The other team was playing zone. That was unexpected.
The Indianapolis City League is certainly a step up from a rec center adult basketball league. Most of the players have high-level hoops experience; many played college ball. Some played professionally, and the winning team at the end of the summer gets $5,000. Still, it wasn’t common for Brookside Community Development Corporation to see anything other than man-to-man on Wednesday and Thursday nights at the Boner Center for Fitness and Learning.
So Brookside called a timeout. Gathering by the bench, the players decided to run “Arm Chop,” a play designed to flood one side of a zone and force a lone defender to decide whether to guard the wing or the post.
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The play was designed by former Lawrence North coach Jack Keefer, who unknowingly laid the groundwork for Brookside. Every player on the roster played at LN around the early 2010s. Playing in the City League offered a chance at competitive hoops with a familiar team, and the former Wildcats enter their second season this week with an uncommon level of chemistry and familiarity.
“It’s a lot of talent in the City League, but you got guys that are coming from being dominant on the ball,” point guard Sean Howard said. “Some of them come just for that week and play with each other. Us, we’re gonna play hard. Like I said, we all played for Coach Keefer, so we know each other. We know how to play ball the right way. We’re gonna sit down, play some defense, not just go down, run and gun, so the chemistry is the biggest part. And I think that’s what separated us last year.
“That chemistry, it’s big because you’re familiar with those guys and you’ve been around them and it’s a family. It’s a Wildcat family. It just comes together. It gels very easily.”
Howard was the first to play in the league, filling in on a friend’s team in 2020 when the games were at a church. The next year, he floated the idea of forming a team to a group chat of LN alumni. The chat had mostly been used for organizing pickup games, open gyms and the occasional men’s league contest. When Howard suggested playing for money in the City League, the responses popped up one by one.
The Brookside-sponsored team was 6-0 before falling in the championship game in 2021. Most of the team is still together. Some players left. Others joined, like Jeff Robinson, a 6-10 center who graduated from LN in 2009 and played four seasons at Xavier.
In 2013, the senior year of Howard and three other members of the team, Lawrence North’s season ended in sectionals. Peeling off his jersey after the final game, Williams thought that was the end of his time playing with that specific group. Many had played together since travel ball in middle school, and most were going onto different colleges.
“It brings me back,” Williams said. “The blood, sweat and tears we shared in practices, our games and just that sort of nature.”
Two who did stick together from that class were Michael Parker and Chris Holmes. Both went to Division II Earlham College for a year before transferring within the conference to Defiance College. Years of sharing the court, and living together through college, has built their chemistry to a level notable even on a team as close as the LN alumni.
Holmes describes himself as a slasher, while Parker is a shooter. Holmes can’t quite describe it, but he knows when his friend is about to pull up from behind the arc. It’s something about the way his body movements subtly change. Parker slows down and hesitates ever so slightly before stepping into his shot. Holmes sees it, and knows to crash the boards.
“We played a lot of one-on-one during workouts,” Holmes said. “We just (got) each other better during our college careers, so (you) can kind of just learn somebody like that when you play so many games of one-on-one.”
Beyond the occasional zone-busting high school play, the team mostly runs a motion offense filled with passing and cutting, the same style the players are used to from Lawrence North. Defensively, there’s a constant chatter of players calling out screens and switches. The easygoing communication is another product of everyone’s collective knowledge and comfort with one another.
It’s there that lies the double-faceted explanation to the team’s success. There’s the collective familiarity and knowledge of how the offense should look combined with the seasoning and maturity of adults. Most of the team has gone through college since the last time most played with one another in anything more competitive than a rec league.
Howard and Williams are now coaches, the former an assistant at LN, the latter at Heritage Christian, and they’re emblematic of the increased level of intelligence throughout the team since high school.
“Just being smart,” Williams said. “Just knowing what angles to take defensively, offensively. How to be a great teammate, how to play great help defense. How to just have better ball movement, better player movement.”
Sometimes they pull out another wrinkle on defense, obviously one they picked up in high school. The ball handler’s primary defender subtly angles him out of the center of the court. When he gets far enough over, the wing defender runs at him — hard, giving the point guard as little time as possible to react — for a trap. It often forces a turnover.
It’s the night of the 2021 championship game, and Keefer is in the crowd of an unusually packed Boner Center. He’s kept in touch with most of his old players, but this is the first time he’s seen so many play together since they left Lawrence North.
He sees Howard, whom he called the “coach on the floor” in his Wildcat days, bring his usual energy and leadership. He sees former star Eron Harris has improved after college stints at Michigan State and West Virginia. And he sees the whole team do what he taught them so many years, games and teams ago: space the floor, box out, crash the boards.
“You take pride in them because they’re good people,” Keefer said. “They’ve grown up to be good young men and take pride in their jump shots that they worked on for hours and hours and hours and the way they got along with each other.
“They play with the same desire and hustle as they had then.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Lawrence North grads enter second season in City League