The clock read 5:59 a.m. when an impatient shout echoed through a sleepy, silent gymnasium at DeSales High School: “Bring it in!”
Aspire Academy’s players were scheduled to start practice at 5:30 a.m. They didn’t all make it.
Coach Jeremy Kipness was not pleased.
“There’s a certain time you’re supposed to be ready, and you’re not ready,” Kipness told players circling on the court. “A lot of you think you’re going to get to college and your talent is going to overtake everything. When you get to the next level, there is literally no bullshit. You do your job. It’s a business. You’re supposed to be there when you’re supposed to be there. If not, they’ll find someone else.”
For the newest — and easily the most talented — high school basketball team in Louisville, the pep talk hit close to the bull’s-eye. That’s because, for Kipness’ players, playing college basketball isn’t a matter of if but when and where.
Basketball, after all, is the reason for Aspire’s existence. It is why gifted high school prospects from all over the country and the world have moved to Louisville. They attend classes at DeSales High School but they play for Aspire’s prep-school basketball team, which travels and competes largely outside of Louisville and the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, against other North American prep-school teams of a similar makeup.
They live away from home, and yes, they might practice at 5:30 a.m.
“It’s not for everybody,” Kipness said. “It’s for those kids who are really committed to creating a better future for themselves. A lot of the stuff we do, we demand a lot. It’s a lot like a college program.”
Aspire Academy started last school year in Scottsdale, Arizona, before moving its entire operation and rebuilding its roster from scratch in Louisville.
Having only the summer months to recruit a team before the start of classes, Kipness managed to do it. He added a group of touted players headlined by Charles Bassey, an ultra-skilled 6-foot-10-inch center and native of Nigeria who is one of the nation’s top prospects in the 2019 class.
Bassey arrived as a part of a group of internationally born Aspire players brought from San Antonio by Hennssy Auriantal, a former coach who has operated Yes II Success, an organization that seeks to “provide an educational path for international students utilizing athletics,” according to its Facebook page. Yes II Success places international basketball players at private high schools in the United States while sponsoring an AAU team.
Auriantal, who is Bassey’s guardian, moved his family to Louisville and joined Aspire’s staff as vice president of international affairs.
“Louisville is a nice community for supporting those kids,” said Auriantal, a Canadian who played at the University of Wisconsin. “Me, my family loves it. Aspire and DeSales High School accepted all of us. It’s a great community. It’s only been a plus for us.”
For Kipness, moving Aspire to Louisville made sense. Now in his mid-20s, he once turned down a chance to play Division III basketball in New England and instead enrolled at the University of Louisville to work as a student manager from 2011-14 for Rick Pitino’s basketball program.
“I’ve known since I was 10 years old that I wanted to be on the sidelines coaching the game of basketball,” said Kipness, a native of Queens, New York, who grew up in Connecticut. “I knew I wanted to be a college coach, and being able to work under the tutelage of Coach Pitino was something I just jumped at. … I just kept calling and calling and emailing. Eventually, they couldn’t say no after I asked so many times.”
Traces of Kipness’ mentorship with the Cardinals are apparent around Aspire’s program, most notably in his own animated, energetic coaching style and the former players he knew while helping Louisville to the 2013 national championship.
For example, Luke Hancock showed up to practice with Aspire’s team at DeSales on the same morning that players had been slow to prepare.
“Chris Jones will play with us,” Kipness said. “We’ve had Stephan Van Treese, Chane Behanan.”
Hancock is Kipness’ former college roommate. As Aspire played two games at Seneca High School this past weekend, Hancock was on hand to watch his coaching friend, who sipped an energy drink from the scorer’s table between shouts.
“The guy just doesn’t sleep. He works nonstop,” Hancock said of Kipness. “He’s the most passionate person about basketball I’ve ever seen. Throughout his whole journey as a coach, people have told him he couldn’t do it. I had faith in him and wished him the best, but when he told me he was starting a prep team in Arizona, you’re wondering how he’s going to get it done.
“But nobody works harder. Nobody is more passionate. I tell you that right now.”
Aspire’s team is known as the Wizards. That wasn’t an arbitrary decision.
Funding for Aspire’s creation came primarily from Jeremy’s father, Michael Kipness, a horse racing handicapper well-known as “The Wizard.” His selections and analysis are available via subscription on the Daily Racing Form’s website.
Aspire was born out of Jeremy’s search to break into the college coaching ranks. He said he was close to scouting and video jobs at SMU and Virginia at one point, but it never happened.
“This has always been his dream, so I’m supporting my son’s dream,” Michael Kipness said. “That’s what I do. Everything I make in my life I’ve put into my kids. So when I die, I’m going to die broke. It’s OK because I’d rather see it now.”
Michael said he and his wife emptied out their savings to help get Aspire off the ground.
While still residing in Connecticut, Michael Kipness serves as Aspire’s president of operations and plays an active role in the team’s operations, traveling frequently to join his son.
“His work ethic, if he wasn’t such a hard worker and such a great kid, even though he’s my son, I wouldn’t do this,” Michael said. “… It took me eight months to get the foundation, but when we started the first year, it was almost like starting a restaurant. You’ve got to buy the ovens, the tables.
“So we’ve got to be right on the recruiting, and we’ve got to be right on building a team. I’m not patient enough to wait 10 years. You have to do it right in Year One to make a mark. It’s probably one of the hardest things in the world to do, to start a program against (others like) Oak Hill Academy and Findlay Prep. They’re well-financed.”
In terms of outside support, Adidas sponsors Aspire’s team. “We get our gear. That’s it,” Michael said.
Aspire is seeking sponsors and donors to help as it moves toward another year in Louisville. As of Jan. 17, 2018, the Aspire Basketball Foundation was granted nonprofit status by the Internal Revenue Service, which means donations are now tax deductible.
To help raise funds, Aspire has plans to restart its post-graduate team — offering prospective college players an additional fifth year after high school — and offer camps in the summer.
“The big part of being able to sustain longevity and being able to continue to grow is you need that support,” Jeremy Kipness said. “We are sponsored by Adidas, but right now where we’re at, we’re looking for sponsors for donations. We’re a nonprofit organization. So getting the community behind us, getting support and people to believe in what we do and our mission and why we do things is a big part of it.”
The majority of Aspire’s team attends the school for free while on scholarship. In addition to basketball, that includes tuition at DeSales and meals and lodging at a large rental house in Middletown.
It’s a dorm-style setting with a host. The father of Jacobi Gordon, a 2018 Cal signee and Aspire player who is out injured with a torn Achilles tendon, provides parental supervision.
“It’s better than most would think,” said forward T.J. Smith, a Chicago-area native and Toledo commit. “It’s smooth. We all sleep properly, eat good, have our own space.”
Aspire has a van — often driven by coaches, Jeremy included — to take players to school and practice. Players have a curfew but say they typically don’t do much socially because there isn’t much time between basketball and classwork.
Sensitive to the perception that prep schools serve merely as basketball factories, Aspire partnered with DeSales. Most — but not all — of its players attend classes; some students are homeschooled.
“These kids are regular high school kids,” Jeremy Kipness said. “I can’t try to change a grade just because I need him to play and be eligible. At DeSales, they hold them to the same type of rules and regulations and code of conduct as every other student.”
That’s where Lupe Kraft comes in. Originally connected to Aspire as a player host in Arizona, Kraft moved with her family to Louisville to work full-time as Aspire’s academic liaison with DeSales.
She is on campus on a daily basis and meets with an official from DeSales every other Tuesday to go over the players’ academic work and any school-related issues.
“For the most part, they do well,” Kraft said. “And they know there’s really no alternative.”
DeSales president Doug Strothman gave the arrangement high marks, saying, “It has been a very positive experience for us.”
“The kids that their program has brought in to our school are good kids,” Strothman said. “They’re fun to interact with. They’re intelligent. They’ve fit in well with the culture of the school and with the rest of the students.”
Strothman, who is retiring after this school year, said he expects the partnership between Aspire and DeSales to continue.
“I don’t foresee a change,” he said. “When we went into this, our plan was to evaluate it year by year, but there certainly hasn’t been anything that our leadership team has seen to dissuade us from continuing with these guys.”
Some of the seniors or postgraduate players on Aspire’s team opted to continue to be home-schooled, Strothman said, but those athletes still regularly attend study hall sessions at DeSales.
Yet Aspire’s players, of course, don’t actually play basketball for DeSales, which creates the odd situation of some of America’s best college basketball prospects walking the hallways of a high school without actually playing for its basketball team. Said Smith: “I get that question still, to this day.”
“There was some questioning of that from the beginning: Would it take away from our team?” Strothman said. “Really, our position was that they are students. They weren’t going to play basketball for us regardless. So if they weren’t in our school as students, they’re going to be in somebody else’s school, whether it be in Louisville or a different part of the country. Honestly, it hasn’t taken away from our basketball team at all. Our guys still get the same attention they would normally get.
“… It hasn’t really created any negativity. It just took a little bit to get people to understand.”
Aspire began its 2017-18 schedule in mid-October and will play into March. Most of its games have been part of a prep-school circuit called The Grind Session, which matches prep-school programs against one another in weekend events at various locations.
Most recently, Aspire played Grind Session events in Bowling Green on Feb. 2-3 and in Louisville at Seneca High School on Feb. 9-11, winning all four of its games.
Counting scrimmages, the team has compiled a 22-8 record despite consistent turnover and a rash of injuries to players like Gordon and forward Obi Prosper (torn ACL), another Nigerian-born player who came to Aspire with Bassey via San Antonio.
“We try not to really take kids from Kentucky and from Louisville specifically,” Jeremy Kipness said. “We want to continue to build a relationship with the city. We want to be seen as something positive for them and not something that’s going to take away.”
Ties between the city and the program, for now, remain loose. Of those 30 games for Aspire, six were played in Louisville, counting the two at Seneca this past weekend.
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association typically does not permit its teams to compete against prep school academies, and indeed, the talent gap between the two levels is vast.
Fern Creek, which won the city’s King of the Bluegrass event in December, arranged a scrimmage against Aspire on Nov. 17. Aspire led 28-13 at halftime and went on to win 67-45 with Bassey scoring only six points.
Nonetheless, Jeremy Kipness wants to try to play more local teams in such a way.
“One thing that we’re working on is to build a relationship with the KHSAA and make sure that they acknowledge us,” he said. “We want to be almost an associate member, so to speak, to where we’re not competing for the state championship but we are able to play the local teams, play Trinity, play St. X, play Ballard. …
“With us being here, the way I look at it being a benefit to the local schools here, with college coaches coming here and watching our players, you know, they’re here. They might as well go a couple of streets down and watch Trinity play and practice.”
Meanwhile, Aspire has other goals, long-term ones despite what has been, for now, a brief existence. They include sustaining the program financially, retaining players for the seasons to come and to ultimately growing a following in Louisville by offering a new, different type of high school basketball.
“There are a lot of eyes on us because it’s never been done in Louisville,” Michael Kipness said. “You’d think, ‘Why in Louisville, a basketball town, nobody’s done it?’ Because it’s extremely difficult to do it and do it the right way.”