A former warehouse deep in an industrial park off U.S. 301 in north Sarasota has become a veritable United Nations of basketball. Its two glossy wooden courts are home to Victory Rock Prep, a small private school with 30 foreign players from 17 countries united by a single ambition: to earn a spot on a college basketball team, and perhaps play professionally.
Founder and head coach Loren Jackson, 51, protests when asked if Victory Rock is a basketball factory. “Pro means being a professional in life,” he says. “We’re straight with them from the start. I tell these players they have a better chance of being a brain surgeon than they do playing in the NBA.”
Open to students from sixth grade through a post-grad year after high school, Victory Rock Prep was founded in 2012. Jackson, a longtime coach and teacher in Chicago, and his wife Paula, a teacher, also operate the Edison Academics school off Cortez Road in Bradenton that serves as the academic center for student-athletes. (Athletic training powerhouse IMG Academy has attracted several sports training programs to the region.) Most of the players live in an apartment complex in west Bradenton, the younger players chaperoned by coaches. Tuition is based on need and ranges from $18,000 to $30,000 a year, Jackson says. Girls attend the school, but for now at least, the school’s four teams are all male.
The idea of sending your son away to attend a school whose mission is focused on basketball was unheard of a generation ago. Players were groomed at their local high school or, if they were particularly ambitious, transferred to a better program across town. The best hope for foreign players, especially those from remote areas, is that they might be discovered by a traveling scout on a dusty playground.
Today players travel across the world for a chance to hone their game. The son of a Congolese government official, Prince Mosengo came to Victory Prep three years ago. Mosengo bid his family farewell and moved to Bradenton, where he shares an apartment with two coaches and a teammate. Now 15, Mosengo is 6 feet 8 inches tall and blossoming into a major college prospect. He hopes he will grow to 6 feet 11 inches tall by the time he is ready for college in three years. In many ways, he is already a man, having suffered the hardship of his father’s death last year. He could have returned home and given up his dream, but instead he became more determined.
“I’ve learned so much here from Coach Jackson and the other coaches,” Mosengo says. “I want to go to Duke and then to the NBA.”
Coach Jackson, a former point guard who stands 5 feet 7 inches, spends much of his practices looking up. His team has 17 players 6 feet 8 inches or taller, including two over 7 feet. The players are anything but pampered. Their gym is dimly lit, the courts a bit creaky, with insulation popping out of a hole in a wall. Training equipment and basketballs litter the sidelines. It’s a no-nonsense place where players test themselves against competition better than they could ever expect from their hometown club or school teams.
The amalgamation of players from so many places reflects the global game that basketball has become. Players are exposed to different styles, learning from one another. Jonathan Dos Anjos, a 6-foot-8-inch post-grad player from Brazil, says the game in his country is slower paced and exacting. European players are known for fancy shooting and passing, not so much for defense. African players are renowned for speed and agility, particularly 7-footers who move like guards. Victory Rock has players from Egypt, Senegal, Turkey, Antigua and a dozen other foreign countries, as well as Americans. Ironically, the training Chicago native Khalil Small received at Victory Rock led to a professional career—in Finland.
“We all learn from one another,” Dos Anjos says. “I like the faster game. The faster the better.”
Victory Rock Prep competes against Florida private schools such as Montverde Academy that attract players from across the country and internationally. Montverde has won four national championships since 2012 and has produced scores of top players, including NBA stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embid.
While he can tick off a list of his former players now on scholarship at major colleges and even a couple in the NBA, Jackson tells his players that nothing is guaranteed.
“Not every player is going to get a Division I scholarship. But almost all of our graduates are playing basketball somewhere, whether it be Division I, Division II or at another level,” he says. “We tell them playing basketball is a privilege that they have to earn. We’re giving them the tools to get there.”