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Magnet school

St. Mark’s stars bring out nation’s top college coaches

Junior Alex Murphy has soared in recruiting circles. Junior Alex Murphy has soared in recruiting circles. (Jon Mahoney/Globe File Photo)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / September 21, 2010

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SOUTHBOROUGH — A little after 4 p.m. Sunday, the gym at St. Mark’s School was silent except for the sound of a single bouncing basketball. One kid was shooting in flip-flops. Two were sitting on the first row of the small set of wooden bleachers. It’s an eight-basket gym, but it’s a small space. Bleachers, five rows deep, are on one side only.

Slowly, more kids trickled in. More basketballs bouncing.

The workout was supposed to start at 5.

Kansas coach Bill Self, wearing a blue Jayhawks polo shirt, walked in about a half-hour early flanked by two assistant coaches, including former Final Four MVP Danny Manning. They posted up by the door and shot the breeze.

St. Mark’s coach Dave Lubick was supposed to arrive shortly. He lives in a white house just outside the gym. Alex Murphy and Kaleb Tarczewski were on their way as well. In recruiting circles, the two juniors’ names ring out. Not just in New England, but nationally. They’re the reason Self left Florida that morning to fly into Boston and then drive to the small Episcopal school.

“I’ll be back in Lawrence, Kan., by about 1 a.m. tonight,’’ Self said. “It’s a pretty busy day.’’

He’s here to make sure Murphy and Tarczewski know he’s interested. Murphy, a 6-foot-8-inch wing, strolled into the gym across from Self, cold bottle of water in one hand, cellphone in the other, eyes glued to it. He was fresh off a four-hour SAT prep course.

“As soon as he finished the test he was out of there,’’ said Murphy’s mother, Paivi. “He told me he rushed the end of it.’’

Tarczewski arrived soon after. More coaches poured in. The polo shirts were practically name tags.

N.C. State. West Virginia. Wake Forest. North Carolina. Pitt. Iowa State. Northeastern. Georgetown. Virginia. Villanova. Michigan. UMass. Colgate. Holy Cross.

They made an unofficial scouting section along the wall by the door. Growing tired of standing against the beige cinderblocks, Manning found a seat on the last row of the bleachers.

Per school policy, St. Mark’s can only hold two of these structured workouts in an academic year. So it draws a crowd.

“Their job is to try to develop a relationship in a limited segment of time,’’ Lubick said. “It’s almost like boyfriend-girlfriend stuff, you know?’’

Mike Krzyzewski quietly entered. Just a week prior, he was in Turkey celebrating the United States’ gold medal in the FIBA World Championship. On this day, the Duke coach tucked himself into a corner by the door. Lubick approached and gave Krzyzewski a strong handshake. Krzyzewski’s eyes were fixed on the floor, even as he chatted with Self and Texas coach Rick Barnes.

The white Boston College polo came next. It was associate head coach Joe Jones. The Eagles’ new head coach, Steve Donahue, followed. Then the Georgetown polo. John Thompson III.

Donyell Marshall came in rolling a large backpack. He was wearing a George Washington polo, another body in the wall of coaches.

One polo stuck out, difficult to decipher. It was Abe Woldeslassie, Bowdoin’s new 24-year-old assistant coach. He was as surprised as anyone by his company.

When he pulled into the parking lot, he had no idea why it was so packed. He thought he would be the only one there. He didn’t know he was walking into a who’s who of college coaches.

“I probably don’t belong on this wall,’’ he said with a smile.

Murphy looked over at the wall every once in a while.

“I try to do it before I’m playing so I can focus on playing,’’ he said.

But he had seen the process play out too many times to be nervous. His father, Jay, starred at Boston College and briefly played in the NBA. His mother played for the Finnish national team. His brother, Erik, was in this situation three years ago, when Florida coach Billy Donovan led the flock of coaches into the very same gym. Erik followed Donovan to Florida.

“I was sort of in the back seat with him and my dad through the whole thing,’’ Alex said. “I saw the whole process. I can talk to him whenever I want. I talk to him just about every day anyway. If I do have any questions or concerns about the process, he’s always there for me.’’

Now, his 12-year-old brother, Thomas, is in the back seat, watching as Alex tries to impress all the watching eyes.

“He’s a couple inches taller than both boys were at that age,’’ said Lubick’s wife, Lisa.

But to assume that Alex is just another apple on the family tree of basketball players would be oversimplifying things. Alex and Erik are different players, but moreover different people.

“He’s got to find his way,’’ Jay said of Alex. “While his brother is a very good player, and I was a player and his mom played, he’s got to make his own way. Because if he wasn’t doing it on the floor, those people over there wouldn’t be here because of me and my wife and my son.’’

Having coached Alex and Erik on a travel team, TJ Gassnola said, “Alex is wired a little different than Erik. Erik was a tough inside player. Alex has a different swag. He can shoot it, he can put it on the deck, and he’s just got an off-court personality.’’

He has a list of schools to narrow down. Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas, Villanova, and Wake Forest are among his options.

“Right now, we’ve listened to everybody,’’ Jay said. “Now, it’s a matter of getting a list and paring it down to something that’s manageable for him. We don’t want to waste anybody’s time. We don’t want to play that game. So we’ll do it the right way.’’

In a year’s time, Tarczewski transformed as a player. At 7 feet, he has one unteachable quality. But it’s a difficult one to embrace.

“He’s from Claremont, N.H.,’’ Gassnola said. “Seven-footers don’t grow on trees up there. This is a fish out of water. When you’re tall like that you have a tendency to be insecure because everybody’s looking at you like you’re the biggest guy in the world.’’

Tarczewski went to Jay Murphy’s big man camp and refined his skills. Last season at St. Mark’s, he benefited from being around better talent. He runs the floor, finishes well, and battles on the glass. His stock and his confidence have jumped to new levels.

“His life has pretty much changed overnight,’’ Gassnola said.

Arizona, Duke, Florida, Georgia Tech, Indiana, North Carolina, Southern Cal, and Wake Forest are interested. Seeing some of those coaches in his own gym made that apparent.

“It’s kind of like a tingling feeling up through your body,’’ Tarczewski said. “You’re just jumping out of the gym every second, you just want to impress them. Sometimes it’s a bad thing. Sometimes you get nervous but you’ve got to say, they’re just people.’’

The dance is the most interesting part. The coaches can’t talk to the players, but they have to develop a bond strong enough to convince them to choose their program.

“It’s a hard thing for kids,’’ Lubick said. “Some of these guys are trying to figure out where they want to go to school and how do you really figure that out? Should it be based on visits? Should it be based on whoever pays the most attention to you? So it’s hard. They agonize, especially the guys that get so much attention so early, they agonize about how to narrow it down.’’

The power of the coaches and the allure of what they offer is easily evident. When John Thompson III left, he joked briefly with Gassnola, then walked out of the gym and hopped into the back seat of a long Cadillac, his driver closing the door behind him.

A handful of coaches, including Barnes and Self, stuck around until the gym was nearly cleared and the noise had hushed back down to the sound of a single bouncing ball.

“I think people come to evaluate, they come to watch,’’ Self said. “They come to make sure the kids know that we’re serious about them by being here.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.