David Briggs: Enjoy the Jerry Easter show, Toledo (if you can get a ticket)

·6 min read

Dec. 1—They oohed and aahed and cheered, bringing down the house with every rim-rattling slam and long-bombing swish.

In the bandbox gym of the smallest school in the smallest league in northwest Ohio, they came to Emmanuel Christian on Tuesday night to see the biggest basketball act in town, and the verdict was in.

As a sign behind one of the baskets announced, "BELIEVE THE HYPE."

At the least ...

Jerry Easter moves the ball around Evergreen's Eli Keifer during his first home game at Emmanuel Christian School in Toledo on Nov. 30.

Amanda Levine

Jerry Easter makes successful Emmanuel Christian home debut

"Get Your Popcorn," decreed another banner. "We're Putting On A Show."

I joined the 600 or so spectators who got in before the doors locked — "Sold Out," they informed — to catch the first home game of Jerry Easter II, the phenom at Emmanuel Christian who, by some judgments, is the best high school freshman in the nation.

And, yes, let me join the choir: The kid has game.

Facing a very good Evergreen team, the 6-foot-5 point guard splashed in a 3 from two steps beyond the arc, threw down a one-handed jam in transition, and, flashing a handle and vision beyond his years, smoothly got all of his talented teammates involved. Then the second quarter began.

Emmanuel Christian opened an early 23-point lead and went on to a 66-53 win. Easter finished with 22 points.

"I'm glad that people want to come see us," Easter said, "and I like to perform in front of them."

Now, I have to say, I'm a bit uneasy anointing anyone this young as the NEXT BIG THING. If it feels impossibly unfair to pile such expectations on to a prep freshman, that's because it is.

Time will tell if Easter joins the pantheon of Toledo prep legends, alongside greats like Jim Jackson, Dennis Hopson, Kelvin Ransey, Butch Komives, and, well, the list goes on and on.

But, for now, it is fair to say the buzz is very real, as is Easter's talent.

It's not for nothing that he's getting more letters than the North Pole these days from interested colleges. "Oh, man, it's ridiculous," said his dad, Jerry Easter I, a former hoops standout himself at DeVilbiss.

Easter landed his first Division I scholarship offer after sixth grade, from Bowling Green, and, already, less than a week into his high school career, he's up to six offers from power-conference schools, including Ohio State, Michigan State, and UCLA.

Two youth scouting services (hey, it's a new world) rank Easter as the top prospect in the Class of 2025. The major recruiting sites are expected to consider a similar rating.

"Obviously, it's the length and the advanced skill for his age that has people buzzing," said Rob Cassidy, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "He handles the ball incredibly well for a prospect of his youth and size. Sometimes there's a 'growing into his body' learning curve around this age, but that does not seem to be the case here. We won't rank 2025 until next fall, but he's certainly on the radar for a spot near — or at — the top of the list."

Again, we'll see.

But it will be fun to watch his story unfold, right here in Toledo, at Emmanuel Christian of the Toledo Area Athletic Conference.

Why Emmanuel Christian? Why not?

Sure, I was surprised when Easter, who has attended the small religious school since sixth grade, made it known he planned to stay at Emmanuel. With only 60 boys and girls in grades 10-12, according to the latest enrollment figures, and having joined the Ohio High School Athletic Association in 2015, the school is somewhat out of sight, out of mind on the local sports map. (I'm embarrassed to admit: I've been to Franklin Park Mall hundreds of times and I had no idea the school was right there, across the street, off of Laskey Road.)

Easter could have attended any powerhouse prep school in the country, and he didn't even choose the biggest platform in Toledo.

But that didn't matter to him.

A straight-A student who comes off as nice and grounded as his game is high flying, he liked everything about Emmanuel Christian. His friends. His teachers. His coaches. It was home.

"I just wanted to play in front of my family and friends," Easter said. "I'm comfortable here."

It didn't hurt, either, that his desire to stay received a blessing from no less than Sonny Vaccaro, the former Nike executive best known for signing Michael Jordan to his first sneaker deal and a grassroots basketball big shot.

"I talked to Sonny Vaccaro daily. He's family," Easter I said. "He said, 'Jerry, just stay in Toledo, and we'll see how it goes.' When you're young like that, just getting established, you don't want to go off to unfamiliar territory and have a bad experience."

Besides, when it comes down to it, it's not the stage that makes a show. It's the actors on it.

And, while this may irritate old-school sensibilities, Emmanuel Christian has assembled quite a team.

In addition to Easter, the new additions to the high school include his AAU teammate, 6-3 freshman Tylin Patterson-Davis; 6-2 senior Nathan Houston, a transfer from Rogers; and 6-9 junior Jamison Rivers. All are starters with college potential for a program that could very well go from having won six league games in the past three years combined to contending for a Division IV state championship this season.

So far, the Warriors' returns are promising, including at the marquee Holiday Hoopsgiving tournament in Atlanta, where Easter nearly had a triple double in his prep debut, registering 26 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists in a 65-55 win over Lovett School of Georgia.

Coach Lionel Armstead, a 1998 graduate of Emmanuel who played at West Virginia, called it a hoops resurrection.

"There are a lot of people around the city that are excited," he said.

Added longtime Evergreen coach Jerry Keifer: "The whole team reminds me of the Cardinal Stritch team that went to the state final three years ago, but I think they're better. I really do. They have size, they have shooters. We were trying to take away Easter, and the guys we're leaving alone are killing us. You can only do so much."

In other words, if you don't know the coordinates of Emmanuel Christian yet, odds are you will soon.

It's right there, next door to Rohr Fish Market, where Easter is not just a big fish in a little pond but one of the biggest catches in the ocean and the star of the biggest of hoops act in town.

We'll get our popcorn.

First Published December 1, 2021, 3:11pm

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