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Over the line in York

THE BALTIMORE SUN

YORK, Pa. -- They took on some of the biggest names in the fiercely competitive world of prep school basketball, and came out on top. They earned college scholarships, some to such big-time programs as Georgia and Nevada-Las Vegas.

And even as the Crispus Attucks Eagles collected their championship rings, the school caught the eye of one of the country's best young players.

All in the team's first season -- which, it turns out, will almost certainly be its last as a national force.

You might think that an inaugural season with so much success would have been a hit in this southern Pennsylvania city, but few in York knew of the team's winning ways.

And when word trickled out that the team was almost entirely composed of out-of-state players -- including two from Baltimore's Dunbar High hoops dynasty -- critics complained that the taxpayer-supported charter school had strayed from its mission of helping hometown dropouts find direction.

"In essence, it turned into a basketball factory," said Jeffrey Kirkland, president of York's school board. "These guys were ringers."

Hammered by criticism, officials at the year-old Crispus Attucks YouthBuild Charter School decided to shelve their national-class basketball program. The school's board of directors even voted to pay the York school system about $38,000 -- compensation for the cost to educate the out-of-state players.

When the program resumes play in the 2001-2002 school year, it will be made up of local players playing local schools.

"We made some mistakes, sure, and I accept that blame because I run the shop," said Robert Simpson, longtime director of the Crispus Attucks Association of York, Pa., the charter school's parent corporation and a renowned community organization in this small city about 50 miles north of Baltimore. "Basketball is the lowest thing on the totem pole in this building. We build communities. We change people's lives."

Still, lingering frustration is evident, as when the school's basketball coach, Isiah Anderson, says: "My blood curdles a little bit when I hear 'basketball factory.' ... It's as simple as this: How could you be against kids going to college?"

The events at Crispus Attucks recall the experiences of St. John's at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Flint Hill Academy in Oakton, Va., and, closer to Baltimore, in the girls basketball program at Towson Catholic. All of these schools scaled back wildly successful, if controversial, programs.

To some, like York school board member Cameron Texter, the Crispus Attucks controversy shows how society places an undue emphasis on athletics.

"Too often, people put the glamour of excellence on the basketball court ahead of the drudgery of excellence in academics," Texter says. "The balance got way out of whack [at Crispus Attucks], and we had to make sure it was brought back into balance."

'Mental toughness'

Crispus Attucks seems an unlikely place for such a controversy. Named for a black martyr of the 1770 Boston Massacre who was among the first to die in the cause of American independence, the school is housed in a community center that is acclaimed for improving the lot of some of the town's neediest residents.

From a brick building that stands like a citadel among the peeling-paint rowhouses and vacant lots in the South George Street area of York, the Crispus Attucks Center and its affiliated entities provide subsidized day care, operate a senior center, run a job placement service, help juvenile offenders earn high school diplomas and rehabilitate housing through a job-training program.

The job training and education programs, initially funded by federal dollars, have been supported by private donations and, starting last year, by $300,000 from the York school district under its charter school program.

The charter school is a one- to two-year program designed to help York-area dropouts and at-risk students to obtain diplomas while earning paychecks for working construction jobs.

The first class of 52 students to graduate from the charter school included Lafonte Johnson and Dontaz Dean, basketball stars from Baltimore who say Crispus Attucks helped them reach academic goals that eluded them at Dunbar High.

"I proved a lot of people wrong," Johnson said from Las Vegas, where he is studying and preparing to play basketball at UNLV.

He remembers the moment when he learned that his SAT scores had met NCAA standards. Crying and shaking, he called his mother in Baltimore with the news: "I got the score."

Last year, Johnson auditioned in the school gym for college coaches such as UNLV's Bill Bayno. On a recent morning, however, about 30 youngsters, boys and girls, new students for a new school year, were sitting in a broad circle in the gym, receiving the final word in the school's introductory "mental toughness week."

"If you've got a headache, come to school. If you've got aches and pains, come to school. You'll notice one thing about the staff here: We're hardly ever absent," barked program manager Warren Moody.

Later, the new students unwound by playing cross-court basketball, while Anderson, an assistant director at the school, refereed. They played among themselves, later in a scrimmage against school staff.

The play was sloppy -- a far cry from the brand of ball that Anderson orchestrated last year as the team's coach.

This is not the first time that Anderson, a 29-year-old Philadelphia native, has brushed against controversy. He coached the team at York's William Penn High (known as York High, to avoid confusion with the William Penn High in Harrisburg). Two years ago, he lost that job after being accused of recruiting foreign players.

"I wanted to get back in there and show I could do it. I wanted to show we could help kids get into college," he said. "Lightning striking twice, whew, man, that's some tough stuff."

More scouts than fans

To understand how the Crispus Attucks team became so good so fast, you have to start in Iceland, Anderson said. He was there in 1998, helping to coach a U.S. junior national team that included Brandon DeShields, a star point guard at York High. Dean, a chiseled inside player from Baltimore's Dunbar, was there too.

Later, DeShields told Dean about Crispus Attucks. Dean told his Dunbar teammate, Johnson. Soon, Anderson said, word spread.

Sonny Vaccaro, who operates basketball camps as an official for the Adidas sporting goods company, said college coaches are always looking for academies that can help recruits qualify for Division I play.

He said: "The real blame for the growth of the prep schools is with the high schools and high school administrators. There are certain schools where the players are there for four years, and they come out as sophomores."

From the beginning, Anderson's Nike-sponsored team took on the trappings of a big-time program. Instead of playing other York-area teams, Anderson scheduled games against such highly competitive basketball programs as Philadelphia Lutheran, Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia and Winchendon in Massachusetts. His team finished with a 23-2 record.

The season's highlight came in February, when the team won the National Prep School Invitational Tournament. The tournament included Maine Central Institute, one of the best-known prep basketball powers, and players bound for such elite college basketball programs as Michigan and Indiana.

In the final, Crispus Attucks upset Connecticut's St. Thomas More, another venerable prep program. The win was chronicled in the next day's Boston Globe, but not in the York newspapers, which were not following the basketball fortunes of a school with only about 60 students.

The team played only a handful of home games, often in front of meager crowds.

"We played incognito, almost," said Anderson, sporting a gold ring with a sapphire setting to mark the tournament title. "We didn't have a following. ... We had more college scouts in the stands than local fans, and that was the vision."

Program is buried

Johnson landed with UNLV. John Toombs signed to play for Georgia. Brian Hamilton is headed to the University of New Orleans. Omari Pearson is joining Johnson in Las Vegas.

They are the four Crispus Attucks players who won scholarships to attend Division I schools. In all, eight of the team's nine players signed to go on to college, Anderson said.

Some, like Dean, who was at one point headed to Wagner College, are playing junior college ball but remain Division I recruits.

Keith Jenifer, an All-Metro guard from Towson Catholic, considered going to Crispus Attucks before deciding on another prep school. James White, who played last year at the Newport School in Kensington and is considered one of the country's 10 best high school players, planned to attend the York school. But White, who recently announced he would play for Florida, changed his plans earlier this summer when questions surfaced about the York program.

The first hint of trouble came when a Minnesota woman wrote to demand repayment for $2,600 in travel costs for students from England, Eastern Europe and Africa who, she says, had been promised scholarships by Anderson. Anderson said the school did not reimburse the woman because it never offered to admit the students.

Still, her claims focused attention on the team, and the York Dispatch newspaper, the city's school board and state lawmakers began to examine whether the school had violated its charter by enrolling out-of-state students.

"We felt those students were not our responsibility and we should not be paying for them," said Texter, of the school board. "What they were supposed to be focused on was educating young people in our community, giving them life skills and educational skills they can use in the community."

After a lawyer determined that the law was, at best, vague on whether the school was on solid legal ground, Crispus Attucks director Simpson decided that the program, as it existed, should be scrapped.

The episode clearly rankled Simpson, a local product accustomed to hearing praise for his work at the organization.

"The $38,000 is buried. The basketball program is buried," he said. "I hope the buzzards fly away."

'I was wrong'

Myra DeShields-Moulton said it's a shame that it came to this. She's the mother of Brandon DeShields, the Crispus Attucks guard.

"I'm happy with having Isiah in his life, period. He was a genuine inspiration who truly cared about the kids," she said, adding: "I don't mind my tax dollars being spent to help any child."

Dean, the Dunbar product, who is in Kansas to attend and play basketball for Seward County Community College, said: "The program helped me out so much, its hard to explain. For them to shut it down because we were from out of town, I don't think it's right."

Reflecting on what went wrong, Anderson said he recognizes the concern over tax dollars and the players' residencies, and that he's learned a valuable lesson.

"My idea was, people may not like it, but it was not illegal. But I was wrong."

Finally, he wondered whether he may have just coached the team to too much success too soon.

"I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "I think big."

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