WARREN - John F. Kennedy High School junior Zachary Usher admits the frigid Ohio weather doesn't suit him.
He'd rather be sporting his size 14 sandals and having the 80-degree temperatures of the Belize sun beating on his body.
"It's like an icebox up here," Usher said. "At home, it's 80 degrees all year round. Back home, if it's 60 degrees, we have coats on. Up here, it's 60 degrees and people are walking around in shorts."
Tribune Chronicle file photo / R. Michael Semple
John F. Kennedy’s Zachary Usher drives into the key between Cleveland Central Catholic’s Antwon Lillard (22) and James Tell during this Dec. 13 game at John F. Kennedy High School.
It wasn't a complete culture shock to Usher, who has dual citizenship in the United States and Belize.
He has aunts in Detroit and Canada, and his father, Marion, an accountant, has worked in New York City.
Usher and his parents are American citizens, but call Belize home, where Usher grew up for most of his 16 years.
Usher was on tour with a boys basketball team from Belize for the past two years. The team was coached by Niles native and former St. Peter Chanel boys basketball coach Bernie Tarr, a 1986 Girard High School graduate.
The Belize team played in the King James Shooting Stars Classic in Akron the past two seasons, which took place in late April.
Usher's father, Marion, wanted his son to find a high school in the United States that was similar to his former school - St. John's College High School in Belize. It is a Roman Catholic all-boys school based on the Jesuit traditions.
"My father asked me what I wanted to do. Did I want to stay home and become a senior or come up here and become a junior?" Usher said. "I made my mind that I wanted to come up here and try it out and have a good time."
They looked at different schools, including St. Ignatius in Cleveland and Chanel, prior to the school closing. Tarr said most of the schools in Belize have a religious influence. Usher's older brother, Dominic, graduated from Wheeling Jesuit University.
"That was an important part of the process," Tarr said.
Last April, Marion met John F. Kennedy High School coach Shawn Pompelia and junior varsity coach Sam Procopio, developing a relationship that cultivated into a home for Zachary. The Belize team practiced at JFK in preparation for the King James Tournament with Tarr running the practices.
Procopio said Usher wanted to enroll at JFK. According to the Ohio High School Athletic Association, under bylaw 4-6-3, Exception 9 for parents who are United States Citizens living outside the USA, it states, "A student may be declared eligible for interscholastic athletics when the student's parents are citizens of the United States who reside outside the United States."
"He's just a perfect fit for us," Procopio said. "He wanted to come here. When he was here for practice, I asked him what kind of school do you go to? He said I go to an all-boys Catholic school. I said this is a Catholic school too, but we have girls here. He got a big smile on his face."
He currently lives with his teammate, A.J. Grant, whose older sister Nia helped Penn State University win the NCAA Volleyball Championship this season.
"It worked out perfectly because we have the same interest and goals. Birds of a feather flock together," Usher said.
High school teams in Belize have a four- or five-game season, compared the to the 22-game regular season in Ohio.
"His goal is to play college basketball," Pompelia said. "Getting four games a year isn't giving him the reps he needs to improve. Him being an American citizen gave him that opportunity to come to the states and play right away."
So far, Pompelia said the 6-foot-7 Usher, who is averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds per game, is getting looks from a variety of schools.
"I've gotten calls from Buffalo, Cornell, Walsh, Princeton. There's a lot of schools looking at him, obviously," Pompelia said. "He has yet to touch on what he can do on the basketball floor. He's growing as a young man in our country. He is an American citizen, though. Moving on to college life should be an easy transition for him as far as learning our culture and understanding it."
Pompelia said Usher has put the time in to being better.
"In August, he was here and called me," Pompelia said. "I was swimming with my family. He wanted to get in the gym. It was 95 degrees out. I left the pool and opened the gym up so he could shoot for a couple of hours. That work ethic is going to make him the player he's going to be."
In the classroom, Usher has a 3.23 GPA. He said getting used to American schooling was a bit of an adjustment. Belize's main language is English. He also speaks Kriol, which is native to the Central American country.
"Back home, I usually stay in one classroom all day," Usher said. "Up here, I move around. I have different subjects and move around. It was a little hard adjusting to American government and U.S. History, but I picked up on it very fast."
He had to pick up the American high school game quite quickly, too, especially when Kennedy entered North Coast League play with some of the state's best teams in Cleveland Central Catholic, Holy Name and Villa Angela-St. Joseph.
"There's some monsters out there," said Usher, who was named to the NCL's first team. "Villa Angela, Central. Holy Name has some good players too. It shocked me a little bit how advanced they were. Some of these kids can flat out stroke it. You just have to adjust."
It wasn't always easy this season, overcoming lopsided defeats in the NCL. But, Usher said he and his teammates made it through.
"They're all great kids. I want to win. That's the common goal, to win," said Usher, while talking to Pompelia. "That's what it's all about, right coach? We learned to play better together as the season went along. We're still learning how to play with each other. We're getting better."
Kennedy (9-14) lost to Windham in Friday's Division IV sectional final.
For now, Usher is looking to the offseason and some warmer weather so he can finally sport his sandals.
"It's more comfortable. I've always worn them. It's just natural for me," he said.