Babbitt soaring to state scoring record

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Galena's Luke Babbitt dunks during the second half of their championship game against Mountain View at Galena High School on Saturday.

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Galena's Luke Babbitt dunks during the second half of their championship game against Mountain View at Galena High School on Saturday.

RENO - If only those walls could talk.

In 1976, the walls surrounding the basketball court at the newly constructed Edward L. Pine Middle School smelled like fresh paint.

As each month passed, however, those walls went from being offensive to the olfactory senses to strictly defensive, reverberating the sounds of running feet, falling bodies, dribbling balls and shouts of victory by many would-be superstars - including Luke Babbitt, who led Pine to a 22-0 record in his seventh-and eighth-grade seasons.

If only those walls could talk, they could say whether the sounds of Babbitt dunking the ball against visiting Swope as an eight-grader sounded any different than those of any other middle school player who harbored dreams of becoming a superstar.

Forget the walls talking. Listen to the chant coming from the Galena High School student section: "Baaabbitt, Baaabbitt..." on and on and it becomes apparent who is arguably the most dominant high school player the state of Nevada has produced.

If that isn't enough, just look at the numbers the 6-foot-8, 225-pound power forward has put up: Going into Thursday's game at McQueen, Babbitt - who helped lead the Grizzlies to their first-ever Class 4A state championship last year - had scored 2,519 career points.

Unless something catastrophic happens, Babbitt, who is averaging 32 points a game this season, will score the 98 points he needs to surpass the shared record of 2,616, held by Western's Prince Fowler (1994) and Hug's Armon Johnson (2007).

Babbitt and the Grizzlies are scheduled to travel to Las Vegas to play Eldorado tonight and Desert Pines on Saturday. If Babbitt doesn't own the record after the southern road trip, he will get his shot at home against Fallon Jan. 18.

"The two people who hold it - and knowing Armon personally - are great players," Babbitt said Monday. "I'm honored to be in that group. At the same time, it's all about team. Basketball is a team game. I wouldn't have a shot at the record if it wasn't for my teammates."

Last year, Johnson was featured in the "Faces in the Crowd" section of Sports Illustrated when it was believed he had set Nevada's all-time scoring record after passing Fred Thompson, who poured in 2,122 for Las Vegas High School.

But the research of Las Vegas resident Greg Perry subsequently unearthed Fowler's record and after a 46-point effort in a season-ending loss to Galena in the semifinals of the Northern 4A regional playoffs, Johnson could only tie, not surpass, Fowler's mark of 2,616.

The road to 2,616 has traditionally been a fairly silent one to travel and if it was up to Babbitt, things would stay that way.

Only they won't. The Babbitt Countdown has begun.

COACH B

Long before the Babbitt Countdown had begun, the Babbitt Watch was in full swing. Highly recruited by several top programs, Babbitt, who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, gave a verbal commitment to Ohio State before eventually choosing to sign with the University of Nevada, where he'll be joining Johnson under head coach Mark Fox.

Having played basketball as long as he can remember, Babbitt started playing organized ball for Bill Ballinger, of the Reno Ballers, in the fourth grade.

"I don't know where I'd be in basketball - I don't know if I'd be any good without Coach B," Babbitt said of Ballinger, who is currently the head coach for the Manogue girls basketball team and is still with the Ballers (which is for fourth-to-eighth graders). "He gave me my start. He taught me the mental aspect of the game - how to think on and off the court.

"Even now, a lot of the stuff we talk about is away from basketball. We play golf together. We talk about how to be a good person."

According to Ballinger, Babbitt was and continues to remain an apt pupil.

"He didn't have a right hand - fourth graders don't have an off-hand," Ballinger said of Babbitt, who is a left-hander. "I'm a stickler for mechanics. I still don't think he jumps high enough. We have a great rapport. We've gone at it quite a bit. I don't tolerate inadequacy.

"We still talk a lot about his attitude. He still lifts weights at my house three days a week. He can lift 300-plus on the bench. He works as hard as any kid I've coached. I've never seen a kid who worked harder or likes basketball as much as Luke."

GROWING INTO THE ROLE

By the time he'd reached E.L. Pine, Babbitt was already taking over games and by the eighth grade, he was 6-3 or 6-4 and had all the markings of someone special.

Current teammate and long-time friend Jake Hess has seen Babbitt's transformation firsthand.

"From the time I was in first grade, I was always the tallest kid," said Hess, now a 6-foot, 225-pound college gridiron prospect. "When I met him he was my height, then a little taller, which made me angry. By the fourth grade he grew a lot more than me. I was all, 'No, I'm going to be taller.'"

While Hess couldn't find a way to outgrow Babbitt, he said he has found a way to get in his head in practice.

"I get physical - he likes to compete," Hess said. "I said, 'Luke, you're kinda week, dude. You should get in the weight room.' I was kidding around. He goes, 'For real, dude?' I said, 'Yeah, bro!' Since then he wants to lift. Luke's an awesome kid. If you want to look up to a kid in high school, it's Luke."

Whether it's staying up and researching fantasy league football on his computer, earning a cumulative 3.9 grade point average or playing basketball, Babbitt is a big-time competitor.

"When he gets (mad), he takes it to a whole other level," Hess said. "Nobody can guard him. I put up the best fight I can to guard him."

WHITE MEN CAN JUMP

While he can't quite tick off all the names of the cities he's visited quite like Johnny Cash, Babbitt's been everywhere, man: Germany for the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Games, Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the Beach Ball Classic, Tampa, Fla., and New Orleans, La., among others.

In August, Babbitt paid a visit to the legendary Rucker Park, in Harlem, N.Y., where he participated in the Elite 24 Hoops Classic. He was on the winning team, his Orange Squad beating the White Squad, 169-164.

The names of the squads were a bit misleading, though, as nobody in the Streetball capital was orange and only Babbitt, his father Bob, and one other player were white.

"There wasn't a lot of defense," Babbitt said. "I didn't do too bad. I knocked down some shots. I didn't play bad, which helped. The crowd was pretty ruthless to some of the kids."

So did Babbitt earn some street cred?

"I wouldn't go that far," he said. "I don't play outdoors in the summer. I like to think there's no Streetball in my game. I made a lot of friends. It was different. I was glad to get out of there without embarrassing myself."

DRIVEN TO IMPROVE

As of press time, Galena coach Tom Maurer had guided his team to a deceiving 7-9 record, as the Grizz continue to look to repeat as state champions.

Along with his 32 points, Maurer points out Babbitt's 13.1 rebounds, 40 percent shooting from 3-point range, 47 percent shooting from the floor and 3.7 assists a game - all team highs.

"He has a great understanding of the game," Maurer said. "He has a Midwestern mentality when it comes to dedication. He has a flat-out love for the game."

So much so that he finds time to train under player development specialist Aubrey McCreary, who also works with Los Angeles Lakers point guard Derek Fisher and Utah Jazz forward Paul Millsap.

"No. 1, Luke's extremely focused in regard to what he wants out of basketball," McCreary said. "He's real efficient in things he does. That separates a great player from a good player. He's constantly trying to improve his game. Now he's trying to improve things off the bounce and trying to get to the rim quicker because people are trying to close gaps faster."

McCreary said he's also working on Babbitt's footwork, so he pivots off both feet with his back to the basket in tight quarters as well as the perimeter. He also drew an analogy with Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

"His situation (at Galena) is a lot like Kobe's - he has to bring guys along and not get frustrated with them," he said. "It's a very similar situation: He's a veteran guy with a lot of young guys."

McCreary said Babbitt has another great talent.

"His biggest thing is he focuses on the here and now," he said, "He's like Derek Fisher in the off-season. Fish is so efficient at what he does. He has 12 years in the league and he wants to get better. That's why he survives. Luke doesn't allow distractions. He keeps refining and keeps getting better."

ALL ABOUT STATE

It's hard not to wonder how much high school numbers translate into college numbers.

Johnson is already making strides for Nevada a a true freshman and Fowler went on - after he followed coach Billy Tubbs to TCU from Oklahoma - to set the Horned Frogs record for most assists (1996-99) until it fell in 2005.

Can Babbitt make the transition from being the biggest star in Nevada high school history to thriving under no-nonsense Mark Fox at Nevada?

"I think he'll be an immediate contributor for Nevada," Ballinger said. "He's a natural scorer. I believe that. Mark Fox is tough, but I think he'll adapt. He's hoping Javale McGee stays for him and he looks forward to playing with Armon."

While Babbitt did say he thought Nevada could contend for a national championship, he chose to narrow his focus to his current team, something Maurer loves.

"He's had plenty of choices since he was a sophomore," Mauer said. "He had offers from Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and others. To him, loyalty is very important. He made the decision to graduate here his senior year. Our cupboard was bare. He made that decision to come back to Galena."

Mauer applauds Babbitt's parents - Bob and Laura - for allowing their son to make his own choices. Babbitt credits them for his doing well in school. He lauds his teammates for allowing him to close in the career scoring mark.

"High school is great - it's all about team and winning," he said. "Last year was awesome. I was happy for our seniors and everybody else. I'm glad we won it. We have a very good chance this year. I want to go out my last game a winner. I want it more this year than last year because it's my last year."

If only the walls at Galena could talk. What would they say about Babbitt several years from now?

Babbitt knows how he wants to be remembered.

"As an unselfish, wants-to-win, team-player kind of guy," he said.

All-time state career points scoring leader, two-time state champion, Nevada Wolf Pack and NBA standout has a nice ring to it as well, but for now Babbitt is taking it one step at a time.

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