Roy Booker recruits basketball players from around the world to join elite program

Roy Booker coaches his players during a game Dec. 9 at Arkansas Baptist Collage, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Sarah Morris ~ Special to B Magazine

When Roy Booker was shooting a thousand shots a day on his way to becoming Southeast Missouri State University’s single-season scoring leader, he knew hard work was his path to success.

“I was a gym rat. I love the game. I was obsessed with working on my skills,” he said.

The Portageville, Missouri, native is hoping to work hard enough as program director of Southeast Missouri Preparatory School, which is based in Cape Girardeau, to reach a lofty goal.

“IMG. Link Year.”

IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, opened in 1978 as a tennis academy. It has grown to become a behemoth multi-sport boarding school for 1,300 of the nation’s best young athletes each year and a training destination for some of the world’s most well-known professional athletes.

Sarah Morris ~ Special to B Magazine

Closer to home, Link Year Prep and Link Year Academy in Branson, Missouri, feature not only an elite high school basketball program but post-graduate programs that allow players to travel the country playing other similarly composed teams.

Preparatory schools focused on athletics are not a new phenomenon, though they follow several paths. Some serve as boarding schools and include a full high school curriculum. The best of these can command tuition and fees rising into the low six-figures annually. Others serve as athletic training programs that also offer academic support in some ways for young people wanting to continue their athletic career after high school.

Sarah Morris ~ Special to B Magazine

SEMO Prep is one of them.

Booker’s program, which began last year in Carbondale, Illinois, allows about two dozen former high school athletes to hone their craft from August through April. The players compete in a 25-game schedule against other prep school and junior college teams throughout the region, from Chicago to Little Rock, Arkansas.

Sarah Morris ~ Special to B Magazine

Such a program assists former high school players who need to improve their basketball skills, work on their physical development and/or simply mature as a person before securing an athletic scholarship to play at the collegiate level.

“They came here to get stronger, bigger, faster and learn how basketball goes from the traveling, playing college teams, the whole nine yards,” Booker explained.

And he knows what that looks like.

Sarah Morris ~ Special to B Magazine

An all-state player in high school, Booker went on to earn junior college all-American status at Allen County Community College in Kansas. From there, he went to the University of Montana and eventually made his way to SEMO, where he was named to the Ohio Valley all-conference team. After finishing his college career, Booker played professionally for more than a decade overseas, leading leagues in scoring and assists multiple times. He transitioned to coaching at the community college level and then turned his attention to preparatory schools, where he hopes to build the next national power.

Global reach

The players in this iteration of the program hail from states from Maryland to Texas and beyond — the Bahamas and Australia. They comprise two teams, providing ample playing time to all the players, Booker said.

“We want to make sure they are getting their services. So, we try not to go over a certain limit — 12, 13 a team,” he explained.

In addition to on-court practices at Cape Girardeau Sportsplex, with which the program has a two-year contract, the players go through strength and conditioning training several times a week. Be Chosen Academy in Cape Girardeau provides this component of the program. CEO Kweku Arkorful, co-founder of the Honorable Young Men Club in Cape Girardeau, said training athletes for competition has specific goals.

“We focus on building powerful and explosive athletes,” said Arkorful, who played football at Southeast Missouri State University. “We’ve designed a program to allow the athletes to build strength without being too bulky so they can be the elusive athletes they are.”

Sarah Morris ~ Special to B Magazine

To fuel the players, Booker has partnered with Super Fresh Kitchens of Cape Girardeau.

Another partner is Cape Trails Apartments, which lodges the players and staff. Booker said the staff oversees the players at the apartments, enforcing curfews and facilitating their academic work.

Though SEMO Prep does not directly provide academic coursework, the program helps the players take a near-full load of college courses, ensuring the players earn about 20 hours of college credit during their stay. Once they complete the program, they will have about one year of college credit under their belt to go along with four years of athletic eligibility.

After the current players finish their season, Booker will offer shorter camps and other training opportunities.

Booker’s staff consists of Howard Davis, a Chicago native; Kyle Luke; and Johnny Dance, also of Chicago, who started his high school coaching career at 19 years of age.

Players said the program has helped them develop as players and people.

Joshua Burrows of Nassau, Bahamas, said Booker’s personal experience as a college and professional player is helping guide him along his athletic path.

“Attending SEMO Prep has given me the opportunity to excel as a person, not only on but off the court. It helped me become a more confident and goal-oriented basketball player,” he said. “Many of us came from a home where our parents spoon-fed us. Now we are on our own and have great guidance from our coaches. As a team we are able to learn how to take care of ourselves and how to make virtuous decisions.”

Sarah Morris ~ Special to B Magazine

TJ Pangonas of Memphis, Tennessee, agreed that the environment compels the young men to mature.

“I knew going here, I would become a better player but more importantly a better man. One benefit I have experienced while here is being able to adapt to any situation. Coming to a prep school is not for the weak, it takes a certain type of mental toughness to stay here and make it out on the other end,” he contended. “You have to appreciate and love the sport for what it is. Every day is a grind and you have to use every day to get better at something, whether it’s academically, physically, or mentally.”

He added that exposure to people from other areas and cultures has broadened his perspective.

“The exposure I have received is unmatched. We have many international players on the team. Many different levels of college coaches have been to our practices and games,” he said.

Sarah Morris ~ Special to B Magazine

Business decision on both ends

Funding for the program comes from tuition — $14,000 for the August through April program — and donors. Booker said he is working to secure a number of sponsorship deals with various entities, including shoe and gear companies such as Nike.

The program has showed quick results for the players, Booker said, as about 20% of the players in the program had scholarship offers to play basketball before they enrolled. Now, that number is about 70%, and Booker said he envisions the percentage to rise to 80% when the next group completes the program.

Sarah Morris ~ Special to B Magazine

SEMO Prep could help not only the athletes but his alma mater, Booker contended.

“This should be a straight outlet for SEMO,” he said. “They get a kid who is a year bigger, a year stronger, a year better.”

Next year, SEMO Prep will head to the pitch with a soccer team, doubling participation to nearly four dozen athletes. Booker envisions a SEMO Prep gym in 2023 and a push to lure AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) tournaments featuring some of the nation’s best up-and-coming — and well-known — basketball players to Cape Girardeau.

And he said he’s willing to work hard to make it all come true.

“You have to work hard for what you want. I believe as long as I have the right support, the right team around me, we can do this.”

Sarah Morris ~ Special to B Magazine