For the past two weeks, I experienced exactly what separates Lower Merion basketball from the rest of high school programs in Pennsylvania. It’s not the state championships or the perks of being Kobe Bryant’s alma mater. It’s not the countless hours of hard work or the gritty defense and team play. It’s not the big crowds or even the community’s passion for basketball. As I am sitting on a red-eye plane ride home from San Diego writing this and rehashing the past two amazing weeks in my mind, I have finally figured it out. As corny as it may sound, I think the reason why Lower Merion basketball is so successful is because every player is more than just a teammate to one another; we are a very unique brotherhood brought together by some unbelievable bonding experiences.
Last July, I was lucky enough to be included on an unforgettable summer trip to the University of North Carolina, West Virginia and Shenandoah National Park. During the past few weeks, I was part of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to California. The following are some of my personal reflections of our adventures on the West Coast.
On July 29th, my teammates and I boarded a 9 AM flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco. It was the start of a two week adventure that would introduce us to the wonders of California. Although we are all nice kids who can play a little ball, and although certain guys may have had pre-existing friendships, and although we had spent countless hours in the gym fooling around or practicing our asses off together, we were in many respects strangers. California would be the backdrop for what would be an intense bonding experience. Basketball was a consistent theme, but not a dominant one -- two scrimmages and a three-day tournament were the only formal games scheduled for our trip.
When we arrived in the city by the bay, we went directly to our hotel, the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental, perched on Nob Hill in the heart of San Francisco. We entered the lobby and were greeted by Dan Pangrazio ’97, a member of the Aces’ 1996 state championship team and a former Division 1 player at Saint Mary’s College. Connecting with alumni would be a frequent occurrence on the trip. Everywhere we went, we met someone from the Lower Merion basketball family. Dan welcomed us to his city and talked to us about having a winning mentality. He also shared some great stories about playing with Kobe. We learned that Dan was celebrating his wedding that night, so it was especially surprising and somewhat of a revelation that this man would take the time on the most important day of his life to talk to his former basketball team. That just sort of stuck out to me as the kind of lasting impression Lower Merion basketball has on people.
After a quick bite to eat (though nothing is really that quick when you’re traveling with a group of 18), we hopped on a public bus and headed to University High School for a shoot-around. We had a chance to get rid of our tired legs from the long plane ride and had a first opportunity to see the city. The views of the bay from the city’s huge hills were incredible. We also got our first taste of walking up and down those hills and learned that walking around San Francisco can be a very demanding challenge. That night we had a great dinner at the famous House of Nanking, walked around Chinatown and went back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep. Day two set the tone for how the rest of trip.
We were constantly moving from one activity to another. It began with a scrimmage against California’s Class 3 defending state champs, Sacred Heart Cathedral, at their beautiful gym in downtown San Francisco. We played well and ended up winning, but it was a hard-fought game and a sign that we would see tough competition in California. In the afternoon, we had lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf and took a boat across the bay to the infamous Alcatraz Prison, where we toured the former digs of inmates like Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly. That night, we had the unique opportunity to catch a Phillies game on the road; they were playing the Giants at AT&T Park. Some of the guys – myself included – painted our chests in Phillies colors and braved the cold, windy, San Francisco night to show our team pride. The Phils lost, but it was a lot of fun getting into some lively conversations with the Giants fans.
Day three included stops at the Sutro Baths and the Golden Gate Bridge. All that’s left of the baths are some rocky ruins along the coast, and it was cool to go down to the water and climb around the sea cliffs as we watched the waves crash against the shore. For most of us, it was the first time seeing the Pacific Ocean. After crossing the Golden Gate (and getting out for a few minutes to walk out onto the bridge), we headed to Saint Mary’s College for the start of a three-day team camp.Day 3-5 Team Camp
Saint Mary’s is a beautiful campus in the hills of Moraga, CA. One thing we noticed right away was the much-improved weather. Only 45 minutes away from windy, foggy 60-degree weather in San Francisco, it was 75 degrees and sunny in Moraga. We unloaded our bags in the dorm and warmed up for our first game. The competition at camp was solid. We ended up going 5-1 and all 14 players contributed throughout the weekend. We beat two San Francisco city schools, three teams from the Oakland area and lost by a basket to a strong local team. We were looking forward to a re-match and a chance to win the camp tournament, but had to depart camp early on Sunday to keep our travel plans on track. The Saint Mary’s coaching staff made us feel at home from the start and head coach Randy Bennett spent some quality time talking with us before we left. He seems like a great guy and it is no wonder that the Gaels program has had so much success under his leadership.
At Saint Mary’s we also got surprise visits from our strength coach, Todd Barnes, who was in Oakland assisting with the Raiders’ training camp and Matt Lachs ’08, our former manager who is now managing men’s basketball at Temple University.
All the touristy things we did on our trip were fun and worthwhile, but some of the activities that took us out of our comfort zone are truly what brought us together. At Saint Mary’s we had the first of four “group” sessions, late night conversations under the stars where we talked about our personal and team goals and shared open and honest dialogue with each other about a whole bunch of topics. It was really intense and probably one of the most rewarding things we did during the trip.
We had experiences as a team that most people never get in a life time. The strongest example of this was our time in Yosemite National Park. Roughing it was tough (we pitched tents in a primitive campsite that had no running water and didn’t shower for three days), but even the freezing cold nights and ever-present danger of bears didn’t seem like much of a hassle given the chance to explore one of the world’s most spectacular wildernesses.
We spent three full days in Yosemite and logged about 20 total miles of hiking. We saw waterfalls, granite peaks, alpine meadows, a few bald eagles and plenty of deer. We made smores, learned to use bearproof food lockers and took 6 AM plunges in icy cold lakes. We discovered that peanut butter and jelly tastes like a gourmet meal after six hours of hiking and that water truly is a precious commodity. We stood on the edges of cliffs, separated from the valleys and rivers below by a drop of thousands of feet of sheer rock. We learned to set-up and take down a tent and enjoyed the warmth of a campfire. We got sprayed by the mist of Vernal Falls and were awed by the looming presence of Half Dome.
The highlight was a serene, yet incredibly strenuous nine-mile hike straight up a mountain that ended up with the discovery of an isolated and beautiful swimming hole at the base of a perfect waterfall. The swimming hole was memorable, but something occurred on that mountain that I believe the 14 of us will never forget. We reached the summit, took a seat in unison, and stared out at the breathtaking view. This was the moment in which a feeling flowed through us that maybe can help explain why Lower Merion has won games over the years that others believed we had no business being part of. We sat there knowing we had just done something special and amazing. At certain points guys had to be pushed to keep going, other times we waited for those who needed a break just so we could finish as a team. But what was important was that we had done it together.
We left Yosemite through the east entrance of the park and stopped for gas at a Mobil station that turned out to also be an amazing restaurant – the Who Nellie Deli. Though it seemed out of place in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t complain about the opportunity to feast on ahi tuna tacos, pork chops, lobster taquitos and baby back ribs after three days in the wilderness. The meal sustained us for the long, but beautiful ride through the desert to LA.
That first shower at our hotel in Santa Monica was one of the greatest feelings of my life. Not to get too graphic, but after the last of my roommates showered, dirt literally lined the tub. After cleaning up and seeing ourselves (and our new facial hair) in the mirror for the first time in a few days, we went to dinner at Canter’s Deli, a major celebrity hangout. The Pointer Sisters were playing at the Deli’s famous “Kibitz Room,” a musical venue that helped launch bands like Guns ‘N Roses and the Wallflowers. I didn’t really know who the Pointer Sisters were, but our coaches told us they had some pretty big hits in the ‘80’s.
Our stops in LA included Venice Beach (where we did a few push-ups at Muscle Beach), UCLA (we walked around the John Wooden Court at Pauley Pavilion), Rodeo Drive and Hollywood (where we had a brief sighting of Jessica Simpson and messed around with a Michael Jackson impersonator). We also had two great dinners, one at a really cool Hollywood club called The Velvet Margarita and the other at Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, where we bumped into Mad Mike from Pimp My Ride and Patricia Heaton from Everybody Loves Raymond. Kobe is in Paris for the month, so we didn’t get to see him, but we ate at Roscoe’s with his business manager, Jerry Sawyer, who helps manage our team’s relationship with Nike. We dined at Velvet Margarita with Sarah Lowe ‘02, the Aces’ all-time leading female scorer, who is now working and living in LA, and Jay Lavender, a well- known Hollywood screenwriter and friend of our coach, Doug Young. We also caught up with former Aces Dave Young ’98 (Doug's brother) and Jesse Federman ’95, who are both working in the entertainment industry.
LA had some big basketball highlights, too. The first was a workout run by legendary California AAU coach George Albanez and LA streetball king Rob Best on a private court at a mansion in Marina Del Rey. The court is a replica of the Lakers’ court at the STAPLES Center, and we got the hook-up thanks to some of our coaches’ friends from Kobe’s annual basketball camp in LA. We also scrimmaged Taft High School at the University of Southern California’s Galen Center. Taft is honestly one of the best high school teams I’ve ever seen and their athleticism and teamwork was really impressive. They have 11 Division 1 prospects in the program right now, including the sons of former NBA players Larry Drew and Mark Jackson (who was sitting courtside for our game) and they are projected to be a top ten team in the U.S. next season. (On a more personal note, I got dunked on pretty hard.) Even though we lost, it was a good experience for us and a very clear reminder that there are some unbelievably talented teams and players out there and we have lots of work to do.Day 9-12
Our trip concluded with three perfect days in San Diego. Our “other” NBA alum, Jim Brogan ’76, who now lives and works in La Jolla and has his own basketball academy, got things going with a memorable two-hour workout at La Jolla Country Day School, home of "the Torreys." (I was hoping to get on Torrey Pines golf course for nine holes, but no luck!) Mr. Brogan taught us about the game, but more importantly he taught about setting goals, having high expectations for ourselves and having the courage to achieve our goals. He inspired us and made us realize once again how lucky we are to be part of the Aces family. Although the workout was not tiring, it was mentally intense, and it stuck out to me as one of the most important things we did on the trip.
After a summer of hard work, our coaches encouraged us to use the last couple of days of the trip to unwind, relax a little and enjoy the scenery. We took a surf lesson, chilled on the beach, snorkeled around La Jolla and played some pick-up hoops at a nice outdoor court. We had an authentic Mexican meal at Casa Guadalajara in Old Town San Diego and walked around the Gaslamp Quarter on a Saturday night (and after seeing some of the “scenery,” decided that we’d be coming back to San Diego when we are a little older).
On our last day in San Diego, we visited the world-famous San Diego Zoo and had some fun comparing different teammates to animals we saw in the exhibits. We also spent some time with Matt Snider ’94, another former Ace who played for four years in the NFL and is now a personal trainer in San Diego. And finally, we shared one more group session together talking about the things we would carry with us from the trip, the things we learned about ourselves and each other and some of the memories that would last a lifetime.
We boarded the planes on our red-eye flight a little tired, but incredibly grateful for the adventure that we had all shared together. Our coaches never once forced team bonding onto us; we went through so much together as a team in such a short amount of time that it would have been very hard not to bond with one another. So again, as I sit on the plane with my 13 "brothers," I realize how special this experience was for all of us. I also realize (and all basketball players and coaches should take a note) that in order to do great things, a team must be comprised of more than just teammates. Corny, but true. The entire team realized that this miraculous trip was planned for us to get to know one another, to really become part of a family. And therein lies the secret to Lower Merion’s success.
Mike Buchwald is a rising junior at Lower Merion High School and a member of the Lower Merion Aces varsity basketball team.Photo credits: Matt Buchwald