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.
Upon entering her freshman year at Ossining in 2009, Chong immediately established herself as a force in Section 1, the region of New York State athletics that includes Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, and part of Dutchess Counties. Chong averaged a team-high 20.4 points per game as a freshman on Ossining’s varsity team in the 2009-10 season. She led her team to an 18-4 record and a trip to the Section 1 Class AA championship game. Ossining was already successful under Coach Dan Ricci, but it was becoming even more competitive thanks to its budding star.
A year later, Ossining went 20-4 and won the Section 1 Class AA title as Chong piled up 33.8 points per game. She was dominant and dazzling, a must-see talent who had people all over Section 1 eagerly waiting to see what top college programs would come calling.
In his time, Mookie also drew the attention of colleges throughout the Big East Conference, one of the best leagues in college basketball. With his lanky build, long arms, and slightly hunched gait, Mookie could have been mistaken for an awkward athlete, but, once he slid his headband over his head, any doubts about his game were put to rest. As the process unfolded, all signs pointed toward a career with the Syracuse Orange. Rizzo is a Syracuse graduate, and one of Mookie’s friends and Hawks teammates, Kevin Drew of Katonah, a basketball and lacrosse star at John Jay High School, was headed to Syracuse to play lacrosse and planned to walk onto the basketball team, for which his dad had played.
“Everything was so hectic,” Mookie says about having to sort through all of the college interest. “I remember walking into school and there were about sixty schools on the board that I had to narrow down. I had at least four or five duffel bags of letters [from college coaches].”
In college, Division 1 basketball is big business, and coaches are in the business of winning.
Jim Boeheim has been the head basketball coach at Syracuse for 36 years and ranks second on the all-time wins list for Division 1 men’s basketball coaches. In his tenure at Syracuse, he’s been known for his short playing rotation. After his five starters, Boeheim typically does not go past the second reserve for playing time. Seven guys see the court, and, if you’re not part of that seven, you’re part of the bench.
Panzanaro was wary from the start. “It’s unfortunate the way things turned out,” he says. “Coaches do a lot of hyping when they’re recruiting. Coach Boeheim sat here and said that ‘My only regret is Mookie will only be here two years and then he’ll be a pro.’ Unfortunately, I think Mookie bought into that too quickly. Coach Boeheim said here that he was going to play ten people, that he had so much talent coming in, but, when push came to shove, he went back to the seven, and Mookie ended up on the bench.” (Boeheim declined to be interviewed for this story.)
For the first few games of his freshman season, Mookie saw the court only after Syracuse had built an insurmountable lead. A hip injury ended his rookie campaign prematurely, but nothing changed when he returned the next year. It was as if the opportunity for playing time had passed him by.
“Everything happened so fast,” Mookie says. “As a kid, I’m looking at my dream coach and my dream school. It was just hard, because Coach [Boeheim] was saying that I was going to be playing thirty, forty minutes [per game]. The sky was the limit at the time. Everybody had me going to Syracuse.”
Kevin had his share of college suitors, too, including several Big East schools. He chose West Virginia and never looked back, playing 19 minutes per game as a freshman before becoming a three-year starter and playing in four NCAA tournaments, including the Final Four in 2009-10. He averaged 19.9 points and 10.9 rebounds as a senior last season and was named first-team All Big East.
“It ended up that West Virginia was indeed the perfect place for him,” Mount Vernon Coach Bob Cimmino says. “All of my expectations were surpassed by how well he did there and how quickly he assimilated and what a great job [West Virginia] Coach [Bob] Huggins and the staff did with him.”
Says Kevin, “I knew I was going to have to earn everything when I got there. Coach Huggins made that well known. He didn’t promise that I was going to come in and start or anything. He just told me, ‘If you go in there and put the work in, you’ll get playing time.’ I respected that, and I liked that and I wanted that.” (Huggins could not be reached for comment.)
As Ossining’s supremacy grew, so did Chong’s legend. As a junior in 2011-12, she owned every aspect of the game, averaging 33.3 points, 9.7 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 5 steals, and 1.4 blocks. Ossining went 23-1 and earned another Section 1 Class AA title. “She has this special way of making everybody around her better,” Ricci says.
After the “recruiting frenzy,” as Ricci calls it, Saniya—who, with a wiry frame and her hair pulled up in a bun, stands tall against many high school point guards—narrowed her choices to UConn, Louisville, and Ohio State, but the Huskies had everything she wanted.
“I just had that connection right away when I went there, with the players, the team, the staff, the coach,” she says. “Everything I loved about it—school, academics. Everything really stood out to me. Especially when it’s close to home. It can’t get any better than that.”
Rather than promise anything, Ricci says, Auriemma said to her, “‘If you feel you can play here, you should come here. If you don’t feel you can play here, then you shouldn’t.’ He said right then, ‘Do you think you can play here?’ And she said, ‘Yes I do.’”
No one can deny Chong’s dominance over her high school competition, but is she good enough or big enough to stand out on a college team full of high school stars? Ricci says that UConn’s current freshmen all heard the same thing before joining the Huskies and that, if anything, there will be less pressure on Chong there because she “won’t be the savior” that she would be viewed as at a smaller program. “The easy thing for her to do would be to go to some small school and be a stud,” he says. “She’s not going to take the easy way out, and she didn’t.”
Mookie’s work ethic “was great,” Rizzo says. “He did whatever was asked. But I just think that there were more things in place for Kevin, playing at Mount Vernon.” Peekskill has a great basketball program. Panzanaro knows how to build a winning team. But Peekskill is no Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon is a nationally recognized program that attracts more support, in terms of finances and manpower, than other city schools, such as Peekskill.
“Kevin was a workout freak already, in terms of strength and conditioning,” Rizzo says. “Mookie wasn’t.”
Mookie arrived at Syracuse physically overmatched. “I struggled a lot,” Mookie concedes. “Guys are a lot faster, guys are a lot stronger. I was a freak athlete. I just never touched weights until I got to college. It definitely took a toll on me.”
Mookie played sparingly as a freshman before injuring his hip and redshirting for the rest of the season. The next three years were filled with disappointment and little time on the court. In one particular moment of frustration, he walked off the bench into the locker room with five minutes left in a win over Cornell in which he didn’t play. “I made a huge mistake and walked off,” Mookie says. “After talking to Coach, he smoothed everything over. He’s good at making you feel comfortable.”
Mookie considered transferring but couldn’t do it. He was getting a great education on a full scholarship, he was part of a winning team, and he was living in a place that he loved.
“Syracuse is like Hollywood without the money,” Mookie says. “Almost like red carpet. Something I’d never seen at Peekskill or any place in the world. Such a great atmosphere. It was just hard to leave.”
In January 2012, Mookie was suspended by the university. He will not go into details, only to say that the suspension was because of cyber-bullying. He says that he was suspended from the school for a year and was told by the NCAA that his eligibility was up at the end of the season. Mookie is hesitant to criticize the school, but his frustration is evident. “In the four years that I’d been there, that [suspension] was the worst struggle that I’d ever been through in my life, and the loneliest part of my time, where I felt like I needed somebody, and I had no one in my corner,” he says.
Now back in Peekskill, Mookie, who has two semesters left to complete, says that he will return to Syracuse as a student this summer, still on a full scholarship. Finishing his degree is the plan, but he’s still confident in his basketball future.
This past fall, he tried out for the Erie Bayhawks of the NBA Development League, and, in December, he played in a showcase in Holland, where scouts from European professional teams were on hand. “It went very well,” says Mookie. “I heard some interest from a lot of teams.”
Kevin was bypassed in last spring’s NBA draft but was signed as a free agent by the Cleveland Cavaliers in November and was assigned to their Development League affiliate, the Canton Charge, where he averaged 23.6 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. He was called up soon after and made his NBA debut on Friday, December 7, scoring two points and grabbing four rebounds against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Would things have been different for Mookie if he had chosen a different college?
“Oh yeah, I definitely do think so,” Mookie says. Maybe he’d be on an NBA roster. Maybe he’d be on his way to Holland for a showcase.
“I can’t fault Syracuse for anything,” he adds. “It was my decision at the end of the day. If you fit the system, you’re fine. You’re going to be great.”
Chong is focused on leading Ossining to a third consecutive section title, but she knows that she has work to do before seeing the court
She knows she’ll have to be in better shape and that, at 5’9”, she’ll need a more reliable mid-range shooting game to complement her ability to attack the basket. She has “no doubt” that she can compete there, but she knows that nothing is promised.
“There’s no guarantee that I will play—or will not play,” she says.
Matt Spillane is the editor of the Lewisboro Ledger and a former high school sports writer. He is a resident of Yorktown Heights and played against Mookie Jones in high school as a member of the Kennedy Catholic basketball team.