When 6-foot-9-inch Stephane Manzi walked off the plane two years ago carrying only a bag, the kid from Rwanda met the man who would lead him this past weekend to an Idaho state high school basketball championship.
Marsell Colbert, coach at Genesis Preparatory Academy in Post Falls, said he had never spoken to Manzi until he met him at Spokane International Airport. But Manzi is just one of a growing number of international students who have helped transform the tiny Christian school into a basketball powerhouse in just two years.
While school officials should be basking in the first state title for the school, they instead are answering questions about why players from Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda are coming to Post Falls to play basketball in the smallest school classification in one of the nation’s least populated states.
“I don’t have my head in the sand. I hear what is being said,” Colbert said. “I have full confidence in our administration that we are doing things the right way. I can assure of this: I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t being done the right way.”
The state agrees. Ty Jones, executive director of the Idaho High School Activities Association, confirmed that Genesis Prep is not under investigation.
“Everybody that they have on their team has the proper paperwork that we require of them at this time,” Jones said. “They have answered all our questions and have been awesome to work with. They are following our rules like we would hope all of our schools would.”
However, at the same time the Jaguars were steamrolling public schools en route to the state title, the school was linked to a scandal that emerged last month at Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey.
School officials there shut down the basketball program after the Newark Star-Ledger reported how six international players were living in a two-bedroom apartment with the boys’ coach. Two of those players at Eastside, Jackson Ebune and Samuel Ogwuche, both of Nigeria, played last year at Genesis Prep.
“They left on their own. They just weren’t happy, I guess,” Colbert said of Ebune and Ogwuche. “I don’t know. That’s something you have to ask them.”
The Newark Star-Ledger reported Wednesday that it appears the transcripts for one of the players had been altered after they arrived at Paterson’s Eastside High School. For instance, one transcript showed the player was in Nigeria when he actually was playing last year for Genesis Prep.
Asked about the school’s efforts to bring in international players, Colbert referred all questions to Genesis Prep Principal Chris Finch.
“I have no control over who comes and who leaves. That’s Mr. Finch’s job,” Colbert said. “I teach history and coach basketball. Whoever I have on campus in September, that’s who I coach.”
Two for one
The school has 15 international students from seven different countries among its 60 students. Finch said half of those students play basketball. About four years ago, the school began filing the proper paperwork, called I-20 forms, to allow foreign students to study in the United States.
The program initially got started to bring hockey players from Canada to play in Post Falls. The school has since included students from Australia, South Korea and several countries from Europe and Africa, Finch said.
Unlike student-exchange programs that allow a foreign student to attend a public school for a year, the I-20 forms allow foreign students to attend private schools for up to four years if they come to the school as freshmen.
“We have kids, really, from all over the place. Bella, on the girl’s team, is 6-(foot)-4,” Finch said. “We call it the diversity capital of North Idaho.”
As for the players who ended up in New Jersey, Finch said he started talking with Ogwuche and Ebune in the spring of 2014.
“It was mainly Sam. He found Genesis and applied and came over. I think (Ogwuche and Ebune) grew up in the same neighborhood in Nigeria. They applied at the same time,” he said.
After playing for the Jaguars last season and helping the team to a third-place finish in the state playoffs, Ogwuche and Ebune left the school, Finch said.
“They went to be with a family relation in New York,” he said. “We didn’t actually know which school they went to.”
Typically, the new school would contact Genesis Prep to transfer the I-20 documents to make sure the students maintain the proper immigration status to stay in the country.
“We didn’t know exactly where they were until the New Jersey story hit,” Finch said. “That’s crazy stuff you only hear about from the movies … and it’s kids we know and loved and cared about.”
Finch recently spoke to Ebune, who has since moved to another state. “It sounds like people are taking care of him,” Finch said.
As for Ogwuche, whose brother plays college basketball for New Hampshire, he apparently has stayed at Eastside High School.
“If kids are potentially at risk, that’s the media’s job to shed light on that situation,” Finch said.
As for the students at Genesis Prep, the international students stay with the families of school employees or families who have other students attending the school, he said.
“Our school is doing its best to have international students for all the right reasons,” he said. “They are here because they want a good education. I’m proud of what we are doing, and the community knows us for who we are despite some of the stuff that has been in the news lately.”
Unlevel playing field
Other coaches who play Genesis Prep said international students tip the competitive scales in favor of the Jaguars, who play in a North Star League full of public schools that are mostly limited to players in a small geographical area.
Wallace, which is one classification bigger, lost twice to the Jaguars this past season.
“I can’t remember when we ever had a 6-(foot)-9 kid, period,” coach Corey Miller said. Genesis Prep’s Manzi “is a great kid and has a great attitude on the court. He’s not only 6-(foot)-9, but he’s athletic … and can shoot.”
While he understands that Finch and Colbert are following the state rules, Miller said the rules may need to be tweaked.
“When they set up the rules, I don’t think anyone thought someone from Nigeria would be coming to Idaho to play basketball,” Miller said. “Schools like Mullan, Kootenai and Clark Fork can play their best and they will still lose by 30 points.”
This past year, the Jaguars (21-4) went 8-0 in the North Star League, including wins of 57 and 56 points over Mullan; and wins of 40 and 41 points over Clark Fork.
But Colbert also scheduled games against 5A Coeur d’Alene, 3A Timberlake and Spokane’s Northwest Christian, all losses, and four schools in Arizona, in which the Jaguars went 3-1.
“We played that schedule to prepare for Dietrich,” Colbert said. “We knew we would have to go through Dietrich to win it.”
Dietrich, located in southeast Idaho, won the title last year for schools with 99 students or fewer. They entered the state playoffs last week with only one loss and were led by 6-foot-6-inch junior Slade Dill, who is coach Wayne Dill’s son.
For 15 years, Wayne Dill said, he has has done everything he could to convince local kids to play. Of his school’s 54 students, only 24 were boys and 18 of them played basketball for Dietrich.
“In 70 years, we’ve never had a kid cut off the team,” he said. “We don’t have those kinds of numbers. Tryouts are nonexistent. I’m glad to get anyone to come.”
The Blue Devils then faced Genesis Prep in the final. His son matched Manzi rebound for rebound and both players ended up blocking the others’ shots. But the Jaguars won 86-82 on Saturday.
“In my opinion, we were the only one of the little schools who could have beat those guys,” Dill said. “I thought we should have won that game.”
As for Genesis Prep using international players, Dill said he knows they are not breaking the rules.
“Most of us have had about enough of it,” he said. “They won fair and square with the rules that we have. I expect they will be in the championship game for years to come. But I don’t have the same capability to put together a team as they have.”