2 Good 2 Be True
This article appears in the Jan/Feb 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Episcopal Academy junior shooting guards Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson grew up under vastly different circumstances. And that's probably a big reason they get along so well.
Henderson, who's rated the nation's No. 26 recruit in the Class of 2006 by SchoolSports.com, counts among his earliest memories a Motown parade celebrating the 1990 NBA title won by the Detroit Pistons. He remembers because he had a pretty good seat, being that his dad, Gerald Sr., was a guard on that Pistons championship team.
Right about that same time, young Mr. Ellington, who's rated the nation's No. 17 recruit in the Class of 2006 by SchoolSports.com, was getting coddled and cared for by his two older sisters in a house that seemed like it was always filled with women.
All of which raises a pretty interesting question: How the heck did a kid with an NBA pedigree end up in the same backcourt as a kid who grew up having to dodge Barbie dolls to get from the den to the kitchen? More to the point, how do those two guys, playing the same position, even begin to get along?
"You know, it's always been good between us," says the 6-foot-5, 212-pound Henderson, who averaged 15 points and seven rebounds per game as a sophomore last year. "Wayne's not like my backbone or anything, but we really feed off each other. We're both good players, and we know what each other can do on the court, and we make that work well."
Surely, it's not all smooth sailing. Their skills are complementary, yes, and together they form one of the nation's best scholastic hoop duos. But the enormous expectations that come with having two such talents in the same starting five must all but eliminate the positive.
"Oh, at times it's hard," admits the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Ellington, who averaged 16 points, six rebounds and four assists per game last season. "There's a lot of pressure on us. But we also try to have fun and enjoy the experience. It's a lot easier, actually, to have someone to relate to. We both talk a lot about how things are going and about playing at the game's highest level."
That's a tremendous degree of maturity for two guys who just turned 17 (Henderson this past Dec. 9 and Ellington this past Nov. 29). Of course, considered within the context of their extraordinary skills, the fact that this pair also possesses the perfect attitude isn't as much of a shocker.
Blessed with extraordinary quickness and an uncanny knack for finding the seam in the lane, Ellington also owns the ball-handling ability to comfortably play anywhere from the point to the wing. Henderson, meanwhile, is explosive and aggressive enough for the right coach in the right circumstance to not bat an eye in asking him to play power forward.
"It's not his ideal position, but he could do it," says Episcopal Academy head coach Dan Dougherty (pronounced Dockerty), 68, who succeeded Bobby Knight as the head coach at Army from 1971-75. "The father was such a good shooter — he's still a better shooter than the son — but the son is already a better rebounder than the father ever was."
Even with their vast and versatile talents, that doesn't really settle the issue of how these two teammates and blue-chip players stay focused in each other's company without getting in each other's way.
"I think it has a lot to do with the people you hang around with and the elders you choose as role models," says Henderson. "Do the right thing in making those choices and they'll do the rest as far as keeping your perspective. Finding the right combination isn't so much luck as it is good fortune."
With that in mind, Henderson counts his blessings that one of the elders he has as a role model is his dad, who played 13 seasons in the NBA (1979-92) for such teams as the Celtics, Knicks, 76ers and Pistons.
"I can't imagine how much different I would be as a player if it weren't for his help," says Henderson. "I really feel like I have an advantage because he's always right there to help me. Lately, I've really been taking advantage of his advice.
"I think it's really important to remember that it's other people who put pressure on me," continues Henderson. "I know I'm going to work hard no matter what. They can put labels or expectations on me, but I know I'm going to work, and that's what matters."
Ellington has his own way of turning the rising tide of expectations into a tidal wave of good vibes.
"Here's how I deal with expectation: It's starting to be my expectation to go out and get the win instead of going after the stats," says Ellington.
The more they talk, the harder it is to believe that Henderson and Ellington — who both say they are wide open on colleges despite heavy recruiting interest from some of the nation's top programs — are only high school juniors. It doesn't take a psychologist to figure out they must be a joy to coach.
"I have them both in class, and their work ethic is pervasive off the court," says Dougherty. "They're overachievers in the classroom, and they're truly invested in education — it's not just lip service. They get along with their peers and they indulge in none of this breast-beating stuff. They have different friends and they hang out separately or together, and either way, they're just one of the guys.
"When it comes to the basketball court, they're very coachable," adds Dougherty, who guided Episcopal to a 22-6 record last season, with the Churchmen losing to eventual league champ Penn Charter in the Inter-Ac semifinals. "They want team success, and they know their individual success is enhanced by their ability to incorporate the team. And likewise, their teammates recognize that they possess athletic ability and the way that they blend in to make us a success."
Sounds like these guys are too good to be true. Well, almost.
"The total package has to contain many components," says Dougherty. "There are certain areas of their game that you're awed by, and there are others where they still look like 16- or 17-year-old players. They've got an awful lot to learn, but their physical tools make them capable of being a success."