Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEWARK — There has been much hand wringing in recent years about the decline and fall of New York City basketball.
But one look at the remaining teams in the NCAA Tournament reveals that the Big Apple is represented well.
Kemba Walker of UConn, Lamont “Momo” Jones and Kevin Parrom of Arizona, Doron Lamb of Kentucky and Erving Walker of Florida are all from New York.
And all began their careers at New York City Catholic schools.
“It shows the consistency of the Catholic school league to produce top prospects each year,” said Moe Hicks, who coached both Kemba Walker and Jones at Rice High School and is now the director of operations at St. John’s.
“True student-athletes who are not only hooping at a high level, but also achieving academic success in the classroom.”
Two of the New York City players — Lamb and Jones — also played together at basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy. Along with Roscoe Smith of UConn, Oak Hill has three players still alive in the tournament.
Lamb, whose Kentucky team will meet North Carolina in an Elite Eight matchup here Sunday, spent two years at Bishop Loughlin before departing for Oak Hill.
During his time with the New York Gauchos 15-and-under AAU team, Lamb looked up to the 17-and-under team that in the summer of 2007 won the Vegas Main Event, the Peach Jam and the Cactus Classic.
That squad featured Kemba Walker and current Big East players Jordan Theodore of Seton Hall, Darryl “Truck” Bryant of West Virginia and Devin Hill of DePaul.
“I know them very well,” Lamb recalled. “I played a lot of AAU basketball with them, Kemba and Momo.
“I always cheer for them, always hope they do great. Kemba’s playing great [at UConn], probably the best in the country right now. Momo’s doing great, leading the [Arizona] team where he’s at right now.”
Still, despite his New York roots, Lamb chose to leave the city for Oak Hill in the summer of 2008. He said he consulted with Oak Hill alums Ron Mercer, Kevin Durant and Nolan Smith before making his decision.
“They said it was great situation for me to get my better in my game and get better in my schoolwork, so that’s why I went there,” he said.
Lamb said it was difficult socially spending two years in Mouth of Wilson, Va., after coming from Queens.
“When you go to Oak Hill, it’s like a mission really,” he said. “You focus on your schoolwork and you play basketball. There’s nothing to do out there really. There’s like cows and farms and all that stuff. There’s nothing to do out there except focus on basketball and schoolwork. That’s the main reason I went out there.”
Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said Lamb’s game has evolved over time, from when he first arrived at the school to when he left to where he is now at Kentucky.
“He had a New York style to him, to his play and kind of a playground toughness when he first got here,” Smith said.
“He was a driver and slasher, a scorer. His shot developed while he was at Oak Hill and obviously this year while he was at Kentucky. He wasn’t a real good 3-point shooter when he first got to us but he developed that. This year he was shooting near 50 percent from three (47 percent).”
After spending two years at Rice and one at American Christian (Pa.), Jones was interested in coming to Oak Hill in 2008 but Smith didn’t have a spot for him. Only after point guard Tommy Mason-Griffin bailed did one open up.
“I got back with Momo’s mom,” Smith said. “He hadn’t enrolled anywhere. I said, ‘I’ve got a spot for him if he wants to come.'”
That 2008-9 Oak Hill team went 40-0 before losing its only game of the season to Findlay Prep in the final of the inaugural ESPN Rise National High School Invitational.
Two years later, noted television analysts continue to say that Jones is “out of Rice High School,” but in fact he finished up at Oak Hill.
“If you ask Momo, he claims Oak Hill,” Smith said. “He was very proud to play at Oak Hill. He know the players that played there before him. He knew the point guards.”
The list of Oak Hill point guards is legendary, stretching back from former New York legend and current Kentucky assistant Rod Strickland to Marcus Williams to Steve Blake to Rajon Rondo to Brandon Jennings.
All told, Smith has had 12 players make the Final Four.
After UConn and Arizona square off in an Elite Eight Matchup Saturday night, either Jones or Smith will make it 13.
And if Lamb and Kentucky beat North Carolina, the number will grow to 14.
“I’ll root for both of them,” Smith said of Jones and Roscoe Smith. “We know we’re going to have an alum in the Final Four.”
New York City is certain to be represented in the Final Four, too.
“In New York you got great guards and players and that’s how we’re advancing right now,” Lamb said, “with great players.”
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.