This story has really nothing to do with what went on during the play on the field or on a court. As a matter of fact, the game turned into a blowout.
This story is more about what it took for me to go to a city I had really no familiarity with before and how I got a story to our paper with an early deadline in mind.
Yeah, don't try this at a paper with a rookie. You might get burned, editors.
It was Thursday, February 26, 2004. I had been at the Palatka Daily News for over six months and had gotten huge praise for how I had handled things at the paper when I had first gotten there, from my boss' heart attack and having to work the sports department alone the first month and a half to whatever layout and editing I did with the section to being reliable to get a story to my boss before deadline.
OK, I'll admit it -- I was the star prodigy. But I also welcomed doing events away from Putnam County, which I was finding out early had as much as excitement within its boundaries as a Saturday gathering at a picnic to watch grass grow. So when my boss said he had season press passes to cover the Jacksonville Jaguars, I jumped on that like a fat boy to cake. And if there was a state championship worthy of covering, I could easily just combine it with something else that I could cover the day before. For instance, in early November 2003, I got to cover Crescent City Junior-Senior High's final football game of the season, a blowout loss at St. Petersburg Catholic, a good three hours from the building. After I got to write that story up at the local Kinko's in Clearwater, I had a hotel room waiting for me in St. Pete to stay overnight to cover the FHSAA 2A cross country championship meet the next day since both Talisa Bishop and Jeremy Criscione were running to represent Interlachen High. Jeremy finished sixth in that meet, Talisa had finished 27th in her final high school race that night. It was also the last varsity event I covered involving the late Dwayne Cox, who would pass away in August 2004.
It was Saturday, February 21, 2004, that I had covered Crescent City's District 8-2A boys basketball championship victory at home against Father Lopez High of Daytona Beach, the first district title for coach Al Carter in his sixth season in charge. While I got to see Carter's Raiders win that title, my boss got to see Palatka High lose its district championship game at Nease High against Nease's Panthers, 78-67 ... the same coach Bud Beech-led Nease High team that I saw torment Key West High in the state 3A championship two years earlier in Lakeland, though Chet Stachitas was looooong gone by then. As a side note, one Nease player who came off the bench to score seven points in that outing was a sophomore named Tim Tebow.
With Crescent City winning the district title and Palatka losing its district championship, it meant that Crescent City would open up the state tournament hosting Jacksonville Providence, a private school, in the Region 2-2A tournament, while Palatka, though losing to Nease, would be on the road in the first round of the Region 2-4A tournament against District 8-2A champion Jones High of Orlando.
By Monday night, though, we were finding out that the Friday edition of our newspaper had to be out and running on the presses at 10 p.m.
F**king 10 p.m.!
Why, you may wonder? At that time in early 2004, we were running advertisement circulars from Wal-mart. And they came separately from the newspaper that was being printed, so to make life a bit easier for our carriers who had to put the papers together, they wanted us to be done early so the carriers weren't delivering the newspapers at say, 5 in the morning.
I look back now on some of the hoops we had to jump through at that time and it makes me happy we eventually updated into the 21st century. It was a long time coming.
But it wasn't going to help us on this particular Thursday night. I know Andy, very close to those at Palatka High and still to this day close them, wanted to go to see the Panthers play Jones High's Tigers. But the game was down in Orlando, and quite honestly, he needed to be laying out our section early so he could get the stories he and I wrote, put the pictures James, our photographer then, took of the Crescent City-Providence game, and get the paper out by 10 p.m. as management wanted. Andy was more adept at it than I was, even though I knew the system fairly well.
So we switched for the sake of getting the paper out on time. He took the Crescent City game with Providence, while it was I who got to make the road trip to Orlando.
It was exciting for me, but one problem – in all my life, I had never ventured through Orlando other than the one time just over two years earlier when I was taking a vacation from the Key West Citizen and I had a Westgate timeshare that I finished paying for and took the week before Christmas to stay in Orlando for a week. It was really, really nice I do admit. I got to see Orlando outside of Disney World and I had a blast.
But that was it. I had driven through Orlando on I-4, but had not actually stopped there in my six months at the paper. Now I was going somewhere that I was not all that familiar with. And with the early deadline, I didn't want to have to run to the Orlando Sentinel to write the story in which time is the key. So just a couple of days before this game in O-town, I called up Mapquest to see where the heck I was going.
The game was not going to be played at Jones High. The school gymnasium was going through renovations, so all the basketball games they hosted were held at the Memorial Middle School gymnasium. The good news, I find out, was that this gym and school was located right off of I-4 and off Orange Blossom Trail. Figured I'd be there in no time.
Back in 2004, though, I had a penchant for road trips in which I could accomplish two or three things in one long roadie. And before I finally got a subscription to the magazine, my Billboard magazines came to the local bookstores on Wednesdays in northeast Florida. But the one store I had any trust in to have the magazine for a Thursday pickup was the Books-A-Million store located off of State Road-200 in Ocala. Billboard, the top news-worthy music magazine in the business better known for their weekly charts, including the Hot 100, was a staple of mine ever since I got my first one in December 1979.
I can't live without my mag, let's just say that.
So after preparing the scoreboard page like I normally do when I have a road trip the night before, I didn't have to see the office that night one bit. All I had to do was get to my game and get there safely, then get to the local Kinko's and get there safely. And then get home and, yeah, you get it -- get home safely.
The first part of the road trip was to Ocala where I would trek along State Road-20 past Interlachen to get to Hawthorne. I'd veer off onto US-301 and head south from there to Ocala. It was a straight shot down, but the one thing I remember from making this ride was in the northbound lane, these two very good-looking women were hitch-hiking north. My thought, was, "Oh, if only I was going north!"
I wasn't though. I had left at 4 p.m. with the goal of getting to the Books-A-Million by just after 5. I found it, they had the Billboard magazine copy I needed, I paid for it and got a nice discount from the store for using their card and was on my way back to US-301, which was now US-301/US-441. The plan here was to take US-301/441 south all the way to Orlando. Sound easy, right?
Well little did I know that the trip on US-441 from Ocala to Orlando wasn't going to be your normal run-of-the-mill, get-there-in-90-minute trip. I completely forgot to factor in traffic lights and I must have hit every red light you can imagine from Ocala through Leesburg through Tavares through Zellwood and through Apopka.
This was where I knew I blew it for not being well-versed with the roads around Orlando: It was 6:20 p.m. and I knew I needed some kind of a shortcut, anywhere that would get me closer to my destination. And along US-441 as I was going toward Orlando, I should have remained on the road until it linked up with State Road-50 or gotten on the first toll road I saw and let that hook up with Florida's Turnpike and onto the East-West Expressway. I would have gotten dumped off back on US-17/92/441 ... the OBT ... and would have been about five miles from my destination.
But no, I just kept going and made a wrong turn and found myself on State Road-46 – heading away from Orlando. By the time I figured this all out, it was 6:45 p.m. and I was getting getting onto I-4 at Exit 90 with 15 minutes to go to get to the game and a possible traffic jam ahead of me between Exit 90 and Exit 81 since I was driving through the heart of Orlando.
And sure as anything, there was some traffic, but thankfully, not the kind of traffic that holds you up for minutes upon minutes. I was able to navigate my way through the I-4 jigsaw puzzle and toward Exit 80, which was the OBT. I jumped off that left-handed exit and realized the moment I got off ... I was heading the wrong way!! It was not even 10 seconds and I knew I was on the wrong side of I-4.
Again, thankfully, I didn't have traffic that badly behind me and there was nothing in front of me. So I could get into the middle lane and just turn the car around going the other way on OBT. And that's where I saw "her."
Yeah, my first Orange Blossom Trail hooker. She was dressed the part: An African-American young lady scantily-clad, tight jeans and fairly long heels. It was dark and it didn't take long from there to realize that yeah, I was in the really, really, really bad part of Orlando.
From the directions I had, I got to the first traffic light and made a left turn. I had to drive almost half a mile through this dumpy area of the city to get to the middle school. By the time I get out of the car in the school parking lot, it's just about 7 p.m. I had wasted valuable time with a turn I didn't make and now I found myself rushing through the parking lot to get to my destination.
But as I get to the entrance to the gym, I see both teams starting to warm up ... and there's like 10 minutes before the game on the scoreboard clock. It's almost 7:05 p.m. The game is starting at 7. I see Palatka coach Willie Mitchell by the bench watching his team and asked what's going on.
"We took a wrong turn on the way here," he said. "We just got here about 10 minutes ago so they were kind enough to let us warm up with the usual time."
On one hand, I was relieved I didn't miss a moment of this state tournament game. The bad news, though, was that I had a 10 p.m. deadline to play with and what if this game goes to overtime? This is going to be a nightmare. I have confidence I can bang a story and boxscore on this game out in about 30 minutes, but this is now too close for comfort.
Palatka's team had talent, and leading the charge was our paper's eventual player of the year, Tavarres Williams, a senior averaging 25.8 points a game who was on his way to the University of Southern Mississippi to play both football and basketball for the Eagles. They had a nice forward tandem in junior Laveras Keenan and senior James Kiser. They had talented youngsters in A.C. Leonard and Josh Miller. And their point guard, senior Teddy Brown, could not have been more than 5-foot-3.
But laugh as I may about Young's height, he epitomized the shortness of the Panther squad. And that was going to be a problem against a Jones team that had lost the state 3A championship the year before and was bringing back a good amount of its talent, including 6-foot-6 senior center Antoine Dade, a manchild that no Panther player could match up efficiently with.
So with that disadvantage in my mind already going in, I had to take a look to see what the rest of the team had in store. They were big and they were quick. I suddenly realized that the Panthers, who were 13-9 going in, had very little chance against the Tigers, who were 23-4 on the court, but had to forfeit five of their victories during the season because of the use of an ineligible player.
By 7:25 p.m., the game finally tipped off. And it didn't take long for this game to be decided.
The first Palatka possession actually. Williams got to the midcourt line and as if someone barked an order, senior guard Elwin Carbon came rushing toward the cool-as-a-cucumber Williams. So startled by what he saw, Williams dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds. Palatka, to its credit, though, rebounded from the first of those 25 turnovers and took a 5-2 lead in the first 93 seconds of the game.
But I knew it wasn't going to last long. Point guard Darius Walker hit Dade with an alley-oop pass. He got a hand on the ball and directed it into the basket while being fouled by Kiser in the process. He hit the free throw after that to tie the game at 5-all.
Kiser hit one of two free throws on the next possession down and the Panthers led 6-5.
That would be the last lead they would have on the night. Palatka did it tie it one more time at 10-all before Walker hit Jarvis Williams with a bullet pass underneath and Williams put in the layup while getting fouled by Miller. He completed the three-point play and Jones led 13-10 with 3:16 left in the opening quarter. And it was only going to get worse as for the rest of the quarter, Jones outscored Palatka 16-2 to take a 29-12 lead after one period.
Still holding a 36-21 lead just two minutes into the second quarter, Jones' Tigers went on another run, this time 7-0 to go up 43-21 as Jarvis Williams, who finished with 19 points, hit a 3-pointer and a layup and Walker hit a layup. They would lead it 51-30 at halftime.
The game was still long from being in 35-point, running-clock mode, but I knew the Panthers were not making a tremendous comeback in the second half. I called Andy to let him know where my game stood and that it started late. I could hear the sound of concern in his voice as his game was already nearing the end of the third quarter with Crescent City leading 30-27. I assured him I knew where I was going after the game to file my story – the Kinko's not too far from where I was sitting at the moment.
It was going to be interesting to say the least.
Starting the third quarter, Keenan bombed in a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 51-33. But that only made the Tigers mad. They went on a 15-3 run and suddenly had a 66-36 lead with 4:55 to go. And it was getting worse. Jones led it 71-44 going into the final quarter. And they were about to pour it on more thanks to Jarvis Williams and Dade, who finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and one blocked shot. By the midway point of the already decided matchup, the Jones lead ballooned to 35 points. And with that, the clock ran freely the rest of the way. This, still, didn't stop the Tigers from running their offense, even with the substitutes in the ballgame. By the end of the night, Jones shot 51.4 percent from the field, going 38-for-74, and out-rebounded Palatka, 46-28.
Suddenly, the Tigers were at 90-plus points. And they weren't stopping. They got to 92, then 94, 96 and 98 with about 80 seconds left.
Damn, they were trying to break the scoreboard and flash triple-digits. This, though, was not going to happen. Palatka took its sweet time down the court down 98-64 and with about 55 seconds left, the diminutive Brown at the free-throw line after being fouled. Now keep in mind, a running clock is a running clock. The Jones fans still there were demanding Brown speed up his free-throw routine. But all Brown did was smile. He missed the first one. The clock was down to about 28 seconds and he was still taking his sweet time in preparing to take the second shot.
He did and he hit the shot. But there was about nine seconds left. The Tigers rushed the ball up the court and took some wild 3-point shot that missed the mark. The buzzer sounded and the Tigers had their 98-65 victory.
Before he could go into the locker room to talk to his kids, I grabbed Mitchell and asked him a few quick questions for which I was only going to use one of those questions' answers for my story. I jumped back into the car and drove off to the Kinko's to do my story. It was now about 9:10 p.m. and I had 50 minutes to get to the Kinko's, re-add my statistics, type in the agate boxscore and do the story. They were serious about this 10 p.m. deadline thing.
Again, though, I had really no idea of where this Kinko's was located. I found myself back on I-4 and heading west for about six miles to Sand Lake Drive (Exit 74). Once I got off that exit, I headed south toward my next turn. That would be Orange Blossom Trail. I was back on US-441 and heading north toward the Kinko's, which I would find by about 9:35 p.m. If I had just taken OBT south, I would have gotten to my destination more than likely 10-15 minutes sooner.
Now the pressure was really on. I had to bang that story out fast. I don't know how I did it, but I got both the story and boxscore done by 9:55 p.m. Andy did a quick-read and got the last two pages out and onto the presses by 10:05 p.m. He had asked earlier in the day without my knowledge for a few minutes more since we were covering state tournament basketball games. And though our managing editor was reluctant (this guy was reluctant to allow us to breathe upon asking), he gave us an extra 10 minutes to finish up. I found out from Andy that Crescent City held a 10-point lead with over four minutes to go against Providence and got outscored, 12-1, the rest of the way to lose its regional tournament game, 43-42. He DEFINITELY had the better game of the two of us that night.
With my night done, I ended up going to the Ale House not too far from the Kinko's on OBT. I was there to meet an online lady friend named Denise who had blue eyes that were prettier than the waters around Bermuda. She was an Ohio native who happened to be a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan. We had a good time. I left the restaurant by about 12:30 in the morning and headed north back to Palatka after what was a really, really long day and night.
It was an experience I will never forget from start to finish.
And none of the better drama from that day even happened in the game I was covering.