09/28/2009 10:05 AM ET
Big Apple departure
Johnson is latest NYC prep star to leave city
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Sidiki Johnson (40), originally from the Bronx, is now playing at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark. (AP)

NEWARK, N.J. -- On his first day at school last week, Sidiki Johnson walked the halls wearing a maroon sweater, button-down shirt, slacks and a backpack slung over his shoulders.

Johnson, a 6-foot-9 junior from Harlem who has verbally committed to Arizona, was familiarizing himself with his new surroundings.

At St. Benedict's Prep in Newark.

"It was a great opportunity for me," Johnson said Friday. "I just wanted to better myself as a player and academic-wise. Just to be here and get better as a player and a person."

After departing St. Raymond's of The Bronx, Johnson is the latest New York City high school star to take his talents to an out-of-state high school.

In fact, if you want to see many of the best Big Apple basketball stars in action this year, you'll have to head to New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts or Virginia.

New York talent dispersed far and wide: New York forwards Devon Collier, Ashton Pankey and Derrick Williams -- all of whom are being recruited by high Division I programs -- are at St. Anthony in Jersey City playing for legendary coach Bob Hurley.

Johnson is now competing for Bob's son, Dan, down the road at St. Benedict's. The Gray Bees' roster also features New York guard Mike Poole.

Johnson's former St. Ray's teammates, Jose Rodriguez and Joey Delarosa, play for Impact Basketball Academy and attend Trinity International in Las Vegas. Another former St. Ray's player, Harold McBride, transferred to Impact Academy in Sarasota, Fla.

The roster at South Kent, a prep school in Connecticut, includes guards Russell Smith of Brooklyn, Mike Buffalo of Mount Vernon and J.J. Moore of Brentwood. A year ago, South Kent also featured former St. Ray's stars Kevin Parrom and Omari Lawrence. Parrom is now a freshman at Arizona and Lawrence plays for St. John's.

At the Winchendon (Mass.) School, the roster includes former New York City guard Angel Nunez.

LeBrent Walker, formerly of Bayside, plays for Montrose Christian School (Rockville, Md.).

Dashaun Wiggins, who was at Wings Academy, plays for Bridgton Academy (Maine).

And Doron Lamb, a senior guard being courted by Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, St. John's and UConn, left the city two years ago to play at basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.

"Isn't that sad?" asked Harold McBride, Sr., referring to the mass exodus of New York City players.

Myriad reasons for leaving the city: "The city's a complicated place to play," said Dan Hurley, who has coached a number of New York City stars over the years. "For some kids, a place like ours is an opportunity to focus a little bit better, get away from some of the distractions.

"The level of coaching and the level of play in the city's great. I don't think it's a reflection on the schools and the coaches in the schools. I just think it's a reflection on the kids and the people around the kids just wanting them to be in an environment that's very structured and disciplined and safe."

In most cases, the players receive scholarships or financial aid to attend schools, many of which are expensive. The yearly tuition at St. Benedict's, for example, is $8,000.

Each case is different.

Some players leave New York because they run into disciplinary or other problems. Some need a more structured academic environment in which to get qualified for college. Some want more playing time. And some want to play an independent schedule, compete for a national championship and get recognized by the top college coaches in the land.

For some, it's a combination of all of the above.

"There are myriad reasons why kids leave school," said longtime New York recruiting expert Tom Konchalski. "Some are legitimate and some are smokescreens.

"Parents sometime choose schools because of smaller classes and better individual attention. It might be a better, safer environment for their son or daughter to attend school.

"But in many cases they just use that to camouflage the real reason, and they may not be fully aware of the real reason. Parents are not realistic in terms of their kids. They think even if their kids are starting, they think he's not getting enough shots. Plenty of times the grass always looks greener."

Parents prefer more discipline, safer environment: Bernard Bowen, Johnson's godfather, said the decision to send Johnson to St. Benedict's should not be seen as a swipe at St. Raymond's or its head coach, Oliver Antigua.

"Oliver did a great job with Sidiki," Bowen said. "Oliver welcomed Sidiki with open arms. Oliver is a good man. St. Raymond's is a great program.

"For Sidiki it was time for him to get away from New York and mature a little bit better as a young man. There were too many distractions in New York. Not enough discipline. I think that's the word that these kids are missing."

He added: "You put them in an environment that they don't know, they tend to the right thing. You don't have mommy and daddy around. You've got to grow straight up. It has nothing to do with the coaches, it has to do with Sidiki himself. He likes to be challenged, he likes to be pushed."

Antigua, whose program has lost five varsity players to out-of-state schools in the last several weeks, declined comment for this article.

Of course it doesn't hurt that St. Ben's travels the country playing a national independent schedule that usually includes a couple of games on ESPN.

"This is a top program and you play against the top players in the nation," Johnson said. "I just wanted to come and play against all the top players in the nation."

New York kids not getting qualified: Eric Martinez, the mentor for the 6-9 Nunez of Winchendon, says the New York City schools simply aren't doing a good enough job providing a solid education and getting the kids qualified for college.

He said that Nunez didn't take the correct number of core classes during his freshman year at Cardinal Hayes in The Bronx.

"Coaches need to be on top of their kids a little more and make sure they're taking the right classes," Martinez said.

He added that the PSAL, the Public Schools Athletic League, needs to monitor the academic situation better.

"A lot of these kids don't qualify," Martinez said. "The PSAL is one of the biggest governed sports entities out there and a lot of these kids just don't qualify."

Neither Donald Douglas, the PSAL commissioner, nor Mel Goldstein, the PSAL boys basketball commissioner, immediately responded to a voicemail seeking comment.

At a place like Winchendon or St. Benedict's, the student-athletes tend to be in smaller classes where they get greater attention from teachers.

"In prep school, the coaches monitor your education," Martinez said. "They look at their transcripts. There are smaller settings as far as classrooms. It's easy to monitor."

Slower lifestyle allows focus: Still, transitioning from the busy life of New York to the solitude of a prep or other school is often tough, especially at remote location like Winchendon or Oak Hill.

"All we do up here is sleep, play basketball, lift weights and go to school, nothing else," said Nunez, a junior who holds offers from Arizona, Arkansas, Louisville, UConn and Rutgers.

"It is a huge change of scenery for him, but he is slowly making the adjustment," Winchendon coach Mike Byrnes said.

In Byrnes, Nunez now has taskmaster coach known for getting kids ready for college.

"He's tough," Nunez said. "I know he's tough. Everything he says, we do. Every time we're in the gym, everybody's quiet."

Nunez said he eventually realized why he needed to be at Winchendon.

"Once I started to think about it, I'm out here to get my grades up and to get better as a basketball player," he said.

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com.
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