Hoop Raiders

Is a Christian academy in Kansas City stealing St. Louis' high school basketball players?

Milestone Christian Academy

With high school hoops underway, St. Louis' basketball junkies are abuzz about a school that doesn't belong to the Missouri State High School Activities Association, that hasn't scheduled a single game against any local team and is located clear across the state — in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in north Kansas City. Few people are familiar with the school — Milestone Christian Academy — save the fact that six players transferred there this past fall from St. Louis.

That alone is enough to raise suspicions among the city's highly competitive coaches. "A lot of people are worried," says one local coach, "that they are going to raid our cupboard." The suggestion elicits a chuckle from Peter Flournoy, Milestone's 28-year-old basketball coach. "The funny thing is, I don't even know anybody in St. Louis," says Flournoy. "We have no plan to go and get any kids from St. Louis. In reality, we would have never taken as many as we did from there, if I could have seen into the future."

The St. Louis contingent donning the Milestone Bulldogs uniform this year includes senior Marcel Taylor-Smith, who sat out last season at Vashon after transferring from Miller Career Academy; junior Justin "Flash" Keener, a Vashon Wolverine the past two years; senior Ron Waller, Fort Zumwalt West High School's leading scorer last year; and junior Richard Anderson, a 6-foot-8-inch forward who had college coaches scouting him during his first day of practice at Beaumont High School two years ago.

Notes Career Academy's athletic director Martin Jenkins: "If I was [coach Richard Hamilton] over at Beaumont, or [Anthony] Bonner at Vashon, I'd want to know what's going on here. As a league we should also know, because if it's Vashon and Beaumont today, it could be Career Academy and Soldan tomorrow."

Milestone has already earned a controversial reputation around Kansas City, according to Rick Zych, basketball coach at Bishop Miege High School, in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. The bad rap stems in part from two high-profile transfers to Milestone: standout seniors Elyseia Dunn, from Kansas City's Pembroke Hill, and Willie Reed, who left Bishop Miege. (Dunn recently signed a letter of intent to play with the Lady Indians of Arkansas State. Reed, Milestone's tallest player, at 6-foot-11, has signed with Saint Louis University.)

St. Louis basketball fans were looking forward to seeing the Bulldogs in action at the Midwest Showdown Shootout on December 8 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. But Coach Flournoy fell ill and an ice storm prevented his assistant and most of the team from making the trip. Only five Bulldogs suited up for the match against Nashville Christian Advancement Academy. The Bulldogs were crushed 92-61.

Last week came the news that Richard Anderson was the only St. Louisan remaining on the Milestone roster, which ratcheted up a whisper campaign, alleging that the academy is nothing more than a "diploma mill." That characterization doesn't sit well with Coach Flournoy. "There are a lot of schools out there that say they're Christian schools and they're nothing more than basketball factories," he says. "All of our kids have legitimate grades."

Scattered across the country, these so-called diploma mills — which the NCAA is cracking down on — share common traits, including rosters filled with post-graduate players recruited from foreign countries. Often the schools offer only one sport whose teams carry heavy national schedules in order to gain more exposure to Division 1 college coaches. The schools also use sponsorships from athletics companies and private donors to pay many of their expenses.

Milestone partly fits that profile. Basketball is its only team sport and half of the student body is involved with the program. One of the boys' varsity squads travels nationally, sometimes compliments of tournament sponsors. New Bulldogs shoes and uniforms recently arrived, courtesy of Adidas.

But, Flournoy stresses, "We're a school first and a basketball team second," and no one can play unless they maintain a 3.0 grade point average. Flournoy says Milestone uses a religious home-school curriculum affiliated with a national education chain, Lighthouse Christian Academy. Milestone faxes the athletes' tests to a Lighthouse school in Lewisville, Texas, to be graded — so that nobody can accuse Flournoy or his staff of grade-fixing.

Flournoy says more than twenty college coaches have attended Bulldogs practices this year. According to the NCAA clearinghouse Web site, Lighthouse Christian Academy's classes are, indeed, eligible.

Peter Flournoy, a Pentecostal pastor since he was twenty years old, moved to Kansas City from Alabama in 2004 to open an inner-city church. He began coaching a summer basketball league at Second Mile Ministries, a church and youth center in north Kansas City. Flournoy says he was asked to help seniors apply to college, only to discover that many were academically ineligible. He and the leaders of Second Mile Ministries thought: Why not start a small high school?

Milestone, whose student population is 70 percent African American, opened in 2005. The 60 students at the coed school pay no tuition and take four to five classes, Monday through Thursday. Flournoy says the basketball program developed organically, initially drawing players from his summer-league team. That was good enough to win the Division 3 National Association of Christian Athletes (NACA) championship in 2006 and 2007. This past March, Flournoy was named NACA National Coach of the Year.

Not long afterward, St. Louis families with high school basketball players began to inquire about Milestone. Richard Anderson found the school after a lengthy search. His mother, Patricia Carter, says she was desperate to get him out of St. Louis public schools. "He was getting D's at Beaumont," she says, "but I felt that he was just being passed through, not deserving the grades. Everybody was looking at him as a basketball star, and I thought, 'OK, great,' but he needs something to fall back on if basketball doesn't work out. I wanted him to go somewhere with smaller classes where he could earn his grades."

To accommodate his out-of-town students, Flournoy had two of his players live with him and the other four stay with a player's mother, who relocated to Kansas City.

Still, Milestone didn't work out for many of the St. Louisans. To play ball, the students must memorize and perform weekly recitations of scripture. There's no swearing, no unexcused absences and no talking in class.

"This place is stricter than what a lot of kids are used to," says Flournoy. He adds that in early December he was forced to kick four players off the team for disciplinary and academic reasons. According to Flournoy, a total of five St. Louis players have left Milestone and four of them plan to enroll in a Shawnee Mission, Kansas, high school.

Richard Anderson, though, is thriving at Milestone, much to his family's delight. His lowest grade is a B+, and he's earned a starting spot on the traveling squad. Beaumont coach Richard Hamilton is happy for his former player, but admits he was sorry to see him go.

"We had spoken to Rich and said this year we felt Beaumont was going to go as far as he was able to carry us," Hamilton explains. "I tried to stress that here he was on a team where he was going to be the man, and now he's going to some other school where I don't know if he was going to be the man, so to speak."

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