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Mike Pepper rented out his house in Northern Virginia this summer and moved with his son Dane into a Rockville apartment. He’d enrolled the high-school junior at Montrose Christian School so the boy could play for basketball legend Stu Vetter.
“I wanted my son to have what I had,” Pepper says.
Vetter and Pepper first met in the mid-1970s. Pepper was a freshman at the Flint Hill School in Oakton when Vetter, a Manassas native just out of college, asked him to try out for his J.V. squad. Vetter had never coached high school hoops before; Pepper had never even been on a basketball team.
Truth is, had he never had Pepper, Vetter may never have gotten Kevin Durant some three decades later. Pepper became Vetter’s great experiment. Their lab was the Flint Hill gym, a room that doubled as the cafeteria and came with a tiled floor and crescent-shaped metal backboards. Vetter, who became the school’s varsity coach in 1976, worked him hard. A few times a week, he took Pepper to watch teams from D.C. and Baltimore play. Back then, the local leagues featured some of the best high school hoops ever played.
“Wherever Jo Jo Hunter and Mackin would play, we’d go watch,” Pepper says. “Or Craig Shelton and Dunbar of Baltimore, we’d go see them. Nobody from Northern Virginia would drive downtown back then. But Coach Vetter wanted me to see the best, and that’s where the best was. He taught me how to dream, to think bigger than I ever would have. And even playing in that lunch room, with a slippery floor, he had this plan, this vision that he could turn a tiny school into a basketball powerhouse. And he did it.”
Before Pepper graduated from Flint Hill in 1977, Coach Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina would make a trip to the campus to personally offer him a scholarship. Pepper went on captain UNC’s 1980-81 squad, which made it all the way to the NCAA championship game.
“I remember going into my office and seeing a pile of notes on my desk after Mike Pepper played well in an all-star game,” recalls Vetter. “‘Call Denny Crum.’ ‘Call Digger Phelps.’ ‘Please call Jim Boeheim.’’ Call Dean Smith.’ I had notes to call the legends of the game. That was the first major basketball event I’d been a part of. That’s how it all got started.”
By 1979, Vetter had taken Flint Hill out of its league of tiny private schools, the Tri-State Conference, and was telling the Washington Post that he’d start playing a tough independent schedule as part of a plan to become “the DeMatha of Virginia.”
Vetter’s boast echoed Lefty Driesell’s proclamation, visible on bumper stickers all around the market in the early 1970s, that he’d make Maryland the “UCLA of the East.”
Vetter made it happen.
Vetter’s gone 838-105 overall since 1976. That’s an 88.9 percent clip. (For perspective: DeMatha’s Morgan Wootten, the most hailed high school coach around these parts, had a career mark of 1,274-192, or a winning percentage of 86.9. Shortly after Vetter made his “DeMatha of Virginia” proclamation, Wootten stopped scheduling Vetter’s teams.) And after leaving Flint Hill, he proved his system worked at Harker Preparatory, St. John’s Prospect Hall, and Montrose Christian.
Vetter’s last 28 squads have been ranked in USAToday’s Top 25 national poll. He’s won the mythical national high school basketball championship three times at three different schools: Flint Hill in 1986-87, St. John’s Prospect Hall in 1997-98, and Montrose Christian last season. Vetter is the only coach to win a national title at more than one school.
In 1987, Vetter’s Flint Hill squad was part of the first regular season high school basketball game televised live nationally by ESPN. His Montrose Christian team will open up the network’s coverage of the 2011-12 season against Marcus High School of Flower Mound, Texas, on Dec. 15. ESPN ranks Montrose Christian No. 4 in its preseason poll.
By his count he’s coached “more than 100” future Division 1 NCAA players, including scads of future NBAers, among them first-round picks Dennis Scott, Linas Kleiza, Kevin Durant, and Greivis Vasquez.
And Vetter deserves credit for changing the way elite prep basketball programs are run. Pre-Vetter, the top coaches scoured around the Beltway for hoops talent. Vetter recruited the world, and vice-versa: Next summer, he will likely become the first high school coach ever to have four former players competing in the same Olympics: Durant of the U.S., Vasquez of Venezuela, Lithuanian Klieza, and K.J. Matsui of Japan.
“I probably have to turn away 100 to 150 kids a year who want to play, from all around the world,” he says.
And, for better or worse, Vetter’s teams were among the first high school programs to have shoe and apparel deals: The 1997-98 St. John’s squad was one of only three high school teams in the nation licensed by Nike to wear Michael Jordan’s top-dollar Jump Man clothing line. (In the early days at Flint Hill, his teams didn’t even have matching jerseys or socks.)
Coincidentally, that team gave Vetter the only scandal of his coaching career—and as scandals go, it was lame. Late in the season, St. John’s star Damien Wilkens was caught in some sort of loving embrace with a female student on campus, a violation of school rules. Wilkins and the girl were immediately expelled. The punishment led to racially charged town hall meetings at which some white neighbors claimed that the mostly black players at the boarding school weren’t good for the community. Vetter lost his job. He took a year off and then took over the basketball program at Montrose Christian.
(Wilkins’ paramour in the St. John’s fiasco was Allison Mathis, who grew up to file TMZ-worthy paternity and entertainment lawsuits against ex-boyfriend and NBA all-star Chris Bosh.)
Bruce Butler vouches for the morals Vetter has taught a few generations of kids. Butler was the only senior on Vetter’s first varsity team at Flint Hill.
“Coach Vetter went into such detail, from how we stood for the national anthem, to training us to deal with opponents and adults with respect,” says Butler, now the principal of South Lakes High School in Fairfax County. “I never knew I could work so hard at anything as I worked at basketball. That experience of working hard and committing to something bigger than me, committing to the team, and committing to something for all the right reasons, has impacted me. I didn’t quite get it at the time, but as I moved on through life I understood what it all meant to me. And he hasn’t changed. A while back I went to a game over Montrose, and as soon as I walked in all the players came up and introduced themselves with a firm handshake, and everybody spoke with ‘Yes, sir!’”
Butler is among those who feel that Vetter’s accomplishments haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. Vetter found out recently he’d be inducted into the Washington Metropolitan Basketball Hall of Fame, a move that would have rectified some of that neglect. Alas, the induction ceremony was postponed. Organizers say they’ll try to hold it sometime this spring. Vetter’s not fretting.
“That was humbling, but I don’t need any attention,” he says of his induction.
While packing boxes for the move to Rockville, Pepper found a handwritten, five-page “Work Chart” that Vetter had given him before his senior year at Flint Hill. In it, Vetter tells his player when to take vitamins and lift weights, and to spend every spare moment working on his game, just like Phil Ford and “Dantley” did. There are also orders to avoid parties and to be polite on and off the court, because college scouts are watching.
If Pepper followed his plan, Vetter wrote, “all the gold at the end of the rainbow will be yours.” The scholarship from Dean Smith and UNC fit Pepper’s idea of treasure.
“When I found that letter, I was blown away,” Pepper says. “Reading that, how incredibly detailed it was, how it went beyond basketball, that shows how Coach Vetter is wired. I can’t say it any other way: Coach Vetter made me into a college basketball player, a better person. I don’t care if my son ever gets out of his warmup now. I know he’ll be better just for being around Coach Vetter.”
Vetter says having Pepper send his own kid to Montrose Christian is a nicer honor than any Hall of Fame induction. “That’s very satisfying as a coach,” Vetter says. “It’s the relationships, not the wins and losses.”
But, Vetter adds, he’s sure Pepper understands that no playing time is set aside just for kids whose dads he coached.
“To play at Montrose,” he says, “you need more than that.”
Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.