Column: Leap of basketball faith brings Isaiah Stewart to LaLumiere, closer to Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LAPORTE – Like temperatures inside the bomb shelter-/bunker-like structure with no air conditioning, he just kept going up, up, up.

He moved past the white net and then the orange basketball rim — set at 10 feet off the floor — like it was nothing. And he wasn’t done. He kept going north until his elbow was seemingly parallel — and then way above — the rim. Only then did he extend a few fingers from his right hand to reach out and swat the apparatus designed to measure his vertical leap.

With a 7-foot-4 wing span on his 6-8, 235-pound frame, high school junior Isaiah Stewart can jump as high as his college wish list is deep.

The 16-year-old Stewart is considered among the nation’s top 40 prospects in the Class of 2019, a group that just now is starting to draw serious interest from college coaches as they put the finishing touches on their 2018 class. A whole bunch of those wearing golf shirts with their schools logos on them found their way Wednesday afternoon to LaLumiere School for the basketball program’s annual combine. The two-hour event showcased the 12 players on the Lakers’ basketball team that won a national championship last season.

Summer was a time for LaLumiere to reload after having sent two McDonald’s prep All-Americans — Brian Bowen and Jaren Jackson, Jr. — to Louisville and Michigan State. The reload included the addition of Stewart, who missed all of his sophomore year at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, N.Y., after he suffered a broken tailbone while auditioning for the United States’ Under-16 team the previous summer.

His work Wednesday showed that he’s fully recovered. Maybe better than before as evidence of his 38-inch vertical.

“I was never jumping that high before my injury,” Stewart said. “I’m stronger. I’m quicker. Everything’s great.”

Stewart averaged 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 3.1 blocks a game as a freshman. Not long after, he received his first college scholarship offer. Not long after that, Notre Dame came calling. Didn’t matter that Stewart was hurt and couldn’t show the skills that make him among the next recruiting wave’s most coveted big men.

Notre Dame came to see him. And kept coming.

“That showed me a lot,” Stewart said following the combine. “Now that I’m close to them, they can always come and check me out.”

Irish associate head coach Rod Balanis was in the stands Wednesday to see Stewart. So were about 30 others — head coaches and assistants — from myriad Division I programs. That included Dave Leitao from DePaul, former Irish assistant Anthony Solomon, now at Dayton, and Purdue’s Matt Painter.

Also in attendance, and the first to step in from the 91-degree early evening into an even hotter gym was Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. In sweat pants.

Had Stewart decided to stay close to home, all Boeheim would have had to do was hop on the thruway and head about an hour east through Central New York. Instead, he and assistant Allen Griffin made the plane trip to the Midwest.

Stewart sat and talked with the Orange coaches some 40 minutes before the combine commenced.

Considered a consensus four-star prospect by the major recruiting services, Stewart also is projected by one that deals in crystal ball predictions to be a “100 percent” eventual commitment to Notre Dame.

Stewart’s seen the projection. His reaction?

“Oh, my God, they’ve got me going to Notre Dame!” he said. “So, I love Notre Dame. It’s a great school.”

But ...

In addition to Boeheim and Balanis, Stewart spent time Wednesday with coaches from Maryland, Purdue and Villanova. One recruiting site has him interested in as many as 30 schools. That could be on the low end.

“I’m really wide open,” he said. “There are a lot of schools that are making me a priority.”

Out in the Woods

How does a New Yorker find his way to rural LaPorte County for his final two years of high school? Stewart can thank television.

He was at home last spring when LaLumiere was playing in the New York City area for the mythical high school national championship. Having turned on the championship game, Stewart told his father that LaLumiere was exactly the type of school for him.

“I was like, ‘Dad, I’ve got to get on one of these teams,’” Stewart said. “He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ But it came to reality.

“God worked his magic.”

McQuaid Jesuit was solid academically, but playing in the Rochester City Athletic Conference didn’t challenge Stewart like he had hoped.

He set the wheels into motion to make the move just before the start of the fall semester. Stewart remembers his first trip to campus in August. He sat in the backseat of the car. His father and LaLumiere head coach Pat Holmes, a South Bend native and Notre Dame graduate, sat in the front.

The deeper the car traveled along the two-lane road away from U.S. 20, the more his father kept asking his son, ‘Are you sure you want to go here? Are you really sure?’

Yes and yes.

“I kept saying that this is the right place for me,” Stewart said.

Stewart visited LaLumiere one day in mid-August, returned to Rochester the next and was scheduled to enroll back at LaLu the following day. He couldn’t wait to get back and begin the new chapter in his life.

“I tried to fall asleep as fast as I could,” he said. “So I could get back out here.”

Getting to LaLumiere also allowed Stewart and several of his teammates to get to Notre Dame for the first time. On the afternoon that Notre Dame faced Temple in football, Holmes and his staff took Stewart and several of his teammates on an unofficial visit to Notre Dame. Stewart played pickup with the Irish. He met with the coaching staff. A scholarship offer was extended.

“That’s a great atmosphere,” Stewart said. “It’s good to be right here by ND.”

Stewart played summer AAU on the high-level EYBL circuit and averaged 11 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 58 percent from the floor. He played for the same Albany City Rocks program that helped produce Irish junior power forward Elijah Burns.

“Us City Rocks guys stay together,” Stewart said.

Stewart showed some of his skills during Wednesday’s workout, which included a scrimmage. He’s still really raw around the basket, particularly against similar size. He prefers a jump hook over his left shoulder and also has a soft touch on the perimeter. And he’s bouncy around the rim. He’ll likely fit right in to what LaLumiere likes to do.

“Anytime he gets it in the post, there’s always two, three, four defenders going at him,” said Top 50 junior guard Charles Smith IV, who also has his recruiting eyes on the Irish and vice versa. “Whenever he doesn’t go right through all of them and score, he can kick it back out to us for open jumpers.”

Once the 2018 recruiting cycle ends with the early-signing period in November, 2019 will ramp up. Stewart expects to be in the middle of it. He’ll get calls. Letters. Texts. Looks from a who’s who in college basketball. He plans to take his time and sort through what he wants out of college.

All that can wait. The immediate future of his junior year has a big plan.

“I just want to get one of those,” Stewart said.

He pointed to the south wall of the gym where LaLumiere’s 2017 national championship banner hangs.

“We’re here to prove that we’re a top team,” he said. “We’ve got the players; we’ve got the shooters. We’ve got the bigs.

“We’re straight.”

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI