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Ex-North Central player's chase for Div. I basketball scholarship sidetracked at wayward California prep academy


12:00 AM, Feb. 01, 2013 EST

In this Dec. 17, 2011 file photo, John Murry of North Central goes up for a rebound against Hamilton Southeastern's Zak Irvin, left. / (D. Kevin Elliott / for the Star)

At the end of a "workout combine" in Sacramento, Calif., last May, John Murry had landed a spot at prep school that he believed would unlock the path to a bright future that hopefully included a Division I basketball scholarship.

The scholarship is still attainable. But a nightmarish experience at a California prep academy left him scared, embarrassed and scrambling to find a new school. If he had to do it all over again, Murry would be preparing for a state tournament run with his former North Central High School teammates.

"I was sold some false advertising," Murry said by telephone this week. "In a way, it's kind of embarrassing."

Just eight months after that initial workout in Sacramento, the man who lured Murry to the coast with promises of college exposure and a national schedule has been charged with suspicion of child abuse and triggered an NCAA inquiry.

Murry, a 6-3 senior shooting guard who is now attending another prep school in Florida, believes his story is a cautionary tale.

"Most likely," he said, "I should have just stayed (in Indianapolis)."

Red flags

Francis Ngissah, 24, billed himself as the president and CEO of CCSE Prep Academy. The first-year program was described on its website as "a boarding 9-12th grade, college preparatory academy with an emphasis on having a high quality elite basketball program."

In reality, the program amounted to 10 basketball players living at Ngissah's home in Roseville, Calif. Murry said the accommodations were nice enough, with two players assigned to a room in a house located in an upper middle-class neighborhood.

"The rooms were pretty big," Murry said. "There were queen-sized beds and a couple of the rooms had showers."

Though there wasn't a physical building for CCSE Prep other than the house and no students other than the basketball players, Ngissah appeared to solidify the legitimacy of the team by hiring Keith Moss as coach. Moss played at Cal State Northridge in the early 1990s and had experience as an assistant at San Jose State and St. Mary's, among other stops.

Murry's father, also named John Murry, said most of his concerns about sending his son to the West Coast were alleviated after talking with Ngissah, who had watched Murry play in travel tournaments in Fort Wayne, Chicago and Las Vegas and invited him to the combine.

Better yet, Murry was told he wouldn't have to pay a dime. Though the CCSE Prep web site listed tuition at $10,000 and room and board at $5,000, Ngissah -- who did not respond to multiple phone messages left at a number for CCSE Prep -- told Murry his costs would be covered.

Murry had shown flashes of potential in his career at North Central, but by the end of his junior season was mostly buried on the bench and, with the arrival of freshman phenom Eron Gordon, nothing would be guaranteed as a senior. With a good showing in travel tournaments in the spring and summer, Murry hoped he'd be able to capitalize on the momentum with more exposure at CCSE Prep.

"It looked like it was the thing to do," the elder Murry said.

However, there were red flags almost from the outset. The younger Murry said the team played seven games and he performed well, averaging nearly 30 points a game. He was named a team captain, along with 6-9 Brazilian Christiano Felicio, who signed with Oregon last fall.

In late September, Moss brought on Dave Garcia as an assistant coach. Garcia, a former player at Sacramento City College, made his name for several years as a personal trainer for college and high school players, and travel coach in Northern California. Garcia said he was with the program for only about three weeks when Moss told him he was leaving.

"He said (Ngissah) wasn't up to date with the payments," Garcia said. "He had come on full time and just couldn't do it anymore. Keith gave me a heads up to be careful with this guy. There were a lot of red flags, but at that point I sort of became the interim head coach."

Murry and another of the team's top players, Canadian Jalen Griffiths, moved out in early December, about the same time Garcia decided he'd had enough.

"(Ngissah) owed me a lot of money," Garcia said. "Once John and Jalen left, things kind of blew up."

But that wasn't the worst of it for Ngissah. According to police reports, four of the players still living at Ngissah's home told Roseville police on Jan. 8 that they had been subjected to physical punishment, including standing in a corner for a long period of time while restrained by zip-ties and having clothes pins attached to their nipples.

Police arrested Ngissah two days later on suspicion of child abuse involving cruel corporal punishment and willful cruelty, battery and false imprisonment. He was released from Placer County Jail after posting a $100,000 bail bond.

Murry said he was never punished in that way by Ngissah, but corroborated the reports of his former teammates.

"He would tie them up and say their attitude was bad and put them in the corner," Murry said.

When asked why he or his teammates didn't go to authorities earlier, Murry said it was out of fear.

"We (complained to Ngissah), but not much," he said. "We didn't feel like there was much we could do. Our parents were all across the country or out of the country. We just tried to deal with it."

Garcia said the team never told him anything about physical punishment in the house or he would have acted on it. The plan had been for Garcia to move into the house and Ngissah to move out until things fell apart in December.

"I knew they couldn't stand him," Garcia said. "But I told them to be patient and he'll be out of there soon. It was a good group of players assembled. It sounded like a great situation. But (Ngissah) wasn't suited to be doing what he was doing."

Ngissah denied all of the allegations in an interview following his arrest with Sacramento television station KRCA.

"If you look at the players who are 6-6, 6-7, 6-5 and 200 and something pounds, there's no way one of the players would let me do anything to them," he said. "If (people think) making sure they're doing their school work, making sure they get good food, ensuring that they are safe and have a great place is abusing kids, then yes. I haven't abused any kids."

The NCAA is also looking into the legitimacy of the coursework completed by the athletes at CCSE Prep. Murry said teachers were brought to the house during the week and the players -- six of whom were from foreign countries -- took online classes through a partnership with CORE Placer Charter, a K-12 public school that opened in nearby Colfax in 2009.

A teacher with CORE Placer Charter who visited the house multiple times confirmed the arrangement with CCSE Prep.

Multiple phone calls to the number listed on CCSE Prep's Facebook page went unanswered. No address is listed, only a P.O. Box for Sacramento.

Not what it was supposed to be

His California experience behind him, Murry hopes to move on at Taag Academy in Tampa. Taag plays a combination of small college programs and other prep schools.

"It's way more legitimate," Murry said. "We play a regular schedule against a lot of junior colleges and prep schools. This program has been here for a few years."

Though the NCAA has passed legislation in recent years to make it more difficult for athletes from fly-by-night prep schools that pop up out of nowhere to be eligible, there are still cautionary tales like Murry's.

"The first day I walked through the house I was joking with the guys that the lights were off," Garcia said. "They told me, dead serious, that (Ngissah) told them to keep the lights off because the bill was too high. That was my first red flag."

Taishaun Johnson, a senior guard at Pike, also attended the combine in Sacramento last spring.

"We just wanted to see how it was," Johnson said. "My mom didn't have a good feeling about it."

The video clips on the school's web site are slick packages, but offer little substance about CCSE Prep. Many of the photos -- including a 2009 Indianapolis Star photo of former Pike star Marquis Teague -- appear to be taken from other sites. In one two-minute, 45-second clip narrated by Ngissah, he uses the word "brand" 14 times in his vision for CCSE Prep. The video also includes photos or video of Michigan State, Indiana, North Carolina and a national all-star team, among others.

At best, the use of images from teams and players with no connection to the prep academy seems to be a misleading portrayal.

"That's the way (Ngissah) works," Garcia said. "He's an incredible con man. He keeps everybody in the dark about what he's doing. I'd ask him questions I already knew the answers to just to see how quickly he'd come up with a lie. It's really incredible."

Ngissah's plan -- to recruit a basketball team nationally, or internationally in this case, house the team and outsource academics to another school -- falls in line with what other prep academies have done, some successfully, in recent years.

Jeremy McCool, the assistant director of high school review for the NCAA, told ESPN.com in August that the outsourcing model is the No. 1 trend and problem in eligibility cases.

"We've coined it a parasitic relationship," McCool told ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil. "A coach finds a host -- usually an existing K-8 environment -- creates a secondary component that is unsustainable, and is able to profit off of it for a limited time. Then we come in and fold it and they move on, find another host and do it all over again."

Ngissah's motives for starting CCSE Prep are unclear. His promise on the web site that "we will be a Nike school" shows he was at least attempting to secure a shoe sponsorship for the academy. Acadamies that have been successful with the model of out-sourcing classes to a nearby school while building a powerhouse basketball program includes Huntington Prep (W.Va.), Findlay Prep (Nev.) and International Management Group (Fla.).

As for Murry, his college basketball dreams aren't dead. He said Northern Kentucky and Illinois State have shown interest recently, as well as several smaller schools.

But his journey has taken an unintended detour.

"The way (Ngissah) told us, we'd be flying all over the country playing in big tournaments," he said. "That didn't happen. It was nowhere near what it was supposed to be."

 

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