February 22, 2013
There's something inspiring about choosing a school for academic reasons, then not abandoning it when you become a star athlete and others try to lure you away with visions of grandeur.
Robert Cartwright is a junior point guard at La Canada Flintridge Prep who could easily play for any big-time basketball program in Southern California.
But he's sticking with the Rebels.
"It's a fantastic academic school," he said. "The moment I stepped on here in seventh grade, I loved it. The teachers were wonderful, the kids were wonderful and I loved my coach."
Twenty years ago, Mitchell Butler showed the way, proving you could play for a tiny school with little athletic tradition and still earn a college scholarship.
He led North Hollywood Oakwood to a Southern Section small-schools championship in 1988, received a scholarship to UCLA in 1989, played in the NBA and is now an NBA agent.
Butler remembers "getting 10 phone calls from city schools" asking him, "Why are you at Oakwood?"
He said he realized he could "use basketball for something special" after his sophomore season and took advantage of the academic environment, combined with playing against tough competition in the summer, to convince college recruiters he could play at the next level.
In 2013, that has become the norm for many small-school players and helped lead to an exodus of top players from public schools. They play for travel teams in the spring and summer, prove themselves against elite players, work on their academics, and then it doesn't matter whom they're playing for during their high school season.
Combined with NCAA changes on when college coaches can scout players, it's clear that spring and summer competitions have become increasingly important in the recruiting game.
"Of all the kids we had, he exploded," said Dave Benezra, who runs Los Angeles Rockfish, the travel team that Cartwright plays for during the off-season. "It was the Robert Cartwright phenomenon. It was his defense that drew attention to him at first."
Arizona State, Rice, Loyola Marymount, Harvard and Cal Poly are among the schools that became big fans of Cartwright, who's 6 feet 2 and averaging 18.1 points for Flintridge Prep (22-5). The Rebels play San Luis Obispo Mission Prep at La Canada on Friday night in a Southern Section Division 5AA semifinal playoff game.
Flintridge Prep Coach Garrett Ohara remembers seeing Cartwright as a seventh-grader and wishing he could put him on varsity right then. Of course, CIF rules dictated he had to wait until Cartwright became a freshman. Cartwright got to play that season with 6-foot-8 Kenyatta Smith, who's now a sophomore star at Harvard.
"His game has progressed," Ohara said. "He's unselfish, is what I love about him as a coach. He wants to share the ball and loves to get an assist probably more than getting a basket. He's really stepped up his defensive game. We put him on the best offensive player. It's unusual to be a point guard and a stopper."
Benezra has kidded Cartwright about "looking like Justin Bieber."
"He looks like an innocent kid, but defensively, he's a killer," he said.
Attending a school in which there's no more than 15 students in a class and everyone pretty much knows one another, Cartwright has come to enjoy the camaraderie and relationships he has developed.
It even prompted him to join the school choir. So there he was onstage in December next to the school's starting quarterback singing in the winter concert.
He's no Justin Bieber, though.
"I wanted to go to a school that I felt I could be successful," he said. "I wanted to pick a school if basketball didn't work out for me, I could be set up for a good college. Luckily, I've done well enough so maybe I will be playing college basketball."
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