Forte proud of the many monikers he’s earned but his favorite is ‘Viking’
by Chris Hunt
During a 10-minute conversation, North Mecklenburg boys basketball coach Duane Lewis used several different words to describe his 6-foot-3 center Jermaine Forte.
If you ask Lewis, a man known for his competitive streak, those terms are compliments. Lewis is the type of coach who cherishes tough-minded, relentless players such as Forte, and he couldn’t be happier about the way the teenager’s senior season is playing out.
Over the years, Lewis has coached more than his fair share of mammoth centers, but Forte doesn’t fit that template. At his height and lean build, he’s smaller than the typical high school post player. Nevertheless, Forte offers many unique qualities that have anchored North Meck’s inside game, sparking what some might consider an undersized team to a surprising 19-2 record and a share of first place in the I-MECK 4A conference.
A yard dog
Growing up, Forte was always the biggest player on the court. An early bloomer, he stood taller than 6 feet before high school. As a freshman, Forte dominated junior varsity basketball with physical, high-rising performances, turning in double-double efforts before making varsity as a sophomore.
At the time, Forte was an intimidating presence because he towered over his opponents. Already a chiseled athlete, Forte looked like a man playing among boys, and many expected him to follow the footsteps of North Meck’s long list of towering post players such as DeMarco Johnson, Jamie Skeen and Andre Marhold. His size advantage forged a fearlessness that he possesses to this day.
“I like yard dogs and Jermaine’s a yard dog,” said Lewis. “I don’t mind somebody who has a little bit of attitude, because I know they are leaving it on the floor. With him, I don’t have to worry about that, because he’s going to leave it all out there.”
By Forte’s sophomore season, it was obvious he was an interior player built like a shooting guard. He didn’t continue to grow at the same pace and was no longer the tallest player on a team with four frontline varsity players above 6-5. Even shooting guard Kyle Gaillard was four inches taller.
To get Forte on the court as a junior, Lewis experimented with him at small forward, where he was asked to face the basket and attack from the perimeter. But Forte was never really comfortable with the move. Sure, he continued to chase down loose balls and block high-arching shots that earned him a reputation as one of the most aggressive Vikings, but something didn’t feel right to him.
So this season, Forte returned to the post. That decision might’ve also been made out of necessity because the 2010-11 Vikings didn’t return a lot of height or experience down low; only 6-5 sophomore Tahjai Watt is listed as taller than Forte on the team roster.
Then again, Forte didn’t care why he was put on the court .
“Every since I started playing basketball, I was bigger than everybody, so they put me down low,” said Forte. “Then they caught up and passed me (in height), but playing down low is my home. That’s what I’m comfortable playing. I like the physicality; I like the battle.”
Starting at center, Forte takes on the challenge of every opponent’s largest athlete. Sometimes giving away three to four inches in height, Forte compensates with energy and athleticism. His quickness and 38-inch vertical leap have frustrated many opposing centers, such as West Charlotte’s heralded Kennedy Meeks. Forte is at his best when he’s outworking his adversaries.
“Jermaine held Kennedy Meeks, one of the top players in the state, to just one point,” said Lewis, after his team’s 60-57 victory over the Lions on Jan. 25. “When he’s in the zone, it doesn’t matter if someone is bigger: He’s working, he’s fronting the player, he’s moving his feet. Bigger guys have a tough time against him.”
Forte has never backed down from a challenge. Lewis said Forte chipped in his fourth consecutive double-double in a 69-68 victory over Mooresville on Nov. 26, during the heart of the I-MECK’s challenging schedule. Forte amassed 19 points and 13 rebounds against the Blue Devils, one night after scoring 15 points and grabbing 11 rebounds against Meek’s Lions.
But perhaps the most gratifying moment of the Mooresville win – besides Viking forward Karl Barkley’s 3-point buzzer beater to end the game – was Forte’s two free throws that tied the contest at 66 with 8.9 seconds left. Forte grabbed an offensive rebound, got fouled and then calmly sank both foul shots to keep North Meck in the game.
“When he’s into it, and he’s playing hard, he’s a warrior,” said Lewis. “He’s dominating the boards and making big shots for us. He deserves all the success he’s been having this season.”
It’s moments like Forte’s performance against West Charlotte and Mooresville that make Lewis proud. As a sophomore, Forte rarely got on the floor and later played out of position. But he never gave up on the team. Now, Lewis enjoys watching Forte flourish, as his undersized center takes on the top post players in the I-MECK.
In return, Forte is passing down his acquired knowledge to North Meck’s younger players, such as sophomore reserves Watt and Rashaan Brown. Forte’s assuring them that their hard work and patience will be rewarded in future seasons. The young man who grew up in the shadows of the Waymer Center, Huntersville’s public athletic facility just a short walk from North Meck, encourages his teammates to stay loyal to the program because it was loyal to him.
“This program is so important to me because most of my family went to North Meck,” said Forte. “Everybody in my neighborhood played for North Meck. My name was made here, and I don’t ever want to tarnish the reputation of my name or North Meck.”
When a team has a player as committed as Forte, who needs a 6-7 center?