Head of the Class
This article appears in the December 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
When the Germantown Academy boys' basketball team visited Ohio University for a tournament three years ago, it served as a homecoming of sorts for then-freshman Ryan Ayers, whose father, Randy, is an Ohio native who coached hoops at Ohio State in the 1990s.
With 30 seconds remaining in the Patriots' final tournament game, head coach Jim Fenerty decided to clear his bench, and Ayers was summoned for his first varsity appearance. The wide-eyed rookie ripped off his warm-ups and raced onto the court as family and friends roared. He only stopped to ask Fenerty who he should guard.
"I told him to just guard the big kid," recalls Fenerty with a laugh. "The look on his face was priceless."
That "big kid" happened to be St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio) standout LeBron James.
"He just wheeled around and yelled, ‘You want me to cover LeBron?'" says Fenerty. "I figured if he could guard LeBron for 30 seconds as a freshman, it had to be all downhill from there."
Guarding LeBron proved to be one of many challenges Ayers willingly endured as a freshman. It wasn't unusual to find him luring upperclass teammates like Matt Walsh (now at Florida) and Lee Melchionni (Duke) into games of one-on-one after practice.
"He got his lunch handed to him every day at the beginning of the year," says Fenerty, now in his 16th year as the Patriots' head coach. "But he'd be right back out there the next day. By the end of the year he was playing competitively against guys that were headed to Division I colleges that fall."
Now, as a 6-foot-6, 205-pound senior, it's Ayers who's bracing himself for Division I college basketball. The Notre Dame-bound swingman is one of the top prep players in the nation, rated the No. 93 recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com. He's certainly not the flashiest player in the country, but his basketball smarts are almost unparalleled.
Much of that basketball IQ comes from his father, whose resume includes a head coaching stint and six seasons as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers. Of course, having a former NBA coach as a parent is both a blessing and a curse.
"I kid with Ryan's teammates that they are the lucky ones," says Randy Ayers. "After a game, Ryan has to come home and hear about everything he did wrong all over again."
But the perks tend to outweigh the negatives. While his father was with the 76ers, Ryan routinely received advice from NBA veterans.
"Eric Snow, Raja Bell, Aaron McKie — they'd all be down there shooting and giving me pointers," says Ryan. "I've been fortunate to work with guys like that and all the talented players that have come through Germantown Academy. It's all of their help that has gotten me to this point."
Besides a recognizable last name and an above-average hoops game, Ayers contends he's just a normal kid. When he's not hitting the weight room or breaking down film, you can typically find him lounging in front of a TV with a pack of friends. Chances are a PlayStation2 is humming nearby.
"We'll play a little Madden or, more likely, some NBA Live 2005," says Ayers. "That game is real nice. The slam dunk contest is a lot of fun."
Back on the real hardwood, don't expect to see Ayers playing above the rim. He's more comfortable on the perimeter or popping off a screen for a mid-range jumper.
"That's my game — coming off of a screen or picking and popping," says Ayers. "I pride myself on my versatility, but my mid-range game is probably my best attribute."
Because of his style, Ayers often draws comparisons to another Philadelphia hoops hero: Richard "Rip" Hamilton, who helped lead the Detroit Pistons to the NBA title last season and played his high school ball at Coatesville.
"Ryan really reminds me of Rip or maybe an Allan Houston if you compare them at this stage of their careers," says Randy Ayers. "What we're focusing on now is having him improve moving without the ball. Nowadays, everyone knows what to do with the ball, but they have no idea what to do without the ball. When we watch film, I'm trying to show Ryan what he could be doing away from the ball, like setting a screen or making a basket cut to draw a defender."
Ayers is already regarded as an unselfish teammate. He has the ability to pour in 40 points a night, but he's more likely to drop 20, grab 10 rebounds and dish out five assists. As a junior, he averaged 16.8 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game while leading Germantown to a 24-8 record.
Even NBA players notice his potential.
"(Toronto Raptors guard) Alvin Williams — probably the best player we've ever had here at GA — came to watch Ryan play and came up to me after the game and said, "Yo, coach, you've got a real winner there,'" says Fenerty. "Ryan reminds me a lot of Alvin in the way he makes his teammates better when he's on the floor. The great ones always do."
Ayers entered this season a little more than 100 points shy of reaching the 1,000-point plateau for his career. And combined with the presence of two other Division I prospects — Brian Grimes and Kirk Jones — Ayers is hoping to cap his scholastic career with an elusive Inter-Ac title.
"I want to win the Inter-Ac because that's something we haven't done since my freshman year," says Ayers, whose squad lost to rival Penn Charter in the Inter-Ac finals the past two seasons. "Personal goals don't really mean a thing to me. All I want to do is go out and play the best I can and help my team win games."
He's got big goals off the court as well. When collegiate coaches asked Ayers what he planned to study in college, he told them he was considering a double major in Spanish and international finance.
"I just stand back and chuckle because Ryan is a terrific young man," says Fenerty. "He really wants to get his education, and that's why Notre Dame is such a perfect fit for him. He's the type of person that is going to be successful at whatever he does. I tell Randy that he should skip writing a book on basketball and write a book on how to raise children because him and Carol have done an amazing job with this boy."
So is Ayers as good as advertised behind the scenes?
"Yeah, what you see with Ryan is what you get," says Randy Ayers. "He's just a quality person. If I could just get him to stop watching that ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' maybe he'd be an even better student. He loves that ‘Fresh Prince.' He even tapes it now."
Will Smith's character on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" was a basketball junkie from Philly who moved on to bigger things in California. Maybe the folks at Notre Dame will soon be calling Ayers "The Fresh Prince of South Bend."
And after that? Well, Ayers wouldn't mind another shot at guarding LeBron.