Westchester’s Basketball Stars Share The Highs and Lows of Their Athletic Careers
Whether the hoopster is in high school, a pro or on the bench, there’s a story to be told in the midst of Westchester’s solid basketball scene.
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All eyes were on Saniya Chong on March 9, 2012. Then a junior, she was dazzling the crowd at Pace University, where her Ossining High School basketball team was in a state quarterfinal playoff battle with Binghamton High School.
The quick, 5’9” point guard captured the attention of everyone in the stands, including Geno Auriemma, the Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach at the University of Connecticut (UConn), which has one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country. Auriemma and his wife made the trip to see the legend of Saniya with their own eyes, and she did not disappoint: Chong scored 39 points and dished out 10 assists in Ossining’s 90-76 win.
“Being seen by one of the top coaches, taking time out of his day to come actually watch you play a game is a great feeling,” Chong says about seeing Auriemma at Ossining’s game.
A year later, Chong, now a senior, is preparing for the fall, when she will begin her college career at UConn and vie for playing time with the best players in the nation. After a dominant career at Ossining, will she be able to stand out again, in the college ranks? Or will she struggle in the more competitive, cutthroat, and pressure-packed world of Division I sports?
After years of commanding nearly every basketball court she’s played on, Chong will take the most challenging road possible en route to college basketball success. Knowing what lies ahead for the young athlete as she chases her dreams is impossible, as the stories of two former Westchester basketball stars, one who fulfilled those dreams and another who fell short, illustrate.
Theodore Todd “Mookie” Jones was in sixth grade when Lou Panzanaro saw him for the first time during the 2001-02 season. Panzanaro, coach of the Peekskill High School Red Devils boys’ basketball team, was at the Kiley Center in Peekskill, running a practice for his team, which included Mookie’s older brother, a junior at the time. Mookie was playing with his youth team while the Red Devils were practicing.
“I was teasing him, and I said, ‘Mookie, are you as good as your brother?’” Panzanaro recalls. “And he said, ‘Yes.’” Panzanaro looked at Mookie’s brother and asked him if that was true. “He sheepishly put his head down and said, ‘Well, the last time he played me, he beat me one on one,’” Panzanaro says. “That was my first experience with Mookie.”
Two years after that day in the Kiley Center, Mookie was living up to his claim, having been called up to Peekskill’s varsity team as an eighth-grader during the 2003-04 season. “He was very talented,” Panzanaro says. “He could shoot the ball well.”
“He was special even then,” says Rob Rizzo, who coached Mookie throughout his teenage years on the Westchester Hawks, an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team that plays games in the spring and summer during the high school basketball off-season. “He was a tall (6’6”) kid who had these ball-handling skills and shooting skills that other kids just didn’t have, and he just kept growing and becoming more athletic.”
Mookie shined on a stacked AAU team, standing out against future opponents and teammates. Then, the summer before his sophomore year, Mookie was joined on the Hawks by another rapidly improving 10th-grader—Kevin Jones.
Kevin, 23 (no relation to Mookie), made the Mount Vernon High School varsity team as a freshman. At 6’8”, Kevin was “a big kid who was skilled,” Rizzo says. “In addition to being a talented kid, Kevin had a ridiculous work ethic. Every single day, he put hours and hours into working on his game. And he put a lot of work in the weight room as well. He just kept taking his game to another level. It was obvious that [Mookie and Kevin] were going to be very highly recruited.”
High school basketball, like many avenues of youth, is full of excitement. As two kids with endless talent blossom alongside each other, there seems to be no limit to how successful they can be. They can share a genuine bond as teammates, a bond that forms as their paths run parallel to each other. But just as there is excitement, there is uncertainty. And just as there is a bond between teammates, there is a bond between competitors. In addition to sharing each other’s joys, two precocious stars can also end up unwittingly battling each other for the recruiting attentions of a few hard-to-impress college coaches. With that competition comes pressure. Pressure to improve, pressure to win, pressure to make the right decisions. And, as the pressure intensified for Mookie and Kevin, their paths began to diverge.