Prep school tries to gain footing in a basketball town ravaged by scandal

Aspire Academy players attend Louisville's DeSales High School, but compete don't compete for...
Aspire Academy players attend Louisville's DeSales High School, but compete don't compete for the school.
Published: Feb. 23, 2018 at 3:41 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 26, 2018 at 5:20 PM EST
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - It was January.

It was cold.

And it was 5 a.m.

A house full of basketball players from all over the world got called for traveling from their rented east-end house to the southwest side of Louisville for practice. They take whatever gym they can get.

"You guys are different," coach Jeremy Kipness told his team. "You are elite."

"We're really like an all-star team if you think about it," said T.J. Smith, who grew up on the south side of Chicago. "We come from all different places."

Added Ousmane Ndim, a 7-footer from Senegal who speaks five languages: "The best part is like you know the thing you gonna do is gonna take you somewhere because everybody got same vision."

After practice, the 7-footer, two 6-11's, a 6-10, two 6-9's and the other trees went to classes at Louisville's DeSales High School. But they don't play for DeSales. They are members of a prep school called Aspire Academy.

Their coach, a former manager for Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, picked the worst possible time to move his operation, affiliated with Adidas, from Arizona to Louisville, now at the center of the FBI bribery scandal that represents all that's wrong with college basketball.

"Obviously the timing wasn't good," Kipness said. "I try to find a silver lining in every situation, so I twisted it and told my guys we have an even greater responsibility and opportunity to do stuff the right way and get this community behind us."

"I think there's a fallacy to the kids that get into it," former Fairdale high school coach Lloyd Gardner said.

Gardner is not a fan of today's AAU circuit, and shoe company-affiliated prep schools.

"If you recruit a kid, they own you, you don't own them," Gardner said. "And I think these kids, they come and they use you to get the things they want."

There has been controversy already.

When Charles Bassey, now one of the best big men in the nation, went from selling roadside chickens in Nigeria, to San Antonio, to Aspire, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said, "this should be closely monitored. I wouldn't sleep well at night if I were anybody at Aspire Academy."

"That's a lot of speculation," Kipness said. "Really, it's slander. What we do, I liken to the quote, just because there's a little dirt in the ocean, doesn't make the whole ocean dirty."

He said the GPAs of his players range from 3.2 to 4.0.

DeSales' President Doug Strothman said Aspire pays the full $13,000 tuition for each athlete, and he intends to continue this arrangement, though he said it took a while for Aspire's players to meet the expectations of a private Catholic high school.

"We hold our students accountable, perhaps to a different level than they're used to before they came here," Strothman said. "They've risen to the occasion though."

Aspire plays other elite basketball academies around the country. The big question when it comes to these prep schools is, who's paying for it all?

"I've put up every dime," Aspire Operations President Michael Kipness, father of Jeremy Kipness, said. Michael Kipness, said he's the sole funding source for Aspire.

"I got to the point where I took my IRA money out," he said.

Michael Kipness made his money helping horse racing gamblers with a well-known tip sheet called "The Wizard."

"I've probably put in $600,000 already," he said. "It probably costs me, to run this program, about $300,000 a year."

Jeremy Kipness said Adidas only pays for their gear.

Last August, Michael Kipness filed paperwork to create a non-profit foundation for Aspire, and he vows to change lives with integrity.

"Yes I care about what happened to Louisville," Michael Kipness said. "Yes I care about the stuff that goes on. I don't like it. That doesn't mean I have to have any involvement. If I'm gonna go down, and Aspire's gonna go away, it's gonna go down on my terms."

So far, the players are achieving in the classroom and on the court, and the big-time college offers keep rolling in.

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