Photo courtesy of Johnnie Photography.
By David Cordova
When you mention basketball and New York in the same sentence, people automatically think of the five boroughs, because basketball is mainly an inner-city game. But the hoops scene is also big in the suburbs, especially in Long Island.
There is one section of Long Island that holds a rich hoops history. It is a place that is in Nassau County. When one drives through the village of Brookville, they will pass mansions until they get to what resembles a campus. That lets them know that they are entering Long Island Lutheran Middle & High School.
LuHi, as they are commonly know, first opened in 1960 and has an enrollment of over 600 students. They have also been a basketball powerhouse for more than 40 years and holds the record for the most championships in New York State history with seven, the first one in 1981 and the most recent one in 2012.
Its basketball alumni include former NBA players such as Bill Wennington (three-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls), former New York Knick Reggie Carter and current Los Angeles Clippers forward Tobias Harris, who spent his junior year in 2008-09 at the school and led them to a state title that season.
“Our mission is to be an extension of our high school,” said head coach John Buck, a 2002 graduate of LuHi, who also played Division I basketball at Wake Forest. “We want to honor God in all we do, in body, mind and spirit, so you know, we’ve been blessed with all the gifts that He’s given us, so if we don’t go out and use them, then that’s just a shame. So our mission is to be an extension of the school, so when we play outstanding basketball, I think we do that.”
Buck, who is now in his ninth season at the helm of his alma mater, has built a great program, in which he has won three New York State Federation titles in 2009, 2012 and 2013 and has produced plenty of Division I players including two Gatorade Player of the Year award winners in Kentan Facey (UConn) and Achcraf Yacoubou (St. Louis).
One of the big things about LuHi is the fact that they play independent competition, due to the fact that they do not play in a school league like the other teams in Long Island, and their loaded schedule offers players a chance to be recruited by top-tier schools.
“I don’t want to speak negatively on anyone, I just know that for us, we have a great academic program and it is balanced with high-level basketball, we do a good bit of traveling, both regionally and nationally, and our staff teaches at a very high-level, both on the court & off. We hold our guys to a high standard, both in basketball & in life,” says Buck on what LuHi has to offer.
So far the Crusaders are now 15-2 on the season and have competed against some of the top teams around the tri-state area. The wins were over local teams from the tri-state area such as Chaminade, Archbishop Stepinac, Archbishop Molloy, Curtis, South Shore and Cardinal Hayes. They have also beaten out of state teams such as Sacred Heart (CT), Cox Mill (NC), Dallas Jesuit (TX) and Providence Day (NC). The only two losses suffered by the Crusaders have been against a New York City powerhouse in Queens’ own Christ the King and Montverde Academy (FL), the No. 1 team in the USA Today national poll.
On this year’s schedule, Buck added: “Probably the best schedule we’ve ever put together, you know, we’ve been to the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, great non-league events, like the Empire Invitational. We get out there and we compete against the best, we don’t take it easy on our guys, we want to see them challenged.”
This year’s team has a lot of hidden gems and a lot of Division I talent, starting with 6-foot-9 senior forward Donatas Kupsas, who recently committed to Weber State, 6-foot-3 senior guard Tykei Greene, 6-foot-9 senior swingman Frankie Policelli, 6-foot-9 junior forward Essam Mostafa, 6-foot-0 guard Tyson Etienne, 6-foot-8 junior forward Messiah Swinson and 6-foot-0 sophomore guard Andre Curbelo.
With the depth that they have, LuHi has at least seven Division I players on their roster, when most teams in the area have at least two to three. But what many don’t know is that the players have been overlooked at one time. But now that they have shown & proved what they’re about, these Crusaders are no longer a secret.
“You see how good those guys are. If anyone is hedging on those guys, anywhere near their level, they should take an incredible look at them,” says Buck on Policelli and Greene. “Good kids, too. I sleep easy knowing they’re on my team, you know we’re blessed to have them.”
On Etienne, a guard who has offers from Central Connecticut State, Iona, Old Dominion, Hofstra, UMass, Hofstra, Cincinnati, Fordham and Minnesota, to name a few. “He embodies the personality of the coaching staff. He’s an aggressive, assertive, take charge pitbull, alpha dog, and we love that about him. He takes control.”
Being that the Crusaders don’t play in a league, they have the easiest road to the New York State Federation Tournament, which means while the teams from New York City, Westchester County and upstate New York are playing in their respective sectional or city playoffs, LuHi has two weeks off until the tournament.
“Yeah, so it’s a gift and a curse.” says Buck about the long layoff in the month of March. “We’re there, but whoever we play is on a winning streak of six to eight games against their competition, so they’re sky-high. So we’re there, off of weeks of waiting, and we’re playing teams that are just rolling, so it’s very hard for us to kind of take that wave and overcome that hurdle. So it’s good and bad.”
Last year, LuHi had a 23-4 record and made it all the way to the title game in Glens Falls, but ended up losing to eventual champion, Abraham Lincoln of Brooklyn. But this year’s team is even better and will be back to play in the semifinals on March 23rd and hopefully, if all goes well, March 24th, in the championship game.
The goal of the Crusaders this year is: “Just to come in every single day, get a little better and just take it day by day. We want to compete very hard and let the chips fall where they may, finish our the rest of our regular season and head up to the Federation, which we hope to win as well.”
And in the future? “Just to continue to help quality young men in the classroom, on the court and most importantly, off the court. You know, we want them to be responsible young men. We have great momentum right now with the program and I don’t see it stopping any time soon.” says Buck.
With the way things are going, it’s looking like the best team in the New York metro area is in neither the CHSAA or the PSAL, which have fine programs, but rather one program that is an independent. That program resides in the village of Brookville.