Tight-knit Centerville trio closing 10 years of basketball with state tournament trip this weekend

Emmanuel Deng wanted to see what the new kid had.

“Want to play one on one?” he asked Gabe Cupps those years ago.

“He beat me pretty bad,” Deng said. “That’s when we became friends.”

This first competitive encounter between the two third-graders happened at recess. And more prove-yourself tasks followed.

“They started having me do all these almost like initiation tests,” Cupps said. “I had to beat the fastest kid in a race. His name was Connor. I don’t know who won, but I must have done good enough to get in with their friend group.”

Since the day Cupps showed the third grade he could ball, he and Deng have been basketball teammates. Later that school year they met Kyle Kenney, who went to a different elementary, when they joined Centerville’s Hustle youth league third-grade team. They won four straight league titles with Doug Kenney, Kyle’s dad, as their coach.

This weekend, after 10 years as Hustle, middle school and high school teammates, the run ends at the Division I state tournament at UD Arena. They own matching 2021 state championship rings and start the chase for another when they meet Pickerington Central in the semifinals at 5:15 p.m. Saturday in a rematch of the state final the Elks lost last year.

“Most of my thoughts have been about the past,” Cupps said of their final week as high school basketball players. “I’ve been thinking a bunch about Hustle with these guys and how far away it actually was when I was that age thinking about being in this position now. It went by really fast.”

Kenney said, “I’m just taking in all the practices, all the things that we do together, and valuing them even more than I have the other times.”

Cupps is a four-year starter, a two-time first-team all-state selection and last year’s Mr. Basketball, and he will play college ball at Indiana. When he was a freshman the Elks went 15-12. Deng and Kenney joined the varsity as sophomores, and the Elks are 80-7 since with only one GWOC loss. Those accomplishments, though, are not what they will remember most or will talk about at reunions.

“I couldn’t tell you a final score to any game sophomore or junior year,” Kenney said. “But team sleepovers, team hangouts, the locker room, inside jokes, just all those things and being around people that you really enjoy are the things that I’ll probably miss the most.”

To become key players for the Elks, they all had to grasp head coach Brook Cupps’ program culture of embracing your role and putting the team ahead of your own ambitions. The path for each was different.

Deng, who will play college football at Penn, was a scorer and free to shoot as a freshman JV player. The next year he became a varsity starter, but his role was to play defense, make the layups that came to him and screen for the shooters – Cupps, Tom House and Rich Rolf.

“Coach Cupps and I had a pretty hard talk,” Deng said. “He told me you’re a sophomore starting on a top five team in the state. It’s all about just being bought into your role. Then he started pointing out some seniors, and that’s what really changed my view on things. He said a few of them would kill to be in my spot.”

Kenney, who wants to play Division III college basketball, could have become a starter this year. But two proven high scorers transferred in, Jonathan Powell from Chaminade Julienne and Collin O’Connor from Tecumseh.

“I had a pretty tough conversation with Coach Cupps at the beginning of this year about me coming off the bench,” Kenney said.

Kenney remembered the example set by 2021 seniors Max Knauer and Reese Clark who didn’t play much. He decided he needed to set his ego aside like they had.

“I want to win games and whatever that will take I’m willing to do,” he said. “It was an easier transition for JP and Collin for them to start, rather than it was for them to come off the bench.”

Cupps sees the sacrifices his friends have made, and he doesn’t take it for granted.

“What they’ve done giving themselves up is exactly why Centerville basketball is Centerville basketball,” he said. “People are noticing the benefits of being selfless.”

Cupps’ sacrifices for the team aren’t as apparent. He plays almost every important minute. But in this age of player movement, he could have left for a prep team and traveled the country playing in many events like Flyin’ To The Hoop. There were rumors he would.

“I’m trying to honor these relationships by just giving up myself for whatever they need me to do because I want Eman and I want Kyle to feel winning the state again,” he said. “When I’m tired and I don’t want to work out, I think about Eman and Kyle being happy and hugging each other on the court after the state game. It makes me get out of bed and go work out. They’re the most important guys in my life.”

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