JACKSON TWP. — As much as Alvin Altman loves basketball, he loathes the lackadaisical lollygagging that often passes for NBA defense.
When he watches the Miami Heat, though, he sees a brand of "D" he hopes his high school team exhibits next winter.
"All five of the Heat guys play defense together," the Jackson junior said. "They're all locked in."
Altman hasn't made a name in varsity basketball yet. The tireless footwork that could make him one of the top defenders in the county next winter is a big reason he is the best tennis player in the county this spring, on the best team, right now.
The 6-foot-3 Altman heads for the OHSAA state tournament in Mason coming off a slam-dunk district, in which he won four straight-set matches by a combined 48-13 score to win the title. Senior teammates Ryan Kelley and Lucas Immel reached state as a doubles team. Those three and other Polar Bears also are still alive in the quest for a state team championship, based on a series of dual matches.
Families do have their fights, and there was a good one early this spring.
One might say Altman has fallen in with the first family of Jackson tennis, the Thomases. Alvin grew up watching Danny Thomas, the 2018 Federal League Player of the Year, and Joey Thomas, who won state singles championships in 2015 and '16.
Now he is playing for a third Thomas brother, Jackson head coach Louie Thomas, who was the 2010 Federal League Player of the Year.
As for that 2022 fight, allow coach Thomas to explain:
"Alvin was playing the best tennis he ever played. Then he got hurt in one of our Cincinnati matches (against Indian Hill April 8). Alvin was dealing with a back issue. I wanted him to sit. He wanted to play. We got in a little argument."
"He played. At the end of the match he couldn't bend over to put his socks on."
"Yes, we fought about it. Indian Hills had a stud No. 1. I wanted to play."
Altman ground away against Jack Pollock. He dropped the first set 7-6. He won the second set 6-1. That day's format called for a 10-point tiebreak, won by Pollock, as Altman's grinding lapsed into aching, followed by three weeks of rest.
"It was one of the worst-best things that could have happened to our team," Louie Thomas said. "Alvin got to rest his body. Everybody else got to move up one spot in the lineup. Our team got better by it, surprisingly.
"Alvin made it back from the injury, and he's just dominating right now. It's quite incredible."
Affirming the coach's point, Altman overpowered Avon ace Logan DeHaven 6-1, 6-0 in Saturday's district championship match.
The endless tennis required to become elite can take a toll on a body.
Immel, the state doubles qualifier, guesses that wear and tear from high school and college knocked Joey Thomas off the courts for a while. Immel said coach Thomas himself can't always hit with the Polar Bears because of aches and pains.
"Louie's always got knee pain, arm pain, hip pain, back pain," Immel said. "When he hits, it's some high-quality tennis. He can smack the ball and put it almost anywhere he wants.
"Joey stopped playing for a long time. He's picked it back up, and when we hit with him, he's even better than Louie. His shots are insanely good. It's a blast hitting with him."
Facing Altman is a pain for virtually every opponent.
"He went from being a skinny little boy to an absolute man," said coach Ryan Shaffer of Federal League-rival Hoover. "He's tall and he's a little stronger than most everybody in the league. He plays basketball and he's very fit. All the weight lifting he does with the basketball team has really filled out his physique."
One game plan toward becoming elite in tennis or in basketball is to start young and go all-in with one sport. Altman is more than OK with anything he might lose by embracing two sports.
"I've been playing tennis and basketball since i was real young," he said. "I love both sports. Both coaching staffs at Jackson have done a ton for me. I just couldn't leave any of the coaches or the players. My friends play. I just couldn't do it."
Louie Thomas understands. He played basketball and tennis.
"It's pretty unheard of to play basketball and to be this dominant in tennis," the coach said. "Alvin works very hard at it. In the summer, he goes to the gym for basketball. He does the conditioning. And he still plays four or five hours of tennis a day.
"If he would have concentrated on tennis for his whole life, he'd be the best player in Ohio by a mile."
Altman is the best player in Stark County in 2022, but not by a mile. Precocious GlenOak freshman Dylan Wiles fell to Altman 6-2, 6-3 in the Federal League tournament and 6-7, 6-3, 7-5 in the sectional finals.
"I love playing Dylan," Altman said. "He's two years younger than me, but he makes me work. He definitely pushes me."
Wiles has been immersed in tennis since he was a little boy. Now he is a GlenOak player with a heavy Jackson aura in his life, including a rivalry with Altman.
Wiles' grandfather, Andy, and his father, Scott, co-own the North Canton Racquet Club. Scott was a senior at Jackson in 1994 when he won the state singles championship. GlenOak head coach Chris Porter played at Jackson (graduating Class of 1997) en route to a long run as the No. 1 singles player at Ohio State.
"I always knew Dylan was going to be a special player," said Porter, an instructor at the Wiles family's facility. "He has the all-court game. He has the mental toughness.
"The first time Dylan met Alvin this year, he was a little nervous, and Alvin played really well. The second time, he stepped up his game. It was a very close match in the end. Alvin pulled it out because he's a great player."
The junior, Wiles, and the freshman, Altman, were easy picks on the coaches' 2022 all-county first team in singles. The other four, all seniors, are Kelley and Immel from Jackson, Colin Fitzgerald from Hoover, and Blake Hood from Alliance.
Altman vs. Wiles has been going on for a while.
"Alvin is older, but we've faced each other since we were little," Wiles said. "I've played him maybe a dozen times and never beaten him, but it's really close."
Both Altman and Wiles play relentlessly. Wiles hopes his serve matures. His backhand is all grown up.
Of Altman, Wiles said, "He has a good serve, a big forehand, and he's really quick. He's a freak athlete."
Jackson basketball coach Tim Debevec likes Altman's game on and off both courts.
"He's our defensive stopper next season," Debevec said. "His quick hands on defense correlate between tennis and basketball. His hand movement in incredible. We put him on the press, he gets his hands on a lot of balls. He's quick. He's intense. He's athletic. He can guard bigs or smalls.
"He's a leader, a great student. He goes to FCA, J Club. He's always on time. He's a great kid."
Altman's favorite tennis athlete, not surprisingly, is Rafael Nadal, whose calling card is hustle.
"He gives up on nothing," Altman said.
Those who watch Altman see that he brings his own brand of heat.
Reach Steve at email@example.com
On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Jackson's Alvin Altman headed to OHSAA boys tennis state tournament