Welcome to the melting pot of Hoosier high school hoops, a stuffed-to-the-exits gymnasium on Michigan Road that seats 80 people — 90 if you squeeze in reallll tight — where the youngest head coach in the state fuses Indiana’s passion into a roster of players whose native countries dot the globe.
Welcome to the International School of Indiana, where kids arrive with an F1 Visa, a straight-A average and no jump shot. Meet perhaps the only team in the state of Indiana where players try out for varsity having never heard of a movie called “Hoosiers.”
This was a problem. So Scott Schmelzer remedied that on his first day as the team’s 22-year-old coach last season. He sat his boys down and introduced them to Norman Dale, to Jimmy Chitwood and to the Hickory Huskers. Most significant: He introduced them to Indiana high school basketball.
It means more around here. Schmelzer needed them to know that.
His team is a cauldron of cultures, a model United Nations in jerseys and sneakers. They are kids playing basketball because it’s fun, not because it’s life. They skip practice to study. They skip games for tests. Here, academics trump all.
But there is a passion, a real, tangible passion in these boys on this Friday night, same as there is any team on any court in any gym in the state. Basketball happens to be the avenue that has brought them together from countries around the world.
There is the freshman wing from Liberia, as gifted as he is raw, a teenager who’s already lived in places like Nepal, Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana. That’s what happens when your father is a diplomat for the United Nations.
Jonathan Sanyon arrived in Indianapolis a year ago having never before played organized basketball; now he’s in the Gryphons’ starting lineup. He intends to go to college in America. Wants to be architect. He’s thinking Duke.
But on this Friday night, Sanyon is resisting the urge not to jump across the line after he shoots a free throw, as he did on his first attempt of the game. Basketball can be a complicated endeavor when you’re forced to learn on the fly. Sanyon makes mistakes. He learns. He plays. Same goes for most of his teammates.
“Before I came here, I never knew how to shoot or how to make a layup,” Sanyon says.
Of all the places Sanyon could’ve landed for his secondary education, he landed here, a basketball novice in the heart of hoops country. He’s not alone. By virtue of its international baccalaureate curriculum, the school attracts standout students from all over the world, some the sons or daughters of a visiting professor or an Eli Lilly employees on a multiyear rotation. Some show up for the first practice having never played the sport in their life.
There’s a junior varsity player from Portugal, one from China and one from Niger — the latter of which never touched a basketball until this fall.
“I was tall, so I decided to try it,” the 6-1 Ishmael Issiaka says. “I had no clue what pivots or post moves were.”
There’s Peter N’tala, the boy from the Congo who wants to go to college and study biochemistry. There’s Ari Lowinsky, the varsity reserve who speaks five languages and wants to one day be a sports writer. And there’s the 5-9 guard of Indian descent who can’t weigh more than 120 pounds but might be the best player in the state you’ve never heard of.
After all, how many players can say they’ve scored 57 points in a game?
Skyler Kolli can. He did it two weeks back. Only one other player in Indiana this century has scored more.
Kolli is the best player on the most diverse squad in the state, a team whose ambitious young coach still faces the same obstacle he did that first day on the job, the afternoon he popped in “Hoosiers.” He wants to turn his high school basketball team into an Indiana high school basketball team. There’s a difference. Schmelzer knows it.
His team has made progress. He wants more.
* * *
In Schmelzer’s first year guiding the Gryphons, they tied the school record for victories. In this, his second, they broke it by early February. But forgive the now-24-year-old coach if he refuses to soak in the accomplishment.
His team is 8-12.
Schmelzer barks out his commands before his team takes the floor for a rivalry game with University High School. And where he does this is telling: The coach speaks not in a locker room but a classroom — one dotted with foreign language assignments on the walls — adjacent to the court. Even in this moment, before their biggest game of the regular season, it’s obvious: Here, sports come second. This team doesn’t even have a locker room.
“We’re all best friends who happen to be on a basketball team together, not basketball players who happen to be friends,” is how Kolli, fourth in the state in scoring at 26.9 points per game, puts it.
International forward and freshman Jonathan Sanyon from Liberia feels his teams loss to University High School as he follows assistant coach Maurice Harding into their classroom locker room at the end of the game on Friday night, Feb. 6, 2015. The International High School boys basketball team, featuring players from Liberia, India, Poland and China, is a member in good standing in the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) and competes with other private and public schools from all over Indiana and the Midwest. The team, small in stature but big in heart, is 8-12 overall and 2-4 in their conference. The team uses a classroom as their locker room and is barely big enough to keep spectators off the floor with seating just inches off the out of bounds lines.
For Schmelzer, the reality hit hard and hit quick after he took over in 2013. His basketball education consisted of 2½ seasons as a manager for the Butler basketball team; he took over ISI’s team months removed from graduation. He aced the interview and pledged he’d pour himself into the job. He wanted to be John Wooden.
“We just kept telling ourselves, ‘He can’t be 22 years old, he just can’t be,’ ” says the man who hired him, ISI athletic director Scot Mellor. “I felt like I was talking to a coach with 20 years under his belt.”
At the urging of a former mentor, Brad Stevens, Schmelzer took the job and dove in. He was the state’s youngest head coach, perhaps the nation’s. He was living at home with his mom. He was working part-time at a coffee shop. But he was coaching — and coaching perhaps the most unique team in the state.
Here was a roster littered with players earning 3.8 GPAs at an academic mill — ISI has been named one of the most challenging high schools in the country by The Washington Post three years running — where sports are never given much of a thought. The basketball team’s record reflected that: The Gryphons never won more than five games in any of their first six seasons.
Enter Schmelzer, a native Hoosier who sought not to upset the order but teach his boys what the game means in the state, and what it could mean to them. He introduced them to a playbook, to film review, to scouting reports.
“We started playing in a summer league last year and they were all like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we’re playing basketball in June,’ ” Schmelzer says. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe you’ve haven’t played basketball in June!’ “
Still, when the season came around, players would regularly miss practice to study and miss games for tests. Just this past Friday, two of ISI’s players were absent. Their reasoning? They were at a model United Nations summit in Chicago. That’s a pretty good excuse.
“They don’t need a sport to fall back on,” Schmelzer says. “They’ve got straight As and are going to go to college on a full ride. And that’s awesome. They’re so gifted at so many things besides basketball, I sort of see why they don’t take the game more seriously.”
But Schmelzer does. He arrived on campus wanting to instill the Butler Way — his assistants include another former Butler manager and a former Butler student — so it’s no surprise to hear one of Stevens’ favorite words thrown around over and over while Schmelzer directs practice.
Process. Process. Process.
It’s been process since the day Schmelzer took over, painful at times, gratifying at others. He’s taught them shooting form and bounces passes and what a zone defense is — rudimentary elements of the game most kids learn before they enter middle school, let alone high school. Not here.
“We’re talking how to follow through on a shot, how to properly set a screen … basic stuff,” says assistant Maurice Harding. “But at the same time, seeing them learn it and do it the right way in a game? That’s pretty rewarding.”
* * *
Here, in the foreign language classroom that doubles as the Gryphons’ locker room, comes another Stevensism.
“Allow the game to honor you,” Schmelzer shouts, echoing a maxim his mentor often shared with his players.
“The game honors toughness,” was what Stevens told the Bulldogs during their march to the 2010 national title game.
Nothing comes easy for them after tipoff. Seven days after dropping a state single-season high 57 points on Anderson Prep — in a game the Gryphons scored a school-record 90 points — Kolli can’t shake double teams or a cold shooting touch. Points come slowly. University pulls ahead. ISI grinds and scrap and stays close.
On nights like this, it seems they are always playing from behind. The game is tougher when the fundamentals aren’t seared into you as a youngster. Sanyon is called for leaping across the line while he shoots a free throw. More mistakes pile up. The Gryphons make just 4-of-23 3-point attempts. They eventually fall 71-53.
They gather afterwards, the sweat dripping down the players’ faces in the foreign language classroom while Schmelzer talks them through their mistakes. Years ago, competing against a team like University seemed improbable. But in a moment like this, perspective eludes them.
Then there’s that word again.
“This is part of the process,” Schmelzer tells them.
An hour after the final buzzer, after the bleachers are cleared and the gymnasium deserted, a coach sits back in his chair in a makeshift office and replays in his mind a game that gradually slipped away. His star player laces his shoes back up and heads to the court to loft shots.
Another sign the process was working: Neither was ready to go home.
Call Star reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134. Follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.