As Tommy Amaker made his recruiting trips to Morton in his pursuit of Weisner Perez, the Harvard coach ultimately learned how big of a decision the talented senior had in front of him.
The decision wasn’t just for a teen-aged playing basketball player, either.
“As he got to know me, the school I went to and the area I live in, he told me that he realized that if I chose Harvard, the decision would be way bigger than just basketball,” says Perez, who committed to Amaker and Harvard Friday afternoon at the Morton West campus. “He saw and knew what it would mean for the school and the community.”
Perez parlayed his basketball skills and an outstanding transcript into the perfect blend of high-level hoops and academics.
“It’s one of the best academic schools in the world,” Perez said of why he was first attracted to the school. “And in the basketball world, with coach Amaker, they’ve been playing at a really high level and going to the NCAA Tournament.”
In the past three seasons, Harvard has averaged 24 wins a year and reached three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, beating New Mexico and Cincinnati in NCAA tournament play in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Maybe this story wouldn’t be quite as noteworthy at a Hinsdale Central or a New Trier. But the Perez to Harvard decision was palpable throughout the school and community on Friday. Even more so, the mere possibility that a basketball player from the Berwyn-Cicero school and community could land at a place like Harvard left a sense of pride and a spotlight shining on the school and basketball program.
Morton head coach Tony Martinucci, who has done a tremendous job building Morton into a basketball school, is a Berwyn-Cicero native. He believes there is a bit of a misrepresentation out there when it comes to Morton and all that it has to offer socially, academically and athletically. The Perez commitment to Harvard helps prove that notion.
“I’ve spent my whole life here, and it’s so exciting to tell people, ‘Look, it is possible, you can do it right here at Morton,” says Martinucci of the combination of academic and athletic success. “It means so much to me to see and show that it is a possibility, that if you put your mind to it, really try, that you can do it.”
Perez, who has had three stellar seasons already at the varsity level and was a valuable and productive player for the Mac Irvin Fire on the club circuit this past summer, knew he had a chance to do something special very early.
Following 8th grade, Perez could have gone to any private school he wanted for free as a Daniel Murphy Scholarship recipient, which provides a four-year scholarship and educational support to Chicago students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who demonstrate outstanding academic potential, leadership skills and strong character.
Perez, however, had other thoughts. His older brother, Waller Perez, was attending Morton at the time and is now a student and plays basketball at the University of Chicago, one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions. Plus, he wanted to be different, which is why he decided to bring his academic potential, leadership skills and strong character to Morton.
“I look back now and I see how Morton is so undervalued in every aspect,” says Perez of his own educational experience. “I want to give people hope that you can set out and be different no matter where you are or what your background is.
“Coming into high school I thought, ‘Why can’t I do it? Why can’t I be that person? Why can’t I be the athlete and the type of student who can go to an Ivy League school?’ It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.”
With the work he’s put in and all he’s accomplished on the basketball court and in the classroom, Perez realizes his decision is a little more than just a basketball commitment to a Division I school. He’s an example, a paragon for 8,000-plus students at Morton High School, the largest in the state, and all those who will follow in years to come.
“To be seen as a role model is big for me,” admits Perez. “I want people to think, ‘We had a kid get to Harvard.’ I hope it does help the school morale and for people to see what you can do at Morton.”
Martinucci has watched his star player impress off the floor for years. He’s had Perez talk to young kids in the school district and at recreational centers throughout Berwyn and Cicero. He proudly watches parents look at him and say, “Yeah, he goes to Morton.”
“Everyone pulls for him because of the way he carries himself,” says Martinucci, who says he was a little choked up on Friday during the commitment ceremony. “I think you have to live here to see it, feel it and appreciate this, but I’m so proud of him. He’s a kid that made it.”
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