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The Program: Meet the East Tech Scarabs, a Cleveland Team Actually Worth Rooting For 

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And now, in his senior year, he's playing for a Division I scholarship. Division II schools are on Carmon hard, Moore says, and coaches at Mid-American Conference schools are coming around. Two Ohio University assistant coaches made the drive up from Athens a few weeks ago to watch Carmon face off against his old team at MLK.

Carmon's backcourt partner is Markell Johnson, and the two of them have an otherworldly ability to find each other on rim-rocking alley-oop dunks.

click to enlarge Markell Johnson
  • Markell Johnson
click to enlarge Markell Johnson
  • Markell Johnson
click to enlarge Markell Johnson
  • Markell Johnson

Johnson, the team captain, is one of the most highly touted players in the state, and he's only a sophomore. Moore hadn't even heard of him before Johnson showed up for tryouts last year. But it was clear the freshman didn't belong on JV. Initially, Johnson was put behind some hardworking seniors ahead of him on the depth chart, but by mid-season Johnson was thrust into the starting line-up and became a target of Moore's isolation calls meant to simply get the ball into Johnson's gifted hands.

The guard would sink the buzzer-beating overtime shot that sent East Tech to Columbus last year.

By the time his senior year comes around, Moore says Johnson will be a five-star recruit, essentially able to go to any school he wants. Moore also believes Johnson will be the first of his players to make it to the NBA.

The 16-year-old lives on the west side of Cleveland, and came to East Tech last year to play with KT Taylor and Johnell Free, another star from last year's team who's now averaging 15 points per game at junior college Mercyhurst North East.

"KT was telling me that if I came, it would put us over the top. Nobody really knew me at the beginning of the season. Nobody knew," says Johnson. "I grew up on the west side and me coming here, people were shocked that I came because I could have went to prep or private school."

Johnson is a driver, a dunker, a shooter, a ball handler, a distributer — everything, really. His quick hands on defense net him nearly four steals a game, many of which lead to thunderous fast-break dunks on the other end. His instincts are to pass first, but he's draining over 50 percent of his shots and Moore's challenged him to shoot more.

Johnson's emergence as a star, especially as a sophomore, has led coaches at big private and parochial schools to try and poach his talent.

Despite the OHSAA rules — "any attempt to recruit a prospective student-athlete for athletic purposes is strictly prohibited" — it happens. "They do it regularly, and that's the nature of the business," Moore says. "The thing that's unique about this program is that it's built with neighborhood kids. It's built with kids who want to be here. I didn't recruit any of these kids, they just come. I don't go to their houses and sit with their parent. If you come, I'm going to coach you."

Johnson acknowledges other high school coaches try to get him to transfer.

"But I know how to avoid it," he says. "If a coach asks for my number, I'll give him my mom's number. I don't give them my number. And she tells them no, I'm staying at Tech the whole time."

"What the kids need to understand is that coaches need them more than they need the coaches," Moore says, no matter what they try to sell them on. "I told Markell, in particular, from what we did last year, these same college coaches that are recruiting you are going to go to the other. You can leave here and go elsewhere and Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Cincinnati, Xavier — all these schools — are going to stop calling me, and start calling them. I tell my kids it's about y'all — they need to understand their worth. Here, the only thing that I can't get you that these other schools may be able to get you is a book bag and some fancy jogging suits. That's pretty much all they have to offer, and as far as knowledge of the game, I'm on the same level as all of these coaches. And at some of the high-profile schools, I know way more than them. Other than going to a school to be a part of their lure and prestige, why not establish East Tech as a prestigious school because you're here?"

It's clear Moore and Johnson have a strong connection. This past summer, the two of them constantly worked together on his game and in the weight room, sometimes until 1 a.m. Moore regularly shuttles kids home or to RTA stations, and he drives Johnson from the east-side school to his mom's place on the west side nearly every day after practice.

He's protective of him too, recalling the time not too long ago that the head of an AAU program — a notoriously shady and money-driven operation in recent years — tried to essentially bribe him with his connections to an apparel company in return for Moore's influence over the star sophomore.

"I had a guy come to me at the beginning of the year saying, 'Brett, y'all need some new uniforms,' and was pretty much saying he'll do it if I get Markell to play for them. I don't pawn my kids off like that. It's AAU —  they'll do it a lot, saying, 'We'll furnish your high-school team if you get Markell to come over and play for us.' Nope. That would be Markell's decision, I don't want any parts of that, I don't want y'all telling what we can and cannot do, telling us what brand we can and cannot wear. I'd rather just get my own stuff."

Local businessman and radio station executive Tom Wilson recently offered to fund a uniform upgrade, an offer Moore and the school's administrators took up. Moore picked out a different brand — Nike — than what the AAU head offered.

***

East Tech's first loss of the season came against a familiar foe, St. Ed's, in a Dec. 20 matchup at the Lakewood school.

It was a tough matchup to begin with, just for the talent and depth on the Eagles' side; but Moore also was dealing with the absence of Carmon, who he had sat out for a few games early in the season as Carmon dealt with issues in school. The Scarabs held tight for three quarters despite Carmon's absence, but Ed's pulled away in the fourth and Johnson hurt his knee as the minutes ticked away. Moore would be without both Carmon and Johnson for the next game three days later, against Delaware Hayes at Quicken Loans Arena, a 70-49 loss.

Their last loss, 51-40 against St. Ignatius at Baldwin Wallace on Jan. 4, was partially another product of player absence; but this time it was the sort of absence unique to Moore's situation, the kind you wouldn't find on the other sideline.

Senior power forward Cullum unexpectedly missed the game. That happens sometimes, Moore says: Players can't come to practice or a game when dealing with issues that take precedence over basketball.

"All of them have issues," Moore says ­— economically or with their family, or sometimes both ­— and most of them internalize it, bottling it up until it sometimes manifests in missing practices or games without warning. They don't want to appear weak, Moore says, by admitting there are issues going on, despite the fact that every one of them is dealing with something beyond his control, problems that kids shouldn't have to deal with at that age.

Cullum's situation isn't unique, nor is it the first time something like that has come to Moore's desk. He talks about a time when he was hard on another kid on the team, a junior, who he didn't think was focusing enough — until he found out what was going on at home.

"His situation is crazy for a 17-year-old. He's the man of his house, raising his brother and his sister in junior high, by himself. He just now let us in on what's going on, so now we can rally around him and help him. It's way more important than basketball; if you need to be with your family, then be with your family."

Basketball is a good outlet for them.

"A lot of these kids wouldn't get the psychological support they need and this is their only real outlet, so I'm really sympathetic and empathetic to their situations," Moore says. "You learn how these different personalities react and the challenge is to get them for two hours to think as one. That's the thing for every game: for two hours to get them to think as one. My mom and dad split and I ended up being raised by my great aunt, but I still had a close relationship with my dad. A lot of their situations I can empathize with."

What Moore asks, though, is honesty. He is their coach; he can be more. But the honesty applies not only to the relationship between player and coach, but player and player. And the ways he can use basketball to teach his kids larger life lessons can help them realize their potential once graduation hits or the playing is done. Which is why he gets irked when his players simply no-show on the team instead of filling him in on their situations.

click to enlarge dsc_3594.jpg

And that's why following the early January loss to the St. Ignatius Wildcats, frustrated by Cullum's unannounced absence and what he thought was a lack of effort and cohesiveness among some of the team, Moore took his players into an empty classroom. There'd be no practice today.

The players sat at the small desks lined up on either side of the room, with Moore standing silently in the middle aisle as they shuffled in. The lights were off, the room illuminated by the dimming afternoon winter sun.

"So why didn't you show up to the game?" Moore says to Cullum once the players are all settled. The senior doesn't know that his coach had found out where he was, but is more pissed that Cullum didn't tell him he wouldn't make it and that the senior had been avoiding him since.

"Some stuff went on. I'm not about to say it in front of everybody."

Cullum says that Moore probably thinks he's lying, so why try to explain in the first place.

After minutes of tense back-and-forth, Cullum finally says that he was dealing with family issues.

"You can say, 'I got family issues,' and that's it," Moore says gently. The coach had previously sat him out of a game for missing practice without saying anything. "All I'm asking you to do is communicate properly. If you've got some family shit going on, just say, 'Coach Brett, I got some family shit going on.'"

Cullum says again that he doesn't think Coach would believe him if he said anything. But Moore knows way more about his situation than Cullum realizes. Moore addresses the team at large with a question.

"What did I tell you all to do before the game, for Kory?"

Ten voices speak up: "Pray."

"I didn't say, 'Kory's a hoe ass motherfucker for not coming to the game.' I said, 'Pray for Kory, man, he's got some shit going on and he needs some help.' So that means you don't know me as well as you think you do. The people who are on your back about you doing what you need to do are the same people who can help you get the hell out of here. I see some shit in you and everybody else sees some shit in you that you don't even see in yourself.

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