Nate Brooks and Jordan Smith couldn't be happier. Even with their peers around the city -- including some at their school -- receiving much more attention for the colleges recruiting them and their status as basketball prospects, the two seniors at Whitney Young Magnet High School in the West Loop are content.
That's because the duo recognizes that even if they don't achieve stardom in their final prep basketball campaign, they're still in great shape. Brooks, a 6-foot-5 undersized power forward with tremendous athleticism, and Smith, a versatile, 6-foot-2 combo guard, could have waited out the recruiting process until the spring and with the benefit of an expected successful season for Young, perennially one of the top hoops programs in the city and state, accepted scholarships to programs on the lower rungs of Division I college basketball.
Instead, the pair made a decision to attend the University of Chicago, one of the nation's top academic schools, which plays on the Division III level and is hardly renowned a basketball powerhouse. They made a choice for their future.
"Really, I look at I have going for me right now and I had some Division I offers, but really because I'm such a good student, too," said Brooks on why he committed to attend the Hyde Park university. "I feel that University of Chicago gives me the best opportunity to take advantage of both my skills on the classroom and my skills on the court."
Chimed in Smith: "Pretty much education. It's a great opportunity. I couldn't pass it up."
Earlier this month at the United Center, Smith and Brooks joined their teammates -- including sophomore center Jahlil Okafor, one of the nation's top prospects in his class -- at a Nike-sponsored pep rally for some of the better high school teams in the city, including Simeon Career Academy, Derrick Rose's alma mater. However, even among the likes of Okafor and Simeon junior superstar Jabari Parker, arguably the best high school player in the country, the unheralded Whitney Young duo stood out.
Brooks boasts a 4.4 grade-point average (on a weighted scale, as Young, the alma mater of First Lady Michelle Obama, offers an array of Advanced Placement courses, giving students college credits before they even hit campus) and a 31 score on the ACT, while Brooks has a 4.3 GPA -- "Smith beat me on that," he joked -- and a gaudy 32 ACT. In other words, even if they couldn't play basketball, these are two kids who could attend their prestigious future university. But don't think they're merely two kids who happen to suit up for high-level squad like Whitney Young and can't actually play.
Although neither is a starter -- playing behind the likes of Okafor, junior big man Tommy Hamilton, who is ranked among the top 50 players in his class nationally, Paul White, a 6-foot-8 talent regarded as one of the top 50 sophomores in the country, and fellow seniors Jermaine Morgan (a post player and fall Colorado State signee) and UIC-bound sharpshooter Gabriel Snider, is nothing to be ashamed of -- neither is an unfamiliar name to observers of Chicago high school basketball. Watch a Whitney Young game and you'll see two valuable contributors who could be putting up gaudy statistics for an average high school team in the city, as well as recruits who were pursued by numerous college programs.
"I had Florida A&M, Northern Illinois, annual Division II title contender Northern Kentucky and we had some Ivy League looks, but they never really offered us, so this was the best opportunity," said Smith.
Added Brooks: "I had Southern Illinois and UIC, too."
So it's not as if college coaches weren't aware of their abilities, as they often excelled on the summer AAU circuit, where their individual skills could be evaluated outside of the context of Young's loaded team. (Full disclosure: I've personally seen both of them play in outside events and for their team since they were sophomores and upon seeing them at University of Chicago's exhibition game at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I simply assumed they were recruits invited by UIC, instead of potential "U of C" recruits.)
"Phenomenal kids. Two kids who are unbelievable hard workers in the classroom and who take that hard work and transition it to the court also," gushed a Young assistant coach. "When you look at where they came from and where they are now, they're classic stories of achievers and really, that's what the Whitney Young model is, achieving and wanting to be the best."
At the University of Chicago, Brooks and Smith have a chance to be the team's focal points, something they missed out on in high school. That played a part in their decisions, but more importantly, armed with a degree from the institution, the odds that they'll be successful in life are greater than even their most talented counterparts.
"Well, of course you've got people around you doing things and you kind of want to do what they're doing, too," said Brooks. "So, of course that was something, but I still feel like the University of Chicago's a great opportunity. I'm not really losing out on anything.
But before giving them too much credit as trend-setters, it should be noted that the move isn't entirely unprecedented. University of Chicago has a freshman point guard on its roster, Royce Muskeyvalley, who in addition to having an excellent name, was the teammate of co-Illinois Mr. Basketball Chasson Randle, currently a starting guard at Stanford (not exactly a shabby academic institution itself) while attending Rock Island High School, the 2011 state champions.
"When we visited down there, we stayed with Royce and he's a really cool guy. He was telling us it's a great opportunity," said Smith of his future teammate, who also received recruiting interest at the Division I level. "He was in the same position as us. We had DI looks, but the University of Chicago, you can't pass something like that up."
Do yourself a favor sometime over the next five years: Head over to Hyde Park (easy for me to say, living in the neighborhood) and check out a University of Chicago home game. Competing in one of the top conferences in Division III, the level of basketball might surprise you, especially with a boost from at least three Division I-caliber athletes. Better yet, with NBA basketball not set to start until Christmas, watch a Whitney Young game -- I'd recommend their Dec. 23 tilt against Simeon at UIC -- to see two young men who may not be headliners on the floor just yet, but are definitely a refreshing example of what athletics should be about.