HYDE PARK — Some of them may be only 8 years old, but the participants in the APEX Elite Academy clearly have an immense amount of basketball talent already.
The players, ages 8-13, have long bodies and huge games. Lethal crossovers, deadly accuracy from three-point range and ultra-quick defensive hands are among their weapons.
"Some of the top youth basketball players in the city are here," said Woodlawn resident Chris Harper, the founder of APEX, which holds sessions three times a week at University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
APEX, which started in September, teaches the players hoops skills, courtesy of Lab Schools boys basketball head coach Marlo Finner. But Harper also leads core strength training classes at APEX, and the sessions always start with at least an hour of one-on-one tutoring in reading and math from volunteer Lab Schools students.
"It's a great environment," said Quam "Ayo" Dosunmu, 13, of Kenwood and an eighth-grader at Derrick Rose's alma mater, Beasley Elementary School in Washington Park.
"Coach Harper looks out for me, Coach Fenner looks out for me, and the tutors look out for me. It's like a family," he said.
Ayo, a point guard, already has a YouTube video showcasing his abilities on the court. Harper and Ayo's father, also named Quam, believe he will be at least a high-level Division I player.
But they are more pleased with Ayo's academic improvement since joining APEX.
"I've noticed significant changes in his math and reading," Quam said. "Through this course, being tutored by kids just a few years older than him makes him want to work harder. He can relate to them."
Harper can relate to the players' athletic achievements. He was a state champion sprinter at Lab Schools and a standout performer at the University of Pennsylvania, where he ran the 400 meters in 46.66 seconds in 1994.
He also was a star in the classroom and a Lab Schools lifer. His parents, Theodore, a CTA bus driver, and Agnes, who worked for DCFS, enrolled him in the school when he was 3 years old. After graduating from Penn and then Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, Harper he was making twice as much money as his parents combined.
He returned to Lab Schools in 2004 and has been the school's assessment specialist — which prepares students for tests like the ACT and SAT — since then.
Harper, 39, thought APEX would be a natural extension of the successes he's had at Lab, and so far it has been. Through connections, he has enlisted about 20 student-athletes, including several from Beasley. Harper said he'd like to cap the figure at 30, with the current crop of players remaining in APEX until after graduating from college.
The suggested fee for APEX is $500 per month, but Harper said he's had only a few donations so far. His goal is to eventually bring in a few "groups of families of means who have kids who are good at basketball who would like to train" with the other players and make larger financial commitments.
Quam Dosunmu said it's been a "blessing" having his son on APEX's ground floor.
"I love the fact that Chris dreams and he dreams of helping out his community, and we are able to be a part of that," he said. "I see this being huge down the road. The success stories from the kids that come here, there's going to be a lot of parents that want to be a part of this.
"This is better than any after-school program out there."