And1 Founder Seth Berger Is Building a Different Kind of Basketball Start-Up

Matt GilesFeatured Columnist IMarch 21, 2018

Ed Cunicelli

Seth Berger has always had a keen eye for talent. Whether launching And1 at the height of the sneaker wars and successfully contending with Nike, or racking up thousands in winnings during epic no-limit hold 'em runs in Las Vegas, Berger has always innately known how to manipulate a situation to his utmost advantage.

And yet, the 50-year-old, who is now in his 11th season as the head boys basketball coach at the Westtown School, a high school in the outer suburbs of Philadelphia, was stumped when Mohamed Bamba—now a freshman at Texas and a prospective lottery pick in the 2018 NBA draft—first tried out for the team in 2014.

A friend of Berger's from the AAU circuit had recommended Bamba. But after his first practice, Berger was unsure of the then-sophomore's talent.

"He was 6'8" and super smart, so I thought he'd be at least a high major [college recruit]," says Berger.

After two additional workouts, though, Berger realized his ability for finding the diamond in any rough had initially failed him. Bamba not only had the potential to change his and Berger's fortunes, but also that of the school.

"I called my friend and told him Mo is a one-and-done player, and he might be one of the best players to ever play the game."

Such is the life of a man who seems to possess an uncanny ability to transform any situation into a winning one.

"I think the thing I did well as the CEO of And1 is similar to the things I now do well as coach at Westtown," he tells Bleacher Report. "I am good at identifying someone that is talented and better than me, and coach them to reach for their highest goals." 

A decade ago, Berger was semiretired from the corporate hustle, having flitted about several gigs since selling And1 to American Sporting Goods in 2005 for an undisclosed seven-figure amount, when he was tasked with resurrecting the basketball program at Westtown. Though Berger was enthusiastic about the opportunity, even he believed creating a successful program at the school, which was founded in 1799 and is purportedly the nation's oldest continuously operating coeducational boarding school, wouldn't be an easy lift.

It also didn't help that Berger had never coached a single possession, let alone a full game.

"While I still am in a learning process, back then, I had to prove to kids that I could help them improve," he says.

Though Berger's learning curve was steep, Westtown has emerged as the most unlikely basketball powerhouse. In 2016, it won its first state title, a feat which the squad repeated in 2017. In the recently released SI TV documentary about the high school program titled "We Town," the 2017 starting five, which included Bamba, was tagged as one of the greatest high school rosters of all time.

"We're at that point where it is state title or bust," Berger says. Entering 2018, Westtown's transformation from not only a juggernaut within the state but also nationally was complete, as it ranked within back-to-back (USA Today's 2016, MaxPreps 2017) preseason polls. 

Seth Berger and Mohamed Bamba
Seth Berger and Mohamed BambaEd Cunicelli

Though it would be difficult for any coach to replace talent like Bamba or current Arizona Wildcat Brandon Randolph (another member of the 2017 squad), blue-chip recruits still crowd the roster: Jake Forrester (an Indiana commit); Jalen Gaffney, a 6'3" guard in the 2019 class who already has offers from St. John's and Binghamton; Noah Collier, a cass of 2020 forward who spent this past summer at the USA U16 camp; and, finally, Cam Reddish, a future Duke Blue Devil (and the nation's second-ranked recruit) who dropped 53 points in a high school tournament this past season and, in the process, was compared to LeBron James.

Against nationally ranked Prolific Prep in the recent Chick-fil-A Classic, Reddish scored 23 points, including five three-point field goals in a 71-54 loss. Westtown finished its regular season with a 20-12 record and was denied a three-peat, losing in the semifinals of the Pennsylvania state tournament.

In a recent phone call, Berger gushes about next season's team, a group that—while not on the level of "one of the greatest high school basketball teams of all time"—is still pretty good.

"I like the core group we have coming back. Jalen is a superstar. Noah has a chance to be a top-10 kid this summer, and some of our younger kids are going to end the AAU circuit with D-I offers. We have a lot of kids on this [team] who can make money. These kids can really play."

The 6'8" Reddish is already near the top of mock drafts for 2019. So if Bamba is indeed selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, it is possible that Westtown will have birthed back-to-back top picks, a marked change from the fringe Division III prospects that used to suit up for Westtown.

Which is to say that no one could have expected this level of success at a sleepy school nestled behind thick forests and amid the back roads of Pennsylvania, where it's possible to spend 20 minutes walking around the campus's 600 acres and not encounter a single person.

"It's a testament to how much luck is involved in someone's success," says Berger. "Anytime someone in business fails to tell you how important luck is in success, that person has either fooled himself or is trying to fool you. We got lucky, but we also found a niche."

And his intention upon accepting the Westtown opening was to exploit that niche for all it was worth. Berger is always selling.

"He never stops smiling, which I thought was weird but also refreshing," says Dockery Walker, one of the first D-I recruits to play for Berger at Westtown. 

"Building a top-20 high school program at a place without a strong history of athletic competition is a narrow path to walk, but Seth wanted to build the Duke of high school basketball," says Jay Gilbert, an And1 co-founder. "There aren't too many places you can go as a high-level athlete that'll develop you athletically and academically. Westtown is a unique selling proposition."

When Collier enrolled at the school prior to his freshman year, he wasn't concerned by the school's lack of basketball tradition. Rather, he based his decision on the type of talent Berger had already assembled.

"The players Seth had turned my eyes to the school a bit more," he says. "I knew I wasn't going to be a big fish in a small pond. He had great players at different positions, and it seemed like he knew how to coach high-level talent, so that's why I hopped on the train."

Seth Berger
Seth BergerEd Cunicelli

Of course, Berger's reclamation project only works if the school gives him the tools he needs to succeed. To that end, Westtown completely gutted and renovated its gym in 2014 by adding retractable backboards and a new floor.

"One rim was six inches too low, the other was six inches too high," says Berger. "It's like a mini-college gym," he says.

And Westtown didn't just overhaul its facilities. It also opened up merit scholarships to athletes for the first time in the school's history, which was a requirement of Berger's when he first took the job in 2007.

If you go to war against Nike for worldwide sneaker domination, you don't go slowly. You sign dozens of AAU and college programs and outfit 103 players with And1 sneakers. Similarly, if you're going to build a dominant high school program, you quickly make all the necessary adjustments to attract top talent.

"Seth treated Westtown like a start-up," says Gilbert. "He found and retained great talent, united them around a common vision and then worked their asses off."

Berger's career path wasn't evident as a child growing up on New York City's Upper East Side as the eldest son of a teacher and a patent and trademark attorney. A sports-obsessed teen short on talent but long on competitiveness, Berger could either be found hustling pick-up games at Central Park or playing poker during the lunch hour at Horace Mann, a private preparatory school in the Bronx.

"I made enough money my senior year to pay for my own trip to Jamaica for spring break," he recalls.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics, Berger first turned to politics, working on Capitol Hill for two years. But once he realized the financial drain a political career would entail, he pivoted to business and enrolled at The Wharton School.

And1 was born within his intersection of business acumen and a love for basketball. What first started as a database of basketball players of varying skill sets that would be sold to companies like Foot Action and Foot Locker morphed into an apparel company that hit a zeitgeist in basketball culture.

"One of my professors preached to all of us in class, 'You are young, you are single, you are broke, you're not used to having money. This is the best time to start a business.' I was particularly attuned to that."

With T-shirts featuring trash talk like 'Your game is as ugly as your girl,' sneakers marketed to the best players on both concrete and hardwood, and a worldwide tour of the top streetballers (then a burgeoning cultural phenomenon), And1 became a driving force in the apparel industry.

Within several months, the company went from retailing in 10 stores to 1,500. By the time Berger sold And1, the sneakers graced the feet of basketball outliers like Stephon Marbury, Latrell Sprewell and Philip "Hot Sauce" Champion. The brand was worth nearly $300 million.

By 2005, though, Berger had three children and wanted a better quality of life, one that didn't involve constantly stepping away for board meetings. That, and he was offered an amount of money that he had always promised himself would be enough to leave a business he had started from scratch and turned into a global and branding behemoth.

Mohamed Bamba (11) and Cam Reddish talk on Westtown bench.
Mohamed Bamba (11) and Cam Reddish talk on Westtown bench.Ed Cunicelli

It was during this interim period of Berger's life when the opportunity to coach Westtown arose. Berger didn't need the job—he was content picking his kids up from school every day and playing poker three nights a week while tutoring Chris Moneymaker-hopefuls in his spare time—but he offered to volunteer as an assistant for Westtown. When the head coach resigned two years later, Berger was offered the job. Since he donates his $4,700 salary back to the school, though, he is still essentially a volunteer.

The transition wasn't seamless. Though he was captain of Penn's JV team, Berger was a coaching novice, so he spent at least six hours a day watching instructional DVDs, digesting everything from how to install a motion offense to press-breaking techniques. He also would travel throughout the Philadelphia area to watch college practices while picking up teaching points from coaches like Jay Wright and Fran Dunphy.

"I don't view this as a hobby. This is my life," he says. "And I needed to be the best I can be to help my kids the most."

Wins were difficult to come by those first few years.

"Any time you pick up anything new, you have to work the hardest and the most as early as possible, or you'll never get there," Berger says.

His program made little headway in the Friends School League, a conference that routinely fields high-major recruits.

"I watched clips of Westtown's games before I enrolled there, and maybe 10 people were in the stands," Walker says.

But as the team steadily improved—increasing its scoring average from 38 points per game to 57 within the first few years—so did the quality of players Berger convinced to play for Westtown, including NBA center Georgios Papagiannis and G League big Daniel Ochefu, who recently completed a four-year career for Villanova. And of course, Bamba, Randolph and Reddish. Berger maintains Westtown was always talented—"a kid who is a really good Division III player is still a good basketball player"— but even he'll admit the breed of player now matriculating is sui generis for the Quaker school.

"I have a half dozen kids that will play D-I basketball, and each will also make money playing basketball," he says.

He continues: "I can't tell you how grateful I am for that first group of kids and their parents. They had little reason to take a risk. We hadn't won a league title in 20 years, and there are a lot of great schools with special coaches in the Philadelphia area. To entrust their sons to me and Westtown was a big deal, and those parents probably saw I was totally committed to helping their sons be the best they could be on the court. And that I wasn't interested in riding their coattails."

Berger drops aphorisms casually in conversation, sayings that come across as neutered And1 slogans—"the players make the court, the court doesn't make the players." And sure, he notes the team's individual skill work, and how his team practices more than competitors.

But what's also fueled the team's ascent is Berger's willingness to let his players dictate how they play. There are few high school coaches who wouldn't tether a player with Bamba's length and athletic ability down to the block or anchor Reddish to the wing. But to develop talent and grow, risks have to be taken, which is why Berger shifted his precocious big man to the perimeter and let Reddish run point guard.

Cam Reddish
Cam ReddishAdam Glanzman/Getty Images

"We are comfortable allowing kids to play outside the box, and everything we do is designed to help players be the best ... they can be," Berger says. "That's why Mo had the freedom to bring the ball up the court and shoot three-pointers. I thought Cam was a point guard, and I didn't want to him to waste that untapped potential."

Some scoff at Berger's coaching strategy. With the level of players now at Westtown, says one recruiting analyst, "I'm not sure how much their success really has to do with Seth." But what's indisputable is that within a world of basketball factories and multi-high school career transfers, Westtown has thrived as a rare alternative  by pairing challenging academics with world-class athletics.

"It's like a college program, and at the end of the day, Seth is trying to find a way to make sure these kids are prepared for college," says Terrance "Munch" Williams, the AAU coach who first suggested Bamba to Berger. "They allow kids to make mistakes here and there, but not kill them for it."

Berger swears he'll never leave Westtown, claiming he'd like to coach until he is 70 years old. But the program's success has opened up new avenues for Berger within corporate America. He was recently appointed the managing director of the Philadelphia 76ers' innovation lab.

"We help the companies improve, get better and support them in any way that we can," Berger says. Running an incubator for promising start-ups, Berger is responsible for finding and recruiting companies to grow their business out of the 76ers' space, a 7,500-square-foot warehouse. It's not all that dissimilar to his philosophy at Westtown.

There aren't many who would walk away from a dream job, and that's what Berger did when he left And1. There are even fewer who immediately stumble into another dream job, but that is what Berger has accomplished at Westtown.

And consider this: He hasn't even built Westtown into the program he envisions yet.

"It took Mike Krzyzewski decades to build Duke into the program we know it as today," says Gilbert, his And1 co-founder. "Seth is on that same path." 

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