carries a 4.0 grade point average and is challenged enough academically that he will not be lured away by a private school.

    Miller Grove's White said his school's facilities also play a part in its success.

    The school, just five years old, has a spacious gym as part of attractive, state-of-the-art building. The Wolverines have the best in uniforms with funding help from Bishop Eddie Long, who runs a multi-million dollar ministry in Atlanta and DeKalb.

    "Our building and the overall environment creates good morale here," White said.

    And then there's this simple reason - friendships.

    "The public schools are keeping their players because of the social aspects," White said. "These players want to be around kids they have grown up with and not leave the area for a private school."

    But while it could be argued that Milton, Miller Grove, Columbia, and Norcross are quasi-AAU teams, they do not have the culture of AAU teams - where the first pass is often the last pass and defense is a dirty word.

    McCrary's teams at Columbia are known for their aggressive man-to-man defense and pressure. They will speed up opponents and make it an uncomfortable for them to run offense.

    "You see all the championship banners, you see how we are coached to play defense and play with pride, that keeps me here," Shamsid-deen said.

    McMillan's Norcross team used a well-designed zone on an above-average Sumter (S.C.) High team last Saturday night en route to a dominating win, 77-40.

    Boyd's Milton team plays a 5-out offense which shares the ball with a dependence on pass-and-cut. No one stands and has the ball hand-delivered on a platter to score.

    The results are easy to see.

    Just ask Michael Bethea, the coach at Seattle's Rainier Beach, which has won four state titles, 10 city championships, and is considered the strongest program in its region. His team was no match for Milton last weekend.

    "It's incredible the amount of talent on some of these teams here," Bethea said. "The last time somebody beat us by 16 points? It might have been 12 years ago."

    As a public school coach, Bethea said he had no problems with the way the Atlanta schools accumulated their talent. In fact, he supports it.

    "This is not a bad thing that the AAU kids want to stay together and play ball together," he said. "There is going to be a group of kids who see this success and say, 'We're going to make a name for ourselves, too. Let's work, let's catch up to some of those programs winning now'."



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