Nestled in the 61-student enrollment of Hamilton Heights Christian School lies one of the best prep basketball teams — if not the best — in the area. Within that team is some of the best talent in the area, which could pay dividends not only this year but for years to come.
The Hawks program has been on a mission to gain an affiliation with a shoe brand for the past couple of years. It's a process that usually gets attached to either a top-flight program or a top-flight player, and Hamilton Heights has the player who they hope leads to the program in 6-foot-11 sophomore Abdulhakim Ado. Through 21 games, he has averaged 11.3 points, 12.6 rebounds and 7.4 blocked shots, and he has started to attract some of the nation's top college programs.
Despite not having a prospect ranking as of yet, Ado received a scholarship offer from Vanderbilt last weekend. He and teammates Ezekiel Balogun, a 6-6 sophomore small forward, and Silas Adheke, a 6-8 freshman center, will have a chance to play with a Nike-affiliated team this summer. Ado also will be going to the prestigious Nike camp, which usually is for players finishing their junior season; an exception is being made for him.
Along with that normally comes the sponsorship, in which gear is supplied.
Headmaster Duke Stone and boys' basketball coach Zach Ferrell are hoping they are able to link up with Nike but are willing to accept an offer from either Under Armour or Adidas.
"We are in conversations with Nike, but we're going to do what's best for the kids," Stone said. "There are so many of those [companies] that help. We're not locked into Nike -- it would be our preference and we're in negotiations with them. Nike is more locked into a player, whereas Adidas and Under Armour are more about the program, but Abdul going to the Nike camp is big for a kid of his caliber."
Hamilton Heights already uses Nike equipment except for their game balls.
"The Nike brand is a brand of excellence," Ferrell said. "Everything they do, from the AAU league to everything they sponsor to how they conduct their camps, is excellent. They bring a whole new level of excellence to the game, which is what we want."
Yet headed into the Scenic City Shootout, which starts today at East Hamilton and runs through Saturday evening, the Hawks don't quite stack up to the national teams they hope to soon emulate. Hamilton Heights is one of three area programs that will be participating on the boys' side, along with East Hamilton and Tyner. The Rock, out of Gainesville, Fla., and Central Park from Birmingham, Ala, each went 3-0 last year in the round-robin format. They are both back, and New Hope Christian from Thomasville, N.C., and Prominence Academy out of Greensboro, N.C., round out the monumental field.
The Rock alumnus Joel Embiid, who is now a freshman at Kansas, electrified the crowd with an array of dunks and blocks last year. Currently, he's in the conversation to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
"This tournament is phenomenal," Ferrell said. "Almost every team has Division I-level players -- every team out of town has high-level players -- but you also have what looks like the best public school in the area in Tyner, and we're looking forward to seeing how they compete.
"Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Chattanooga has the chance to see the best prep basketball they've seen all year, and probably seen in a long time."
Hamilton Heights and East Hamilton are the two local programs playing in the girls' tournament, which will be a round-robin format.
"When the season started, I told [Ferrell] that if we had a .500 record with the schedule, I'd be thrilled," Stone said. "We're 23-1, so we're having a great year. We have some good young players, as well as some senior leadership, so we're close, but we're not quite where we need to be yet. It's hard to tell because we haven't played any strong national programs other than Central Park Baptist and Covenant."
The Hawks' lone loss came to Covenant Ministries, out of Marietta, Ga., in overtime. They've been led in scoring by 6-4 Tennessee Tech signee Aleksa Jugovic, who averages around 14 points and seven assists per game, but also have had big scoring nights from Ado, Balogun and Stefan Roknic, a 6-6 forward. This weekend will provide another level of competition, but the highlight of their schedule will be a Feb. 21 date at Oak Hill Academy.
"I don't know if we have to win these games, but we need to be competitive in them and I think we will," Stone said. "It's hard to determine how good we are until we play these national programs. You're playing with high school kids and you don't know what you're going to get sometimes, but I believe we have kids that are dedicated and motivated."
Stone made the decision to hire Ferrell before the season, gaining a coach with AAU connections who would be able to grow into his role as a head coach with a program that's trying to grow its reputation as well. Seven countries are represented on the Hamilton Heights team, yet there have been no problems in terms of jealousy as some players have quickly jumped on national radars.
"These guys have been a dream come true," Ferrell said. "Ever since the first day they've been a blessing to coach. They have a great hunger for wanting to get better every day, but there's no sense of entitlement and it's really cool to see them come together. They've been very coachable. Obviously there are some guys that have got more press and recognition, but I think that we've built chemistry and an attitude of selflessness to where when something happens to one guy, the teammates get really excited.
"Every day we've been getting better, and every day we've been coming together as a team. As a coach you want players who are receptive to teaching, and these guys have been there and then some."
Much as he stands in the middle of the Hawks' fearsome 2-3 zone, Ado has found himself in the middle of tons of fanfare. Some of it comes with his 83 inches of height, some from the way he's gracefully handled all of the attention heaped on him since he arrived in the United States early last year. He and his teammates are excited and prepared for the three days ahead.
"I just want to have fun. This is what we wanted -- to play better teams. It's what we've looked for from day one," Ado said. "It's fun to have colleges that want you as a sophomore and it's something to be proud of, but I'm not going crazy over it because I don't want to get arrogant, so that doesn't come to my mind.
"It [the Nike sponsorship] is a great opportunity to play at a high level as a team, but it makes me want to put more work in -- both in school and in basketball. I want us to be as good as we can be. I want to be the best. We should always be the group that people look back and say, 'Oh, they went to Hamilton Heights? That's great.'"
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.