The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) has traditionally included some of the toughest basketball kids at the junior high and high school levels ever see.
Only the best of the best play AAU and many teams have the backing of current NBA players and other celebrities, many of whom also went through the system, honing their skills to become the superstars they are today.
Locally, there’s an AAU team that is good enough to compete at the national level. In fact, it’s been good enough to qualify for the national tournament three times in its six-year history, including this past spring.
Unfortunately for the Paragon Hoops AAU program, which features players primarily from Lorain and Elyria and has been made up of nothing but Lorain County players since its inception, they’ve never made the trip to the National AAU Tournament, which was held this year at Gannon University in Erie, Pa., from June 30-July 2.
“Even though we qualified for nationals, it costs so much money to go,” said coach Mike Lotko, a 1982 Elyria grad who started the team six years ago with his friend Roger Smith, a former Lorain basketball standout. “This year, most of these kids are all graduating high school and they’re ready to move on to jobs and college, so we just decided to not push it. Just qualifying for nationals is like a championship for us.
“I don’t advertise and I’m not a money maker. I get calls from all over the county from kids who want to play, once they hear about us. Our reputation is big at these tournaments because of the style we play and our overall abilities. That’s something we’re really proud of.”
Lotko pays $3,000 in fees so the Paragon Hoops team can play in those tournaments, which run from April to June each year. Terry Wall of Paragon Supply Co. supplies the team with uniforms, and they’ve taken the name Paragon Hoops as a nod to his backing.
“Along with some local business guys, I’ve fronted the money to do this and allow these local kids a chance to play, improve and get noticed,” Lotko said.
This year’s team went 22-6 in a season that began in March and ended in June. The team finished in the top four in all six tournaments it entered, including the national qualifier in Cincinnati.
Primarily playing against other Ohio teams from bigger cities such as Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Cincinnati and Toledo, Paragon has proven time and time again it can hold its own against those teams.
“We always had a chip on our shoulder to show everyone where we’re from and what we’re about,” said M.J. Lotko, a recent EC grad who played on his dad’s team all six years. “All those Cleveland and Canton people didn’t know where Elyria and Lorain were, so they looked down on us. Our goal wasn’t really to qualify for nationals but really to gain other people’s respect.
“We qualified for nationals three times. We never knew that we outright weren’t going to go, but we didn’t necessarily go in with that mind-set. We definitely tried to go and we could have done it this year, but it didn’t work out. With the obligations everyone on the team had graduating high school and preparing for college, we all agreed to not pursue it.”
Demetrius Bennett, a recent Lorain High graduate who joined Paragon Hoops midway through the 2011 season and was a full-time member this season, agreed.
“I felt like we had potential to qualify for nationals, based on the talent we had,” Bennett said. “I think we would have went pretty far had we gone. Honestly, it felt like a great accomplishment to just qualify. We weren’t as upset as many thought we should be (about not going). Qualifying felt like a championship on its own.”
Members of this year’s team included Bennett, Jerome Golson, Jonathan Parker and Jerome Cannon from Lorain; Anthoni Horton and Khire Lateef from Elyria; Lotko and Joe Dempsey from Elyria Catholic; and D.J. Johnson from Midview.
Lotko, Horton, Lateef and Golson have been the team mainstays, playing all six years. Lotko (Heidelberg) and Horton (Pitt-Bradford) are going to play college basketball, while Golson may spend a season at Lorain County Community College with the hopes of moving on to a bigger school.
Past members of the team include Abe Valentine and Mike Terry from Open Door, Demetrius Walton from Elyria, Anton Cheney Harris and Theron Nelson from Admiral King/Lorain, Shakeem Jones and Brennan Hosier from Amherst and Christian Watkins from North Ridgeville.
“We’ve had a lot of local coaches feed us guys,” Lotko said. “Al and Anthony Stacey (who used to coach Admiral King) and Brett Larrick (at Elyria) have especially been instrumental in helping us and suggesting players.
“It was Roger who established the connection with the Staceys, and that has carried over in our pipeline with the Lorain programs.”
M.J. Lotko said that playing with Paragon Hoops has led to many lifetime friendships.
“Having everyone from Lorain County was definitely a big thing and we were a close-knit group as a result,” he said. “I’m friends with everybody on the team. I still talk to and hang out with the guys on this year’s team, and I still keep in touch with Shakeem Jones and Anton Cheney Harris.
“I met them all through AAU. Otherwise, I would have never met them or spent time with them. It was a blending of all the cities and we all came together and all became very close. When you’re spending weekends together, you develop a lifelong bond with each other.”
Bennett said the competition at the AAU level is what appealed to him the most.
“To me, there was more competition at the AAU level than I saw at Lorain High,” he said. “I played more as a team with the Paragon team than I did with my school team.
“It was cool to be a part of a team with guys from Elyria, Midview and EC. It was cool to be part of a team that represented Lorain County like that, and they’re all a bunch of great guys that I’m proud to call friends.”
Mike Lotko is assisted by Mike Warden, who played on Elyria’s 1976 state-qualifying basketball team, and Robert Nelson, a former Elyria standout and Lorain County Mr. Basketball winner who graduated in 2003 and played briefly at Evansville. Valentine also helped out this season.
“It wasn’t about my sons’ playing, I just love to do it,” Lotko said. “It was a passion of mine and I’m glad I was able to help these kids and teach these kids how to play.”
Jones (Wilberforce), Terry (Malone College) and Walton (Ohio Dominion) have also gone on to play collegiately after going through the Paragon Hoops program.
“It’s a tribute to the kids’ hard work for all the success they have had over the years,” Mike Lotko said. “My son (M.J.) quit the basketball team at EC and wound up landing with Heidelberg because their coach came out to one of our tournaments and noticed him.”
Lotko, who runs Parsons Insurance and also serves as an Elyria City Council member, relishes becoming a father figure or sorts to his Paragon players.
“These kids still keep in touch with me,” he said. “Some of them don’t have a father, so they’ll reach out if they need something. We try to help out as much as we can, both on and off the court. To me, that’s been the most rewarding thing.”
Lotko plans on bringing the team back again. His younger son will be in eighth grade in the fall and plans on playing
“The word paragon means model of excellence,” he said. “That’s a motto we’ve tried to live by as we’ve constructed this team and moved it forward over the past six years and beyond.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.