The most interesting—and inspiring—basketball team in Cleveland plays 50 blocks away from the Cavaliers' home arena.
East Technical High School is a public school located in the city's central neighborhood at E. 55th Street and Quincy Avenue. The school's boys basketball team is out to break a title drought that's nearly as long as the Cavs's. The Cavaliers, founded in 1970, have never won an NBA championship. East Tech's boys last won a state championship in basketball in 1972.
That win 44 years ago also marks the last time a public school from Cleveland brought home a state title in boys basketball.
Like the Cavs and LeBron James, the East Tech Scarabs are strong all-around as a team but have a clear superstar: Markell Johnson.
Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound junior point guard, already holds scholarship offers from several high-profile universities. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino flew to Cleveland to watch him practice, then offered the athlete a scholarship in person.
"That was crazy," the 17-year-old Johnson says. "We had practice, so I only got to spend 15 or 20 minutes talking with him after. He offered me a full ride, and just told me to keep working."
Johnson, who has not yet committed to any university, first gained fame as a freshman in 2014. That year, he sunk what East Tech players and fans still refer to as "the shot." In the final seconds of a playoff matchup that had gone to overtime, Johnson pulled up and sank a dagger from the top of the key.
"If you look at a picture, it's just like the shot Jordan hit over Ehlo," says coach Brett Moore. "From that point on, Markell Johnson has been the face of East Tech basketball."
"The success of the team doesn't match the facilities"
Johnson's last-second make propelled the Scarabs to the state tournament for the first time in decades. East Tech made it to the Final Four that season before losing to the eventual state champion St. Edward's of nearby Lakwewood, a private school.
"When we went to Columbus two years ago, it was a moral victory," Moore says. "It was a moral victory just to let people know that despite everything that you lack, if you put in the work and everybody commits to their role, you can have success no matter where you are."
To understand why the team's recent success was so significant, consider that as a public school from an impoverished urban district, East Tech players have far fewer resources than most of their opponents.
No trainer is available at practices or games to treat injuries to East Tech players. No school nurse on staff. The school's basement weight room consists of donated equipment—tattered benches, rusty weight plates. Until this season, the team's court was a synthetic tartan surface that was gray and worn. It felt "like playing on concrete," Moore says.
"You had a lot of suburban teams who wouldn't come to this area unless they had to come," Moore says. "So they'd come, see the facilities, and then they'd see that the success of the team doesn't match the facilities."
East Tech had a decorated history of athletics after opening in 1908. The school was home to Jesse Owens—yes, the Jesse Owens—along with three other Olympians. But sports at the school fell off sharply after that last boys' basketball state title in 1972. Not long after, Cleveland instituted a busing policy to desegregate schools that scattered neighborhood kids across the city.
"Once they started the busing and sending kids across town, East Tech basketball went on the decline," says Moore. "Some alumni came to me and said they never thought East Tech would ever make it to Columbus ever again."
The busing policy ended in 1996, but by then East Tech—and the entire Cleveland Metropolitan School District—was grappling with even bigger problems.
The city had been losing residents since the 1950s, draining schools of students and neighborhoods of taxpayers to fund the institutions. The decline in enrollment sharpened with Cleveland's rapid adoption of charter schools in recent years. Today, Cleveland's Metropolitan School District serves around 39,000 children—roughly half of the enrollment in the 1990s.
The decline in population is evident when you walk through the hallways of East Tech. Large sections of the school sit abandoned and unused. Administrators use old classrooms as offices. Even when classes are in session, the school's parking lot is mostly vacant.
Amid this backdrop, East Tech's basketball team has been undergoing a revival. Moore took over as head coach in 2006, and he engineered an immediate turnaround.
"We had pretty much instant success," Moore says.
The year before, the Scarabs had won just four games. During Moore's first season at the helm, the team lost only four games. It won 17 and brought home the city basketball championship.
"We like to get up and down and run the court, but we also are able to play half-court basketball and execute—which is usually one of the components that a lot of urban kids lack, the ability to slow down and run plays. We've always thrived in that aspect," Moore says.
To date, Moore holds a 163-73 record. Over the past three seasons, his team has not lost a single game within its conference, Cleveland's Senate League.
The team's success has attracted bigger crowds and, this year, a newly renovated gymnasium. The Scarabs have played this season on a fresh hardwood floor, flanked by new scoreboards and stands. The seats are packed at most of the team's home games. Moore says it's a startling—and welcome—change from a decade ago.
"When I first started coaching, there was one side of the bleachers that never got pulled out. I have film of old games that look like scrimmages," Moore says. "To see it today, where at any given game 1,000 people might come and watch, is a blessing."
Moore says the stat he's most proud of, however, is this: More than 40 of his former East Tech athletes have gone on to play in college.
"I was blessed to use basketball to become educated, so I just try to give [my players] the same framework that I used to establish myself," says Moore, who played and later coached basketball at Walsh University. "I was the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college. For me to be able to lay the framework for my kids, and see them go further with their education and continue to better their lives means a lot."
"I wouldn't be getting this attention if it weren't for them"
There is no doubt that Moore's latest star, Johnson, will play in college. The only question is where.
Johnson has scored more than 1,000 points during his career at East Tech. He's a nationally ranked four-star recruit. In addition to the offer from Louisville, Ohio State, Florida, Virginia Tech and other top-tier basketball schools want Johnson to play for their programs. Many believe he has the potential to reach the NBA.
"He has all the tools," Moore says. "All the intangibles. He's tough. He's selfless. What he's doing from a scoring standpoint [Johnson leads the team in points] is not really how he wants to play. After games when he puts up huge numbers, he'll sends me a text like, 'Coach Brett, I think I shot the ball too much.'"
The soft-spoken Johnson is quick to turn any talk about the attention he's receiving from colleges into a chance to praise his teammates or others.
"Whenever I get attention I try to credit my teammates for it, or my coaches for it, or my parents, or [Cleveland Boys & Girls Club director] Richard Starr, or my advisors at Tech for keeping me on track," Johnson says. "I know I wouldn't be getting all this attention if it wasn't for them and what they did for me."
"All of that stuff just fuels my passion"
Johnson grew up on Cleveland's West Side, where he still lives with his parents. He's able to attend East Tech, which is roughly six miles from where he lives, because Cleveland has an open enrollment policy, which allows students to attend any school within the district. Johnson says he started playing basketball at a nearby public park when he was 5 years old.
"Back then I played every day. Non-stop. In the summertime I was outside probably from like 8 o'clock in the morning until 7 at night when my mom called me in," Johnson says.
Johnson knew early on that he loved the sport and wanted to be a part of it. So he sought mentors who could help him improve his game. He took on older players so he could learn to hold his own against bigger, stronger opponents. One of his mentors, Starr, persuaded Johnson and his mom, Sabrina, that East Tech would be the best fit for him.
"If I would've went to a West Side school, the basketball team probably wouldn't have been as good, and I probably wouldn't get as much help as I do at East Tech," Johnson says. "Being part of Scarab nation, and all the success they've had—I knew that if I kept pushing myself, something like this—being recruited, being ranked—could happen. All of that stuff just drives my passion."
"We can beat anybody"
Johnson and Moore have a close relationship. In the summer between Johnson's freshman and sophomore years, the two worked together on the court or in the weight room, sometimes until 1 a.m.
"We'll have it out like any other coach and player," Moore says. "But the biggest thing about him is that he's coachable. Once you've established trust, he'll run through a brick wall [for you]. He will do anything I ask him to do within reason. He does it on a nightly basis."
Johnson and his teammates are clicking. The Scarabs are 20-3 on the season, and they won their first playoff game on Tuesday with a 114-45 victory over Ravenna High School.
East Tech must win three more games to make it through their district tournament, which will include a game against last season's state runner-up, Cleveland Central Catholic. If East Tech passes that test, they may have to face another private school powerhouse, Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary, LeBron's alma mater.
"If you are a top player in Akron you play for Saint V.," Moore says.
Moore says this year his team's goal is to show them, and any other rival, that his public school squad can knock them all off.
"We can beat anybody," Moore says. "2014 was a moral victory, but I don't like moral victories. This year, we want to go to Columbus and come back with some hardware. Our goal is to win a state championship."
East Tech High School's next playoff game takes place on Thursday, March 3.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock