Most mornings, as students drowsily file into Country Day, the sound of determined dribbling can be heard from the gym.
This is no ordinary basketball practice; it is The Lab, a community of dedicated high schoolers and pros working on their game.
Founded about 20 years ago by Country Day basketball coach David Ancrum, The Lab has served as a training ground for students to hone their skills against skilled professionals.
Ancrum played point guard professionally in the Continental Basketball Association and traveled internationally to play in Greece, Panama, Ecuador and Israel. After a knee injury in the late ’90s, Ancrum pivoted to high school coaching, leading him to Country Day.
Due to his years of international experience, Ancrum knows that playing with older, better people is a great way to improve.
“You get guys that play at a high level and they force you to play at a high level, too,” Ancrum said.
Everyone from former and current NBA or WNBA players, NBA coaches, college players and overseas pros frequent The Lab.
Country Day players appreciate the skilled competition they find there.
“It’s just eye-opening to see what other people are capable of,” said senior point guard Felix Wu.
Ancrum welcomes this addition of talent and the benefits it can bring for students.
“We don’t know it all. That’s why a lot of Kings players come in, and I trust them,” he said. “We’re all just trying to get better at the end of the day.”
This influx of talented players has led to some changes in how The Lab functions.
Doug Christie, a former Sacramento Kings player and current Kings assistant coach, brought in the idea of concepts: forcing players to utilize tools like the pick and roll, dribble handoff, post passes or cut and pick away before scoring.
The Lab, however, is not open to everyone, Ancrum said. He only allows outside players who are both dedicated and able to help Country Day players improve.
When Lab-goers request to bring in someone to the gym, Ancrum said he asks two questions:
Is the person nice?
Does the person like basketball or love basketball?
One of the more recent additions to The Lab’s community is Justin Garcia, a basketball player at San Joaquin Delta College.
Garcia was referred to The Lab around six months ago and has not looked back.
“I love it,” Garcia said. “The way everyone is serious, and the way Anc runs it.”
Thanks to The Lab, he has seen marked improvements in his shot.
The next step for Garcia? Wherever he can get his foot through the door, be it the G League (NBA development league), NBA or overseas.
“It’s been going good so far, working with pro guys, staying in the gym everyday,” Garcia said. “I’m getting close.”
Because players like Garcia only enter The Lab by invitation, it remains a close community, Ancrum said.
“That’s the secret. If you bring in someone, you’ll be accountable.”
This model has worked, making The Lab “the place to be” for serious players.
For Country Day players, this also means they have a safe environment to improve their game with people at a high level — and improve they have.
Senior RJ Vargo has attended The Lab since fifth grade, and has developed essential skills he uses through his time there.
“Being able to dribble under pressure, shoot under pressure and make free throws is all stuff The Lab teaches you,” he said.
Wu credits The Lab for improving his basketball IQ and helping his work ethic.
Ancrum cultivates this by making sure people are held accountable and able to take criticism.
“No excuses,” Ancrum said. “We hold people accountable because that’s how you get better.”
Everyone plays under the same rules. People have to play hard, come early, make their free throws and keep their heads up on the dribble, he said.
Vargo enjoys this aspect of The Lab.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, you gotta respect the gym and the game. There are no shortcuts.”
Ancrum is thankful to the many great coaches and players who come to The Lab and help players get better: people like Christie, Lakers assistant coach Chris Jent, former Princeton coach Pete Carril and Olympic medalist Ruthie Bolton.
“It takes a village to raise a child, and I don’t know it all. Whatever they can do to help kids get better, I’m all for it,” Ancrum said.
Often, when people come to The Lab after being absent for a while, one of the first things they note is how much Country Day players have improved — one of Ancrum’s favorite parts of The Lab.
The Lab will continue as long as Country Day kids want to continue getting better, Ancrum said.
“That’s why it started in the first place,” he said. “Anyone else who wants to work on their game, we get them to work as well.”
By Saheb Gulati
This story was originally published in theNov. 16 issue of The Octagon