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Wednesday, March 7, 2001
Updated: March 12, 11:49 AM ET
Midnight Run

By by Bruce Feldman

It was perfect. Oh so perfect. Not in a pristine way, but in a cold-blooded way, like when a bank robbery goes down, every last detail planned, from the location of the getaway cars to the layout of the team's new hideout. Only this time, the dude did his own mentor. One big schwerve and he stole an entire basketball program.

Mt. Zion, old and new
Mount Zion, old and new: Pastor Donald Fozard (second from left), Jarrett Jack (far right) and newcomers Anthony Ighodaro (left) and Terry Licorish. Photo: John-Francis Bourke

At 9:15 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2000, on an unseasonably warm winter night in Gastonia, N.C., an assistant basketball coach from Durham's Mount Zion Christian Academy waited behind the wheel of a team van. Point guard Jarrett Jack and reserve forward Jerron McCliskill were seated in back. Mount Zion's Mighty Warriors had just completed another dominant season with a 53-31 win against Victory Christian. But after waiting 15 minutes for the others, Jack told the assistant, John Lewis, to hit the gas. "They ain't coming back," he said.

The unthinkable had happened: Mount Zion won the game, but lost a team. Coach Midnight had struck again.

***

This is the story of a battle between two powerful men. It's about God and the Green Jesus, faith and basketball shoes. It's a sorry statement on the bidding war in high school hoops and the casualties that have piled up. Call it the hardwood version of Cain and Abel.

There is a salesman in every good coach. But the really good ones know when to put on the full-court press, and how to tread the line between slick and smooth. Not many tread it better than Joel Hopkins. With his fiery rhetoric and flair for the dramatic, Hopkins, 33, knows how to work people, especially young people. The more troubled they are, the more convincing he is. A reformed drug abuser, he once balled for D2 national champ N.C. Central. Built like a bouncer (6'5", 235), he can go from menacing to charming with a flash of his big, toothy grin. In hoops circles, he's known as Coach Midnight, a guy who could flat-out steal almost any prep star from almost any coach.

His blueprint for success at Mount Zion looked a lot like the map of Florida. In March '98, Travis Jones, the coach of Orlando's Edgewater High, returned from a weekend trip to discover Hopkins had swiped Marquis Daniels, an explosive 6'6" forward. A few weeks later, David Saltman, the coach at Auburndale, learned he had lost T. Smith, a 6'7" power player. Saltman didn't know his star was gone until four days after the fact, when the shy 15-year-old with a severe stutter called from Durham begging for help. Saltman arrived at Mount Zion the next morning to discover two Haines City, Fla., players -- Long John Williams and Ghost Williams (a cousin) -- who wanted out too. "It's like Hopkins was buying from a mail-order catalog," Saltman says. "Get a big man from Haines City, a shooting guard from Daytona, a slasher from Orlando."

Ghost Williams is one of several ex-Warriors to question Coach Midnight's tactics. Hopkins pressed players for snap decisions, Williams says, advising them not to tell their own coaches of their plans. Kids came to Durham expecting to discover Club Med. Instead they found a boot camp. One player admitted to stealing from stores just to eat because the team cook had started slacking. "While Hopkins is living in his mansion," he says, "we're living in a shack with no food, no phone, no TV, no nothing." But Hopkins continued to crank out D1 prospects -- more than 40 in all, including Cincinnati's Donald Little, Oklahoma's J.R. Raymond and Auburn's Daniels -- as well as Tracy McGrady and juco-to-NBA flyer Cory Hightower.

So imagine the surprise when Coach Midnight pulled his biggest coup, rattling the dark underbelly of the prep hoops scene like never before. In the weeks leading up to that February night, he had been recruiting his own players for a phantom school. One by one, he approached the boys and filled them in on his plans. Mount Zion assistant principal Artis Plummer had founded a new school in Durham named Emmanuel Full Gospel Academy. Hopkins was picking up shop and moving there, secretly plotting to make off with everything, including Mount Zion's adidas deal. And, as it just so happens, Emmanuel's total enrollment list would fit neatly onto a basketball roster.

That night in Gastonia, the mothers of Warrior stars Jonathan Hargett and Tyrone Sally were waiting in two cars to transport the players to their new home. As Jack related the story sitting in the near-empty Mount Zion van, Lewis could not believe his ears, not until he returned to Durham and opened the door to the house he shared with the team. The defectors' clothes? Gone. Books? Gone. Stereos? Gone. PlayStations? Basketball posters? adidas gear? Gone. Gone. Gone. All that remained belonged to Jack, Antonio Hargrove (the lone senior) and McCliskill, a skinny 6'9" soph who had butted heads with Hopkins. Jack, a starter with a 3.4 GPA, had been approached by Hopkins, but he didn't take the coach's offer seriously. "A school with 12 students and one teacher?" he says. "It was just gonna be an adidas basketball school."

No problem. Hopkins made off with a roster full of blue-chippers: MVP Hargett, 6'8" skywalker Harvey Thomas and 6'10" dunk machine Amare Stoudemire. He also snared 6'9" forward Marco Killingsworth and 6'10" center Tony Key, the top prospects from Alabama and Kentucky respectively. "It was wild," Jack says with awe. "A whole team just up and leaving."

***

A high-gloss, silk-suit man of the cloth, Pastor Donald Q. Fozard can spin gold with the best of 'em. Love, lust, envy: In one way or another, every human vice comes back to the Bible. But nothing gets the flamboyant, 55-year-old ex-Marine going like betrayal.

Nine years ago, Fozard tapped Hopkins to help him build an elite hoops program. Together, they drove north to Virginia in search of advice from Oak Hill Academy coach Steve Smith. "We wanted to use basketball as an evangelical tool," says Fozard. "We'd take the dropouts, the fall-through-the-cracks and the castoffs, get them in here and whip them into shape."

Life at Mount Zion was serious business. Players would get up at 4:30 a.m., run three miles, shower, don the school uniform (oxford button-down, burgundy tie, khakis), hit the classroom and go to practice. Twice a week, they would attend church services. They could not date, cuss, listen to rap, wear jewelry or talk on the phone. Early on, Hopkins housed the team in a church-owned, eight-bedroom home he shared with his wife and three children.

Founded in 1986 at the top of Fayetteville Street in Durham, Mount Zion didn't show up on the basketball map until a decade later, when Hopkins unveiled a little-known 6'8" swingman from Auburndale. He had lured the kid north with the promise of coast-to-coast travel and the warm glow of the adidas spotlight. One year later, Tracy McGrady had dunked his way to the NBA.

The underachieving 17-year-old had been introduced to Hopkins by adidas scout Alvis Smith. While Hopkins sold McGrady's mom on Mount Zion's religious environment, Smith sold the boy on adidas' flagship program. McGrady's rise to national prominence is mind-boggling. In three weeks, he went from all-county to Next Kobe, putting the shine on adidas' ABCD camp. Ty Willis, who had coached the 6'8", 205-pound gazelle since he was 9, knew nothing about the faded blue school building 15 minutes from Duke's posh campus, nor had he heard of Hopkins. But after McGrady's decision to move to North Carolina, the 40-year-old coach called it quits. "You wait all your life for a player like that," he says, "then something like this happens. It destroys you."

McGrady's rags-to-riches story had a startling effect on Mount Zion. The next spring, Hopkins preached it throughout the South to any kid with hops or a crossover, and he did it all in the name of the Lord. But for all the good it did, McGrady's far-flung success would soon sever the bond between Hopkins and Fozard. "When McGrady was drafted, he vowed to pay 10% of his income to Mount Zion," Fozard says. "But that's not what happened." McGrady declines comment on anything related to the school. But according to newspaper reports, he donated $300,000 to Mount Zion. Fozard claims he got $50,000. It's also been reported that T-Mac gave Hopkins up to $900,000. The coach won't confirm the sum. All he will say is this: "What Tracy wants to do with his money is Tracy's business." Yet Fozard isn't willing to let it slide. "There's Scripture that says, 'You reap what you sow,'" he says. "Nobody gets away. If it doesn't come back on you, it's coming back on your children."

***

Last June, less than four months after Emmanuel opened with 20 students and one teacher huddled in the basement of a factorylike building, Hopkins resigned and bolted to Raleigh to coach D2 Shaw University. In October, two weeks before its season opener, Emmanuel's team disbanded. What was once the nation's No.1 prep roster was now a fire sale. The players were told by new coach Mike White, an ex-Hopkins assistant, that Emmanuel could not secure the funds to house them. They had been living with Plummer, but the principal married in the summer of 2000 and didn't feel comfortable raising his stepdaughters in a home with 12 teenage boys.

As this awesome collection of talent got dumped on the free agent schoolboy market, word spread like lightning. Sally went to a high school in Virginia. Thomas bolted to Maryland. Killingsworth returned to Alabama. Key left for Maryland, then resurfaced in California. Stoudemire bounced between three schools, including Mount Zion, with his own PR agent in tow. He hopes to be cleared to play in Orlando. Hargett tried to reenroll at Mount Zion, but the school wouldn't take him back. He landed at National Christian Word in D.C.

Emmanuel's collapse was God's way, says Fozard. "They didn't have no vision for no school," he explains. "I don't know what the purpose was. But I do know the purpose of Joel taking those boys. He did not want Mount Zion to be successful. He thought he was the guru of basketball, but he wasn't."

In the pastor's opinion, Durham has room enough for only one hoops guru -- and his name isn't Coach K. Fozard says he fired Hopkins because the coach lost focus. Hopkins says they split because Fozard couldn't tolerate playing second fiddle in his own church. "I made Mount Zion, not him," Hopkins says. "He knows that. And if you think he wasn't all about money, then you don't know nothing about the man."

***

It was John Lewis who drove that team van out of Gastonia. It was Lewis who fielded calls from startled parents to explain their sons' whereabouts. It was Lewis who described Hopkins' act as "kidnapping." The 50-year-old who became Mount Zion's coach couldn't be more different from his former boss. He answers questions with a nervous laugh. He walks slowly, with a slight limp, and has a grandfatherly way about him. Before arriving at Mount Zion, he spent two decades running an AAU team called the Maryland Stallions.

Hopkins invited Lewis to Durham in 1999 while recruiting Jack, the Stallions' star. A year later, Lewis found himself scrambling to replace the team Hopkins stole. His first big move was signing with Nike. The coach swears Mount Zion's dirty days are a thing of the past, but the residue is hard to wipe clean. On court, Hopkins' Mighty Warriors were known to taunt and showboat. "We had three bench-clearing brawls the year I played for them," says Rodney White of the 1998 season. Off the floor, the lowlight was a late-night chair-throwing fight at the December '98 Reebok Las Vegas Invitational. Witnesses say the Warriors baited Compton, Calif.'s Dominguez High team at a McDonald's. "The Dominguez kids did everything possible to avoid a scuffle," says one prep coach. "The Mount Zion players were throwing drinks at them. Then they threw a big iron chair. It looked like something you'd see in pro wrestling."

Even Hopkins was known to get in on the action. Two years ago, seven-foot, 255-pound center Marcus "Big Nasty" Campbell, tired of Hopkins' baiting, jumped the coach and pummeled him. Before a game against Baton Rouge's Southern Lab, Coach Hop challenged the 6'10", 230-pound Stoudemire to a fistfight. Then a sophomore, Stoudemire retreated in tears. And in December '99, Hopkins barged into the players' house and aimed a sawed-off shotgun at McCliskill's head because he thought the boy had been disrespectful to an assistant. Hopkins refuses to discuss these reports, but at least two players confirmed each one.

The very mention of such incidents thrusts Fozard into a sermon on stone-throwers. "I don't care what anybody says," he rails. "Our criteria for playing sports is higher than that of anybody else in North Carolina. You've got to have a 2.0 GPA to play." But if Fozard had been held to his word, Jack would've had to take on opponents all by himself two seasons ago. After his 3.4 GPA, Hargett's 1.7 was next best on the team. One ACC coach says, "We won't touch Mount Zion players because their transcripts are such a mess." A number of players also accuse Hopkins of promising recruits to certain colleges. One former Warrior says the coach tried to steer him to Nebraska. When the player said no, he was benched and told he wouldn't be eligible to play for any other school. Hopkins denies doctoring transcripts or peddling his players. He claims Mount Zion is making him out to be the fall-guy.

When Lewis welcomed his first two dozen prospects to Durham last fall, he said he wouldn't tolerate head cases. In September, he ran off Stoudemire to prove it. (Stoudemire says he had returned because the school refused to release his transcripts, demanding $7,500 to recoup the cost of his scholarship.) Through a PR agent, the 17-year-old said Lewis told him "he couldn't be responsible for what it said on his transcripts."

Lewis laughs that nervous laugh at Stoudemire's allegation. "Things are different now," he says. "You have to have a 2.5 GPA and you have to be disciplined." But the coach isn't about to let the Warriors go soft. They now play a pumped-up 43-game schedule. The program also has taken on an international flavor. Terry Licorish, a fluid 6'8" forward, burst onto the Nike camp scene from Toronto, hometown of 6'8" swingman Anthony Ighodaro. Vladimir Lisimac, a heady 6'9" Yugoslavian, arrived in August and in November, the team welcomed a pair of African-born post players from Mali: Almamy Thiero, a 6'9", 220-pound junior, and Mohamed Tangara, a 6'10", 220-pound soph.

Meanwhile, up the road in Raleigh, Hopkins calls his one-time assistant a backstabber and launches into a sermon of his own -- on loyalty. Fozard and Lewis "are on their own," he says. "Let's see how they do. They've already lost one NBA player [Stoudemire]. Now they're going to find they're in a whole different kind of game."

***

No kidding. On Feb. 27, Lewis coached his last game for Mount Zion. A day later, Fozard's 23-year-old son, Antonio, was named to replace him. Forget the 34-9 record. Forget that Jack has blossomed into a 30-point scorer. Forget the nine players Lewis claims are now on the honor roll. When Lewis asked the reason for his dismissal, the pastor said: "It was spiritual."

Bruce Feldman is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail bruce.feldman@espnmag.com.

This article appears in the March 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.