Defense-first approach has Hamtramck basketball reviving success of glory days

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Hamtramck – Dennis “D.J.” Foster and his staff are working hard to make Hamtramck relevant again in basketball. The Cosmos earned their first winning record (15-6) since 2000 last season and are off to a 6-2 start this season.

Foster, who played on four straight Metro Conference championships as a player at Hamtramck (1993-96), wants Hamtramck mentioned in the same breath as River Rouge, De La Salle and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, which is ranked No. 1 in The Detroit News Super 20.

Amari Allen guards teammate James Clay during practice for Hamtramck.

Foster wants Hamtramck invited to holiday tournaments to play against the premier teams in the state and hopes this season’s 6-2 start, with close losses at No. 12 De La Salle (65-62 overtime) and No. 2 River Rouge (54-49), will put his program in the conversation for years to come.

“Playing competitively and having a chance to beat De La Salle and River Rouge is a good thing, but now we have to take the next step,” said Foster, who was a star at Marygrove College before playing a half-dozen years professionally in Ireland.

“A couple of years ago when Noah (Burns) and Javier (Whitaker) were younger, we’d lose by 30 or 40 points. Now, the expectations are different – a whole lot of things are different.”

Foster, now in his sixth season as Hamtramck coach, says an emphasis on defense has helped raise the program.

“We go 10 deep, play straight-up man, go full-court and hold each other accountable,” he said. “If you can’t play D then you can’t play for me. We like to get out and run, but our defense is our offense. We like to get up and down, force turnovers and go. We don’t like to run many plays. We like to mirror (Orchard Lake) St. Mary’s game. We’re not there just yet, but we’re getting there.”

Hamtramck’s last district championship was in 1985 when Ken Miller played. Miller is now JV coach and Foster’s assistant. He was assistant back in the 1990s as well when Foster played.

“It had been 19 years since we had a winning season,” Miller said. “We had a good history and we’re trying to restore it.”

A good history? No doubt, since Hamtramck showcased Rudy Tomjanovich, a 1966 grad, who went on to earn second-team All-American honors at Michigan, then was a five-time All-Star for the Houston Rockets before coaching the Rockets to consecutive NBA titles in 1994 and 1995.

Hamtramck's Hershel Marion takes aim during practice.

When asked if this year’s team has a chance of winning a district title, Miller said, “Totally capable.”

Hamtramck will be competing in a Division 1 district at Detroit King with Grosse Pointe South, Grosse Pointe North, Eastpointe and No. 15 King in the field.

Freshman combo guard Amari Allen is averaging a team-high 16 points with six assists. His older brother is sophomore guard Aaron Allen.

Foster says Amari Allen has a “high basketball IQ” and adds that Aaron Allen is the “best defender in the city.”

Junior guard Javier Whitaker is a strong perimeter shooter who has an offer from Detroit-Mercy. Other top players are junior guard James Clay and sophomore guard Hershel Marion, and inside players 6-7 Noah Burns and 6-6 Mike Lewis.

 “We have five guys averaging in double figures,” said Foster of Burns (12 points, eight rebounds), Whitaker (12 points), Lewis (10 points, six rebounds) and Clay (10 points) joining Amari Allen. “It’s very hard for a team to matchup because you don’t know who is going to go off, like (Tuesday) we had Frank Bassett score 17 – he’s a 6-5 sophomore.”

Bassett had 17 points and seven rebounds, Burns 15 points and Lewis 10 points and 10 rebounds Tuesday night in a 63-62 win over Detroit University Prep. Marion scored 20 in the loss to River Rouge.

Hamtramck will play undefeated Detroit Loyola (8-0) Saturday at 3 p.m. in the MLK Showcase at Madison Heights Bishop Foley.

Then Hamtramck will host Harper Woods Jan. 24 in its second “Blackout Game” of the season, where the lights are turned off and fans turn their cell phones on, along with glow sticks with music blaring from a D.J. as the players are introduced prior to the game.

Hamtramck's Javier Whitaker guards Amari Allen in practice.

“They have a good mix of guard play, just a really good team,” said River Rouge coach Lamonta Stone. “We played them at their place and the environment is better than our environment. They cut the lights out and introduced the starters and everyone put their cellphone lights on.”

Hamtramck players enjoy playing in front of their fans, and they enjoy playing with each other.

“It’s not a selfish team since everyone really plays together,” said Clay, who started as a sophomore last year with Whitaker in the backcourt. “Last year was my first year of varsity ball and it’s way different level of competition than JV. I’m used to varsity now, feel comfortable. Defense is our main thing; our defensive creates our offense. Force a turnover and get an easy transition bucket.”

Clay has a 4.0 grade-point-average and plans to major in chemical engineering in college.

Whitaker, who owns a 3.2 GPA and the offer from Detroit-Mercy, also feels more comfortable as a second-year starter. He plans to major in sports management.

“I’m very confident in my team,” said Whitaker. “We play defense, play with each other, play within each other. We play off the defensive end and we guard heavy.”

Said Amari Allen: “It’s exciting to play as a freshman, play such a big role. I look up to people like Javier.”

Hamtramck athletic director Brian Anderson has high praise for Foster.

“You’re always worried when you’re in a new situation, and me and D.J. hit it off right away,” said Anderson, now in his second year as Hamtramck AD. “You can tell he just genuinely has a heart for kids. Obviously, he’s as competitive as they come, takes every loss personally. But at the end of the day he’d rather see these kids get scholarships and get good grades than add to his record, and that’s always been the most impressive thing to me.”

Foster and his staff – including assistants Tevin Fields and Miller – have a good thing going at Hamtramck.

“We put in a (summer) Mentor Program to change the mentality, teach the kids life lessons,” Foster said. “We teach them about finances, banking, credit scores – all that kind of stuff. And to get all these young boys in you bring in basketball, so we have rec leagues, but you have to learn all of those things first with the program.”