CHICAGO – Ever since Wayne Selden and Noah Vonleh first crossed paths, they have competed against each other on the basketball court.
It started in AAU ball, when Selden, a Roxbury native, joined Leo Papile’s Boston Amateur Basketball Club, and Vonleh, a Haverhill resident, suited up for Vin Pastore’s Mass Rivals squad
And it continued in prep school, where this past season as seniors, Vonleh’s New Hampton School squad twice defeated Selden’s Tilton School team.
On Wednesday night, however, they found themselves donning the same bright red, golden arch emblemed uniforms in the 36th annual McDonald’s All-American game at the United Center. in Chicago.
With Selden off to the University of Kansas in the fall and Vonleh committed to Indiana University, it could be the only time they will wear the same uniform.
The pair formed the Commonwealth’s first duo selected to the McDonald’s game since 2000, with Neil Fingleton (Holy Name) and Scott Hazelton (Central Catholic).
Despite being on the losing end of the East’s 110-99 defeat to the Wests, both players delivered strong performances. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Vonleh chipped in 3 points and 6 rebounds in 11 minutes, while the 6-5, 220-pound Selden filled up the stat sheet in 18 minutes with 13 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal.
But the four-day event — which included a charitable appearance at the Ronald McDonald House, numerous practices, slam dunk, 3-point and skills challenges, and evening banquets — also provided both players an opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments alongside family and collectively ponder the seemingly limitless opportunities ahead.
“It’s really an honor. Me and Noah have been playing against each other since the fifth grade,” said Selden in the days leading up to the game. “We’ve been competitors for a while.”
Vonleh also reveled in sharing the experience with someone he’s known for so long, “It’s a great feeling having another guy from the same area on your team. We both want to put on for our area.”
Being selected as a McDonald’s All-American is prestigious. Alumni include Lebron James, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan, as well as past Bay State stars such as Travis Best, Billy Curley, Patrick Ewing, and Rick Brunson.
And while being chosen doesn’t ensure a future NBA career, it does inject a huge dose of reality into what may have otherwise seemed like a dream only a few years earlier.
“You look at those people playing in the McDonald’s and where they went from there,” said Selden’s father, Wayne Sr., who openly acknowledges he’s most proud of his son’s selflessness.
“I look at my son and think, ‘Maybe he could be in that category.’ This is like a springboard to other things. If Pat Ewing and all those guys came through and went onto the NBA, you never know what the future allows for [Wayne] either.”
It’s a responsibility that both Vonleh’s and Selden’s parents remind their sons not to take lightly — that while future, potentially life-changing, opportunities await — keeping things in perspective and understanding what is most important remain paramount.
“As a parent, I appreciate the fact that [Noah] has great diligence,” said his mom, Renell. “He strives to do something and he has purpose in what he does. . . . I’m proud that he’s basically mapping his own way through college and possibly a career. That’s what I want him to see. It’s a career and an opportunity to have a better life for the family, not something to be better than other people.”
For now, the McDonald’s game represents the crowning achievement in their illustrious high school careers.
In three seasons at Tilton, Selden scored 1,473 points, and this winter captained a team that he led in scoring, rebounds, and assists. He became a more consistent outside shooter and also improved his perimeter defense, a skill that could earn him minutes at Kansas.
Meanwhile, Vonleh topped 500 points in two years at New Hampton, and established himself as a ferocious rebounder.
He grabbed a team-high 11.8 rebounds per game this past winter, and displayed the ball handling skills that could make him a viable point-forward at Indiana.
As a result, it only took a few short practices to impress their McDonald’s coach, Freddy Johnson, and their teammates, including the consensus best high school player, 6-foot-8 Andrew Wiggins.
Johnson said Vonleh “handled the ball very well. . . . He’s really done a good job putting the ball on the floor and getting to the basket. He also has a nice jump shot.”
Wiggins described Selden as “a joy to play with” and Vonleh as “a great teammate.”
By early June, Vonleh and Selden will be on the campuses of their new schools engaged in a routine of summer classes and basketball practices.
But between now and then there are commitments to fulfill.
Next week brings a trip to Brooklyn for the April 13 Jordan Brand Classic at the Barclay’s Center. Graduation ceremonies also loom the last weekend of May. And, of course, there is schoolwork to complete before each can receive his diploma.
As a 2013 USA Junior National Select Team member, Vonleh will also have the added responsibility of traveling to Portland, Ore., for the Nike Hoop Summit on April 20.
But, otherwise, his focus will largely mirror that of his one-time teammate.
“I can’t wait,” said Vonleh with a smile when asked about graduating before detailing his other upcoming plans.
“I’m just going to be in the gym, trying to finish school off hard, lifting, and getting ready to have a big season next year.”