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Opening a door to Western Pa. hoopsters

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, July 20, 2003

Western Pennsylvania has become accustomed to summer recruiting news being reserved to football because of the absence of major-college basketball talent.

If the sudden rise of Akida McLain is any indication, that is about to change.

The Penn Hills senior, a 6-foot-7 forward, made a dramatic entrance onto the national basketball scene with an impressive performance before coaches and scouts at the Nike All-American Camp on July 8-10 in Indianapolis.

When McLain left for the Nike camp, he wasn't on the radar of recruiting services. HoopScoop didn't have him ranked in its pre-summer top 225. Afterward, it ranked him the No. 9 power forward and No. 44 player overall at Nike.

That's what you call a meteoric rise.

Despite averaging double figures in points (15 per game) and rebounds (10) as a junior in helping Penn Hills win the WPIAL Class AAAA championship, the high-energy McLain wasn't close to being a household name.

Sure, he was selected to the Terrific 10 second team and All-Class AAAA first team by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, but he still played second fiddle to Byron Knight.

Nationally, McLain was an unknown.

"Nobody knew who he was," said Ernie Kusnyer, the Western Pa. AAU boys basketball chairman and coach of McLain's Southpointe Gold traveling team. "He played in Western Pennsylvania. Coaches don't come here to recruit basketball players. They recruit football players here."

That could be about to change.

When McLain stood out at a tournament in Solon, Ohio, in April, he was noticed by an Ohio talent scout who recommended McLain for the invite-only Nike camp.

Although the nation's best players traditionally attend either the Nike or adidas ABCD camps, both have been bereft of the WPIAL's top talent since 2001.

This year, McLain was the only WPIAL or City League player invited to either the adidas or Nike camps. He also spent this past week at the Five-Star Basketball Camp at Robert Morris University.

The most recent WPIAL players to attend the adidas and Nike camps are now playing Division I basketball: Drew Schifino (West Virginia), Yuri Demetris (Pitt), Brandon Fuss-Cheatham (Ohio State) and Daren Tielsch (Robert Morris).

A strong performance at those camps shows that you can play at an elite level. Although he wasn't ranked at summer's start, HoopScoop now considers McLain a top-150 player nationally.

"I think he was one of the biggest sleepers to emerge from camp," HoopScoop editor Clark Francis said. "On the last day, he was one of the big stories. Maybe he found out he could play and got more confidence. Sometimes, guys blow up after that."

Francis projects McLain as a "definite Atlantic-10, borderline Big East player" whose star could continue its rise with more stellar performances on the national stage.

Duquesne and Rhode Island have made verbal scholarship offers, and Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia are said to be among those interested in McLain.

"For a kid his size, he can put it on the floor and play the 3- or 4-spot," said Kusyner, who played at Kansas State and spent 20 years as a Converse shoe rep. "He's very skilled. Coaches tell me they see potential there."

Kusyner is excited about McLain's drawing power, especially with Soutpointe Gold headed to the AAU national championships in Orlando on July 25-31, which falls under the NCAA's recruiting contact period.

Southpointe Gold also features Moon guard Duane Compo, Sto-Rox guard John Geiger, Seneca Valley forward Sean Griffin, Connellsville guard James Hairston, Moon swingman M.J. Knight, North Allegheny swingman E.J. Kusyner, Perry swingman Dewayne Pettus and Aliquippa guard Darrelle Revis.

They could be byproducts of McLain's success.

"What's nice is having a kid like Akida come on is other kids in our program are getting recruited," Ernie Kusyner said. "I have college coaches calling, wanting to know our schedule because of Akida."

While Penn Hills coach Jim Rocco deserves credit for McLain's development -- Rocco projected him to be a major-college prospect last season -- AAU basketball is responsible for giving McLain increased exposure.

Kusyner's program has 16 teams, from fourth grade up. Had McLain not played for Southpointe, he wouldn't have been invited to the Nike camp. If he didn't go to the Nike camp, he would likely have remained an unknown.

Instead, McLain started what could become a revival for Western Pa. basketball players.

"Now that Akida's been to Nike, you can say, 'We've got a kid coming up as good or better,' " Kusyner said. "There's a lot of politics involved in those camps, but before you start politicking, you have to have people go there and succeed.

"He succeeded -- and that opened a lot of doors for us."

Western Pa. can only hope that they are revolving doors.

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