By Joe Arruda
Most of the Vertical Academy players took the court ahead of their Friday night primetime game against Westtown School at the 2022 Hoophall Classic. Nearly every one of the 2,000 fans in attendance rose, phones out, ready to record the show. Mikey Williams waited in the depths of Blake Arena.
Then, to the elation of fans young and old, Mikey made his theatrical entrance. He ran out to center court, and it wasn’t long before he was throwing up self-alleys and finishing windmill dunks in front of the capacity crowd.
The reaction was almost identical to when LeBron James arrived at the 2020 HoopHall event to watch his son Bronny play for Sierra Canyon.
Williams, a junior who has 3.3 million Instagram followers (including LeBron James), is one of the most popular high school stars since James himself. LeBron, who was featured in a Sports Illustrated cover story with the headline “The Chosen One,” was selected No. 1 overall in the 2003 NBA draft straight out of high school.
Because of the crowds Williams and his high-flying teammates bring in, the Vertical Academy schedule is more like a band going on tour. The team played in NBA arenas earlier in the season – the Birthplace of Basketball was just the latest stop.
“No other team in the country is doing this,” Williams told The Springfield Student after his team’s win over Westtown School on Friday night, recognizing the comparisons to the current NBA superstar. “It almost reminds me of LeBron when he was in high school, so this is a dope experience – it’s history, really.”
“I’m blessed to be able to touch a lot of people like that in a positive way,” Mikey said about his millions of fans and the consistently-packed arenas.
Mikey is an entertainer until the moment the ball is tipped. Then, he locks in.
He’s ranked No. 11 in the ESPN 60 for the Class of 2023, but in his head that number is 10 spots too low. After the game, he said he was playing with a chip on his shoulder.
“I feel like personally I’m getting disrespected with these rankings. There are not 11, 12 kids in my class better than me, so I feel like I got a point to prove,” he said.
“I really didn’t care, to be honest, a few months ago, but I feel like now it’s just getting disrespectful. I really gotta put a chip on my shoulder. You can see it when I’m on the court.”
He quickly took over in Vertical’s 67-65 win over Westtown, which featured Duke commit Dereck Lively II, ESPN’s No. 2 recruit for the 2022 class. The two prospects with everyone’s attention fed into the moment and ended up tying each other for a game-high 22 points. Mikey’s clutch play down the stretch helped Vertical hold on to a lead that continued to get slimmer.
“I feel like I’m the best in my class, without a doubt,” he said after the game.
Puma definitely recognized the attraction and hype surrounding Mikey when they offered him a footwear and apparel deal in October 2021, making him the first American high school basketball player to sign a sneaker deal, according to ESPN.
While his competitive spirit — the “dog mentality,” he called it — makes the rankings feel like disrespect, his popular social media is an avenue for a different type of hate. With every post, whether it be a highlight tape or a flex in designer clothes, comes hundreds of negative messages.
“I’m not gonna lie, the whole everything else, social media and all of that – that really affects your mental (health) and I kind of forgot it for a minute so I had to find myself again. I had to remember who I was and the work that I put in, because at the end of the day the work is what’s gonna get me there,” he said. “So I tend not to care about what people have got to say anymore. I try to stay out of conversations on social media, but I see the comments.
“If they’re not hating, you’re not really doing anything, right? I feel like if people have opinions on me and I’m being talked about, I feel like I’m doing something right.”
A reporter followed up with a question: “Do you ever wish you were normal?”
Mikey responded, “I mean, I do sometimes. But at the end of the day, this is normal to me. This is a reality.”
Photo: Joe Arruda/The Student