Nearly 30 years after they first met while living in the same East Baltimore housing project, and 20 years after they left Dunbar to play college basketball, Rodrick Harrison and Rodney Elliott are back in their hometown with a new dream.
Harrison, the second-year coach at Mount Zion Prep, and Elliott, one of his assistants, are trying to give players who didn't have the grades or game coming out of high school a chance to do what they did.
Harrison, who played at UMBC and was later an assistant coach at Dunbar, and Elliott, who played at Maryland before embarking on a 13-year professional career spent mostly in Europe, teamed last year with the Mount Zion Baptist Christian School in Northeast Baltimore to provide the academic support and basketball guidance for a dozen or so players each year.
Not only do the two boyhood friends, along with another former local high school player, Brian Scott, hope to keep some of the local talent home, but they are also bringing in prospective Division I recruits from as far away as Africa and Australia.
"Baltimore is a basketball town — great high schools and great colleges— and we thought, 'What can do for the talent that is not being done?'" Harrison said Wednesday afternoon as his team finished practicing at the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center. "We definitely want to help the local kids, but we want to be on a broader spectrum. A lot of kids have dreams all over the world."
Said Elliott, who was converted from a baseball player to basketball after first meeting Harrison: "A lot of kids in Baltimore go up to Maine or down to North Carolina or Florida to play one more year. Why not stay here?"
Of the 11 players on last year's team, seven secured scholarship offers to Division I and II teams, including Charles Taylor Jr., now a freshman at UMBC and playing there with Elliott's son. Several of the 14 members on this year's team have received college scholarship offers.
The Mount Zion program is privately funded, mostly with revenue from the $30,000-a-year out-of-state tuition that many, but not all, of the players' families pay. The program, which is sponsored by Under Armour, operates as a nonprofit. For now, the coaches are basically volunteers.
The team, which played a 40-game schedule in its first season a year ago with trips as far away as Rhode Island and Florida, will continue its second season with a weekend showcase at St. Frances featuring a dozen similar programs.
Jonothan Janssen, a 6-foot-9 forward who grew up playing basketball in Queensland, Australia, was contacted after Scott heard from an American living in Australia. Not strong enough to play in the country's well-respected professional league, and with an urge to try playing college basketball in the United States, Janssen picked Mount Zion over a Texas prep school.
"I thought the East Coast would be better for me in terms of toughening up my game. It's more physical here," said Janssen, who would prefer to play college ball on the West Coast, possibly at Utah.
Said Scott, who went to Poly and played at BCCC-Catonsville and Barton College, a Division II school in North Carolina: "He's a typical [foreign] big man. He's very skilled, he's very shy. His biggest adjustment for him is picking up the American style of the game, the speed of it, the aggressiveness of it."
Janssen acknowledged that he was "pretty nervous at first" about living in Baltimore but said he feels "pretty safe" hanging out with many of his teammates in a house that the program rents for them near Morgan State.
"I talk to my parents a lot, and my mother stresses a lot, but I think they trust me to come over here," Janssen said.
The adjustment to the gritty style of play the team's coaches learned growing up is not the only change for Janssen.
"The guys will get on me if I say something weird that they don't understand," Janssen said.
Markus Oliphant, who moved from North Carolina to Maryland when he was entering high school, is trying to use the year at Mount Zion to learn skills that will help him play on the wing rather than inside, where he spent much of his career at Arundel despite being only 6-5.
"I've always been able to dribble; I was never able to showcase it on the high school level," said Oliphant, who played on the same DC Assault Amateur Athletic Union team as Maryland freshman Roddy Peters and another future Terp, Melo Trimble. "I'm used to playing high-level competition."
The only offer he had coming out of high school was at Baltimore City Community College, but Oliphant didn't want to give up a year of college eligiblity. Oliphant said he already has offers from a number of schools, including Morgan State, South Carolina State and Cleveland State.
Oliphant said he is about 100 points shy on the SAT to qualify academically and is also taking an online course to take care of a physical science requirement he was lacking coming out of high school.
"It's been a great experience so far. They take care of us. They have the best interest at heart to get us to the next level," Oliphant said.
Elliott said all the courses the players take have been accredited by the NCAA to ensure that Mount Zion would not run into the same problems as other prep schools. The requirements have been tightened and the schools more closely scrutinized, causing players such as Sam Cassell Jr. (Towson Catholic, St. Frances) to not be eligible to play at Maryland.
"A lot of kids leave Baltimore because they don't have their SAT scores, so we figured we'd partner with them and combine both," Elliott said. "Good talent and a staff made up of Baltimore guys who played in high school here and went to the next level. Each place that these kids possbly want to go, we have covered here."
Asked where he sees the program going in the next five to 10 years, Elliott said: "Our goal is to have a map and put a finger on Baltimore and be able to draw a circle of a 50-mile radius around Baltimore and make sure that any kid that comes out of this area and needs that extra year to mature academically and athletically, they need to know about Mount Zion Prep."
Elliott said he sees a lot of himself in the young players he is now coaching.
"They all have dreams of playing in the NBA. I get that and understand that," Elliott said. "I was fortunate, and the other coaches were fortunate, to use basketball and not let it use us. Meaning, do what we had to do on the court, but also do what we had to do off the court to see the world. These kids need to know that. The numbers to make the pros are very small. But to have an opportunity to get an education for free? You can do it, and Mount Zion Prep is a school that can do it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun