Long a hoops hotbed, Oklahoma City Public Schools is losing good players — will its grip on dominance be next?
A few years back, there was a basketball team in Oklahoma City turning heads.
The eighth-grade boys at Taft Middle School.
Now, middle schoolers don’t usually cause much of a stir, but in basketball circles, these young guys from Oklahoma City’s northwest side were making themselves known. They weren’t just undefeated; they were practically untested. They rolled every opponent. They dominated every game.
But then, they scattered.
Of the top half dozen players from that Taft team, most transferred not only to other schools but also to other districts before their freshman years. Only a couple stayed and played in Oklahoma City Public Schools.
Even though that was just one year and one team, it is emblematic of a growing problem. Talk to people who have been around Oklahoma City Public Schools for several years, and you realize basketball, the district’s flagship sport, is struggling to retain many of its best players.
As a result, some of its programs are struggling, too.
As the high school basketball playoffs hit a fever pitch this next week, Oklahoma City Public Schools faces the reality of only getting one boys’ team to the state tournament. Only once this century has the district failed to have two or more at state, but this year, only one boys team from the district, Class 3A Star Spencer, is ranked in the top eight in the state.
Eight teams per class qualify for state.
While rankings don’t determine who makes state — regional and area games will decide the qualifiers – the road will be difficult for teams like Northwest Classen, John Marshall and Classen SAS. Because of their rankings, they will have to win several games on the road just to get to state.
Having to fight to even make state is a far cry from the run Oklahoma City Public programs have been on over the past decade or so. From 2009-18, the district had at least one state champion nine of those 10 years.
Last year, it didn’t have a finalist, much less a champion.
This year, the drought could continue, if not worsen.
“Oklahoma City Public Schools, it’s been the only conference, district that I’ve coached in,” said Kendal Cudjoe, who coached some of Douglass High’s great teams of the mid-2010s and is now the coach at Classen SAS. “And it is different now than it was 10, 20 years ago.”
How has Oklahoma City Public gone from the days when district teams dotted state brackets and sometimes even played each other for titles?
What is going on?
It goes back to the example of that eighth-grade team from Taft — good players are transferring. While transfers have long been part of the challenge teams face — ditto for students needing jobs to support family and demographics shifting in the district — the transfer issue has changed. Now, more players are leaving Oklahoma City Public School entirely and more are doing so at younger ages.
“People are opting for what they perceive to be better facilities and a better education for their children,” John Marshall coach Patrick Cudjoe said. “I think that has maybe hurt a little bit.”
The Cudjoes are coaching royalty in Oklahoma City Public basketball. Patrick’s brother, Lance, is the coach at Star Spencer, and Kendal’s brother, Kyle, spent time coaching at U.S. Grant before ending up at Luther. All are following in the footsteps of their fathers.
No one is more invested in Oklahoma City Public Schools than the Cudjoes.
“I still think there’s a bunch of quality basketball and quality coaching,” Patrick said. “It’s just we’re fighting an uphill battle.”
Those who know the district well say the issue is multi-layered. No one thing is causing many good basketball players in Oklahoma City Public to leave the district, but many say the exodus starts with travel teams.
Some of these teams play under the auspices of AAU. Others are affiliated with shoe companies or basketball clubs. While such programs have been around for decades, they are forming more teams nowadays for younger players. Kids as young as third and fourth grade are playing on these select teams.
The teams bring together players from all over. Inner cities. Suburbs. Small towns. They make friends. They build bonds.
And sometimes, young standouts from Oklahoma City Public are convinced to transfer to suburban schools, some of them well before they get to middle school. In many instances, nothing illegal or unethical is happening. It’s just friends or parents talking about playing together beyond AAU.
“Hey, come play with us,” the suburban friend might say.
Transferring out of the city and into the suburbs is easier nowadays, too, because of the growth of rental properties. Deer Creek, for example, had only one apartment complex in the early 2000s. Now, it has at least five. Similar expansion can be seen in Mustang and Choctaw and pretty much any other suburb in the metro.
Uprooting and moving always has its challenges, but it isn’t as hard as it once was in the Oklahoma City metro area, especially if you’re willing to rent.
Those in the know around Oklahoma City Public Schools say the convergence of moves being easier and kids playing AAU younger isn’t the only issue.
Players and their parents are savvy to their options.
In many suburban districts, athletes have one period during their academic day for practice and another period for weightlifting or conditioning. While Oklahoma City Public has an athletic period, basketball teams not only practice during that hour but also lift and condition.
Oklahoma City teams are having to divide practice time between the gym and the weight room.
Other districts give players twice the developmental time every day.
Another tangible difference that may sway would-be transfers is facilities. While some high schools in Oklahoma City Public got new facilities from MAPS for Kids — Douglass and John Marshall, for example, were completely rebuilt — many schools have gyms that are old and in some cases, badly neglected. Lights are out. Sinks are busted. Locker rooms are in rough shape.
Two of the oldest, Star Spencer and Northwest Classen, are home to arguably the two best teams in the district.
Building new gyms and adding weightlifting periods wouldn’t stop the exodus of players from Oklahoma City Public, but it might help stem the tide.
So, too, may some of the changes created by the Pathway to Greatness. Before the program to consolidate schools was implemented last year, some middle schools fed into different high schools. Each middle school is now aligned with a single high school.
“We have vertical alignment from our middle schools to our high schools, which is huge for our kids and our coaches,” Oklahoma City Public Schools’ athletic director Todd Dilbeck said. “Now, you’ve got somebody that is going to be a Trojan or going to be a Bobcat. You’ve got somebody that that’s definitely where they’re going to go.”
That builds an expectation within the athlete’s mind. They have a destination in mind, a goal to one day wear that uniform and represent that school.
But vertical alignment also allows coaches to clearly see their pipeline, then build relationships with and expectations in those young athletes.
Kendal Cudjoe saw that in practice when he was coaching at Douglass. At the time, the school was a mid-high, so both middle schoolers and high schoolers were under the same roof. That gave him a chance to bond with young players, and in turn, they bonded with Douglass.
“They wanted to stay,” he said. “They wanted to be Trojans.”
Cudjoe believes Oklahoma City Public needs more players thinking like that if the district’s basketball teams are going to return to its dominant days.
“If we can keep our middle school kids in the district, I think we can be back to that point again,” he said. “It’s just a matter of us being able to keep some of these athletes.”
While several people who have been around Oklahoma City Public for years sounded concerned if not alarmed by the state of basketball — one who didn’t want to be named called it “a mess” — others weren’t as worried. Four boys teams in addition to two girls teams are ranked in the top 20. Several other unranked teams have good talent.
“We’re still competitive in basketball,” Dilbeck said.
And it’s possible this dip is a blip. We may well look back in a few years and wonder why there was any hand wringing at all. We may well see Oklahoma City Public dominant again on the hardwood.
That’s what every coach in the district hopes — but all of them know hope doesn’t win games.
“I am a proud product of Oklahoma City Public Schools and a proud instructor in Oklahoma City Public Schools,” said Patrick Cudjoe, the John Marshall coach. “I believe in their mission, and I’m going to continue to work as hard as I can to develop kids.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
HOOP IT UP
Oklahoma City Public Schools has long been a district known for basketball prowess. It's a history that dates back decades but has continued in recent years. Here's a look at what district teams have done this century:
Year, State tournament teams*, Boys champs, Girls champs
2000: 4 1 0
2001: 5 0 0
2002: 4 1 0
2003: 3 1 0
2004: 4 2 0
2005: 5 1 0
2006: 5 0 0
2007: 3 0 0
2008: 5 0 1
2009: 3 1 0
2010: 2 1 0
2011: 5 2 0
2012: 6 3 0
2013: 4 1 1
2014: 2 1 0
2015: 1 0 0
2016: 4 1 0
2017: 4 1 0
2018: 2 1 0
2019: 3 0 0
2020: ? ? ?
*Combined boys and girls
SCHOOL BY SCHOOL
Since 1990, every high school in Oklahoma City Public School has had at least one basketball team make the state tournament. Here's a look at the teams that went to state:
Boys (5A unless otherwise noted): 1990 (4A), 1991 (4A), 1992 (4A), 1993 (4A), 1997, 1998, 2005, 2006
Boys (3A): 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017
Girls (4A): 2017, 2019
Boys (4A): 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996 (5A), 1997 (5A), 2000 (5A), 2001 (5A), 2002 (5A), 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017 (3A)
Girls (4A): 1990, 1991, 1992, 2012
Boys (5A): 1990, 1991 (4A), 1994 (4A), 1995 (4A), 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008 (3A), 2009 (3A), 2012 (4A), 2019 (4A)
Girls (5A): 2004, 2005
Boys (4A): 1990, 1991, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011 (3A), 2012 (2A), 2016 (2A)
Girls (2A): 2011 (3A), 2012, 2013
Boys (5A): 2018, 2019
Boys (5A): 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 (4A), 2008 (4A), 2013, 2016
Girls (5A): 2000
Boys (4A): 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2017 (3A), 2018 (3A)
Girls (4A): 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 2001, 2008, 2011
Boys (5A): 2002
*Denotes a school that has closed.
Bolded years denote state titles.