How freshman forward John Rivera became a catalyst for Clemente’s recent success (and leader for years to come)
By Luke Elder
Clemente's John Rivera prepares to inbound during a drill alongside head coach Greg Fleming (right)
Luke Elder/The Elder Sportsman
Shortly after running wind sprints, Clemente forward John Rivera wipes the sweat from his brow, flips his jersey and jumps back into full-court play during a Sunday practice. He shuffles slowly to the line to inbound. Just as he steps on the court, something shifts in his gaze. Like a man possessed, he dives for a loose ball, viciously thrashing it away from two of his teammates before making a great pass from the ground, which leads to an easy layup. The next possession he snatches the ball off the glass, and drives the length of the court to bank a tough shot in traffic. This kid can play, I thought.
Rivera wasn’t a highly-touted recruit coming to Clemente, far from it. In fact, head coach Greg Fleming didn’t recruit him at all. He had no idea who he was.
“John’s older brother, Jacob (a Clemente senior guard), brought him in over summer workouts,” Fleming said, “he's like coach, I got a little brother in eighth grade that’s coming here. He walks in here with this big kid I'm just like holy ****, this is your little brother?”
Assistant coach Tony Lumpkin is very high on Rivera. Often lacking seniority and intensity, Clemente has been in desperate need of a catalyst for change.
“John has really stepped into the leader role in games, he’s really caught on to what we're trying to do,” Lumpkin said, “we finally have somebody who is ready and willing to bring the energy that we need for the team.”
With Clemete’s first playoff game coming against Foreman on Friday night (Feb. 4), Lumpkin trusts that Rivera is ready to play.
“Absolutely. He’s fired up. Last game versus Phoenix he showed me that he is ready to take on all challenges coming towards him now,” Lumpkin said. “John took a charge--we've been trying to get guys to commit to doing it, and he finally did. That's really what changed the momentum of the game, guys were yelling and clapping. John does everything we need him to do. He hits the easy shots he needs to make, plays great defense and is aggressive on rebounds.”
"That’s why I’m going to build my team around him.”
Rivera was so key to Clemete’s narrow 55-53 victory over Phoenix Military Academy that he was named MaxPreps’ player of the game, scoring nine points alongside seven rebounds, three steals and three blocks. He can do it all.
Great attitude is a trait mentioned consistently with those who cross paths with Rivera.
“He's a good kid. Good energy. I love John, he’s one of my favorites. Respectful, well mannered, I can’t really ask for anything more than that,” coach Fleming added. “With the young guys we have coming in, John’s energy and mindset will be a tool that’ll help the group transition. It’ll pass down to the other guys. That’s why I’m going to build my team around him.”
Assistant Brandon Onuselogu agreed–He thinks Rivera is the hardest worker on the team.
“He does a really good job and is very coachable, really tries to learn new things,” Onuselogu said. “He's able to take some feedback and that's what has helped him step up and make plays. He’s been that guy, the one that helps us be more consistent, and has continued to learn.”
This is Rivera’s first year of organized basketball. The weight of being both a basketball and varsity rookie? It doesn’t seem like it’s gotten to him. The key is toughness, both mental and physical. John’s coaches say he’s got plenty of both.
“Being a freshman playing up against a lot of upperclassmen and still being able to hang tough and be competitive is huge,” coach Onuselogu said.
Rivera’s rising stardom has his coaching staff already thinking ahead–Not just for Clemente, but beyond.
“I think John could play college ball, definitely,” coach Fleming said. “If he continues his development, getting stronger like he has in the weight room. He’s committed to the work. I don’t think he’s done growing yet either. I’d give him six-foot-five.”
“Him being only a freshman, and as good as he is now with so many years to develop, John can definitely be a college basketball player.” Coach Lumpkin said. “John doesn't back down from anyone—he's very coachable—takes in what’s told to him and has all the tangibles plus the skill. That's why we truly believe that he can be a college basketball player.”
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Luke is a Master's student at DePaul, and a fan of all things sports.