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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Covering basketball on New Year's Eve night ... and liking it a lot!

Most New Year's Eves you remember where you were, what you were doing, and more importantly, who you were with. Some years are fuzzier than others and you will confuse years here and there, but you have a fairly decent memory of what it is you did.

All my New Year's Eves had been spent out at bars, hoping maybe at midnight I got lucky, especially in my 20s and 30s. These days, though, New Year's Eves are spent quietly at home, trying to avoid the amateurs who simply make partying a downer if you know what I mean.

Never has it meant having to work on the final day of the calendar year.

That is, never until 2009. And believe me when I say this ... I couldn't have been happier to be out on the road covering an event.

So the final day of the 2000 decade was spent first at work, trying to help my boss put together a three-page sports section. With a 6 p.m. early deadline, we got what we could onto those pages and out to print. Part of the reason for the deadline was to not put our paper carriers in harm's way of the drunks at 2 and 3 a.m. in the morning as they were getting out of bars.

Apparently, this area has a LOT of amateurs partying on New Year's Eve.

This, though, was good because it got me out of the office and on the road to Baker County High School in Glen St. Mary. Now if you aren't sure where Baker County is located, it's like driving from Toms River down the Garden State Parkway to Cape May Courthouse in Jersey Shore equivalency. It's 72 miles one way, but again remember, Florida is a big ol' state.

So you're reading this and saying, "Mark, you're crazy, especially New Year's Eve night? Why?"

The big reason why was because I wasn't getting out of the office with the same frequency as I did before. Here's the story as to why -- in late November, our managing editor took a job at another newspaper, which all of us were bummed out about because of how great it was to work for the man. When Rusty, our publisher, approached me about helping out for a little more money, I jumped at it, but I was hesitant as to how.

Our page designer was having to fill the role as editor for the time being until one was brought in or he was given the job. So in the interim -- and since I work nights -- I was asked to help design news pages. I was hesitant about that, to be honest, and what eventually happened was I got to design a couple of inside pages a night, which were fairly easy and took me 90 minutes to two hours to accomplish to begin my night before I jumped over to help my sports boss.

For years, I've always heard people say in this business that working for news and working for sports were two different animals, but I could never comment on that until I actually did that. Let me tell you something -- whoever first said that was very, very right. I realized 25 years into the business that I wasn't a news guy, and though I did get extra to help, I never felt comfortable laying out news pages at all. But for the month and a half I did it, I got that appreciation for the job and my publisher was very thankful I was there to help him.

Basically, I'd do anything for Rusty. He gave me my dignity in this business back when in the early part of the 2000s, I had none after a bad 2 1/2 years in Key West. That's another story at another time and people better be ducking under tables when I start shooting off on that one.

Because I had to start my night with doing news pages, covering winter sports in person was out of the question for the seven weeks I had to work both desks. I've always felt more comfortable as a storyteller, not putting other people's stories in a newspaper, but for those seven weeks, I was OK with doing what I was doing.

Still, I felt lost without seeing our local basketball teams, including the incredible start our Palatka High boys team had gotten off to. And Crescent City boys basketball has always been a great staple of our winters, including this tournament at Baker County High.

Normally, the tournament would end on Dec. 30, but for some reason, they decided to start this tournament on a Tuesday instead of Monday, meaning Crescent City would have to play on Dec. 29, Dec. 30 and Dec. 31. Crescent City had won its quarterfinal and semifinal games, setting up a championship showdown with Bradford High of Starke, not only a top team, but a district divisional foe for the Raiders, who would eventually play the Tornadoes four times!

So after the pages had been put to bed, I jumped into my car and headed out to Baker County High for an 8 p.m. start.

You read right ... 8 p.m. start on New Year's Eve. That means Crescent City would not only be done by 10 p.m. and on the road, but they would literally still be driving back on the bus to Crescent City as 2009 became 2010. Talk about being in the world of the bizarre. I've seen a lot of things in 26 years, but NEVER this!

For me, it had been a while since I was up in Baker County. I made the trip to see Crescent City play in this event a couple of times, including the year before. On Friday, Dec. 30, 2005, my Toyota Corolla went over 100,000 miles on my way up to Baker County for the Christmas-time tournament final that Crescent City played in. The little things you remember.

Even though I had been to Baker County High before, it's not exactly a ride I make everyday. And so as US-17 north became I-295 onto I-10 going west, I'm still trying to remember exactly what exit it was I was supposed to get off at. I found my exit and on US-90, I'm looking for signs for the town. I found them, but remembered the school is not off of the main highway.

Thankfully, the nice people at the Walgreen's in town knew where the school was. A right turn and another right turn, and I was there. And on that second right turn, you are having to drive all the way around the school to the side where the gym was. Found it with 10 minutes to spare.

As for the game, this was going to be a glimpse into the Crescent City-Bradford rivalry for this particular season. The teams split the four games during the season, but Crescent City's wins were the regular-season battles at home and at Starke. Bradford won the two games that counted that year -- the divisional tournament final that allowed them to advance to the state tournament and this tournament final, 59-49.

In this game, Crescent City turned the ball over 27 times, Bradford 25 times. Sloppy to say the least. But what got the Raiders was Bradford's height. Bradford outrebounded Crescent City, 30-20, but the Raiders fought hard. They were down 32-18 at one point in the game and battled back to cut the lead to two points, 45-43, with 3:53 left in the game.

But Marcus Adley hit a short jumper and Tramaine Harris nailed a 3-point field goal and it was 50-43 again. But the crushing blow came after when tournament Most Valuable Player Yakeem Griner slammed home a missed shot by teammate Darius Corbitt with 2:43 left to make it a nine-point lead that the Raiders could not overcome.

And normally after it's all done, I wait outside the door leading to the lockerroom to talk to the coaches or players afterward. I never feel comfortable listening to a coach tell his players either what a great job they did or rip into them for the things they did wrong. That's their time. I simply wait. With early deadline come and gone, I had a lot of time to wait.

And wait. And wait. And wait some more. Finally I go inside to find out the team had left. Gone! How, you might wonder? The side door next to the lockerroom. Crescent City coaches and players just left out the door and headed to the bus without notice.

Wonderful! I have to find this out 30 minutes after the game after I was wondering what was taking so long in the first place. Well it was a good thing I had coach Al Carter's cell-phone number and called him. To my shock, he actually answered.

I asked him what the hell happened and where did he go after the game. Then he explained the side door thing. I wasn't pleased. He apologized. Then I interviewed him about the loss, which took me five minutes to do, then another five minutes just to simply talk basketball with the man. Al Carter is a basketball junkie, the best kind actually. And since basketball is a sport I absolutley love watching and dissecting, we could talk strategies and defenses and what other teams' strengths and weaknesses were all day long.

But we weren't going to spend all night doing that. He had kids on a bus he was taking out to eat first, then home by about 12:30 in the morning on New Year's Day.

I had the same scenario, but at 10:15 p.m., I was still not on the road and still in the parking lot at Baker County High. Back on US-90, then to I-10 east, then to I-295 south to Blanding Boulevard (State Road-21) where I stopped at Taco Bell to pick up my first actual food all day. It was about 11 p.m. by then.

It was on the lonely stretch of road called US-17 between Green Cove Springs and Palatka when 2009 became 2010, when I called my then-girlfriend at her Brevard County home where she was playing Scrabble with friends and family to tell her "Happy New Year." She told me to be safe. I was considering at that particular moment, no one was on this lonesome part of the highway with me.

I was back in the Daily News office by 12:30 in the morning to write the game story and get my Page 2B for Saturday's edition set up and write my Saturday column which corresponded to our sports department's selection of the greatest high school sports moment of the decade gone by. That November 6, 2004 moment is another story to be told at another time.

By the time the night was over for me and I left the building, it was 4 a.m. All was quiet in Palatka, Fla. at that hour. No cars on the road, nothing to get in the way of my 2-mile trip back from the office to the apartment.

And that's how I spent my first ever "working" New Year's Eve. I got out of the office to cover a sports event and absolutely liked it.

Oh, one other thing -- we ultimately found a new editor less than three weeks after covering that game. On that Monday morning, January 18, Rusty introduced the new boss to us ... the old boss. He didn't like the new gig and Rusty was good enough to say, "Welcome back!" Joy was back in the newsroom at that point.

Yeah, this gig isn't so bad, really.

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