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Emphasis on academics yielding positive results for Milwaukee Washington's basketball program

08/04/2017, 10:30am CDT
By Mark Miller

The proof, as the old saying goes, is in the pudding. 

And in this case, that means positive results for the members of the Milwaukee Washington boys' basketball program. 

Five years ago, Fred Riley left his alma mater -- Milwaukee Hamilton -- in order to take over the head coaching duties at Washington, one of the state's most storied programs.

Riley had learned a lot being an assistant coach to Tom Diener at Hamilton and to Keith Stewart at Milwaukee North Division prior to his stint at Hamilton.

Riley felt he was more than ready to institute his own program at Washington and that is exactly what he has done, winning 87 of 124 games the past five years.

From Day One, Riley put a very strong emphasis on academic success.

He was tired of talented players from the Milwaukee City Conference heading to junior colleges because they did not qualify academically to play at the NCAA Division I level.

Together with the guidance department at Washington, Riley put into place mandatory after-school tutoring sessions between teachers at the school and the players in the Purgolders' program. 

And for the first time in many, many years, Washington has turned out academic qualifiers at the NCAA Division I level in back to back seasons in Te'Jon Lucas in 2016 and Jalen Stephen-Holmes in 2017.

Lucas, a 6-foot-0 point guard, is attending Illinois on a scholarship and averaged 4.8 points and 3.1 assists while playing 20.7 minutes per game as a true freshman last winter.  

Stephen-Holmes, a 6-foot-6 forward, averaged 9.0 points and 7.1 rebounds as a senior at Washington last season, helping the Pugolders to a 22-5 record and a spot in the WIAA Division 2 State Tournament. He will play in the fall at Division I Chicago State.

Understandably, Riley is as proud of the academic success as he is of the Purgolders' on-court success.

"Credit our guidance department," said Riley, a 1992 graduate of Milwaukee Hamilton who went on to star at Shasta Community College in California before playing and earning a degree from North Dakota State. "They do a great job of looking at our kids' transcripts and getting them into the right core classes. They also do a great job with ACT prep classes.

"Our teachers at Washington also are very willing to stay after school and tutor our kids. We take it one step further with having our teachers actually serve as the tutors to our students."

Of course, the students must show up to the tutoring sessions and get their homework done on a consistent basis so Riley is also quick to credit the work ethic of his players.

"Te'Jon was all in as far as doing whatever we asked of him academically once he came here from Shorewood," Riley said of Lucas, who played his freshman and sophomore years at Shorewood before transferring to Washington for his final two seasons. "Te'Jon's work ethic and buy in then trickled down to Jalen. I am hoping those two have set the bar and that others like Jordan Dinsmore and Deveron Hierrezuelo will follow in their footsteps this season.

"We follow our kids and their academic standing daily. The kids must be accountable."

Some of the kids in the Washington program have struggled at times to accomplish Riley's academic requirements and the Shasta Community College Hall of Famer understands that it isn't always easy.

"I tell the kids it's going to kill them at times to study an hour or two each day," Riley said. "I know it kills them, but they have to do it. They must develop relationships with their teachers and with their teammates. They have to fall in line with that or they won't be in our program for long.

"They must attend the tutoring sessions and take part in the ACT prep classes or they cannot practice. If they do not practice, they do not play in the games. It's that simple. If they are serious about basketball, they will follow the academic components of our program. They have to buy in."

A substitute teacher at the school who often works within the Physical Education and Health department, Riley has put together a 100-page binder that details every aspect of the Washington program. 

"That is the layout of our program," Riley said of the binder. "It includes everything from fund raising to academics to basketball. It's something I have put together over the past 15 years of coaching. 

"The very first thing we talk about is academics. The second thing is character. That's the blueprint. It's character and academics that I drive through with the kids through their love of basketball."

That philosophy is working at an inner-city Milwaukee public school. 

Which gives everybody in the state of Wisconsin and beyond reason to celebrate.

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