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Lutu’s hoop dreams are a reality
Islander left grass, dirt and injuries for love of the hardwood
By Matt Phelps
Mercer Island Reporter
A few weeks back, Mercer Island senior Leroy Lutu stole the basketball and ran hard for the other end of the floor. Up by 20 points, Lutu went for a dunk and the ball bounced off the back of the rim.
The miss was a surprise to most watching the game as Lutu is widely regarded as the best athlete at Mercer Island High School.
That athleticism has afforded the senior an opportunity to try three different sports and find his true love — basketball.
“I have always thought of myself as a basketball player,” said Lutu. “Even as a little kid, all I wanted was to become the next great Mercer Isand basketball player.”
In his senior year Lutu has achieved that status in most fans’ minds. But Lutu knows that what happens this year will make or break him and his teammates’ legacy in a storied progam.
“I chose not to play football this year because I wanted [this basketball season] to be special,” said Lutu. “But it was a hard choice.”
Last year’s football injury to Lutu’s hand kept him from achieving the level of success that some had hoped for. He has a reminder of that injury.
“I still have scar tissue on my hand,” said Lutu. “It was a huge setback. Many people told me that I would be a better football recruit [for college], but basketball is what I love.”
The decision was so difficult that Lutu could not bring himself to go to a game until halfway through the season.
Lutu’s football career began with a little deception and a strong bond with his father, Leroy Lutu, Sr., who was a standout in Hawaii in both basketball and football. Lutu began asking to play football in second grade.
“My mom didn’t want me to play football ‘cause she didn’t want me to get hurt,” said Lutu. “But she left for a trip, and my dad signed me up. I was so excited.”
By the time his mom came home, Lutu was fully acclimated to the fifth grade team.
Lutu’s prowess on the football field was evident by his numbers as a running back. He typically ran over opposing defenses for 100 or 200 yards a game during middle school.
“I still miss those days at Island Crest Field,” said Lutu.
By the time he was in high school, everyone knew his name.
Another game where Lutu was a standout in middle school was baseball. But once again, injury made him think about what sport he loved the most.
During a game in the seventh grade, Lutu tried to stretch a double into a triple and slid legs-first into the bag, breaking his ankle. After a long layoff with the injury, Lutu returned and in his first game back he broke his finger sliding into third base.
“That was a hard decision to make, too,” said Lutu. “But if you’re injured, you can’t play any sports.”
Basketball was the safest sport and Lutu’s passion.
During the offseason, Lutu dedicated himself to the hardwood. He practiced diligently to improve, taking 800 jump shots a day. That practice has paid off as he has scored more than 20 points in every game this season.
Lutu has become what he aspired toward when younger.
“It feels awesome to be an Islander,” said Lutu.
His basketball career started when he was in the second grade.
“I remember playing on those seven-foot-high hoops and no one could dribble,” said Lutu. “I really committed myself to basketball in the fifth grade.”
In sixth grade, one of Lutu’s coaches was a varsity basketball player by the name Pat Frost.
“I thought he was God,” said Lutu. “I thought it was so cool that he would hang out with me.”
Lutu said that since that time, he and Frost have become good friends and that he has had a profound impact on his career.
“He, along with (Adam) Barzg and Kael (Kristof), took me under their wing (sp),” said Lutu. “My dad has really inspired me, but he has also done a great job of letting me know I have work hard for what I want.”
His father’s guidance, along with his other coaches such as Ed Pepple, have helped Lutu become one of the best players in school history.
“‘Coach P’ is always reminding me to let the game come to me and that he has confidence in me,” said Lutu.
That kind of advice led to a great performance against Interlake as Lutu collected 11 steals in the game to tie Ryan Hammer for the single record.
“Hammer is one of the best point guards in school history,” said Lutu. “I was excited.”
But with all the focus on Lutu this season, his focus is on making his team better.
“We are all capable of having an amazing game, and we have to work together to win,” said Lutu. “I am happy with where we have come but not satisfied.”
Lutu saw some rare playing time as a freshman but then started as a sophomore, a rarity in Mercer Island High School boys basketball.
“I got the start against Lake Washington and scored 11 points,” said Lutu. “I was shocked. I figured I would come off the bench and maybe get to start by the end of the season.”
The last three years have been rocky for Mercer Island basketball, and the program has not been to the state playoffs during that time.
“I think we all want to see what it is like at the top,” said Lutu. “I just want to continue to get better.”
Lutu said that his ultimate goal is to play basketball in college.
The senior doesn’t have much time outside of sports, participating in church activities at St. Monica and school work.
One activity that Lutu makes time for is watching the Islander boys lacrosse team. He said he has even considered playing.
He credits his friends with keeping him grounded.
“I have great friends,” said Lutu. “They always give me a hard time when I miss a dunk.”