Duke Stone founded Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in the fall of 1997 and started boys and girls basketball programs at the same time.
The school’s headmaster always felt academics and athletics were joined at the hip.
In those early years, the Hawks played in the Tri-State Christian Athletic Conference, competing with schools such as Christian Heritage in Dalton, Ga., Cleveland Christian, Maryville Christian and Pathway.
Then, in 2009 Stone took the first step in a big leap to advancing the basketball program’s status by bringing in its first international player – a girl now attending law school in her native Brazil.
A year later Hamilton Heights took its first international male players, two from Brazil and one from the Republic of Georgia.
That expansion into Europe was a key to the long-reaching goals for basketball at the small church school sandwiched between a real estate office and a tea room on Hickory Valley Road.
“We had an American university that was trying to bring a player, a junior they were recruiting, to America,” Stone said Wednesday.
“They wanted to go ahead and get him over here, but at the World Games that player signed a $1 million contract with Italy.
“That’s where we made our European connection. We felt we had to go full-speed on the international level or back off and go back to playing in a Christian league like we were a few years before.”
Hamilton Heights chose to jump feet first into the international basketball fires and has never looked back.
That leap of faith to seek student-athletes from across the Atlantic Ocean has elevated the Hawks’ program to near elite status among the nation’s top basketball schools, most of which are sponsored by shoe-makers such as Nike and adidas.
“In Tennessee there were no teams like us when we decided to go international,” Stone said. “We were ready to give it a shot and talked a lot with Justin Harden (coach at The Rock in Gainesville, Fla.). He gave us great advice at a time when he had Joel Embiid (7-foot center who signed with Kansas, played one year with the Jayhawks and then landed a $4.427 million contract with the NBA Philadelphia 76ers after being picked as the No. 3 overall pick in the first round.)
“Justin emphasized to stay with integrity and do it the right away, don’t take shortcuts and make it a ministry and not just about basketball,” Stone said.
So, rather than back-tracking to its early days on the hardwood, the Hawks are now playing national powerhouses like famed Oak Hill Academy, Huntington Prep and appearing in the Charlotte Hoops Challenge, the Huntington Prep Classic and the Martin Luther King Classic in Memphis this weekend.
Hamilton Heights, thanks in large part to center Abdulhakim Ado, a 6-foot-10-inch junior ranked among the country’s top post prospects for 2016 who meteorically rose in the eyes of college recruiters through his AAU play this past summer.
Ado, who is from Nigeria, already has received offers from Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Louisville, Memphis, Arizona State, Penn State, Auburn and Georgia.
The Hawks and Ado will be among the headliners on Saturday when they play White Station, a school with five TSSAA state championships (2000, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2009) to its credit, at 5:30 p.m. in the MLK Classic at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis.
“Memphis is the best basketball city in the state and might be the best basketball city in the country,” Hawks coach Zach Ferrell said. “We saw Oak Hill (ranked No. 1 nationally by USA TODAY) lose to Memphis Hamilton (the state’s No. 1 team). Memphis is loaded with talent. Basketball is very important over there; they take it seriously and are passionate about the sport.
“It’s definitely a good place to take these kids that don’t really know about that. Some of our kids who played AAU ball know all about Memphis basketball, so it’s really exciting for all of us.”
Ado, Ezekiel Balogun and Silas Adheke all played on the Nike summer AAU circuit this past offseason.
Hence, the city’s well-deserved reputation as one of the country’s hotbeds for basketball.
According to basketballreference.com, Memphis has produced 78 NBA players over the years, one of the highest profile players being Anfernee Hardaway, who lends his name to one of America’s top tournaments every year.
That was the setting for the Oak Hill-Hamilton showdown that was televised nationally by ESPN. It was Oak Hill’s only loss in 24 games this season.
Hamilton Heights’s top-level Gold Team has become this city’s top basketball attraction.
Mostly ignored by most local media until just recently, the Hawks were the primary factor for attracting three straight nights of beyond capacity crowds at a holiday tournament at Chattanooga State.
The Hawks are 18-1 and riding a 17-game winning streak.
Strahinja Micakovic, a 6-2 senior wing who hails from Serbia, is playing basketball for the first time in America. Ado is from Nigeria, as are Ezekiel Balogun, Olanrewaju Olatunji, Silas Adheke and Mohammed Abubakar.
Zhimaal Laing came from the Grand Bahamas, Joan Duran from the Dominican Republic and Milos Andelic, Montenegro. Darryle Pitts and Charnchai Chantha took the short trip up from Atlanta, Monaire McCartney came over from Huntsville, Ala., and C.J. Massengill is a product of Chattanooga.
Duran has offers from Eastern Florida College and Middle Tennessee State University. Olatunji Lanre, who plays on the Hawks’ Blue Team recently signed with the University of North Georgia. He also had an offer from King University.
It’s a myth that Hamilton Heights is out to rob local high schools of their best players. TSSAA Division II schools can provide scholarships, but are not allowed to “recruit,” although the everlasting ill feeling between public and private schools is anchored on the idea that granting scholarships is a discreet form of recruiting.
Hamilton Heights is not a member of the TSSAA.
“If a player is already in a public school and playing basketball,” Stone said, “the only way we would accept that player is if the coach called us and said the player would be better off at Hamilton Heights. We didn’t have to get Chattanooga players to build our program. There are plenty of international players to do that.
“I probably turn down 50 kids a year. I get at least five e-mails a week from Nigeria. And we are receiving more interest from American players and that’s a big thing right now. There’s a kid down in Georgia at a private school affiliated with the Georgia High School Association that’s really good and a junior. His team graduates five seniors this year and won’t be as good a team next year. We’ve heard he’s interested in coming here and that’s coming through an AAU coach.
“But we’ve never asked a player to come here. The player or coach has to contact us first and then we evaluate several things: academics, character, how he fits our environment and culture and his basketball skills.”
And something else.
Students should not expect an academic cakewalk at Hamilton Heights.
The school’s academic standards are more stringent than required by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for athletics.
If a Hamilton Heights student-athlete at Hamilton Heights is failing one class, he or she is banned from athletic competition until posting a grade-acceptable academic standing.
“It’s an all of nothing thing,” Stone said. “We won’t fudge our guidelines when it comes to the NCAA. They either qualify or not. It does them no good if all we do is allow them to play basketball. I had to sit down one player and have a talk with him because he was slipping a little in the classroom. He got the message and turned things around.”
Sara Rowland, who is from Chattanooga and a Hamilton Heights graduate, aced her SAT and ACT tests with scores of 1,600 and 36, respectively, as a sophomore and went on to graduate from Vanderbilt.
“This isn’t the easiest school in the world,” Stone said.
One member of the Hawks’ coaching staff, Chris Walker, will actually be going home for the weekend action that includes a Friday night game against MHEA, a Memphis charter school.
Assistant Chris Walker – Tre High rounds out the coaching staff – grew up in the Bluff City on the banks of the Mississippi River and attended Christian Brothers High School. Walker was a two-time all-state football player at CBHS and top 20 player in Memphis, as selected by the Commercial Appeal, and went on to letter four years at Tennessee with the football Vols from 2007-10.
“Basketball was my first love,” Walker said, “but football was my ticket to college.”
Said Ferrell, “It’s good that he’s going back home. It should be a really fun trip for all of us.”
Other schools in the MLK Classic include defending Class A champion Mitchell, one of the state’s top teams regardless of classification, Briarcrest, Germantown, Tupelo and Velma Jackson, both out of Mississippi.
It’s another step on Hamilton Heights’ climb of the ladder of elite basketball teams in the country.
And Duke Stone has been there from the very beginning.
“We’re not up there with the Oak Hills and Huntingtons,” he said. “We’re at an elite level, but not THE elite level. We’re still trying for that. When Huntington called us about a game, I said, ‘We’re not at that level yet.’ Their coach said, ‘We weren’t at that level just five years ago.’
“We could go out and pull in 10 players to reach that level, but we want to be good and provide the best opportunity for our students. We want to enrich their lives, get them to college and allow them to play basketball in college, if that’s their desire. We have almost 20 kids on scholarship playing college ball right now. That’s our main goal.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)