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Saturday, January 22, 2011

The best basketball game I ever saw ... and I had something to do with it

For six years in the last decade, the first time from 2000-02, the second time from 2004-08, I got to run the Florida Sports Writers Association's boys basketball polls and put together the All-State teams at the end of the season.

It's something I was always interested in. I love baseball and football, but if there's any sport I have a great working knowledge in, it's basketball. As a fan, I can sit in the stands and from a distance pull apart a team's defensive schemes, see what works against the opponent's offense and see if the matchups are right or wrong. Within the first couple of possessions of a basketball game, I can tell you if a man-to-man defense, a 2-3 zone or a box-in-one is going to be effective, same thing with an uptempo pace or a halfcourt game at the offensive end.

I love the feel of a high school gym, that enthusiastic sound of fans in small bandbox gymnasiums like that of Hawthorne High School here in Florida or Point Pleasant Boro High School in New Jersey or the cavernous arenas such as the Lakeland Center or the Dunn Center in Elizabeth, N.J. I love the gyms where the fans can sit in a section and cheer enthusiastically for their team and jeer the opponents like at Monsignor Donovan High in Toms River, N.J. or at the old Father Lopez High School in Daytona Beach.

Outdoor sports like baseball and softball don't get the juices flowing like that. Football rivals that, but unless there's tens of thousands of people screaming their heads off, it's hard to emulate that dynamic of over a thousand people in an enclosed building yelling and cheering their team on to near-deafening levels.

During the 2001-02 season, our local Key West High School boys team was in the middle of a phenomenal season. Outside of a Thanksgiving tournament championship loss to Haines City, which would go on to win the state 5A championship, the Conchs were perfect. The high-powered, in-your-face-at-both-ends Conchs were slicing and dicing opponents up by hefty margins.

And with all that success, Key West climbed to the very top of the state 3A boys basketball poll. They had a 17-1 record and were battling Nease High of St. Johns County for the state poll top honors for the better part of the season.

But the victories for the Conchs were coming too easy if you know what I mean. Few teams challenged Key West, even District 16 rival Gulliver Prep of south Miami, which had better teams in the past, but just not this one.

So it was Monday, January 14, 2002, as I began to assemble the six state polls, I started to look at other teams in the state that could be a challenge for the Conchs.

In an earlier conversation with Conchs coach Bill Butler, I told him he had a team that was good enough to go to the state 3A Final Four, maybe win it all, but he needed someone other than that Haines City team weeks before to push him. He knew it, too. There was a possibility that the Conchs could go 25-1 and into the state tournament with that gaudy record, but be unprepared for a challenge.

"Have you tried to contact anyone on the mainland?" I asked him.

"No, not really," he said shyly. It was a combination of him not knowing a whole lot of teams up that way and then they had to not have a full schedule AND they also had to have dates lined up to work Key West in.

So on that 14th of January, I assembled the polls which showed Key West again at No. 1 in 3A. Then I started looking at schools that fit the mold of what the Conchs were looking for. I knew Butler didn't have the time to go calling around and I'm not really sure his athletic director felt like doing the same thing. But Butler gave me autonomy to at least try to find someone. I had the Key West schedule in front of me and I had the big purple Florida High School Athletic Association book with all the state schools and phone numbers next to that.

I believe I tried a couple of schools that were booked solid when I got to the state 2A's No. 1 team, Westminster Academy of Fort Lauderdale. On the phone was the school's athletic director, Buddy Pressley, who also was the boys basketball coach. He was a very charismatic man, carried a lot of clout at the school and was beloved within the halls of his school and the Fort Lauderdale area. His son, Josh, as a matter of fact, was drafted by the New York Mets and he spent time in their farm system.

I told Buddy who I was and he knew about the state basketball scene fairly well. Then he told me in the middle of our 10-minute conversation that he was not filled to capacity with his schedule (teams are allowed up to 25 games). He told me what open dates there were and I told him what was open for Key West.

There we found out that Key West had some openings that might work, but I couldn't make the final decision for Butler. So Bill, who had given me the OK to give any coach interested in playing his team his phone numbers, would have to talk to Buddy about the schedule openings.

I gave Buddy the two numbers I had and left it at that. I was hoping there'd be a contact from there, but a couple of days later, Bill reported to me that he and Buddy had made contact and that they were discussing some dates, but none were fitting. And I left it that.

Come January 22, one week later, I get a message from the Key West athletic director. He had an add-on to the schedule -- "Key West will travel to Gulliver Prep on Feb. 1, which was already scheduled, then will go to Westminster Academy the next night."

I immediately called up Butler and asked him what happened. Seems Pressley was persistent about this game since he found the Key West coach to be very engaging and wanting to play them.

Then I got back in touch with Pressley the next day and he told me all the details. The game was going to be at Westminster Academy and was agreed to by both sides simply because a good road test was something Butler wanted. Then I thanked Buddy and told him I would be glad to see him on Feb. 2.

He had an offer for me that he wanted to make, but I wasn't so sure what it was. So the day of the game, I was going to find out.

The night before the game, I got to cover Key West's 74-58 triumph in Gulliver Prep's unique bandbox of a gym to remain unbeaten in the division, then traveled overnight to Fort Lauderdale.

The next day, I drove to the nearby campus where Pressley was busy with various family things that day. But Vicki Garza, the director for tournaments at the school, was nice enough to take me around the campus. My mouth dropped. I saw things there I wish my college had when I was going there. I think it took me about a half hour to pick my jaw up from the ground.

The Key West players, parents and coaches arrived at the school soon after and she gave me and the Key West faithful a look at the west campus, located five miles from the main campus on the other side of Commercial Boulevard. They saw a lake near where a summer camp was held. They walked around a golf putting green and saw the two beautiful baseball fields the school had with the team practicing for the upcoming season. Rich Hoffman was the coach of Westminster Academy, the same Rich Hoffman who led Westminster Christian of Miami, a totally different school, to numerous state titles and whose marquee player was a shortstop named Alex Rodriguez.

Once the team finished the mid-afternoon tour of the place, they came back to where they started -- and waiting for all of us was a feast to make anyone feel like family. There was pizza, sandwiches, chicken wings and soda. A day or so later, I had one friend accuse the Westminster Academy people of loading the Key West players up with food and drink and that affected their play that night, but I said that was hogwash. I also heard him say that Westminster Academy was trying to recruit, the same way a Key West pitcher named Dane Artman went from the Southernmost City to that particular school, but that was never found to be true either.

It was off from there to the local Kinko's where I typed a column about all the events of this particular Super Bowl Saturday afternoon I took part of and witnessed at the friendly Jesuit school. I called up my just-turned 23-year-old assistant Jennifer, who did a tremendous job in keeping the paper together while I was up on the mainland. She confirmed she had everything from me and it was all under control.

I arrived back at the main campus at about 5:30 for the 7:30 game and was just floored by what I saw. The gym and court looked like a college setup with a scoreboard hanging overhead and high bleachers coming out in long rows on both sides of the court in this mammoth-looking facility.

Yeah, this is where I wanted to be. Fans began to file in on this night. Normally, Pressley told me, there's a pep band playing at the home games, but because the game had been scheduled late, they wouldn't be there. By 6:15 p.m., Pressley called me into his office.

Here's where I was about to find out why he wanted to have me interview with him. He explained that he was looking to do expansion with the athletic department in the promotional department. He knew I could handle the job as a sports editor of a newspaper. Now I was intrigued. He told me what was entailed and everything he said sounded like he was taking the school's athletic departments to the next level. I'd get to work for him, for Hoffman, for all the coaches at the school.

Yes, sports information head, something I was always intrigued about. This sounded exciting.

Then he mentions how much it would pay a year.

"I can only start you out at $50,000," he said.

Again, my jaw dropped. Not because it was too little ... because it was way more than I was making at that particular point in the Florida Keys.

"Umm," I started, "I have no problem with that. When would you like me to start?"

The problem was he needed to talk to his higher-ups about the position. Expansion on the school was under way, but ultimately, they told him no to the position and sometime after that, he left the school for the same positions at another Fort Lauderdale-area school. I doubt it was over my not getting the job, but it makes for a great reason in my mind.

By the time the interview was done, it was back to the gym where it was getting filled to the rafters -- but not necessarily with all Westminster fans. A crowd of about 550 came up from the Southernmost City and vicinity to watch this game between two No. 1 teams, 21-1 Key West in 3A, Westminster Academy in 2A, holding a strong 22-2 record, the only losses coming to Lexington (Ky.) Catholic, a national power, in two different tournaments.

As the lineups were announced and the national anthem was played, I felt a sense of pride ... after all, I was the one who helped put this game together. I got the ball rolling.

And in this game were four players who eventually gained All-State first-team status -- twin brothers Dametrius and Dominique Coleman from Key West and Nick Lamberti and Taurean Green ... yeah that Taurean Green who went on to star on the University of Florida's back-to-back national championship club and is the son of former NBA player Sidney Green ... for Westminster Academy.

From the start, the Conchs looked flat, like they were walking in concrete shoes. By midway through the third quarter, it was 50-37 in favor of the Lions. But as was the case all season, you couldn't hold these Conchs down.

They slowly crept back into it. But they had to do it with a price -- Dametrius Coleman, arguably one of the two or three best point guards I've ever seen play at the high school level, was called for his fifth foul with 1:18 left in the third quarter.

Coleman was whistled for three fouls that seemed like a mystery to me. He was not getting the calls off his quick stabs at the ball, stabs that weren't getting any arms or body parts, yet the Lions were benefitting from the home-area referees, doing the same thing, but getting away with it. As the game battled on, the Key West fans were getting infuriated with the Broward County officials. Down a few seats from me at the table on press row, WKWF-AM radio voices Rick Lopez and Todd Swofford were getting enraged with the calls against the Conchs, up to raised-voice levels, even through the wildly loud crowd.

Still, the Conchs soldiered on. They went on a run and took the lead at 71-68. But Green responded with a 3-point bucket with 1:19 left to tie it. The Conchs brought the ball back up, but Lamberti stole it and had the Lions in line to win the game. But Lamberti made a bad pass and Lamar Moore stole it with five seconds left.

Key West called a timeout and all of a sudden, I'm thinking that this is going to be a victory talked about for generations to come in the Keys ... the night the Conchs showed their mettle and rallied from 13 down and without a starting point guard to beat the mighty No. 1 Lions of Westminster Academy.

I believe the play set up by Butler was to go to Dominique Coleman, the Conchs' leading scorer. But the Lions had him well-defended. The ball went into forward Latron Hickson. I believe for a couple of seconds, he tried desperately to find Coleman or another teammate because he never looked comfortable taking the shot. He took a desperation last attempt and it bounced off the front of the rim.

After 32 minutes of the most exciting basketball I've seen at that level, the teams were now going to battle it out in overtime.

Swing guard Casey Wohlleb put Westminster up first with a jumper, but a foul against Westminster led to two Dominique Coleman free throws that tied it at 73. Westminster's Rokas Bartasius, a European exchange student, buried a jumper, but Moore tied it with a 19-footer at 75.

Green was fouled and hit one of two free throws to give the Lions a lead, but Moore, who led Key West with 19 points, buried a 3-pointer to give Key West a 78-76 lead with 2:10 left in the extra session. Then after a turnover, Moore followed up a Coleman miss to make it 80-76 with just 1:28 left to go.

Seemed like things were in control. But that's why the Lions were as good as they were -- they didn't panic. Bartasius hit a layup to make it 80-78. Center Eric Brown missed at the other end for Key West and Lamberti, who led all scorers with 22 points, pulled down the rebound. The Lions worked the ball down the other end until finding Wohlleb, the long-distance specialist.

With Brown practically coming at him and in his face, Wohlleb, who finished with 18 points off the bench, released his trey attempt. It found nothing but net. Westminster 81, Key West 80, 42 seconds left.

Key West had gone to the well so many times on the night and responded. In the end, the Conchs had nothing left when they went down that well again. They got it down low to Brown, but he missed his short shot. Green, who had 21 points and eight rebounds, got the board and was fouled. He hit a free throw to make it a two-point game.

On the next Key West possession, Hickson tried a jumper that missed the mark. Westminster rebounded and with four seconds left, Lamberti delivered the knockout punch with a layup that sealed the 84-80 victory.

Key West put five players in double figures, Westminster four. In the end, though, Key West's 18-game winning streak was over.

Pressley put it best when he said, "It's a shame they (Key West) had to lose, especially with the basketball that was played tonight."

The two-hour drama and interviews afterward left me at a few minutes before 10 with an 11 p.m. deadline ahead of me. Oh, joy!

Off to Kinko's I went again to do the story in downtown Fort Lauderdale where the location of the place was so slimy that ladies of the night were coming in just to use the phone. But I digress.

I managed to get the story to Jen at deadline, somehow trying to keep the emotion of the game and the train of thought together.

Both teams went on to play in state championships a month later -- Westminster Academy beating another state power, Florida Air Academy of Melbourne, in the 2A final and Key West losing that long-awaited battle in 3A with Chet Stachitas-led Nease.

Nine years later, it is still the greatest high school basketball game I've ever witnessed, mainly for the passion, for the excitement and for the talent that was on that court that night ... all the things I love about basketball at that level.

And to think, I had something to do with that particular night even happening.

Yeah, I still smile to this day.

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