Jack Kushner (above) has been a key starter for West Chester East all season long as a freshman. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Last February, Jack Kushner sat in the stands at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, watching West Chester East play in the program’s first-ever district championship appearance. An eighth grader at Sts. Peter & Paul, Kushner was there to watch his older brother M.J. Kushner, then a senior and reserve forward on the Vikings’ squad, but he couldn’t help thinking one thing.
“I was like, ‘this is my last year to watch all these games,” he recalled. “This is the last game I can come to before I’m going to be on that court.’”
Lofty thoughts for a middle schooler. Especially lofty considering the Vikings had high hopes after their playoff run, which ultimately fell short in that District 1 5A title game (to Sun Valley) and then lost to Archbishop Ryan in the opening round of the PIAA Class 5A tournament. They returned 6-foot-9 wing Andrew Carr, a Division I recruit now signed to Delaware, talented combo guard Tym Richardson, and point guard Mike Dedda, all seniors.
Yet, a year after Jack Kushner watched East play in the Liacouras Center, he’ll get his chance to do his thing on the Owls’ court. The 6-foot-tall freshman has been a key starter for the Vikings all year, showing just why he’s been indispensable for East during the Vikings’ 50-36 win over school district rival West Chester Rustin in the district semifinals Wednesday night.
Kushner doesn’t need to score as much as Carr (23 points) or Richardson (13), and he doesn’t handle the ball as much as Dedda (four assists). But his eight points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal –– while playing all but the last 30 seconds of the semifinal victory –– show the versatility he brings to the floor, if not a full display of his effort.
Though he’s not the tallest kid on the floor, Kushner uses his 36-inch vertical to bother opposing drivers and big men on the glass, and he’s not afraid to dive on the after a loose ball.
“I just wanted to be the scrappiest player out there,” he said. “No fouls or anything, but I want to work my role and just try to get Andrew and Tym open, and just get all of the rebounds.”
“It’s really cool to see his adaptation to varsity basketball and knowing his role and knows what he has to do out on the floor,” said Carr, who saw what Kushner was capable of doing against his younger peers last year in CYO action. “It was really cool to see the transition he was able to make.”
Not many teams put a true freshman right into the starting lineup, especially those with district title aspirations.
Then Kushner started playing in East’s open gyms in the off-season, joining the roster during a summer league at West Chester University. And though there were plenty of jitters at first, the first bucket made it go away. Until the season came around, and Kushner found himself in the starting lineup in the State College Tip-Off, and it became real.
“First game of the season, I was a little nervous, the crowd’s big and stuff,” he said. “First two minutes into the game, I was fine. All the chanting, ‘he’s a freshman,’ just got me going and I was just hype ever since. Every single game [since], I’ve been fine.”
“He didn’t play like a freshman, he played like a junior,” head coach Tom Durant said. “He wasn’t intimidated by anybody with size, wasn’t intimidated with playing with older kids.
“He has all the intangibles you can’t coach: the heart, the intangibles, angle awareness, toughness and team-minded, he’s all about team. He knows his role.”
Andrew Carr (above) had 23 points and 12 rebounds, plus six blocks. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Carr certainly was the star of Wednesday night’s win, contributing 12 rebounds, six blocks, and a pair of steals and assists as the future Blue Hen did just about everything on the court. His best moment was a nifty crossover/step-back that resulted in a corner 3-pointer late in a third quarter that top-seeded East (24-3) took 18-8 and turned a seven-point halftime lead into a 40-23 runaway going into the fourth.
Kushner had two buckets during that frame, scoring off a nifty dump-in on a feed from Carr, just a few possessions after he’d similarly assisted on a Carr dunk. He’s certainly enjoyed having a D-I signee to learn from and play with, and Carr’s helped set the standard that Kushner wants to follow.
“It just inspires me so much and I just want to get to where he is,” Kushner said. “I might not be as tall as him, but I know that I’m doing my role, and in a couple years, I’ll be the next thing.”
Saturday at 3 PM, he’ll step foot on a court in a 10,000-foot seat arena for the first time, and will hear his name called in the starting lineup against No. 7 seed Penn Wood (16-7). If they win, they’ll play the No. 8 seed from District 3 in the first round of the state playoffs (Fri., March 6); lose, and they’ll play the No. 4 seed from District 12, Bartram.
“I’m so excited, it’s going to be crazy, [my] first time playing on a big court,” he said. “When the game was ending, I was like, I’m really going.”
Rustin: 9 | 6 | 8 | 13 | 36
East: 12 | 10 | 18 | 10 | 50
Rustin: 17-46 FG (0-6 3PT), 2-4 FT
East: 20-37 FG (3-7 3PT), 7-12 FT
Rustin: Pettit 14, Barksdale 12, Wethey 3, Pew 2, Seelaus 2, Barrouk 2, Chobany 1
East: Carr 23, Richardson 13, Kushner 8, Dedda 3, Hefferan 3