May 24, 2010

7-foot brothers stand out in a crowd

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When basketball players Sim and Tanveer Bhullar visited Saltsburg (Pa.) The Kiski School last summer, they were awestruck at the size of the sprawling, 350-acre campus replete with a golf course, Tudor-style dormitories and hiking trails.

"I was like, 'Wow, this is big,'" Tanveer said.

Others react the same way when they meet them.

Sim, 17, is 7-4, 285 pounds.

Tanveer, only 15, is 7-2, 260 pounds.

Both have solid skills and are developing quickly on the court.

They have a chance to become top college basketball players. They have the opportunity to become national sports heroes in India.

"Their potential is unlimited," Joe Lewandowksi, one of their first prominent coaches, said.

Either way, they are determined to get a good education, which is how they ended up at a school in Western Pennsylvania known for a lot of things - but not basketball.

Until now.

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The Bhullars dwarf the last notable pair of 7-foot brothers to play basketball together on the high school level - Brook and Robin Lopez, who went from San Joaquin Memorial (Calif.) from 2003-2006 to Stanford to the first-round of the 2008 NBA Draft.

And while the Bhullars are still growing into their large frames, they both are nimble and have skills to complement their height.

Sim, who just completed his sophomore season, averaged about 16 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks. He has three-point range and is a strong passer, but he also can run the floor and finish strong with power dunks.

"You just don't find big guys that agile," Kiski School head coach Daryn Freedman said. "There's nothing like him in the country right now."

Tanveer averaged about 12 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks during his freshman season. He possesses a smooth 15- to 17-foot jumper and has quick feet and soft hands, key attributes to low-post success.

They both have improved immensely at Kiski School under Freedman, a longtime college and NBA assistant who arrived at the school about a month before the Bhullars did. They have since remade their bodies, regularly working out at 5 a.m. with the Kiski wrestling coach.

Sim, who has lost 30 pounds, could not run the court more than two or three times. Tanveer, who started last season as a backup, needed a month before he could dunk after a running start.

And while they both have areas to work on - Tanveer must resist the urge to shoot fadeaway jumpers and improve his foot speed; Sim needs to be a more active rebounder and to maintain his composure after committing a silly foul - there have been glimpses of greatness.

Sim displayed his tantalizing skill during an AAU open gym session featuring top Pittsburgh-area prep players. He stole the ball at half court, dribbled between two defenders and then threw down an acrobatic dunk.

"Everyone was just kind of shocked," Freedman said. "That was the first time I was like, 'Wow, he's really come far.'"

Far is an appropriate term.

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The Bhullars' road to Kiski School is a long one - and started more than two decades ago when their father Avtar (who stands 6-1), moved from Amritsar, India, to Toronto. His wife, the 5-foot-10 Varinder, joined him later.

They had three children - the boys plus older sister Avneet, who attends law school in England.

"They left their home to a whole new country so their future family would have a better life," Avneet said. "All three of us are very grateful to them."

The brothers were playing with the Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education (YAAACE), an inner-city Toronto program for which Lewandowski assists.

Their parents, however, knew that their basketball opportunities were limited in Canada.

Varinder asked Lewandowski if he could help them find an American school where her sons could better develop their basketball ability.

The Bhullars considered other schools, including well-known basketball schools DeMatha (Md.) Catholic and Montrose (Md.) Christian. Then Lewandoski, a former Pittsburgh-area high school coach and player at Slippery Rock University, suggested The Kiski School, where Freedman had just taken over as coach.

The Kiski School - an all-boys, prep school of 210 students located 30 miles east of Pittsburgh and just a six-hour drive from Toronto - turned out to be the perfect combination of academics, location and coaching.

Freedman, who has coached at various Division 1 schools and with both the Nets and the Sixers in the NBA, has been a perfect fit.

His background not only allows him to develop the kids as players but prepare them for the recruiting process that's ahead.

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West Virginia has already offered Sim a scholarship. Duke plans to visit him.

Duquesne, Florida State, Kentucky, LSU, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Texas, UMass, USC and Washington State have expressed interest in both brothers.

Because Freedman spent eight years as an assistant under John Calipari in college and the pros - "He was my mentor, my coaching idol," Freedman says - some assume Kentucky has the inside track. Freedman just laughs.

"They're going to wind up wherever they want to go," he said. "I know way too many people in basketball to tell a kid where to go... I can't do that. It would be unfair to too many people."

The Bhullars are looking for a strong academic school that excels at developing big men and is close to Toronto. And they'd like to play together.

"If we could," Sim said, "we most likely would do it."

Anyone who has seen them together, understands why.

"Everyone thinks they're twins," Freedman said. "They're really, really tight... They definitely have each other's backs all the time."

Avneet used to drive her brothers to and from a Toronto-area gym. But on the one day that she could not pick them up and the boys had to walk, Tanveer rolled his ankle. Sim's shoulder would later ache because he served as a crutch, supporting Tanveer the whole way home.

"Had it been another older brother, he'd probably laugh at his younger brother for his foolishness," Avneet said via e-mail. "But Sim was more worried than amused for the well-being of his little brother."

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The brothers are serious about their future - and would welcome roles as Indian basketball pioneers.

The NBA had players from 36 countries and territories this season, but none from India.

The brothers already have a following. When they visited the Golden Temple, a Sikh spiritual and cultural center, last summer, about 100 people crowded them.

"If I was able to make the NBA," Sim said, "that would be something big for India."

That, however, can wait.

This summer will be spent in Canada playing for the AAU team, Team Takeover, and the Canadian national teams.

In 2010-11, the Bhullars will return to a loaded Kiski School squad, which went 16-4 last year and also includes Serbian Stefan Jankovic, a super-talented 6-9 forward who grew up in Toronto.

It's reason enough for Freedman to be thrilled with his career move.

"I love this," he said. "It's just such a great situation.

"I have no interest right now in going back to college."

Why should he? With a pair of brothers such as the Bhullars, the colleges will be coming to him.

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