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Last week, the cream of the latest local high-school hoops crop got together at USAir Arena for the first time, in preparation for the upcoming Capital Classic all-star game. Forestville High Coach Irvin Hay watched with absolute wonderment as the ingénues took turns going through some low-impact drills.
“You think it’s the Similac?” says Hay, who’s been coaching schoolboy basketball in Prince George’s County for 26 years. “I mean, in my day we couldn’t do any of the things these kids today can do, and I know we worked harder. All we got was Carnation. It must be the Similac.”
On the arena floor, Joe Lofton, a Forestville senior and far and away the best player Hay’s ever coached, is showing off, albeit effortlessly. At a very sturdy 6-foot-6-inches, Lofton—whose warm-ups have “Ballin’ Joe” sewn on the back—is proving his offensive arsenal is already as rounded as the ball he’s manipulating. A reverse slam here, an NBA three-pointer there; a nifty spin move there, a cat-quick ’tween-the-legs-and-back dribble here.
“He can do it all, can’t he?” bubbles Hay, like a proud father. “Speed, height, strength, jumping ability. He’s got it all. Look at him get up! Can he get up? He can get up! I’ve been around the game a long, long time, so I’ve seen some players. But I’ve never seen a kid who can do as much as Joe can. He’s got what it takes to get to the NBA. He has no weaknesses in his game. None.”
A few rows away from Hay in the essentially empty arena sits a real proud father, Tom Pugh. Pugh has taken an afternoon off work so he can escort his son, John Pugh, a 6-foot-10-incher from Herndon High School in Fairfax County, as he is welcomed to the hallowed Capital All-Stars Class of ’96. The Capital Classic, which pits the best local talent against a squad drawn from a national prep-school pool, was founded in 1974 (the next rendition will be played on April 10 at USAir Arena). A roster of notable Capital Classic alumni would be far too lengthy to list, but it would include such hardcourt legends as Moses Malone (in the inaugural game), Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Len Bias, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Joe Smith, Marcus Camby, and Louis Bullock (who played for last year’s D.C. team). The 1988 game alone featured 13 future NBAers. You don’t get invited to the Capital Classic unless somebody thinks your game is something very, very special.
“It’s a nice thing for John to get to be a part of this,” Dad says with a humble smile, nodding toward his son. “A real nice thing.”
The younger, much taller Pugh is on the court showcasing decent jumping ability and a shot that seems obscenely soft for a man, er, kid of his size.
Big guys, even those with far less agility than Pugh, are a hot commodity in college ball, what with the big bucks a winning program can bring to a university. (Last year, the ACC alone got a check for more than $5 million from the NCAA for tournament participation by teams within the conference.) Which is exactly why the Pugh family has spent the last year sifting through recruiting pitches from all over the country delivered by mail, phone, or knocks on the door.
Next year, Pugh, whose bedroom wall is plastered with his own artwork—but not a single basketball poster—will attend Fordham University. He signed with the New York City school, according to his dad, knowing full well that it wasn’t a pipeline to the NBA.
“He was thinking of academics, and of how much he likes the idea of going to school in New York,” explains Pugh Sr.
What about pro ball?
“Oh, John thinks about that, somewhere in the back of his mind. I’m sure he does,” says the elder Pugh. “But he doesn’t want to get too far in front of things, so he decided he’d focus on education. But, boy, the NBA. He must think about that. He must.”
Lofton, who averaged more than 29 points and 12 rebounds a game this season, has been recruited even more heavily and over a much longer period than Pugh. He’s a two-time All-Met selection who, remarkably, has started every varsity game since he was a freshman at Forestville. Last season, Lofton led the team to a state championship. Hay has been getting mail about his star player for years now, and estimates that Lofton has received “at least” 350 letters just this year.
“I got seven more this morning,” he says with a touch of irritation.
Hay stores Lofton’s letters, unopened, in plastic Safeway bags in his office at the school. The intended recipient, the coach says, hasn’t bothered to come by to check the mail in a long, long time.
“He’s gotta pass that test before he makes any decisions about where he’s gonna go,” says Hay. “I keep telling him it’s not going to go away, because it’s not. But, well, it’s hard to get kids to listen today.”
“That test,” of course, is the SAT. Lofton took the standardized exam once, but failed to get a score high enough to pass Prop 48’s muster. That’s the NCAA rule that outlines the minimum academic standards that a prep student must meet before accepting an athletic scholarship from a Division I school, no matter how many points he or she has put up while in uniform.
Lofton has informed Georgetown, Maryland, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest that he’ll pick among those schools if and when he attains a sufficient test score. Should he fail to score high enough this year, Lofton can attend a junior college or prep school and then transfer to a Division I university. (Georgetown freshman guard Victor Page, a Capital Classic player in 1994, was forced to put off playing for the Hoyas for a year.) As good as he is, the NBA is not going to come calling on Lofton at this stage of his maturation.
After finishing his brief workout, Lofton walks into the stands and confidently asserts he’ll make the grade.
“I got no choice but to pay attention to the SATs now,” he says, putting his “Ballin’ Joe” warm-ups back on. “I guess I was putting it off. But that word ‘need’ changes everything: I need to pass. So just as soon as [the Capital Classic] is done, I’ll buckle down.”
Toward that end, he has signed up to take an SAT practice course. Lofton, who says his bedroom wall is adorned with posters of “me, me, me, and me” playing basketball, admits he has already painted a mental picture of what his post-college occupation will be.
“I’ll be in the NBA,” he says, pointing back to the USAir Arena court. “I want to go professional, go all the way. I want to play here.”
When I ask the young phenom what he’d like to do if his hoop dream goes unrealized, it becomes apparent that, in his mind, he has only one career option.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t ever thought about that,” he says with a youthful chuckle and a smile as disarming as his crossover dribble.CP