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The Next Great Coney Island Basketball Legend Seeks PSAL Title

By Dylan Butler | March 15, 2013 4:15pm
 Isaiah Whitehead brings the ball up the court during adidas Nations on August 6, 2012 at Long Beach City College in Long Beach, California.
Isaiah Whitehead brings the ball up the court during adidas Nations on August 6, 2012 at Long Beach City College in Long Beach, California.
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Kelly Kline/Getty Images

NEW YORK CITY — Isaiah Whitehead said he’s heard it from the time he was in seventh grade, even before he enrolled at Abraham Lincoln High School.

He was the heir apparent, the next great basketball player in a school known for churning out great basketball players.

The Coney Island native, though, has taken it all in stride.

“I just started getting used to it,” Whitehead said. “Everything panned out the way I wanted. I’m making my name at Lincoln and hopefully I’ll win a couple of championships to go along with it.”

In his third year at Lincoln, Whitehead is known as one of the best basketball players in the city and already has scholarship offers from a bevy of Division I colleges. The same was true of the greats who preceded him, Lincoln legends like Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson.

There’s one big difference – Whitehead doesn’t have a PSAL title.

That could change Saturday afternoon when Lincoln takes on Brooklyn rival Thomas Jefferson for the PSAL Class AA championship at Madison Square Garden. It’s Whitehead’s second trip to the Garden and he’s hoping for a better result than the 62-55 loss to Boys & Girls his freshman year.

“All of them won championships,” Whitehead said, referring to past Lincoln greats. “Me not having one is keeping me out of the puzzle, I guess. I think I’m going to come out here tomorrow and get one.”

The Lincoln legacy started with Marbury, who lost as a sophomore and junior before winning it all as a senior in 1995. He won the coveted championship his three older brothers couldn’t.

“Of all the Lincoln players, in my eyes, he was the best,” said Mike Quick, who has covered high school sports in New York City for MSG Network and MSG Varsity for nearly 30 years. “He’s still the measuring stick of the great Lincoln basketball players.”

Like Marbury, his cousin Telfair had tremendous family pressure to win the city title. He managed to do it three times before bolting for the NBA. Stephenson, now with the Indiana Pacers, captured four championships during his Lincoln career.

“Those three guys have basketball families and Isaiah doesn’t have it that way,” Lincoln coach Dwayne (Tiny) Morton said. “He doesn’t have that big brother or cousin to follow so it’s probably taken him a little longer to get that hunger those guys had.”

Marbury made Lincoln the premier public school destination for elite basketball players, “the glamour place,” according to Quick. Whitehead said there was no doubt when he was growing up where he’d play high school ball.

“When you play ball on Coney Island and you go on AAU trips and you go to Lincoln games, you’re going to want to play there one day,” he said.

The 6-foot-4 guard is more of a hybrid than pure guards like Marbury and Telfair and the imposing forward Stephenson was. In high school he can play four different positions. It’s what makes him such a hot commodity among college coaches.

“Whitehead is very difficult to stop,” said one Division I assistant coach. “His size for a guard and his ability to score in different ways makes him very special. He also plays with a high motor, which we look for at the Division I level.”

Whitehead is averaging 21.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists for Lincoln, the top-seed in the PSAL playoffs. The soft-spoken Whitehead also provided a big assist off the court following Superstorm Sandy, donating 36 pairs of sneakers to those in need in Coney Island.

“Coney Island has held me down my whole life so why not give back to all the kids or adults who needs sneakers,” he said. “They’re just in my closet collecting dust, so why not donate them?”

Whitehead, who still has another year to cement his Lincoln legacy, has played under a microscope since his freshman year. If he ever forgets who he’s being measured up to, Whitehead just has to look into the rafters of the famed gym.

“I felt the pride freshman year when I came in and saw all the guys who played there, their jerseys hanging up in the gym,” Whitehead said. “It feels great to wear a Lincoln jersey after all of them.”