Growing up in East Liberty, Khayree Wilson was like any other kid.
When it was a nice day, he would go outside with his friends and play.
His best friend wasn’t like any other kid, though. And his friends knew it.
“My godbrother, my best friend, Justin Mullen, Peabody High School,” Wilson said, listing his descriptors for emphasis. “I would be outside every day with our other friends, but he (wouldn’t). He was in a gym every day, all day.”
Mullen, Wilson believes, was supposed to be “the one” – the kid from East Liberty to make it big.
In the early 2000s, Mullen was a three-time City League champion at Peabody, which closed in 2011. The 5-10 guard was a four-year varsity player, three-year starter and a City League Player of the Year.
“I watched him be the best point guard in the city of Pittsburgh,” said Wilson, who also attended Peabody before going to Imani Christian Academy. “We thought he really had a chance (to make it).”
Mullen never made it, though.
He never played professional basketball.
He never played Division I basketball.
He never became what he dreamed he could be or what everyone in East Liberty thought he would be.
Wilson said Mullen didn’t have SAT scores to make it to a D-I school, but his high school coach “left him short” on his pursuit. He told newspaper reporters he “could be” a low-D-I player, and he never advocated for Mullen to top-flight junior colleges. So Mullen ended up playing at CCAC South and finished at D-II Slippery Rock.
Now, 15 years after Mullen and Wilson graduated high school, Wilson is in his third year as head coach of the boys basketball team at First Love Christian Academy in Washington, living out his vision of giving kids the tools to reach their goals as basketball players.
“I never understood it as a child. I never understood it until now. For (Justin) not to have the proper support to be able to fulfill his dream, I said I’ll never let that happen,” Wilson said. “As long as I have a chance to influence kids, I’ll never let that happen ever again.”
After starting the basketball program in 2015, First Love has emerged on the national prep basketball scene.
As a private prep school that does not compete in the PIAA or WPIAL, but rather as a part of the National Christian Athletic Association, the Knights travel and play in tournaments against some of the top prep schools in the country, such as Huntington Prep in West Virginia or Findlay Prep in Nevada. The Knights practice and play a few home games at the Brownson House.
Wilson, an energetic, short 33-year-old with dreadlocks halfway down his back, recruits players from all over the world, with about two-thirds of the team consisting of international players and rest from the United States, mostly from the Pittsburgh region.
So far, the team has produced one overseas professional player, four Division I players and seven more junior college players, most of whom, if not all, Wilson said, will end up at D-I schools.
“We have some bigger things coming,” Wilson said. “It’s going to keep getting bigger and better.”
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It might look like the success at First Love came easily. It didn’t.
In fact, the success almost never happened.
After Wilson graduated from Imani, he went to South Carolina State and then played running back for Malone University, an NAIA school in Canton, Ohio.
At 21 years old, Wilson went home to start coaching basketball.
He started as a middle school assistant before moving his way up the ladder at Imani to head coach.
Back in 2004, when Dwight Howard was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA out of high school – when high school players were eligible for the draft – Wilson saw the comparisons between Howard’s high school in Atlanta and Imani Christian.
“It was a rinky dink Christian school that had like 40 kids,” Wilson said. “I knew I could do this. I had a vision of turning Imani Christian Academy into Oak Hill Academy.”
He became the head coach at Imani in 2010, but his stint ended after the 2011-12 season. The program was suspended by the PIAA after it didn’t comply with PIAA transfer rules and Wilson realized his vision wasn’t possible at Imani.
Wilson then coached for different AAU programs, hoping for an opportunity like the one he eventually received at First Love. He thought he was going to become the head coach at Bishop Canevin but didn’t end up getting the job. He then started looking for different opportunities outside of Western Pennsylvania, most of which were in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area – one of the top basketball regions in the country.
“I thought it was over for me in Pittsburgh, because of the politics and the WPIAL and all of those types of things,” Wilson said. “I was just fed up with the Pittsburgh basketball scene. There’s just not enough opportunity and they’re not open-minded to what I was trying to accomplish. They’re so used to the WPIAL. I thought about the next closest place we could go and feel comfortable, so me and my family were going to move to the DMV area. Right before that happened, I got a call from Dr. (Kathleen) Miller at First Love Christian Academy.”
During that phone call with Miller, Wilson pitched to her his vision and how he could turn First Love basketball into a prep school powerhouse. After he interviewed for the job, she hired him on the spot.
Now, all he had to do was find good basketball players.
Sometimes the pitch to players and families is easy. Wilson tells the parents and the student-athletes that First Love has top-notch academics, and the school provides partial or full scholarships to some players and financial aid to others.
Other times it’s hard. Trying to convince parents to let their kids live away from home as early as teenagers to prepare for Division I basketball isn’t an easy sell.
One of the first phone calls he made was to a coach for a Canada Elite team, who Wilson said had some “big-time players” that he was trying to recruit.
“I’m calling about those kids, and the coach said, ‘Look, we don’t even know who you are. You’ve got to prove yourself first. But I’m going to give you a kid. His name is Prince Oduro, and I’ll tell you now, if you polish him right, he’s a diamond,’” Wilson recalled. “And (Oduro) became even more than that; he became a star.”
Oduro, a 6-8, 250-pound forward, is currently starting at Siena University, scoring 8.9 points and grabbing 4.4 rebounds a game as a freshman.
“Prince Oduro was a fat kid who couldn’t really move and had low confidence,” Wilson said. “Then he came here and worked hard, and he was the first person to ever get an offer at this school.”
The team went 22-8 in that first season, with Oduro and David Collins, a 6-3 guard from Ohio, leading the Knights.
Collins, now a freshman at South Florida, said he knew “Coach Khy” from the previous summer playing AAU ball. After looking at the schedule Wilson devised, Collins and his parents thought it would be the best chance for him to eventually play D-I basketball.
“He was well-versed and well-known,” said Collins. “I knew he would be able to get my name out there so we had a chance to get recruited. I got recruited by 23 schools. You could see how much work he puts in because you’re constantly playing in front college coaches. It was definitely worth it.”
While Collins said the competition he played in Youngstown, Ohio, wasn’t that bad, it was nowhere near the type of competition he faced when he got to First Love.
Going into a game against Findlay Prep, one of the top prep schools in the country, Collins, a senior at the time, had a few D-I offers. But after he scored 31 points against Findlay in front of dozens of college scouts, he said that’s when the calls started to pour in.
“I got four or five offers that day,” he said. “Playing the better competition, it’s better coaches coming out.”
As a Division I player, Collins now understands the benefit of attending First Love.
“It definitely helped to work on a college-based schedule in high school,” Collins said. “It just prepares you (to have) better habits for when you get into college. They prepare you academically and basketball-wise. Everything Coach Khy does is to prepare you for college.”
Along with Oduro and Collins, two other players from the original First Love team are currently playing D-I basketball. Samson George, a 6-7 forward from Nigeria, comes off the bench for Pitt, and Christian Bentley, a 6-2 guard from Canada, also plays for Siena.
Looking back to his first year at First Love, Wilson sees the importance of all four of those players, especially Oduro and Collins.
“Prince laid the foundation; David Collins built the house; and now we’re finishing with the rest of the expansion with this beautiful thing we’re going to have,” Wilson said.
In his summer before ninth grade, Julian McGee, a baby-faced, undersized guard, played for an AAU team coached by Wilson.
McGee, who would have gone to Obama Academy, decided to join Wilson as a freshman on First Love’s inaugural team.
McGee knew that if he wanted to play D-I basketball, he needed to move away from home at 15 years old.
“To make it where I want to be, I know Coach Khy can get me there because he has all those connections,” McGee said. “He has connections with every coach in the country, it seems. It’s amazing the coaches you dream about playing for he can get in contact with them.”
Now in his third year at First Love, and the only player on the roster who has been there for all three seasons, McGee is the “complete standard of what First Love is,” according to Wilson.
“Julian is a kid who was not looked at as one of the most talented or elite kids in the Pittsburgh area,” Wilson said. “He will be the definition of what hard work and what the transformation of what First Love can do for you once you come here, buy into the program, buy into the brand and just work hard. He’ll be the perfect byproduct of if you come to First Love what you can be.”
Along with McGee’s growth at First Love, Wilson said the program has grown in the last three years to the point where he believes it is “recognized” by D-I college coaches.
“The hard work has absolutely paid off,” he said. “We go places and people know who we are. Parents know their kids are going to be taken care of. From the first year to now, we have grown so much. We have created a reputation of being a good program, of being a team that fights and of being a program that you can get reliable kids from.”
This year’s First Love team has five Pittsburgh players and eight international players – two from Canada, and one each from the Dominican Republic, Senegal, South Sudan, Croatia, Montenegro and Venezuela. Wilson said most people think it’s difficult to coach a team with eclectic backgrounds and languages, but he said “basketball has its own language.”
First Love owns two houses in Washington where the players live with supervision of an assistant coach, Nehemiah Fisher, who played for Wilson at Imani Christian.
Shamar Givance, a senior guard from Toronto and First Love’s “hands down best player,” according to Wilson, said being surrounded by a group of players who have the same aspirations as he does pushes him to be better.
“This is the first team that is like a family to me. On the court, it’s not just about the talent on the team, it’s about having chemistry on the court. To have chemistry, you need to have it off the court,” he said. “In the house, we’ll talk to each other about the things we need to do to get better as a team.”
Ja’mier Fletcher, a 6-7 junior forward from Pittsburgh who plays with a bruising presence, said the team is like a family.
“Family and team bonding are really important,” said Fletcher, who is in his first season at First Love. “We all do truly care about each other. Living in the house, we laugh and we mess around...We’ve got a great bond that transfers to the court.”
To sustain the model at First Love, Wilson and Miller are bringing on Nate Roesing, the CEO of College Basketball Prospects of America, to be the CEO of First Love and the Head of Athletics starting in February.
Roesing, a retired professional player in Italy, has coached basketball for 18-plus years and is also the owner, operator and developer of a hotel company. Roesing said he sees Wilson as a mentor for the players at First Love, and he wants to support the program because of that.
“Basketball has been grassroots of what gave me my opportunity in the world. If I didn’t have great mentors growing up, I wouldn’t have played in college or overseas,” Roesing said. “(Wilson’s) commitment is over the top. This guy spends endless hours with these kids. He really focuses on life lessons and more importantly invests in the kids. A lot of the kids we have their parents aren’t with them and we’re boarding at the school. To have a mentor and have someone that’s invested in them is why we have success.”
Along with Wilson’s leadership, Roesing said what attracted him to financially support First Love is the academic success.
“What they do at First Love is create a basketball and academic atmosphere,” he said. “When you have that philosophy, you start to see results.”
Now a few years into the program, Roesing said the goal becomes sustaining and growing that success.
“One thing about me coming in is I will make sure the basketball program will have the financial support it needs and the resources it needs,” Roesing said. “At First Love, we will make sure finances aren’t a problem.”
Along with Givance and Fletcher, Wilson said several other First Love players have offers from D-I programs.
One of the most talked about players at First Love over the last few weeks has been Jason Eubank, a 6-4 junior guard. Wilson said Eubank was the sixth or seventh man as a sophomore at Penn Hills last season and was going to start this season if he didn’t make the jump to First Love.
On Jan. 5, in a game against Findlay Prep at the Cancer Research Classic, which was aired on ESPN3, Eubank had a similar experience to Collins’ against Findlay Prep. Eubank scored 16 points on Reggie Chaney, a four-star power forward who is committed to Arkansas. Now, Eubank is getting recruited by schools like Stanford and Missouri.
Similar to Roesing, Wilson’s goal isn’t just to make First Love a top prep school in the country. It’s to put western Pennsylvania basketball on the map for D-I college coaches.
Early in Wilson’s tenure at Imani, a college coach told Wilson that he was going to be hard-pressed to get college coaches to watch his players.
“Khy, I’m gonna tell you something,” Wilson said, recalling the conversation with the coach. “The problem that you’re always gonna have is every coach in the country believes Pittsburgh is a bottom-of-the-barrel recruiting place. We never come there, and it’s going to be hard for coaches to stay in there because the talent level isn’t where it should be to be recruited by Division I schools.”
Wilson said he was fueled to prove those coaches wrong. He has that chance with First Love.
“The perception in Pittsburgh is if you’re good enough, the coaches will come,” Wilson said. “Well that’s not my perspective. My perspective is I’m going to make the coaches come. I’m going to shout and scream as much as I possibly can to get coaches to come here to Western Pennsylvania.”
Wilson wants the region to become a hotbed for basketball, and First Love, he believes, could be the first domino to fall to making that happen.
He said the region has the talent to garner Division I coaches, but because it is more focused on football than basketball, the kids don’t properly develop.
“I would be selfish if I just wanted for just me in little Washington, because how many kids are actually going to be able to come to First Love?” Wilson said. “Some parents may not want to have their kid all the way out here. That doesn’t mean their opportunities should stop. Just because you don’t come to First Love doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the same opportunities as kids at First Love. I want to build that culture in Western Pennsylvania. I want to see Pittsburgh kids on those Top 100 lists.”
Coaches don’t recruit Fletcher unless a coach motivates him to lose weight and constantly bugs college coaches to take a look.
They don’t recruit Eubank unless a coach gives him an opportunity to score 16 points against Findlay Prep.
They don’t recruit Mullen, Wilson’s childhood best friend, without a coach to get on him to get his grades or SAT scores up, or to send him to a top-tier JUCO program, or to do anything possible to get him where he wants to be.
“Justin is now a firefighter, and every now and then he’ll come and talk to my kids at practice,” Wilson said. “This all stems from him, because I watched how much he worked. I don’t want to let another kid end up not getting the support like Justin didn’t.”