Meiler: Don't blame Lightfoot, nor Niagara Falls

Mike Meiler

Five months ago, underclassmen Willie Lightfoot and Jalen Bradberry led the proud Niagara Falls boys basketball program back to the state tournament for the first time in a decade.

Neither will be donning a Wolverines uniform for the upcoming season.

Both transferred out of Niagara Falls High School this summer, Bradberry choosing local private power Park in July and Lightfoot electing mighty Kansas prep school Sunrise Christian Academy on Saturday.

Along with Roddy Gayle, who left the Wolverines following a standout eighth-grade season for Lewiston-Porter in the summer of 2018, NFHS has lost three Division I-bound players in two summers.

If it isn't already, it will be tempting to remember this era of Niagara Falls basketball for what could've been. In another reality, Lightfoot, Gayle and Bradberry team up with Josiah Harris, Jaemon Turner, Moran Montgomery and maybe even Cardinal O'Hara's NF duo of Haakim Siner and Avion Harris to lead the Wolverines to a second state title. Maybe they stick together for the entirety of their high school careers and return Niagara Falls to its status as a national powerhouse.

 

Maybe while those stars were aligned, I'd win the lottery.

There are a number of reasons that didn't happen, far too many and far too complex to list without leaving something out or failing to properly explain something else.

Student-athletes these days have more people invested in and more options available to them than ever before. Family, friends, high school coaches, AAU coaches, skills coaches, trainers, college recruiters, even social media followers have some level of sway, and the way those parties interact can affect a player's future without him even knowing.

Relationships mean more than ever because there are more options than ever, and in the case of both the Niagara Falls and basketball communities, those relationships have deep roots — both good and bad.

There's nobody to blame. In fact, there's nothing really to blame anybody for — believe me, I've asked. Each instance is simply the players and their families making decisions based on what they believe to be best for the future, and when that future might include a Division I scholarship, those decisions are magnified. While you might disagree with the reasons for a family's decision, you can't fault them for making it; they've done so with their child's interests at heart. 

This is the new normal in high-level high school sports. A college scholarship is more valuable than whatever sense of school or community pride once drove student-athletes. The top level of prep sports is an expressway to college, much as the top level of college sports is all about getting to the pros.

That's not a bad thing. The opportunities that come from college — athletically, academically and socially — open up doors previously unimagined to many high school athletes.

In Lightfoot's case, that means a new state, new people and new experiences, all while competing against national-level talent nightly and improving his odds at landing at a high-level college.

So don't waste time looking for someone to blame. Instead, marvel in the fact that the Cataract City is still pumping out elite basketball talent, and root for these kids to make the most of it.

Respond to sports editor Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or vial email at mike.meiler@gnnewspaper.com.