When Jake Layman first arrived at King Philip Regional High School, the only noise around the boys’ basketball program was the bounce of the ball.
The school hadn’t won a game in two years. Its losing streak was more than 40 games long.
Layman did his best to be honest with himself.
“I really didn’t think our team was going to be any good at all,” he said. “It was just not a good atmosphere around basketball.”
As it happened, Sean McInnis had just taken the head coaching job. He had done his share of hoops whispering before. He had rebuilt the girls’ program at Weston.
Aside from a few passing glances during a couple of youth league games, though, McInnis never had seen Layman play.
The first day, McInnis met with the freshmen, which included Layman, and the upperclassmen. They made a promise to each other.
“We just made the commitment to each other that we’re going to turn this thing around and we’re going to make sure that we’re going to see this to the end,” said McInnis.
There wasn’t a ‘voila!’ moment. They still struggled that first season, but they clung to the possibility of changing the basketball culture at King Philip.
“Jake was one of those people reminding us, ‘Hey, we made this deal, we’re going to stick to it. We’re going to turn this around,’ ” McInnis said.
Layman did it even though he had options. Other schools knocked at his door, telling him how much greener their grass was. He didn’t listen.
“When prep schools were calling and everybody else was calling, Jake fell back on his morals and said, ‘No, you know what, we’re going to stick together, we’re going to turn this program around,’ ” said McInnis.
By the time Layman left last year, King Philip had gone from 40 straight losses to a team that won 35 games his last two seasons, making trips to the state tournament and filling the gym with locals.
“People were showing up two hours before game time to watch these kids play,” McInnis said.
Among those people were scouts, who ended up with Norfolk on their radar because of Layman, the 6-foot-9-inch all-star wingman who scored more than 1,700 points and emerged as one of the top recruits in the country.
By his senior season, Layman went from having had to pick a program up from the rubble to being able to pick from some of the top programs in the country.
In the end, he chose the University of Maryland, and when the Terrapins (fresh off an upset of then-No. 2 Duke) come to Conte Forum Tuesday night to face Boston College, it will be more than just a close-to-homecoming for Layman. He’ll be proof of an entire program’s turnaround.
“Jake is a special kid,” McInnis said. “Jake’s importance really reached out farther than the basketball court. Jake is a special student-athlete that comes along once in a lifetime. What he’s done for this community and this program and this school is tremendous.”
Layman is allergic to the spotlight. While he was at King Philip, McInnis said, Layman was just a small-town kid disguised as a big-time recruit. It hasn’t changed since he got to College Park.
“You would not know that Jake is a Division 1 basketball player,” McInnis said. “Jake is always making sure that he pushes the spotlight on others, he’s always making sure he takes care of everybody but himself.”
Layman spent last summer as a face in the crowd of college talent on USA Basketball’s under-18 national team. Some of those players, including Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon, he’d eventually see when he got to Maryland.
“It was the best experience I could ask for,” Layman said. “I learned just how athletic the college level would be.”
As soon as he arrived at College Park, he was made aware of lofty expectations as quickly as he was given a new nickname (Sunshine, after the quarterback from Remember the Titans).
He’s had his highs (a 20-point breakout against Virginia Tech last month) and his lows (falling out of the rotation in a four-minute night against Stony Brook), but he’s averaging 9.5 points his past four games, feeling as comfortable as he has all season.
“Coming in, it took some time to adjust, but now I think I’m there and I’m playing to my level now,” Layman said. “I knew it was going to be hard coming in to adjust, but for me, it was just work as hard as I could, get prepared for every game. I know that each game there’s an amazing player on each team, so it’s a hard task every game.”
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon also has found the most comfortable approach when it comes to dealing with Layman, going from the heavy hand to more positive reinforcement.
“It took time, and then I realized that you can’t scream and yell at Jake a lot,” said Turgeon. “You need to be a positive influence on him. And we’ve hit that approach. I’m sure he still thinks [they yell at him], which I’m sure I do at times. Just try to handle him a little bit better, giving him confidence.
“The thing about Jake is Jake brings it every day. It’s not like Jake wasn’t trying hard or took a day off or had a bad attitude. He’s a very humble kid and just continued to work hard. Those guys are fun to work with, and you know, his upside is huge.
“He’s really come a long ways and he helped us [by playing] a tremendous amount of minutes the other night against Duke and will play a lot of minutes as we move forward. I think he gets just a little bit better every day that we are able to coach him.”
When Layman left for Maryland, McInnis left, too, off to find another fixer-upper. He didn’t go far. He took the job as King Philip’s girls’ coach.
But the boys’ team is still churning. In fact, there’s another Layman on the roster, Jimmy, and the buzz is that he’s as good, if not better, than his older brother.
Jimmy’s been to a couple of Jake’s games in College Park. He’ll be at Conte Forum Tuesday night. And when Jake thinks back four years ago and remembers that struggling program, he realizes that was the point.
“The program wasn’t even a program before we got there, it was just a basketball team,” Layman said. “Now it’s a program people want to be a part of. That’s what’s great to see.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.