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Bergers bring family feel to Westtown while continuing to churn out NBA-level talent

Westtown coach Seth Berger, center, holds the 2020 Pa. Independent Schools Athletic Association state championship trophy alongside his sons T.J. (left) and Quin (right). [Photo courtesy Seth Berger]

MALVERN >> They may be the most basketball-centric family in all of Chester County.

The Bergers live in Malvern. Seth has been the boys’ hoops coach at Westtown School for 14 years and has built the program into a powerhouse that is annually loaded with major college prospects. One son, T.J., is a freshman playing for Patrick Ewing at Georgetown. His youngest, Quin, is the starting point guard for his dad at Westtown.

Westtown coach Seth Berger, right, talks to his son Quin during a game. [Photo courtesy Seth Berger]

So what is a typical Monday evening like with Seth and sons? Catch a college game? Or an NBA clash? Film session?

“We get together to watch the Bachelor,” Seth said with a chuckle.

“It’s non-basketball entertainment. I’d never watched it before and Quin said he was watching it, so I said I’d watch it with them. For course, it’s pure entertainment.”

OK, so basketball isn’t everything in the Berger household, but it’s close. At age 53, Seth Berger is quickly closing in on his 300th career win at Westtown. T.J. and Quin have helped him get there, of course, along with a star-studded array of others including four who are in, or have played in, the NBA: Mo Bamba (Orlando Magic), Cam Reddish (Atlanta Hawks), Daniel Ochefu (formerly Washington Wizards) and Georgios Papagiannis (formerly Sacramento Kings, Portland Trailblazers).

“The reputation of the program is that we have great kids who want to do as well as they can on the court as well as be great people off the court,” said T.J., now a point guard with the Hoyas. “And if they weren’t, they got out of Westtown pretty quick.”

There have been many more who have earned NCAA Division I basketball scholarships from Westtown: Jared Nickens (Maryland), Jalen Gaffney (UConn), Brandon Randolph (Arizona), Franck Kepnang (Oregon), Joh Bol Ajak (Syracuse), Anthony Ochefu (Delaware), Jair Bolden (Butler), and Noah Collier (Pitt). Current standout Jalen Warley has already committed to Florida State.

Brothers T.J. Berger (left) and Quin Berger (right) celebrate during the 2020 playoffs. [Photo courtesy Seth Berger]

“Iron sharpens iron,” Seth said. “We have a lot of really good players in the gym. So just about every day you are playing against a kid who is going to play Division I basketball or a kid on his way to the NBA. Kids just have to get better.”

That’s what happened with T.J., whose given name is Tyler. And it is happening right now to Quin, who is a junior and aspires to play collegiately.

“I mean Cam Reddish lives in the gym,” Seth pointed out. “He is incredibly skilled because he wakes up at 5:30-6 every morning and goes to the gym, then goes to practice, then to a trainer, then he watches film.

“They’ve seen the commitment to the game that it takes to be great. Plus, the intensity that the best players have is at a different level. T.J. and Quin have seen that, so they have a different level for themselves. They have grown up seeing kids that expect themselves to be playing in the NBA.”

THE PITFALLS OF A FATHER COACHING A SON

The kind of skill level and commitment needed for greatness doesn’t transfer by osmosis, of course. The Berger brothers get that, and they also acknowledge that there are advantages and disadvantages to playing for your father. And along the way, Seth Berger’s learned quite a few things on that subject.

“The goal is to treat them like every other kid, but it’s very difficult,” he added.

Looking back, Seth has a few key takeaways on the complicated father-son/coach-player dynamic: give your kids the same level of freedom, and employ the same level of discipline, as everyone else. And make sure they understand that how they perform on the court has no bearing on how much they are loved.

As you might imagine, these were valuable lessons Seth learned while going through it for the first time with T.J., who played for him from 2016-20.

“Early in T.J.’s high school career, I was too hard on him, and didn’t give him the same amount of freedom we give all of our players with things like shot selection,” Seth explained. “We want our kids to reach the highest level they can and sometimes we live with shots that are ill-advised because of the freedom they have.”

Seth kept T.J. on the bench for most of his freshman and into the first half of his sophomore season.

“My freshman year was the hardest,” T.J. acknowledged. “My dad expected a lot more of me than most freshmen. But I was 5-foot-9 and really scrawny, and I couldn’t do much on the court to help the team.”

Midway through the 2017-18, the Moose were 9-7, averaging under 60 points per game, and in need of a true point guard. So Seth put T.J. in to run the team and Westtown went 14-4 the rest of the way — the team assists doubled and the scoring average blossomed to 72 a game.

“I held T.J. back and it hurt him and it hurt our team,” Seth said. “He just knew were to be and the correct play that should happen.”

THE SUDDEN AND EMOTIONAL BREAKTHROUGH

The breakthrough, however, didn’t come until the middle of T.J.’s junior season. He was in the midst of a bad slump, and somehow father and son found themselves all alone in the Westtown gym.

“I remember crying. I was upset I wasn’t playing as well as I wanted to. I was feeling a lot of pressure,” T.J. said.

“He just broke down crying, and then I broke down crying,” Seth added. “It was like, what is going on here? I asked him if he felt I would love him less if he couldn’t make a shot? And he said yes. I was, like, wow.”

Seth admits that he’d had that conversation many times with other kids in the program. But he didn’t see it with his own child.

“It is interesting, not just for my kids, but for everybody: they don’t play well if they feel like they are letting somebody down,” he explained. “I’ve found out that a kid is afraid of letting down a parent, and usually not both parents.

“What they mean is that they are afraid one of their parents would love them less if they don’t play well. Of course, the parents says, ‘I am not going to love you less whether you make every shot of miss every shot.’”

From that day on, Seth would tell T.J. exactly that before every game. And somehow that seemed to free everything up. Seth had better, more productive communication with his son, and T.J. played as if unburdened.

“He had an incredible amount of freedom and had an amazing senior season,” Seth said.

“He had said that to me plenty of times before, so I don’t know what it was about that conversation, but it really got through to me,” T.J. said.

“That was like a turning point for our relationship, and for me as a basketball player. Once we figured the father-son thing out, I was able to figure out what I wanted for myself and what it would take to achieve that.

“I want to be as good of a basketball player as I can be, and it kind of freed me up to chase my dreams.”

Seth Berger is the first to admit that the external and internal pressure is almost always magnified for a son playing for his father. He is also aware that a lot of the lessons he learned with T.J. have made things smoother with Quin.

“Quin is the beneficiary of the mistakes I made with T.J.,” Seth said. “He plays with an incredible amount of freedom, he shoots from the NBA 3-point range without any second thought, which TJ didn’t have until midway through his junior year.

“He is going to play Division I basketball, but we don’t know at what level yet. He is an elite shooter and on-ball defender, but he needs to get better with the basketball and his decision making.”

THE MAKING OF TRUE POINT GUARDS

It is no surprise, or coincidence, that T.J. and Quin wound up as true point guards. The kind of on-the-floor-quarterback you often see from sons of a coach. They each possess a basketball IQ that is far above and beyond most of their peers, and that comes with growing up with a coach around all of the time.

“We like to say as coaches when we watch a college or NBA game that we are just watching. But we are really talking through every possession,” said Seth, who is currently 299-111 at Westtown. “Where the help-side defense was; where the angle of a ball-screen was correct. So it’s not surprising when coach’s kids develop the level of basketball IQ.

“They just grow up seeing the game from a coach’s perspective instead of from a player’s perspective.”

A year ago, playing a more unrestrained style, T.J. had a monster senior season. He led the team in scoring (14 points a game), shot 46 percent from 3-point range, and chipped in four rebounds and three assists an outing. It also helped that he grew to 6-foot-4.

“His level of consistency in practice an in games was the role model for what a Westtown senior should be,” his dad said.

“Our basketball knowledge is high from being around my dad so much,” T.J. pointed out.

“The advantages of playing for your dad out-weight the disadvantages,” Quin added. “The biggest is how much fun it is to be able to do something you love with your father. It is incomparable to any other coaches I’ve had.”

The Moose are currently 13-4 overall, despite playing a brutally tough national schedule. And Quin is developing into a kind of coach on the floor along, helping to direct four other starters who have Division I aspirations.

“I hope I am,” Quin said. “I wish I could think the game like my dad does. We see eye-to-eye on a lot of stuff. And we definitely talk about the team – what he wants and what I see.”

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Athletics and competition are a constant in the Berger household. Seth met his future wife Christelle while the two were attending the University of Pennsylvania. Both were members of the class of 1989, and Christelle (maiden name: Williams) was a track and field star for the Quakers.

“Everything we do as a family is competition-based. It is a good, healthy environment,” Quin said.

Christelle went undefeated in her Ivy League track career as a sprint hurdler, and left the school holding seven school records, including the 55- and 100-meter dash, the 100 hurdles, the 200 and the triple jump. She was inducted into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame in 2003.

“Seth’s wife is by far the best athlete in the family,” said Westtown co-Athletic Director Paul Lehmann.

T.J. agreed: “She is, no doubt, the best athlete in our family.

“She is different from my dad in that she tries to take the pressure off, she tries to be more supportive, and she sets a great example for what it takes to be a special athlete.”

Seth and Christelle have three sons, and they’ve all attended Westtown since pre-school. Their oldest, Cole, suffered a hip injury in middle school and that steered him from basketball to golf. He went on to win the Friends League individual championship four times, graduated in 2017 and is now a captain of the golf team at Lafayette.

FROM WESSTOWN TO GEORGETOWN

From a very early age, basketball was always at the top of T.J.’s list even though he played soccer and baseball as a youngster. At age six, he became his dad’s ‘special assistant,’ serving as Westtown’s water and towel boy. And even though he showed promise on the court, he was always one of the skinniest kids around.

“There is a picture of T.J. when he was in seventh grade with Jair Bolden, who is now a graduate student at Butler, and he may weigh 80 pounds,” Seth recalled.

“I have always been around basketball for as long as I can remember,” T.J. added. “I saw all of these older kids playing the sport that I love so much, and I just wanted to be around my dad and the game as much as I could.

“He let me sit on the bench during games and hang with the team. That was great.”

Heading into his senior season, T.J. had verbally committed to play college ball at Penn, but then his game exploded. Westtown topped a Hamilton Heights (Tenn.) squad that was ranked second nationally during the regular season, and T.J. buried six 3-pointers in the process. And then last February, he scored his team’s final eight points as Westtown edged Malvern Prep to win the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association state crown.

“The night after the state title, we went to dinner as a family, T.J. said he wanted to talk to us,” Seth explained. “He said he didn’t know if he wanted to be an Ivy kid and play that close to home. He also said that after playing against some of the best guards in the country, that he felt like he was as good as any of them.”

After meeting with Penn coach Steve Donahue, who was very supportive, T.J. opened his recruiting back up and eventually settled on Georgetown. Along with teammate Noah Collier, he left Westtown as the winningest players in program history at 109-29 with four league titles, two state championships and one runner-up finish.

“Georgetown was a dream opportunity to go play for coach Ewing, in the Big East,” Seth said. “It’s an amazing school, an amazing program and an amazing coach.

“T.J. is being challenged, and he loves it. He is going to reach his highest level, whatever that is.”

LEARNING TOUGHNESS FROM SEVEN OLDER BROTHERS

Two years younger, Quin liked to play the game, but wasn’t into basketball like T.J. until later. But there were signs very early that he was going to be a ferocious competitor.

“Quin has been kicking since his early days in the womb,” Seth said. “He kicked non-stop – it was like, ‘let me get out of here.’ When he was two, he’d be running around the house like crazy, chasing everything.

“He had an intensity and a fire from an early age to be great.”

With a shorter, beefier build of a football player, Quin injured a knee on the gridiron in seventh grade and started focusing more on hoops. And the more he hung around with his dad’s teams, the more he realized that if he wanted to play for him someday, he would have to make it more of a priority.

“Quin didn’t come to love the game until seventh or eighth grade,” his dad said. “Before then, he never wanted to work out, just play. Then, one day when he was 13, he said, ‘Ok dad, let’s go work out. It’s time for me to start working on my skills.’”

Although a little late to basketball fanaticism, Quin always exhibited toughness and determination. Some of it was natural, but it didn’t hurt growing up with two athletic parents, and two athletic brothers. And then when the Berger’s became guardians for five brothers from Nigeria — Longji, Nanribet, Yilret, Dakpe and Junior Yiljep — it takes it all to another level.

“It makes winning a whole lot more desirable,” Quin said. “Messing around in the backyard or playing video games, I was the youngest and would never win, so whenever I got it, I felt super happy.

“Now that it is a more even playing field, I still have that passion to win.”

At 6-1, 190 pounds, Quin looks like a safety, and he brings a football mentality to basketball. His dad says he is the most athletic of them all in terms of speed and strength.

“He grew up with seven other brothers who were all bigger, older and better athletes,” Seth said. “During family pickup games, he was always the smallest, so he had to battle just to try and survive.”

And there have been some legendary pickup games on the half-court setup in the Berger’s backyard.

“There were no friends on that court,” T.J. laughed. “We would end some games and not talk to each other for a couple hours.

“We are all so competitive, but I’d say my dad is probably the most competitive of all of us.”

Although the Yiljep brothers are off in college now, the backyard battles only intensified when the coronavirus shut everything down last winter.

“We played out there almost every day. We would try to kill each other for a couple hours, and somebody was always made about losing,” T.J. said.

“We cherish basketball and competition,” Quin added. “When things got shut down we looked to each other as the only person to play against. No offense to my old man or my older brother, but they are not as good as T.J. and myself.

“There’s been some blood and even some tears, but it made us better, not just skill-wise but mentally as well.”

GIVING SPACE TO WORK THROUGH MISTAKES

The player-coach/father-son relationship isn’t as difficult as it once was, but it’s always a challenge. Just last week, Seth sensed he was getting on Quin a bit too much, and promised that he would not be raising his voice toward him for the rest of the season.

“Lo and behold, Quin had his best weekend, scoring 15 points in the first half against Phelps and proceeded to have a fantastic weekend,” his dad said.

“My dad learned how to pull back a little bit,” T.J. recalled. “By the time I was a senior, you couldn’t tell if I was his son or not by the way he coached me.”

There will always be moments when the coach/parent wants to lash out at the player/son – especially when the player commits a silly foul 35 feet from the basket. And in the heat of battle, who’s to say that vow won’t be bent a bit.

But everybody realizes that this is a unique and complex situation, and that understanding and communication is the key.

“As a coach who is also your parent, it’s hard for them to give you enough space to work through your own mistakes,” Quin said. “But that is part of the development.

“My dad’s given me the space I need, and that’s something he learned with T.J.”

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