Danny Hoffman acknowledges he passed right over Evan Flaks when he saw him for the first time.
Many do, at first. Flaks is undersized for a basketball player, even after a growth spurt this year. At 5-foot-9, 135 pounds, the sophomore point guard isn’t built like the type of player that would be eyeing Maryland, Duke or Kentucky down the road — but his talent on the court is another conversation.
That became clear to Hoffman, who coached the Baltimore team for the JCC Maccabi Games in Orange County, Calif. this summer, when drills started. What the coach saw burst out of the 15-year-old, Hoffman said, was nothing short of “borderline obsessive.”
“It took all of five minutes to see just how good he is and just how better he is than everyone in his age group,” Hoffman said.
Flaks took basketball on tour this summer, competing in both Maccabi Games, an annual Olympic-style event for Jewish teens, in California and Israel. He brought home gold from both of them.
In Israel, though his seven teammates were complete strangers to him, the Pikesville sophomore quickly assumed the captainship, ferrying Team USA to a 4-0 victory in the 16-and-under bracket in Israel from July 23 to Aug. 2. Like a student studying abroad, experiencing new, international flavors of basketball changed him.
After tangling with the Argentinian and Israeli teams, who favored an aggressive, shoot-less-attack-the-net-more style, Flaks picked up a newfound ferocity on the court.
“They don’t call a lot of fouls,” he said. “You get pushed around, get a little more physical. That helped me get tougher, push the basket and stuff.”
Flaks is a black sheep in a family that reveres lacrosse. His brother Logan plays club at Duke; his sister Katelyn, a Pikesville senior, is considering a college lacrosse career of her own. Flaks’ father Barry asked his son to play three sports through his childhood — soccer, basketball and lacrosse — but the first and third — the third especially — just didn’t stick with Flaks.
“He would have a great game, and I’d say, ‘Hey, you had a great game. How much fun was that?’ And he’d say, ‘Still hate it. Still hate it. I’m only doing this for you.’ I only had no choice but to stop that of course,” said his father, who coached his son up through middle school.
To maintain a training regimen that would rival the Golden State Warriors, Flaks aims to shoot 750 times a day, per his father, working with a shooting coach two times a week for 90 minutes each, weight-lifting five days a week, practicing with his Amateur Athletic Union team three days a week, with an additional two hour workouts with his coach and, above all, maintaining straight As.
Between AAU games and the tournaments, his father estimates Evan played 85 games this summer. For comparison, the 2017-18 NBA season had only 82 games.
All of it, his AAU and Pikesville coach Bear Jackson said, is fueling Flaks’ dream.
“The most beautiful thing about Evan is Evan has a goal in mind. He won’t let his size take that away,” Jackson said. “Evan wants to play Division I basketball. He wakes up every morning with that mindset that he wants to play Division I basketball.”
The JCC Maccabi Games were scheduled for Aug. 5 to Aug. 10, only three days after Israel. A normal kid would have been understandably tired, but Flaks, his father said, is not that kid. He carried the same “endless energy” into Orange County, where he’d average over 30 points a game.
“He’s nuts,” his father said.
Before the start of the games in California, Flaks and the rest of his team believed that they ranked top-five out of the 35 teams — right until they were pit against the two toughest in the tournament, L.A. Westside White and L.A. Westside Blue, and ended the first day 0-2.
“[Evan’s] uber competitive. He doesn’t want to lose at all. Anything he loses, he wants to do over immediately, which is classic competitor,” Hoffman said.
When the coach would break up drills, he said, Flaks would fire an extra shot. He always had to make one more.
Even after recovering slightly the next day by defeating the delegation out of Berkeley, Calif., East Bay, team Baltimore faced Cleveland, and lost on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, 59-58.
Hoffman turned to Flaks, who had buried his head in his hands, visibly upset.
“He and I spoke after the game, and he was saying, ‘I lost this for my team,’ ” Hoffman said. “He wasn’t right in his assessment that he lost it for us. No one player loses a five-on-five basketball game and he played outstandingly, but he felt like — and he didn’t say this out loud — that he’s the leader. He’s clearly the best player, and it comes down on his shoulders. And he felt like any loss to a team he should have beaten falls on him.”
Baltimore’s 1-3 record made it impossible to make the highest of the three single-elimination brackets, the championship tier, and they were instead seeded for the middle bracket, scheduled to play two teams over again. They downed East Bay again before moving on to their rematch with Cleveland.
Hoffman worried Flaks would carry the burden of avenging their loss, that it'd be a negative. Instead, the point guard scored 47 points.
He always had to make one more shot.
“Beginning of the fourth quarter, the Cleveland coach determined they needed to put a little more pressure to buckle Evan,” Hoffman said. “You could see Evan’s eyes light up when he realized they’d gone man to man. He felt like ‘I could take whoever, any time, whenever. I can score at will right now.’ ”
Baltimore bested Cleveland, 68-59, to reach the medal level. They then rolled over Philadelphia, 65-49, and broke through a tie at 44 to beat Denver, 59-48, for the gold.
After the tournament, Flaks’ father hung back in California. He received a text from his son, detailing his plan to squeeze in two-hour practice sessions before his morning driving lessons and asking if he can set up an Uber account for him so that he can practice while his father’s at work.
His father doesn’t know where the passion for basketball came from. If he had his way, Flaks would be a lacrosse star, but he gave up that fight a long time ago. He knew he had lost his son to the other side when Flaks, about 8 years old, starting practicing dribbling two balls at a time.
“I wanted him to be happy, to be successful,” his father said. “He loves it. It’s all him.”