Meet the only NYC high school basketball team playing through COVID-19

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Everything about it sounded “crazy.”

There was a global pandemic. Most high schools in New York City were shut down, limited to virtual learning. High-risk sports were basically banned. But Our Saviour Lutheran, an independent school in The Bronx that plays a national schedule, was still planning to have a high school basketball season.

“Are they crazy?” Lisa Stallings thought when approached about the possibility of her son, Jaquan Sanders, playing.

As it turns out, they were not. Our Saviour is unique. It is the only high school basketball team in New York City having a season.

The team’s coach, Pete Wehye, was determined. Last spring Dan Hudson, who runs the Grind Session unaffiliated prep league, had discussed the possibility of playing the following season in bubbles if the virus hadn’t gone away. Wehye was on board, especially after COVID-19 eliminated the summer travel AAU circuit for his players. They needed the exposure to college coaches that the Grind Session allows by having all of its games streamed by Tanager Sports.

“I tell everybody, I’m not judged by how many championships I win. I’m judged by how many people I put in college,” said Wehye, who is also the school’s athletic director and dean of admissions. “I definitely wanted to have a season, and I definitely encouraged the bubble.”

Our Saviour created a plan that followed city and state health guidelines and protocols to open in September and that included the basketball team eventually practicing and competing. It was approved late in the summer by the New York City Department of Education and Department of Health, headmaster Pastor Matthew Gonzalez said. In early November, the team began practicing. It is currently in Phoenix, Ariz., taking part in its third Grind Session bubble. Our Saviour has played 23 games — 21 in the bubbles that last up to two weeks and two non-league games at home, one in December and one in late January — and has won 16 of them.

our saviour lutheran covid 19 seasonOur Saviour Lutheran’s Jahmere Tripp #3 makes a pass against Olympus of New Jersey.Robert Sabo

It has had just one hiccup with the virus. In late November, a player and a coach tested positive for COVID-19. They isolated and were eventually able to join the team for the second Grind Session bubble in Kentucky. Otherwise, the program has managed the pandemic exceedingly well.

“I have to say, the school, the staff and the team, I think they beat the odds,” Stallings said. “Pete and them did a great job keeping them as safe as they could. … I think that says a lot about their program.”

Stallings was hesitant initially. Her son lost his grandmother, Beatrice Sanders, and uncle, Dave Edwards, to the virus. But as she learned of the precautions the school was taking, and the bubbles the Grind Session was creating, Stallings came around. Her son needed basketball. It provided an outlet for his grief.

“Once basketball was able to be open for him, it distracted his mind some from all the madness that was going on,” she said.

our saviour lutheran covid season peter wehyeOur Saviour Lutheran coach Peter WehyeRobert Sabo

The entire team lives together in housing owned by Our Saviour Lutheran church a few blocks from the school. This has been the case for a few years, but it was particularly important during the pandemic because it allowed the team to be housed in a makeshift bubble.

They have a curfew. There are hand-sanitizing dispensers all around the house. Masks are provided. Wehye takes the entire team to get tested together, and he has instilled a sense of community with his players — hammering it home to them that if one player isn’t safe, it can ruin it for everyone else. They have to police each other at times.

“He tells us every day we can end our season if we do something dumb,” senior wing Maximus Edwards said. “I remind people all the time, they remind me.”

Of course, there are missteps.

“We all mess up sometimes,” Edwards admitted. “We’re still young.”

Right now, New York City high school teams are only allowed to have individual workouts without contact. Catholic and private schools can host these workouts at their schools, while public schools cannot because their schools are closed. Around the city, local organizers have tried to keep teams active by creating makeshift leagues, but Our Saviour is the only team playing in an official capacity. It is one of the reasons Wehye was able to rebuild his roster with three key transfers from public schools after losing former stars Posh Alexander, Dylan Addae-Wusu and Max Amadasun to graduation.

“I think it’s good for them that they get to play.” Christ the King coach Joe Arbitello said. “There are advantages to being part of a league like we are, and there are advantages to being an independent like they are. It’s working for them right now.”

In the Grind Session bubbles, the team has to test negative upon arrival, then quarantine for three days and test negative again before being allowed to practice or play in games.

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Our Saviour Lutheran’s Maximus Edwards practices before a game against Olympus.

Robert Sabo

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Our Saviour Lutheran’s Silas Sunday #33 makes a stop against Olympus.

Robert Sabo

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Our Saviour Lutheran’s Maximus Edwards #4, Silas Sunday #33 and Kusamae Draper #21 root for their team from the bench.

Robert Sabo

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Our Saviour Lutheran players wait to come onto the court to start the second half.

Robert Sabo

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Our Saviour Lutheran’s Jonathan Noudjihidi #35 dunks.

Robert Sabo

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A typical day begins at 7 a.m. with breakfast, followed by study hall and remote classes until early in the afternoon. Then the team practices or plays a game. It still leaves a lot of free time, which is a challenge. The team cannot leave the site of the event, so Wehye and his coaching staff have to create distractions.

“It’s called ‘Madden’ and ‘[NBA] 2K,’ ” he joked, referring to the popular video games.

They have created video game tournaments and trivia games. They will watch movies together and play card games. Anything to keep them busy and out of trouble.

Wehye said he received very little pushback from players or parents when he told them of the plan. It was part of the reason public school stars like Jahmere Tripp (Brooklyn Collegiate), Khalil Brantley (Boys & Girls) and Zaire Williams (Eagle Academy) opted to transfer to OSL, thinking The Bronx school was their only chance for a season.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” Tripp said.

Wehye didn’t hesitate when asked if this season has been a success, pointing to the recent verbal commitment of Edwards to Kansas State.

“We got a kid going to the Big 12. That’s huge,” he said.

The recruitment of three specific players — Sanders, Silas Sunday and Sadiko Ayo — has also progressed, Wehye said. Without the Grind Session, this might not have been possible. Without Wehye and Our Saviour, there would be no high school basketball in New York City being played at all.

“I could be home playing video games every day. Being able to get in the gym and travel, it’s exciting and I’m very grateful,” Edwards said. “Most people would love to be in the position that we are in. I don’t take it for granted.”

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