A little over an hour from Chicago, and almost two hours from Indianapolis, lies the small city of La Porte.
It’s about as far northwest you can go in Indiana, before hitting either Lake Michigan or the state of Illinois. La Porte is a quaint area with plenty of history, and a lake hiding around every corner.
Tucked away is a college preparatory school, with just as much history. La Lumiere School, the alma mater of John Roberts (Chief Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court) and popular stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan. And this year … it’s the home of the No. 1 basketball team in America.
La Lumiere sits atop the USA TODAY Super 25 rankings for the fourth consecutive week. The Lakers have defeated Montverde Academy (the reigning national champions) on two separate occasions, and are currently undefeated with a perfect 18-0 record.
This isn’t new territory for La Lumiere. Just two seasons ago, the Lakers won the national championship in New York City with a decisive 70-52 victory over Montverde. NBA lottery pick Jaren Jackson, Michigan sophomore Jordan Poole, UCLA freshman Tyger Campbell and Australian professional Brian Bowen were all members of that team.
“It’s tough. I hate trying to compare one team to the next,” said head coach Patrick Holmes.
Holmes was an assistant during the 2017 championship year. He was elevated to head coach at the beginning of last season. And although he might shy away from making comparisons, there’s certainly an underlying theme to La Lumiere’s success.
“The one thing that I learned that is important to have in a great team— is culture,” Holmes said. “And Shane Heirman, I worked for him for three years when he was head coach, and he did a great job at establishing culture.”
Given some of my own observations of the team, I’ve identified a couple common themes which I’d attribute to La Lumiere’s winning culture.
The players on this La Lumiere team have been training together since August. Teammates quickly become brothers while grinding together during intense workouts and practices.
“Practices aren’t easy. We make them hard intentionally,” Holmes said. “We focus on defense for the first hour of practice. And the guys know that going into it, but they’ve embraced the mentality of being like a junkyard dog and getting after it.”
The hard work during those unseen hours are coming to fruition. The Lakers are a disciplined basketball team. They are locked-in defensively, and they pass the ball with a contagious unselfishness.
2) Love for Teammates
I spoke with starting point guard Wendell Green after the team’s win over Montverde Academy (Fl.) at the Cancer Research Classic. One of the comments that stuck with me was his genuine brotherly love for his teammates.
“We’ve built bonds since August, so we love each other and we want to do it for each other,” Green said. “For the team, Isaiah wants me to get offers. And I want Isaiah to do big things and go to the NBA. So we all love each other. Keion, Gerald, Paxson we just all love each other.”
I heard echoes of the same sentiment from small forward Keion Brooks. Brooks is nearing the end of his recruiting process with a decision coming soon. I asked Keion if the constant attention on recruiting ever gets overwhelming. His response provided a greater glimpse into this.
“I feel like I’ve got a great support system around me. And I have Isaiah [Stewart] to take some of the pressure off of me,” Brooks said. “Being around Isaiah, we help by talking about it together and kind of vent to each other— to talk about what’s going on in our life and what’s going on in our recruiting situation.”
There’s an affection for teammates at La Lumiere that’s tangible and genuinely expressed.
3) Playing with Joy
If I could pinpoint only one characteristic of La Lumiere’s winning culture— this would be my favorite. There’s just a real sense of joy at La Lumiere. The poster child for this is starting center Isaiah Stewart.
“Man, I love this game. This game has taken me places I’ve never been,” Stewart said. “I’m truly blessed. God could have picked someone else and I’m just thankful. So when I’m out there, I’m playing with joy.”
This isn’t something that’s manufactured either. When watching Isaiah on the court, you’ll see him laughing. After knocking down a crucial three-point basket against Montverde, the senior ran down the court and broke out a goofy celebration with an infectious smile.
“When I’m out there, even though it’s a tight game— you’re going to see me laughing, you’re going to see me smiling,” Stewart said. “I had two surgeries so far in my high school career. I missed the first part of the season, and I just feel so happy to be back out there… I’m just thanking God.”
Isaiah’s joy for the game is shared by his teammates, and even by the La Lumiere coaching staff.
“I like the fact that our guys are celebrating the accomplishments of teammates.” Holmes said. “We also have an awesome ‘bench mob’ that we work on with our assistant coach Matt Marvin, who’s also our athletic director. You’ll see a 29-year-old man sitting in the middle of the bench getting the guys hyped up, and those guys embrace it.”
Coincidentally, just as Coach Holmes is saying this, Jaren Jackson Sr. (an assistant coach at La Lumiere) charges into the locker room while yelling and celebrating. He approaches Coach Holmes and myself, pauses, and belts out another celebratory shout before charging back into the hallway. It’s just another example of the infectious energy and joy present at La Lumiere.
“We always harp on having great energy and great body language,” Holmes continued. “Because it helps your teammates during tough times.”
There’s still a long road ahead for La Lumiere. Although the Lakers might be undefeated and ranked as the top team in the country, there’s plenty of challenges ahead. On Monday, La Lumiere will face No. 3-ranked DeMatha Catholic at the Hoophall Classic.
The Lakers certainly hope to qualify and compete for another national title, but they also aren’t looking too far ahead. It’s a good thing too— because it be a shame to miss out on all these special moments happening in the meantime.
Michael McLamb is the High School Hoops Editor at Mars Reel. You can follow him: @McLambSays