By Garrett Cote
As Abdul Beyah Sr., assistant coach of Vertical Academy’s basketball team, glanced down at his iPhone in the locker room in advance of their Friday night primetime game at the 2022 Spalding Hoophall Classic presented by Eastbay, he was overcome with a flurry of emotions. A full circle moment was unraveling before his very eyes. Shown on the screen of his phone was a picture from 2012. A picture that depicted him after a game where he coached his son, Abdul Beyah Jr., and Mikey Williams when they were just eight years old.
Fast forward 10 years, and the skills that Beyah Sr. instilled in his son and Williams led them to a spot in the prestigious Hoophall Classic. Not only did they have a chance to showcase to the country their remarkable basketball talent, they were also rewarded with an all-exclusive tour of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – each member of Vertical Academy’s roster and staff’s first trip to the sport’s landmark.
“I was always with them when they were growing up, right by their side coaching them,” Beyah Sr. said as he peered up from his phone. Following a short pause, perhaps reminiscing about those memories, he continued, “Now seeing them as young men doing as well as they are, it’s unbelievable.
“After everything I did, having them take me to see the Hall of Fame for the first time in my life is special. This game means so much to me. And they’re the reasons we’re here. These kids. They worked hard and earned a spot in this tournament.”
Now, Williams, who has more than 3.5 million Instagram followers, is potentially the most popular high school athlete of all-time, and he certainly knows and acknowledges that. Prior to tip-off of Vertical Academy’s game against Westtown School (PA), recognizing the pent up energy of the Blake Arena crowd, Williams gave way to his teammates to take the court first – leaving the sold-out 2,000 person audience practically begging for his entrance.
“This is how I do it, sold out dates everywhere,” he said before he jolted out of the tunnel to a deafening screech, a screech of relief coupled with thrill from the long-awaiting fans.
Despite all of the national attention Williams garners – rightfully so – his calm demeanor is undisputedly evident. Whether he’s nonchalantly walking onto his team bus mumbling the lyrics to Lil Baby’s “Freestyle”, a team favorite, as if it’s any other ride to a regular season game and not one to the birthplace of basketball, or strutting through the back door of Blake Arena belching another song while passing by security, he always remains calm, cool and collected, unfazed by the stardom.
Although Williams may attract the majority of the media’s surveillance, each member of the Vertical Academy team has an important role.
The 6-foot-9 sophomore Josh Hill is the team comedian, always recognizing when the camera is pointed in his direction, almost acting as a cue for him to say or do something funny. Junior guard Luke Strickland is by far the best ping pong player on the team, running the table in the SLAM lounge located at the Hall of Fame, confidently asking, “who wants to play me for money?” An offer in which nobody would accept.
Uncle Pat or “Unc” as the players call him, is an assistant coach/volunteer for Vertical Academy’s squad. One thing about Uncle Pat: if he asks for something, he gets it. Always. After examining the bowl of fruit in the locker room when first walking in, he noticed something was wrong. There were no bananas. So, Uncle Pat did what Uncle Pat does, and went and told someone to get a bowl of just bananas. Not even five minutes later, there were enough bananas for the entire Vertical Academy team.
“That didn’t take very long,” Uncle Pat said. “I guess they don’t mess around over here.”
Regardless of “Showtime” Trey Parker being listed as the second shortest player on Vertical Academy’s roster, he stood the tallest in the locker room leading up to their game Friday night. Parker propped himself up on the bench, looking high above everyone as he listened intently to the pregame gameplan. Roughly 30 minutes later, he once again stood the tallest – even above Westtown’s 7-foot-2 forward and Duke-commit Dereck Lively – as he soared above the rim to corral an alley-oop pass from Williams and flushed it with authority using two hands.
Following Vertical’s thrilling 67-65 win over Westtown, head coach Chandler Scott had one simple message for his boys. On a weekend dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., a man who dedicated so much of his life to giving, Scott preached that that’s exactly what fueled their victory over Westtown. Their ability to give.
“We did what King did. We helped one another,” Scott said to his team postgame. “We have never had 14 assists before, and we had that in the first half alone! It’s the King! He looked out for his people, and they looked out for him in return. We are looking out for one another right now, and we’re all eating good because of it. We need to keep that up moving forward.”
Once the team was finished collecting their belongings, free ESPN merchandise and food, it was time to board the bus to head back to the team’s hotel. Considering they beat the No. 1 ranked player in the country, the aforementioned Lively, and Westtown, a loud, jubilant ride to the hotel was a given, right?
Wrong. Not a peep. The exhaustion from playing 32 minutes of hard-fought basketball settled in. So, it was time for everybody to sleep in and rest, right?
Wrong again. A trip to Memphis awaited them in the morning.
“Set your clocks for tomorrow and be in the lobby at 7,” an assistant shouted before they exited the bus. “And you best not be late.”
Video By Daniel Curren/The Student