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Talking hoops with former Union star Geno Carlisle

The 2nd annual Red Hawk Showcase is right around the corner.

Geno Carlisle with the Portland Trail Blazers
Geno Carlisle/Portland TrailBlazers (photo: Willamette Weekly)

One of the best high school teams in West Michigan will host a full day of basketball on February 6th at Union HS on Grand Rapids’ west side.

I recently went back and forth with my childhood friend and former Union Red Hawk star Geno Carlisle to talk about his time at Grand Rapids Union and the grind that kids playing now can look forward to in college and beyond.

With the Red Hawks’ boys team ranked #1 in the area on my list, the former Northwestern and Cal-Berkeley star addressed his start at Union after transferring across town from Ottawa Hills,

“My time at Union was exhilarating to say the least. It presented me with a feeling of both fascination and uncertainty. This was mainly because two rivals I’d grown up battling, Thomas Kelly and Thomas Kilgore, would soon become allies. I adapted very quickly to my transition to Union. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of culture, the size of the school, as well as how well I got along with mostly everyone on the team. It was a school full of spirit and personality that started from the principal Mr. Maben to the Athletic Director Mr. Walker and on down to the teachers. They really had a genuine concern for their students and athletes alike!”

Carlisle went on, turning to the dominant basketball team,

“As far as our basketball team, we were loaded! So much so that I don’t even think we realized it. We had 3 future D1 guards for major Universities with Thomas Kelly, Thomas Kilgore, and myself. Athletic wingman like Terry Peak, dead eye 3 point shooters like Akai Smith, and a great head coach in Ernie Johnson. We really had a lot of good times both on and off the court.”

With the Red Hawks, ranked #20 in’s HS rankings, coming off a 54-33 loss to #12 Muskegon, this 7-2 Union squad has a couple steps to climb to play with the state’s best. Carlisle told me,

“I think the biggest challenge in high school playoffs is the feeling that if you lose, your done. I’m not sure how it is now but back then, in city league championships and regionals, if you lost it was over. So there is a much greater pressure to perform. At the same time, those are the moments you live for so the pressure just turns to adrenaline. That’s when the cream rises to the top.”

You don’t just get to get there, to the top, that is. Carlisle advice on continued improvement and dedication,

“My advice for kids to get better is to continuously work on their game. All facets… I use to have my mother drop me off at the YMCA around 7 am on Saturday morning and I will stay there until 9 or ten pm. I would pick a spot and shoot 50 shots or 100 from that one spot until I like the way the ball swished. Then I would spend hours dribbling, imagining I was surrounded by my rivals. I would imagine the crowd. Fall asleep on the court…”

“And after that quick nap?”, I asked.

“Wake up and then play and practice some more. I was obsessed and in love with the smell of the ball and the gym. In love with the stories that I’s heard about great players. I would meditate and imagine myself doing the things I’d heard about. That’s what’s missing with players today. They think drills will make them great but just because you can use a paint brush it doesn’t make you an artist. You have to have a love in your spirit to the point that it’s no longer work but a fascination. The most important advice I would give a kid would be confidence. I wasn’t the best in high school but you couldn’t make me believe that. From 11yrs old til the time I left I thought I was the most prolific scorer and unstoppable dribbler on the planet and no one could convince me otherwise. I was overconfident but it was also based on my training. Confidence and hard work is everything.”

Carlisle should know a bit about confidence and hard work. He chased his dreams, starred in high school and college and made his way to the pros. Yes, even the NBA.

I went on to pester him to give me his GR Top 5, but he’d only go as far as,

“It’s very hard to Rank a top 5 because I was always fascinated by players that came before me, like my father Clarence and uncle Elmo Carlisle. I would always hear about legends before me so I would always go old school for my picks.”

Forcefully, I leaned on the keyboard and pressed for more.

“If I had to pick 5 while I was playing,

  • Thomas Kelly – Union
  • Thomas Kilgore – Union
  • Ennis Young – Ottawa Hills
  • Jermaine Carter – Creston
  • Shawn Kneeland – East Kentwood

in no particular order.”

That’s three teammates, a rival and a neighbor.

He made the GSCeltic Top 10 in GR list, most likely because of his infectious smile, and Geno always has a minute for an old friend from the streets of childhood and a “Hi!” for my dad every time we talk. That’s why I love this dude.

Check out a loaded lineup of high school basketball on February 6th at GR Union HS.

Tickets are $10 for the entire day.

  • 1pm: Stevensville-Lakeshore vs. Wayland
  • 3pm: #16 Detroit Allen Academy vs. Northpointe Christian
  • 4:30pm: New Haven vs. Lowell
  • 6pm: Detroit Cornerstone vs. #20 Union
  • 7:30pm: Saginaw vs. #5 Godwin Heights


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