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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The terrible end to Kim Babiak's basketball career

As a full-time student at Monmouth College and having to work nights, let's say the degree of difficulty in accomplishing anything in my life was fairly high. Add a girlfriend in there who didn't have a license to drive at the time, and yeah, things certainly were challenging in the fall of 1986 and winter/spring 1987.

But I did like the idea of making money like any other 20-year-old at the time and I took on assignments to cover in Ocean County to get my foot through the door at another newspaper ... or so I thought back in 1987.

This included covering Friday night basketball when we didn't publish on Saturdays at the Observer. And so on Friday night, January 30, 1987, I was asked by my boss to cover a big Shore Conference Class A South girls basketball game between Toms River South and Southern Regional at South, right around the corner from the newspaper building. My last class of the day on Fridays ended around 3 p.m. during that time, so that didn't bother me at all.

For one thing, I handled all the statistics for girls and boys basketball. This was right up my alley since I knew who the players were on all the teams and I got to see them up close. And in this particular case, the Rams of Southern Regional coach Kathy Leslie came in with an 11-4 record overall and 5-2 in the division, trying to catch up to division leader Lakewood. South, meanwhile, was very formidable at 8-2 overall and 5-1 in the division, also chasing after Lakewood in Class A South. So for now, the battle was for either South to maintain second place in the division or for Southern to force South into a two-way tie in second at the time.

Southern Regional had good players on its team like senior all-everything guard Michelle Jones, scrappy junior forward Patti Caufield, sophomore standout guard Mary Tantillo and solid junior center Charity Smead, a standout in track and field as well. Southern was good. The Indians of second-year coach Barbara Hughes was loaded with talent, too, starting with senior center Toni-Marie Izzie and junior forward Chris Maloney.

But their star player was a senior guard named Kim Babiak. If not for Lakewood's incredible Carol Walters, Babiak would have been the best senior female athlete in the county that year. She was a four-year All-County first-team standout on the tennis court at No. 1 singles and was a dynamite role player for the previous two seasons on the basketball team for Hughes and before her, the late Bill Dougherty. And she was a sensational sprinter and hurdler in track and field. But in her junior year, she left track and field and tried out for coach Jim Christiano's softball team. Not only did she make the team, she patrolled center field and stole 37 bases in 37 attempts -- no one threw her out! And her bat and speed helped the Indians reach the finals of both the Ocean County and Shore Conference tournaments as well as a share of the Class A South title with an overall record of 24-6.

And as I kidded her while she was in high school, I told her it was amazing that she found the time to be the female lead in the Honeydrippers' video for the song "Sea Of Love" because if you remember seeing the video or even view it on YouTube, she looked very much like the young lady in the video. Of course it wasn't her, but she was a spitting image.

I totally thought the world of Kim Babiak. She was a great young lady from a great family. Her mom, Geri, was a sweetheart and her dad, Bob, was a terrific guy. Her older brother, Bobby, another super guy, I got to know as a South football and track standout and then again when he was coaching track at Toms River North in the 1990s.

Babiak was averaging 18.8 points a game in 10 games and a big reason why South and Hughes, also the school's field hockey coach in the fall, did not have to worry about the outside game or handling the ball for that matter.

So as I came into South's gym, I got my spot at the scorer's table, wrote down the lineups for both teams, chatted for a moment with both Hughes and Leslie, and said hello to the people I knew fairly well, which would be Izzie and Babiak. All seemed right for the moment.

Southern Regional teams under Leslie were best known for their defensive prowess. Whether they had the best talent in the county or not, she always stressed defense as a major part of her team. In other words, if you couldn't play defense for Leslie, chances were you weren't playing for Southern Regional at all.

So imagine Leslie's surprise as Izzie won the tip from Smead, Babiak got the ball and drove right to the basket for the game's first two points.

Already, the yelling started from Southern's sideline.

"Michelle Jooooooones!! You are supposed to pick her up!! Where's the rest of you to help out?!"

It didn't take long for the Rams to answer. Jones hit on a layup to tie it at 2-2, then after a South miss, Caufield got the ball from Jones and delivered a basket from in close to make it 4-2. Another South miss and Southern had the ball back, but a pass by Jones was deflected and picked up by Babiak for the steal.

This is where everything changed for South in the game and their season -- and Babiak's basketball career.

As she took the ball down the floor for what seemed to be an uncontested layup, Smead raced down the court as fast as she could to try to catch up with Babiak. I can still see Babiak being grabbed from behind by Smead -- not viciously by any means -- but as Smead got her, she turned Babiak around as the South guard threw up a wild shot.

That's when it happened. It wasn't clear enough, but when you started to hear wails of pain, you knew it wasn't good. To brace her fall from Smead's foul from behind, Babiak put her right arm out.

It snapped. The wrist was broken. And for the next five to 10 minutes, the game was delayed as South trainer Debbie Morante had to come out to tend to a shaken and crying Babiak. And worse, when her good friend and longtime teammate Izzie came over to see what was going on, she became so shaken she started to weep openly. This moment was an absolute hot mess.

I always said the person who really should have been crying at that moment was junior Karen Schuler, who was now going to have to be the full-time point guard of the team and with the knowledge she was not going to contribute nearly 20 points a game.

As Babiak was taken off the court for what would be the last time in her high school basketball career, heading over to nearby Community Memorial Hospital, I knew -- and I think Hughes and South fans knew -- that South's season was not going to be the same. Babiak was the engine that ran this automobile and without her, South didn't really stand a chance.

There was an emptiness within that South gymnasium for that moment and for the rest of that game for that matter. And I remember there was a sudden heaviness ... not of hatred, but a slight bit of anger ... toward Smead, who was only trying to do her job at that moment, but in her clumsy way of doing it, had just put a damper on South's season. I could feel it in the gym for the rest of the night, especially after Schuler came in and missed both free throws.

The game went on from there and that bit of anger grew even more as Southern went on a 13-0 run to make it 17-2 in the first quarter with Jones taking advantage of not having Babiak all over her like white on rice with eight points in the run. South stopped the run by putting a full-court pressure on Jones and Tantillo and went on an 8-0 run to make it 17-10.

Sadly, that would be the closest South would get from there. Leslie made the adjustments for her young ladies and by the third quarter, the game got out of hand. By the end of the game, Southern had put the finishing touches on a 66-40 rout. By far, the rest of the game was very unmemorable. Jones had 22 points, most of which came on long-range jumpers, while Smead had 14 points and eight rebounds and Caufield had six points and seven rebounds. Reserve Kristen Stohrer added eight points off the bench.

Maloney ended up leading South with 14 points, while Izzie had 10 points and Schuler had six points after stepping in for Babiak.

But all that was trivial. Broken wrists don't heal that quickly and not only was Hughes having to face the reality she didn't have her superstar guard for the rest of the season, but Christiano was not going to have his centerfielder for her senior softball season. Without her that spring, South had a good season, but certainly could have had a better season. The Indians went to the OCT semifinals that spring and who knows if Babiak were in the lineup how well they may have done against Lacey in a 13-12 loss.

Meanwhile, Hughes and her Indians had to move on from this particular game. Unfortunately, they had to move on to a date the very next night at Lakewood ... and it didn't go so well. Lakewood was in the middle of a second state South Jersey Group III title in three years and blew out the Indians. To add insult to already hard-luck injury, Walters scored her 1,000th career point in that game.

Babiak would eventually return to track and field and have a successful season with a pair of wins in the county meet that spring. She would go on to play tennis at the Jacksonville University and graduate with a degree in marketing. In 1996, she was working for the American Hockey League team in Baltimore and she let my dad and I into the old Civic Center in downtown Baltimore to see the place that the old Baltimore Bullets played basketball back in the day while we were down for an Orioles game the night before. It was good to see her. Shortly after she showed us around that morning, she got the call to work with the marketing department with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Ultimately, she got to do the same thing, but this time head the department, with the Houston Texans franchise as they were getting of the ground. And we were in contact my first couple of years with the Palatka Daily News since I got to cover the Jacksonville Jaguars in the same AFC South division and asked her if she ever came back to Jacksonville. She said she really didn't really travel with the team, but in January 2004, she got to help out the NFL with whatever the league asked her to do in preparing Reliant Stadium for Super Bowl XXXVIII when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers.

The next year, it was Jacksonville who got to host the big game and to do a column on what a franchise or a city had to get done to make a city presentable for a Super Bowl, I called up the one person with experience who can tell me what does happen. Now Kim Phillips, she answered the phone and gave me 45 minutes of wonderful time. It was a good conversation as we caught up on what was going on. She had not given me any indication that she was leaving the Texans, but she did.

And that conversation in early February 2005 was the last time I talked with Kim Babiak Phillips. I'm sure a lot has happened in eight years, but I do miss her. She may not have been the best athlete I ever covered, but she certainly was one of my favorite people I got to know in these 28 years.

She was worth the time and effort to go see play and cover ... even with a busy schedule to manage.

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