By Steve Spiewak
Maybe all those conspiracy theorists were right. There is something in the water. If that "something" is a dose of basketball talent, and the water is the Hudson River, which divides New York and New Jersey, it may be time to alert the authorities.
Once again, the NYC metropolitan area is teeming with some of the best players and teams in the entire country, all within a 15 mile radius.
Rice (Harlem), Lincoln (Brooklyn), and Mt. Vernon comprise the trifecta of New York teams that have been appearing on the national radar in preseason polls. Each is led by an individual superstar ranked similarly high in rankings of top recruits.
Dynamic 6-foot-2 guard Kemba Walker is a catalyst with the ball for Rice and makes the players around him better. He's consistently ranked among the top point guards in the country, checking in as the No. 29 senior in the country according to Van Coleman.
"He comes in with the thought process that he's not going to lose," Coleman said. "When you find that in a lead guard, it's invaluable."
Walker led Rice to the state CHSAA title last year, but the team suffered a season ending defeat at the hands of another lead guard, Lincoln's Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson is the latest in a series of high profile Lincoln guards. He follows current New York Knick Stephon Marbury and Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Sebastian Telfair as the latest Coney Island sensation.
Stephenson is bigger and stronger than either of his predecessors, and uses his 6-5 frame to overpower smaller guards. Van Coleman rates him the third best junior in the country, and his Lincoln Railsplitters are once again favorites in the PSAL.
Right outside the city limits, Mt. Vernon is primed for another successful season, following an outstanding 24-5 campaign.
The Knights have a history of dominance that stretches far beyond Westchester County. They were state Federation champs most recently in 2004 and 2006, and under head coach Bob Cimmino's leadership, could once again compete for the crown.
This year's squad is led by Kevin Jones, a 6-8 forward with excellent range on his jumper. He's an intelligent player who Coleman thinks will only continue to develop.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see him playing in the NBA one day."
He wouldn't be the first Mt. Vernon star to makes waves in the league. Former Knight Ben Gordon is now starring for the Chicago Bulls after a standout career at the University of Connecticut that included a national championship.
Across the Hudson River, there is definitely no drop off. New Jersey high school basketball starts with a school that sits in the shadows of lower Manhattan, St. Anthony High School in downtown Jersey City.
The Friars have one of their deepest teams in Bob Hurley's tenure as head coach, featuring six seniors already committed to Division I colleges. The Friars have the potential to be the best team not only in the area, but in the country.
However, Hurley knows how deep the competition is locally, and recognizes the pitfalls of looking too far into the future.
"One of the most misused words in the English language is potential. It just means you haven't done it yet," Hurley said.
The main roadblock in front of the Friars is another area powerhouse, St. Patrick.
Kevin Boyle's Celtics have become a national powerhouse. Though located in Elizabeth, N.J., some of the program's top players have made the commute across the Hudson from New York. Shaheen Holloway, a former Seton Hall star, and Corey Fisher, currently a freshman at Villanova, were both New Yorkers who shunned the city's top teams to play for St. Pat's.
This year, highly-touted freshman Shaquille Stokes will do the reverse commute from Manhattan. He joins an already star-studded cast that includes Quintrell Thomas, a Kansas commit, and junior guard Dexter Strickland.
Strickland is Coleman's ninth rated junior in the country. He's a lanky but athletic guard who can really elevate.
One of the biggest rivalry games Strickland & Co. face each season is against the third member of New Jersey triumvirate, St. Benedict's Prep.
The Gray Bees, coached by Danny Hurley, son of Bob Hurley, are a mainstay in the national rankings and consistently churn out top recruits.
6-9 Samardo Samuels is the centerpiece of the Gray Bee attack. Coleman's No. 4-ranked senior utilizes strength, agility, and leaping ability to create a presence on both ends of the floor.
"Samuels is one of the hardest working players in his class. He worked his way to the top."
The future Louisville Cardinal is surrounded by talent, most notably junior guard Tamir Jackson and junior center Greg Echenique. Sophomore big man Tristan Thompson is another tree in the Gray Bee forest of big men.
There are several other New Jersey and New York City teams that often appear on the national radar. Seton Hall Prep and Paterson Catholic are two highly esteemed New Jersey programs. In New York, Christ the King, Boys and Girls, and St. Raymond's add to the depth of elite NYC schools.
The reasons that greater NYC is a hoops hot bed runs deeper than the area's prodigious population of 18,000,000.
"The brand of player you get from this area is the hard nosed, tough, defensive minded kid willing to take a charge," veteran northern New Jersey sportswriter Jim Hague said.
St. Anthony's Hurley concurs.
"There's a certain toughness when you have kids that come from the city," Hurley said.
This individual toughness pooled together produces teams with a penchant for hustling, defense, and mental strength.
According to CSTV's Coleman, this isn't a new phenomenon.
"Basketball has always been important to NYC, going back to the NIT in the 1930's," Coleman said. "It's kind of their lineage to have great basketball at the high school level."
Whatever they've been putting in the Hudson River as it flows between New York City and Northern New Jersey to endow the area with great basketball genes, it seems as if it's been happening for decades.
In the 2007-2008 season and in the near future, there are no signs that suggest any drop off. So alert the authorities. But first, go watch Kemba, Lance, or Samardo. Check out the Knights, the Friars, or Celtics.
Nowhere in the country does it get any better than this.