Gold light from the morning sun floods the windows of a historic building where the most talented prep basketball team in Colorado gathers for practice.
Back in the early 1970s, the American Basketball Association’s Denver Rockets practiced inside this small brick gymnasium beneath a gorgeous wood cathedral ceiling. Today, in southwest Denver’s Athmar Park neighborhood, its once-faded red exterior has a fresh coat of black paint to make large white letters pop at the entrance: DENVER PREP ACADEMY.
The glass front door is open. Step into a gym of modern hoop dreams.
It’s impossible to miss Assane Diop and Baye Fall — lanky, athletic dunkers with shooting range — who grew up in Senegal, moved to Colorado for a better education, and led their respective high schools (Belleview Christian and Lutheran) to state titles this past spring. They have college scholarship offers to become teammates at Auburn, CU, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M. The list keeps growing.
“From coaches to players, it is the highest level of basketball I’ve seen,” said Diop, a 6-foot-10 forward and the 31st-ranked prospect nationally for the Class of 2023, according to 247Sports. “I feel we belong together. Also, they demand more from me off the court. … Playing with Baye makes me feel more confident that my back is always covered.”
Yet the next step of their basketball journey comes with inherent risk. Fall and Diop transferred from a traditional high school experience to embrace the newest wave of athlete education to hit Colorado — private schools offering specialized basketball training against elite competition.
The prep school experience is designed to mimic college, with players often living on campus. Class time is scheduled around early morning practice, afternoon workouts and games played on national circuits to maximize exposure. Long popular on the East Coast, but absent from Colorado before 2019, there are now three emerging in-state programs that offer a CHSAA alternative for boys basketball: Colorado Prep, Denver Prep Academy and Rocky Mountain Sports Academy.
“These kids are very impressionable and want to market themselves in the best way possible,” said Brandon Jenkins, a national college basketball recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “That’s why you have so many examples of kids leaving their local public or private schools, that are governed by state bodies, and going to these schools that compete on a national scale.”
But private schools in Colorado require zero regulation by the state. Accreditation is optional and certification of teachers is not mandatory because they are classified as “small businesses” by the U.S. Department of Education. That lack of oversight, historically, has led to scandals at athletic-based schools in other states.
Powerhouse IMG Academy (Florida) was featured in an ESPN televised football game in August, but the network failed to properly vet IMG’s opponent — Bishop Sycamore (Ohio). The school was later revealed as a sham after it played two games in three days, lacked proper equipment and lied to officials about its academics. Bishop Sycamore’s remaining opponents canceled their games and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called for an investigation.
It’s a stark reminder for athletes and parents considering alternative high school education focused on athletics. The only thing stopping a Bishop Sycamore scenario from taking place in Colorado are the adults in charge. Is the state’s next generation of basketball stars in good hands?
Denver Prep Academy is making its case.
“We’re gonna do what’s best for kids,” said Ray Valdez, DPA’s co-founder, and head basketball coach. “That’s our mantra and what we’re going to say over and over. That’s our life work.”
The morning practice ends and DPA players walk next door to a four-bedroom house to find principal Eric Mosley. He’s in the kitchen whipping up breakfast.
“If the organization needs it, we’re not above anything,” said Mosley, a 12th-year educator, who joined DPA this fall after managing Aurora Central High School’s special education department. “They eat it for the most part.”
DPA launched its school Aug. 30, with Fall as its first student, and has since grown enrollment to 10 basketball players. The majority sleep, eat, study and train out of this lease-to-own property where pods of three teenagers share living spaces throughout the roughly 6,000-square-foot home. A chore list is posted on the wall. Players scrub toilets, mop floors, clean dishes and wash windows.
They’ve moved from cities across the U.S. to be here: Justin Daniels (Los Angeles), Chilaydrien Newton (Rustin, La.) and Chandler Wilson (Springfield, Mass.) to name a few.
“I’ve clicked with everybody here because we’re all here for the same reason,” Daniels said. “Everyone knows what they need to do in the house and they get it done.”
DPA begins play in the Grind Session league next month with tournaments scheduled in Arizona, California, Nevada, Kentucky and South Carolina. The program will host a national showcase in late February, potentially at Ball Arena, that is expected to draw a star-studded California prep school — Donda Academy — founded by Kanye West.
“To be able to travel around with this team is going to be really fun. I want to be seen on a national level,” said Kaleb Mitchell, a 6-foot-10 senior forward who left Fountain-Fort Carson High School to join DPA. “I’d rather join something that’s just beginning and be that first group than join something that’s already going on. But it’s obviously a risk.”
DPA’s co-founders sold players on their vision.
Lincoln High School won consecutive 4A basketball state titles (2007-08) with athletic director Dominic Martinez and assistant coach Ray Valdez. They are now the basketball brains behind DPA, along with Greg Willis, a longtime director of the state’s most prominent AAU team (Colorado Hawks). Steve Hess, a former Nuggets strength-and-conditioning coach, is the school’s director of performance. Dominique Collier, the former Denver East and CU Buffs point guard, is an assistant coach.
Valdez and Martinez dreamed of building a college prep basketball giant in the Rockies with players recruited from across the globe. Willis, the school’s director of scouting, has already created a Senegal pipeline with Fall and Diop as his latest blue-chip discoveries. Their arrival made DPA a destination school before it played a single game.
“Everybody here was a star on their team,” Valdez said. “We have a bunch of guys who can all play.”
The required financial investment is significant. Tuition, fees, travel, food, recruiting services, room and board for the 2021-22 school year is $50,560, as listed on DPA’s website. Players who commute from home or enroll in its post-graduate program pay a reduced rate and every student receives some form of financial aid. Parents submit tax returns with tuition adjusted based on family income.
DPA also seeks out local community members or businesses willing to “take interest and champion a kid,” Valdez said. There are currently two out-of-state players that have been sponsored. The school also plans to unveil an endowment program — with a goal to receive $1,000 donations from 1,000 people — to help cover athlete scholarships.
Mosley, the school’s principal/morning cook, was brought in to help ensure academic integrity. But he quickly discovered the state provides few barriers for a growing market of private sports-based education in Colorado.
“We were shocked as we were going through this process,” Mosley said. “They told us: You can just open a school.”
An afternoon DPA strength workout finishes up and players are dropped off at the nearby Westwood Community Center. They carry backpacks with school-provided laptops for class with one of five teachers, contracted part-time employees, on a rotating schedule in rented space.
A handful of DPA athletes are seated at tables positioned in a half-circle. Their instructor, Shazia Sulehria, is reviewing their latest assignment for a creative writing lesson — short first-person biographies for the team’s online basketball roster.
“I know these are some really amazing athletes but I’m not grading them differently,” said Sulehria, an administrator at Aurora Public Schools with 11 years of teaching experience. “There are a couple of second-language learners. Others are super-advanced.”
There is no one-size-fits-all education model for athletics-based schools in the state.
Colorado Prep, founded by former CU Buffs guard Xavier Silas, started in 2020 and is part of an extension program with St. Mary’s High School (Colorado Springs). It gives CP access to well-established private school resources — academic and social — with flexible schedules to accommodate for the Grind Session. CP’s top player, senior guard Langston Reynolds, transferred from Denver East and is committed to play for the University of Northern Colorado.
“This model is done in other places. We’re the first to do it in the state of Colorado,” Silas said. “It’s something that just makes a lot of sense. You let the experts be the experts.”
Rocky Mountain Sports Academy, founded by longtime Northern Colorado club coach Anthony Coleman, launched its prep school this fall after several years as a well-known AAU program. Most students learn fully remote while enrolled in a Colorado-based online high school called Astravo.
“If they can still get the educational side without physically being in the classroom, where it’s at their own pace, then what would be the point of going to class for six-and-a-half hours?” Coleman said. “COVID actually propelled prep schools coming out more in Colorado.”
Denver Prep Academy, founded through a nonprofit called Building Futures, chose the most ambitious plan. Start from scratch and establish something permanent. Step one: Get cleared and approved by the NCAA.
Principal Mosley spearheaded the lengthy process with dozens of documents — attendance and grading policies, instructional models, learning cycles and teacher evaluations among them — submitted to college sports’ governing body. DPA, after several months of review, earned its accreditation.
That means the NCAA recognizes DPA’s core content courses — English, math (Algebra 1 or higher), natural or physical science, social science, foreign language, comparative religion or philosophy — all required for the “initial-eligibility certification process.” Students will graduate with academic transcripts that meet college admission standards for playing NCAA sports.
DPA’s faculty is licensed by the state to teach in Colorado. Students are enrolled in classes for at least 13 hours/week plus four hours of dedicated study hall. DPA electives are all basketball training periods that do not count toward NCAA eligibility.
“It’s more like a college. You have to get the work done right and in a certain amount of time,” said Mitchell, the senior Fountain-Fort Carson transfer, who is considering Colorado School of Mines for its geology program. “People should know that if you want to come here or be a part of this, you’ve got to be ready to work. There’s an expectation.”
A full moon glows over DPA’s gym when the last players exit an evening shootaround. Three workouts over 24 hours to prepare for the season. Tomorrow, they’ll do it all again.
“We’ll sometimes wake up tired but we know the bigger picture and where we want to go in life,” said Daniels, the DPA guard from Los Angeles. “This is probably one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
DPA calls its education plan a “service-learning curriculum” that emphasizes social justice initiatives with a predominantly Black enrollment. The school has added an intern from the University of Denver, earning practice hours toward counseling certification, to provide hands-on mental health resources for the team. DPA has a partnership with Special Olympics and other nonprofits for fundraising events.
In class, players were assigned to complete a year-long project that gives back to their community in a meaningful way. Fall — a 7-footer ranked as the nation’s No. 1 center in the Class of 2023 by 247Sports — is organizing a drive to donate recycled shoes to his home country of Senegal.
“We talk about ethics of things that happen in everyday life. Especially for us, as young Black athletes, that’s a big thing,” Mitchell said. “It’s important to see all aspects of it, negative and positive, and to know how we should be treated. And how we should treat others.”
DPA embarks on its first school year with only six full-time employees. But its long-term vision is grand.
The school is nearing the purchase of a large vacant lot directly north of the gym to build a new facility. Early renderings include classrooms, dorm housing, a nutrition center and additional practice space at an estimated cost of around $7 million. Its fundraising model mirrors college athletics.
Jonathan Barnett, DPA co-founder and chief marketing officer, provided the initial push. He started the company Oxi Fresh Carpet Cleaning in 2006 and it has since expanded to over 450 locations across the U.S. and Canada. Barnett’s DPA investment resulted in naming rights for its home gymnasium — Oxi Fresh Arena. He is currently the school’s largest benefactor.
But DPA doesn’t see its growth stopping there.
It hired Jason Gold, the former dean of student services for Denver Public Schools, to spearhead an initiative to develop another DPA campus — in the mountains. It’s a seven-year plan to either secure land or purchase existing buildings to bring DPA’s sports offerings full circle: swimming, soccer, lacrosse, rock climbing, skiing/snowboarding and more. The proposed facilities would look like a small college campus. Potential locations are currently being scouted.
“We’re not trying to find the next great snowboarder or rock climber,” Gold said. “What we will be doing is creating a system where kids have access to the outdoors every single day in the morning where they can ski, snowboard, bike, hike, rock climb, raft, fish, hunt, and whatever they’re interested in up there.
“Then we focus on the academic side in the afternoon and evenings.”
DPA anticipates growing enrollment at its city campus to 20 basketball players by the end of the year. It plans to add freshmen and JV squads next season to reach around 45 students. There are early discussions of creating a baseball academy in the near future. That growth is dependent on fundraising efforts.
But Valdez understands if public skepticism exists over DPA’s multi-million dollar vision for developing high school athletes. What do the adults in charge have to gain?
“We truly believe that our staff has the best interests of kids at heart,” Valdez said. “Right now, there is so much exploitation of kids through sports and the industry being very lucrative. … We really do want to bring some change to the culture of sports and education. We have a very distinct goal with this. That’s to leave our fingerprints on the future of the student athlete and to make Colorado a better place with our education model.”
DPA currently stands at the forefront of private athletics-based education in Colorado. Its next steps have the potential to forever alter the high school sports landscape in the state. The Grind Session begins next month.
“I’m ready. I can’t wait to play,” Daniels said. “We’re going to see a lot of great teams and great players. I can see this team going pretty far.”
BASKETBALL PREP SCHOOLS IN COLORADO
What you need to know about three emerging private basketball-focused college prep schools in Colorado.
Founder: Xavier Silas
Location: 2501 E. Yampa Street, Colorado Springs, CO 80909
Student enrollment: 20
Education model: Partnership with St. Mary’s High School
DENVER PREP ACADEMY
Founders: Jonathan Barnett, Ray Valdez, Domonic Martinez and Greg Willis
Location: 385 S Zuni Street, Denver, CO 80223
Student enrollment: 10
Education model: In-person learning (Westwood Community Center)
ROCKY MOUNTAIN SPORTS ACADEMY
Founder: Anthony Coleman
Location: 2127 Ford Lane, Fort Collins, CO 50524
Student enrollment: 9
Education model: Online learning (Astravo)
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