McDonald’s All-American Isaac Hamilton of Bellflower St. John Bosco dealt with pressures of being a high-profile player in a high-profile basketball league. It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but the lessons learned will be beneficial. Be sure to catch more from Ronnie Flores this week as he covers the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago for Cal-Hi Sports.
By Ronnie Flores
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Two days before he and his family boarded a plane for Chicago to partake in the 2013 McDonald’s All-American Game festivities, 6-foot-5, 190-pound Isaac Hamilton was getting in a mid-day workout at a gym where he is always comfortable.
One of California’s best high school basketball players was at the Willie West Pavilion on the campus of Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, a stone’s throw from where he grew up. It’s also the school Hamilton left after his 2010-2011 sophomore season for St. John Bosco of Bellflower, a school fully expected to compete at the highest level of Southern California basketball with the addition of Isaac, Daniel (Isaac’s younger brother by a year) and coach Derrick Taylor.
“I’m up at Crenshaw and it’s all good,” Isaac said. “This is basically my home. Leaving wasn’t terribly difficult. I had a different task at hand and had to move on. Coach (Ed) Waters understood.”
Isaac spoke as if his transfer was a business-like decision — similar to something discussed in NBA circles or on sports talk shows. In reality, high school basketball at the highest level in California (“big-boy ball” as Taylor coins it) is a business and the pressure to perform and produce at that level is real.
With his selection to the McDonald’s Game as evidence, Isaac produced for the Braves over the last two seasons. As a junior in 2011-12, he earned third five all-state honors from Cal-Hi Sports after averaging 24.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg, and 5.4 assists for a team that advanced to the SoCal Div. III Regional final. The pressure for the Hamilton brothers to perform and Taylor to produce in Isaac’s final prep season, especially after St. John Bosco blew a 18-point lead in the second half of that regional final game, grew even bigger.
The pressure reached a boiling point in the Braves’ second round league game against Mater Dei of Santa Ana, the team Taylor was brought in to challenge for Trinity League supremacy, and it could have derailed the season.
Following Bosco’s 82-71 loss to the Monarchs, Taylor openly questioned Isaac’s desire in the locker room — in front of the team. The usually mild-mannered McDonald’s All-American wasn’t able to control his disappointment in the loss — nor Taylor’s comment. Isaac was suspended for a game for his reaction to Taylor’s post-game comments.
The season — and in reality Isaac’s career at St. John Bosco — was at a crossroads. It’s the way he responded to the negative incident that showed his true colors. It taught Isaac a great lesson in dealing with the pressures that come with being a high-profile player and the highest rated UTEP recruit in a generation.
“I know when I play bad, but to yell about it or question my heart, man. I’m trying to do everything I can do, I’m just not playing well,” Isaac said about the incident. “I learned I have to release my frustrations in a different way, instead of doing it in front of the team. I should have talked to coach afterwards or off to the side. In a heated situation, I can’t show my frustrations like that at the next level.”
Hamilton apologized to his teammates in the same manner in which he lashed out — in front of everyone. According to Taylor, he picked up his play from that point on and the team came together to capture the CIF Southern Section Division III-A title, its first section title since 2003.
“In the midst of all that, when you get frustrated, regardless of who is right or wrong, Isaac learned you must maintain your composure,” said his father Gregory Hamilton. “There are no excuses. He apologized and the team and my family supported him. I can’t say I agree with Coach Taylor’s approach to the situation…If I did I would be a liar. Still, as Isaac’s career goes on he’s still got to conduct himself in a proper manner.”
The incident also was a learning lesson for Taylor, who made Taft of Woodland Hills into an L.A. City Section power before moving on to Bosco. Taylor has a better understanding of how to manage and anticipate pressure situations and actually learned from one of his players instead giving the lesson.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Taylor said. “He’d never done anything close to that. Some kids are low-maintenance. Isaac is no-maintenance.
“I learned kids are resilient. Kids can look in the mirror and move on. I actually learned from him. His response created a better team chemistry and he was a better player.”
While it wasn’t so difficult a decision for the Hamiltons to move on from Crenshaw or for Taylor to realize Isaac’s behavior wasn’t reflective of his overall character, choosing UTEP as Isaac’s college of choice wasn’t as easy.
“We definitely wrestled with it as a family,” said Gregory, who alongside wife Karen raised one daughter Miya (30) and sons Zelle (35), Gary (28), Jordan (22), Isaac (18) and Daniel (17). “Compared to what some of the other schools recruiting Isaac offered socially and the area, UTEP can’t compete. The people of El Paso are very friendly, however, and it’s a safe city.”
Then there is UTEP’s Tim Floyd, a college head coach known for cultivating relationships and maximizing players’ NBA potential. We’re not only talking about players of Isaac’s caliber, but even players with considerably less credentials as a high school player.
“Tim Floyd is a cultivator of talent,” Gregory said. “He got two players that never played high school basketball to the NBA. UTEP is a basketball college. He can make Isaac be the player he should be.”
Floyd’s relationship with the family goes even beyond Isaac and his siblings, which include two playing professional basketball — Gary overseas and Jordan with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. Before going on to head coaching gigs in college and with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, Floyd helped legendary UTEP coach Don Haskins recruit Gregory’s younger brother Kevin Hamilton, a fourth five Cal-Hi Sports all-state pick at Crenshaw in 1982, to El Paso.
“Isaac making the McDonald’s Game is a great accomplishment for the family,” Gregory said. “Gary and Jordan are so excited they wish they could be there (in Chicago). “There is pressure on Daniel now to also be a McDonald’s and Jordan All-American.”
So what was the tipping point in Isaac choosing to continue his career at UTEP?
Taking a look at how he still embraces the Crenshaw basketball community and the incident that could have derailed Isaac’s — and St. John Bosco’s — season, it was the attention to detail in relationships.
Details that can easily be misconstrued or overlooked by people trying to foster meaningful relationships.
When Floyd was coaching the Chicago Bulls and the team had a West Coast road trip, he would often visit the home of Gregory’s mother, who he first met while Kevin was being recruited out of Crenshaw. Floyd would even look forward to an occasional home-cooked meal.
“I was talking to Tim recently and he still knows her home phone number,” Gregory said. “He knows it by heart. I mean, 30 years later.
“It’s all about relationships.”