I am coming down the home stretch of publishing my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story at long last. I thought all the interviews were finished for the book, but sometimes there are unforeseen surprises. One was interviewing Coach Ronald Wolfs. Coach Ken Jones is a key character in my book. Mrs. Alice Jones, the wife of Coach Jones, recommended that I talk to Coach Wolfs years ago. I was in the early stages of writing the book when she suggested this. I heeded her advice and reached out to Coach Wolfs on Facebook. It took a while but we finally were able to get together in April of 2023.
Learning Basketball in the United States and Coaching in Europe
“I like to teach my players the concept of Next Play! At the end of practice, we all get together and discuss who did a good job with Next Play today.” I embedded parts one and two of my interview with Coach Ronald Wolfs below. They were uploaded on my sports YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussions76 Sports. We covered several topics in both parts. Coach Jones was a major part of our discussion. He taught us both the game of basketball and life at an early age. We further discussed Coach Wolfs’ basketball journey and his coaching philosophies.
“Basketball is life!” Coach Wolfs is now a professional coach in Europe where he teaches the great game of basketball to youngsters. He likes exposing his players to basketball in the United States which he calls ‘Survival Basketball’. He further likes teaching his players about life through game. Next Play is one of the key concepts he teaches his players. Thank you Coach Wolfs for setting aside time for this discussion and sharing visuals from your business that I could use in this content. Visit the Wolfpack Nation website to learn more about Coach Wolfs and his coaching programs. Please smash the like button and consider subscribing to my channel when watching the videos below.
The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story
My interview with Coach Wolfs is a part of promoting my book project, The Engineers A Western New York Basketball Story. I have generated a lot of promotional materials for the book in the form of print and video content. This promotional content is on the page I created for the book. Please visit the page and if an offering resonates with you, leave a comment, give it a like and share it in your network. This project will be impacted by the number of eyes that see it in terms of its success. Those years were a magical time for me as it was for all the basketball players in Western New York and Section VI. Thank you for clicking on this link. Yours in good sports and best regards.
Coach Ron Wolfs Discusses Teaching Basketball In Europe And Memories Of Coach Ken Jones Part One
Coach Ron Wolfs Discusses Teaching Basketball In Europe And Memories Of Coach Ken Jones Part Two
The Big Words LLC Newsletter
I started a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, The Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. I will protect your personal information and privacy. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. If there is some issue signing up using the link provided, you can also email me at [email protected] . Best Regards.
The following are funny quotes from the many contributors to my book project entitled, The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Telling this story with depth and substance the way I wanted to tell it was truly a team effort. I could not have done it on my own. Telling this story was furthermore a long process. There were bouts of self-doubt where I wondered if this was a waste of time. Each contributor though reminded me in their own way that I was creating something worthwhile and to stay the course. Thank you to all of you.
My story (and the contributors’) had high points and low points. There were likewise many humorous memories, reflections, and stories shared during our discussions. To further promote The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story, I thought it would be fun and worthwhile to share some of the funny excerpts from my 40 interviews. Please note that while real names are used in this offering, many will be changed in the final book to protect. This will be to protect the privacy of those who did not agree to participate.
Context and a Disclaimer
The excerpts below are from a few of my interviews and I decided there was room left in this piece for more discussion. For context, I added commentary underneath each quote to give insight into what was said. I hope you get a chuckle out of some of these as I have. And to the contributors, thank you all again. I finally want to give a disclaimer as the creator of this content. Some of the stories shared below are a little bit on the edge and reflect the emotions and memories of the interviewees. Thus, while I am sharing these stories, they do not necessarily reflect my views. The images used throughout this are likewise from a variety of sources. Thank you to everyone who shared your materials and pictures. Best regards and yours in good sports!
Adrian Baugh, Player, Buffalo Traditional High School
“Those schools were not even a match for us. It was not the Section VI schools, but the Section V schools from the Rochester area that were the issue. I think every year we would just clown John F. Kennedy (JFK). JFK was usually our opponent in the overall Section VI Class C final. Newfane? We smacked them!”
No. 30 Adrian Baugh was one of the unsung heroes on the Jason Rowe– and Damien Foster-led Buffalo Traditional Bulls teams in the early 1990s. The Bulls put strangleholds on the Yale Cup and the Section VI Class C playoff bracket for a four-year stretch. Adrian shared that he and the Bulls were not concerned with the Section VI Class C schools, especially those from the suburbs like JFK and Newfane. Their true competition was from Section V (the Rochester area) in the Far West Regional, and any team they faced in Glens Falls.
Carlos Bradberry, Player, LaSalle Senior High School
“Oh, I was pissed off and Coach Monti made a point of it too. He would play mind games with us to piss us off. He would say, ‘Look at this guy. He’s got ‘DA MAN’ on the back of his head!’ I was ready to go nuts just when I saw him. I was thinking this dude thinks he’s really THAT GUY! I got enraged before the game because we were all sitting in the stands watching the game before ours and he’s laying down sleeping in the stands! I’m going nuts saying, ‘Look at this dude, he’s over there sleeping, and he’s got to play us!’ Everything he did made me go sort of nuts, but he backed everything up though.”
No. 50 Carlos Bradberry was one of the top guards in the LaSalle Senior High School basketball dynasty. He led the first Explorers team that I saw in person during the 1991-92 season. In the 1992 postseason, the Explorers matched up with the Greece Athena Trojans from Rochester, NY. It was the Class A Far West Regional. The Trojans were led by the All-American and Syracuse-bound star No. 44 John Wallace (pictured above and at the end of this piece). Wallace went on to play in the NBA after college. In this excerpt from our interview, Carlos talked about the hype and the perceived disrespect from Wallace leading up to the game. The match up was nicknamed ‘The Meeting of the Perfect Strangers’ as both teams rode into the game 22-0 with a trip to Glens Falls on the line.
*To read the full interview with Carlos Bradberry, see parts one and two.
Curtis Brooks, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“He always had those damn throat lozenges (Coach Ken Jones). He was hoarse and it was probably because he was always screaming!”
Two of the key figures in The Engineers are Coach Ken Jones and Curtis Brooks. I describe Brooks as the ‘engine’ that drove the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. He led them to a 13-0 Yale Cup record and the overall Section VI Class B Championship. Brooks played under Ken Jones for three years. He was there when Ken Jones took the reins as the head coach. All of Coach Jones’ players remember his hoarse and raspy voice which was the product of his passion for the game. He yelled at his players at practices and in games. He yelled at the officials in the games. One of the characteristics most of his players thus recall about him is his voice. Coach Jones wore many hats and in one-on-one settings, his voice took on more of a patient and grandfatherly tone.
Modie Cox, Player, LaSalle Senior High School
“That was the game he had that bad game in Glens Falls (Eric Gore). Yes I remember that and I was a freshman and I knew I was not playing. I was from the eastside of Niagara Falls. I grew up around drug dealers, prostitutes and hustling, getting over and things of that nature. That was my mentality. As a freshman I was thinking we are out here and I am trying to get some money. You know some guys you can hustle. I grew up trying to hustle because that is what you see all the time. So I felt like I could hustle, so I would hustle other guys. So sometimes I would try to hustle, those guys would beat me and I would be like, ‘Okay I will be right back.’ I would go into somebody else’s room and hustle them out of some money. It is funny. That happened in 1988. That is 30 years ago and Eric Gore remembers that. I am glad Coach Monti did not know that!”
Maurice ‘Modie’ Cox was one the great guards to play in Head Coach Pat Monti’s LaSalle basketball dynasty. I only heard of Modie’s legend and never saw him play like many of the great players in Western New York. Modie was the leader of the LaSalle dynasty between the Eric Gore- and Michael Starks-led 1988 Class B Federation Championship Team and the Carlos Bradberry-led teams of the early 1990s. This excerpt comes from Modie’s visit to my sports YouTube channel Big Discussions76 Sports. It gave the other side of the same story Coach Pat Monti told me about Eric Gore’s tough semifinal game against the Gloversville Dragons in 1988.
“NO, I did not reach them. I am not talking about everybody on the team. The key players were mavericks or renegades if you want to call them that. They were not necessarily bad kids. All of the forces of – On judgment day if the good Lord asks, ‘Why did you yell at all of those kids?’ I will say, I will tell you what JESUS, you sit on that bench and see if it brings the good side out of you! The game by nature brings out the bad in people. You are required to be violent and to be a team player. You are required to run, and hit, and SMASH into one another – to jump and run and to be physically and mentally exhausted – and that is only practice. The games are fun, it is the practices – the day-to-day grind. It is a tough sport!”
Coach Francis Daumen took over for Coach Jones for my senior basketball season at Hutch-Tech High School. In my chaotic junior year I had to play on the JV team for Mr. Daumen. My circumstances led to my having to play on the JV team as a junior and I did not want to be there. Coach Daumen’s yelling was also different from Coach Jones’ and I did not know how to take it. A team’s energy and environment can change drastically with the head coach. This was the case for our transition on the boys’ basketball team. Coach Daumen’s quote gives insight into how he saw coaching the great game of basketball. As opposed to being an art or a craft, it was battle.
Damien Foster, Player, Buffalo Traditional High School
“Well, my understanding back in the day is that the Yale Cup did not even have the three-point line (laughing). Curtis Aiken (of Bennett) and those guys played when there was no three-point line. You play in some of the gyms in some of these schools and it was like you were playing in a bowling alley –.”
Damien Foster and Jason Rowe seemingly burst onto the scene together the 1992-93 season as freshmen. I was amazed by their play when I first saw them. In The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story, I describe what it was like playing in the Yale Cup in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During that era, the Yale Cup players and teams played in less than stellar facilities and had meager resources. Most of our jerseys did not have our school names on them for example. Some of the gyms were also abysmal. Damien Foster jokingly recalled in this excerpt that the gym at Performing Arts Academy looked like a bowling alley. It actually did. Buffalo Traditional coincidentally closed and Performing Arts Academy now occupies the former home of the Bulls.
*To read the full interview with Damien Foster, see parts one and two.
Dion Frasier, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“He was intense and would go off sometimes. He was sometimes a little bizarre. There was one time he was shooting in the gym and I came in and he said something and I started laughing. He said, ‘What are you laughing at? You think I’m a joke?’ He got all in my face and I said ‘dude what is wrong with you?’ Curt was a little – I don’t know what to call him (laughing). He was on the spectrum, I don’t know, but like I said you get him on the court man, that dude could ball. That dude could ball……..”
Reverend Dion Frasier was a four-year player for Coach Ken Jones. No. 24 was a key role player on the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team that won the city and the sectional championships. Finally, he was a senior on the 1991-92 team my sophomore year. I did not know the Class of 1991 seniors personally. I initially knew of them only through stories. In this story, Dion reflected on the intensity No. 13 Curtis Brooks played with when they were teammates.
Anthony Harris, Player, Burgard Vocational High School
“I went to Burgard because I followed the idiots to Burgard! Ma was like, ‘Go to Tech. Go to Tech!’ I was like, ‘I don’t want to go to Tech.’ Everybody was going to Tech. Jimmy, Chippy, Squirrel, Brian, everybody, I didn’t know anything about Burgard. I was just going with them. Ma just got tired of me and said, ‘Go ahead to Burgard.’ Come to find out, going to Burgard, Brian changed his mind, Squirrel changed his mind, and it was me, Jimmy and Chippy. Chippy flunked out freshman year. He got thrown out for tardiness and absences, so they let him go. Jimmy left after the first year too, so out of everybody, I was the only one there after one year. And back then after my freshman year, I was tired of this and said, ‘I’m going to Riverside.’ It was overcrowded and I couldn’t get in, so it was back to Burgard again and I was stuck at Burgard. And that is how I got into Burgard.”
A key character in my story is my Uncle Anthony ‘Tony’ Harris. He appears in the beginning and then towards the end. Uncle Tony knew a lot about sports like all of my uncles. I later found that he played a considerable amount of basketball when he was younger and even played a little bit in college. I wondered how having his mentorship would have impacted my own journey afterwards. He had multiple stories to tell about growing up in Buffalo, playing basketball and life in general when I interviewed him. Consistent with his personality, many of them were funny. I knew he went to Burgard but I had no idea about how he got there until our interview.
Ed Harris, Player, Riverside High School
“We came into Traditional, had that game won. Mush (Damien Foster) shot a fucking shot from half court and the ball bounced in. That was right after one of their players died and so it was an emotional game for them (Cameron Calvin). Cardinal was happy. He met us at the door. ‘COME ON IN 5-0!’ This is what he said when we walked in the building. ‘COME ON IN 5-0. COME ON IN! COME ON IN 5-0!’ This is what Cardinal said as we walked in the door. ‘COME ON IN 5-0! COME ON IN!’ We were waiting for this. We want this one. I had a good game. It was just that half-court shot that won it for them. It was their time, and I think they went on to do great things after that. We went the opposite way and they kept soaring. He knew he had a squad! Cardinal knew that he had a squad!”
Edmund Harris was one of the key pieces on the Riverside Boys’ Basketball Team that won the 1991-92 Yale Cup and Section VI Class C championships. They had most of their pieces coming back for their 1992-93 senior season. Like many teams in the Yale Cup that season, they ran up against the young Buffalo Traditional Bulls led by No. 33 Damien Foster and No. 12 Jason Rowe and lost on a legendary buzzer beater by Foster. This memory involved the infamous Coach Joe Cardinal of Buffalo Traditional and made me laugh as the interviewer. I think it amused Ed Harris when he reflected on it himself.
Frankie Harris, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“I remember. Did he used to get out there and practice with ya’ll (Coach Ken Jones)? He would take his shirt off and get in the action with us and play pick up and anything like that. He would tear you up (laughing)!”
Frankie Harris was a part of Coach Ken Jones’ rebuild of the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. He was a member of the Class of 1990, so I missed him by one year. I saw pictures of him in my brother Amahl’s yearbooks though. When I joined the team, Coach Jones talked to us regularly about ‘Frankie Harris Syndrome’. It involved being too unselfish on offense. Frankie told me his version of where the syndrome came from. We also talked about what it was like to play basketball with Coach Jones who was a physical, gritty and tough player. He would put his body on you for rebounds and use his forearms in the lane. His physical play surprised me initially but eventually you learned that was how he played the game.
Derrick Herbert, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“I mean the voice first. It was raspy and it seemed like he smoked eight packs of Newports (cigarettes) and drank Jack Daniel’s (whiskey). It was just really raspy! You know what I mean? That is how it came off to me. So his commanding voice hits you at first, and then I noticed how good a shape he was in for his age (Coach Ken Jones).”
Derrick Herbert was a player from the Class of 1990 like Frankie Harris. We were put in touch by Pep Skillon shortly after Coach Jones’ passing. In our interview, we discussed a lot of things. I asked him about his first impressions of Coach Jones like I did with all the guys who were there when he took over. Most of us noted his unique physical attributes first, his voice being one of the most notable. He was also in tremendous physical shape in his early 60s.
Earl Holmes, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“I mess with Adrian every time I see him. I told him, he let you do whatever you wanted to (Coach Francis Daumen). That almost got Calhoun cut our senior year when Coach Richardson took over. Do you know who stopped him from cutting Adrian and Reggie? It was my Dad. He said, ‘I don’t think you want to do that because Adrian could stroke the ball and Reggie could handle the ball!’”
Earl Holmes was a teammate from the Class of 1995. He seemed to really like picking on classmates at times, myself included. Earl always told you what he thought and gave it to you straight. He was the same way 20 years later. Part of our discussion involved reflecting on our 1993-94 team my senior year at Hutch-Tech. That was the year after Coach Jones retired and where Coach Francis Daumen took over. It was a tough year where some unusual things happened. Many of the team dynamics changed. Some things were allowed to fly that would not have been allowed in previous years. Some players were at the center of those changes, and it was very, very reflective of dynamics I and others would see in the adult world in the years to come.
Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, Coach, Hutch-Tech High School
“If you can beat your man one on one, you beat him. When you can’t, then pass the ball! If I say we do not shoot anything except uncontested layups, you don’t force it! Frankie Harris got the award for passing up an UNCONTESTED layup against Grover Cleveland HIGH SCHOOL but it was better than getting the ball SHOVED down your throat (rejected). Getting an uncontested shot is better than getting it driven down your throat! So that is when Brother Brooks was sitting next to me early in that game!”
Coach Jones’ spirit is all throughout this project. We talked about the challenges he experienced when establishing his program at Hutch-Tech High School throughout my research. There was a learning curve for the players on his teams. One surprising example involved No. 13 Curtis Brooks, the engine that drove the 1990-91 Yale Cup and Section VI Class B championship teams. Coach Jones’ story about Brother Brooks involved learning how to run his offenses. The centerpiece of one of his most successful teams had to learn how to play in his program and how to run his offenses.
“Well what was great was that Sal Rizzo who was the nicest guy you will ever want to meet, God rest his soul – I honestly don’t think he knew a lick about the game of basketball. He had so much talent year in and year out – he should’ve been in the Far West Regionals every year – that’s how talented East High was. He got so ticked off because the score at halftime was something like 17-15. Coach Rizzo came out at halftime and came over to me and said, ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING? THIS ISN’T BASKETBALL!’ I said, ‘Coach, I’m doing the only thing I can do to give our team a chance to win!’ He said, ‘WELL TWO CAN PLAY THAT GAME COACH!’ And guess what he started doing –. HE STARTED DELAYING THE BALL (laughing)! I said to my assistants, ‘Oh my God! Can you believe this? He’s playing right into our hands!’”
Coach Pat Monti led the Niagara Falls LaSalle Senior High School basketball dynasty to a decade of domination in Western New York. The Explorers won the Section VI Class A championship for 10 years straight and were regular visitors to the Far West Regionals where they matched up with the Class A Champion from the Rochester area. One team they matched up with regularly was the East Orientals. In this excerpt from our interview, Coach Monti discussed the year he attempted to slow the game down to negate the Orientals’ athletic ability and size. Coach Sal Rizzo responded in the most unexpected way by also delaying the ball. He helped create a memorable game with lots of laughs for years to come.
Phillip Richardson, Player, Bennett High School and Coach, Hutch-Tech High School
“Well, first off. We had our first meeting. We are going to run, run, run. You are going to be in shape and you are going to have to be in shape. So we are practicing and I am seeing Reggie and Adrian do this and that, and Earl trying to do his thing, and trying to squeeze Andre in there. I stopped practice and sat them on the floor at half court. I told them, ‘One of you three motherfuckers, I am going to kick off the team! I do not care who it is! I am just waiting for you all to do something DUMB! What I mean by dumb is that in a game, if I tell you to do something and you don’t do it, that’s dumb and you’re DONE! So from that point in time, they fell right in line and did everything I wanted them to do.”
Coach Phillip Richardson took over the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team the year after I graduated. He inherited the highly confident and talented players from the Class of 1995 and brought on his own younger players. New coaches must establish their culture and control over teams whenever they assume the reins and take over. In this funny excerpt, Coach Richardson shared an exchange with his 1994-95 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team which had me rolling when he told it to me. I knew the players he referred to well so it had extra significance for me. Under his leadership, they went on to have a great year. Coach Richardson was also my cousin. I did not discover his athletic pedigree until late in my short basketball journey due to family circumstances and dynamics.
Bill Russell, Coach, Riverside High School
“I do not remember. I know he had an interesting life story (Coach Ken Jones). He was out of the school system for a little while and then he came back. That would have been the time that you were with him. I thought he was quite an interesting guy – fanatical but in a good way. And I think he was a fanatic about physical fitness. I heard one story – I do not know where I heard this. He challenged any player on his basketball team, I am thinking about one All-High player, but with one stipulation and that was it had to be a full court game. I do not remember where I heard it, but normally I would say that was ridiculous but not in his case. I think he was just a bit eccentric enough and in great shape where he would go like that. It very well could be true. I do not know, but I heard that.”
Coach Bill Russell led the Riverside Boys’ Basketball Team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He coached the legendary Cliff Robinson before starting his college and professional basketball careers. All 14 Yale Cup coaches knew each other or knew of each other. In some instances those relationships were contentious and in some instances they were amiable. In my interview with Coach Russell, Coach Jones came up and he shared this funny story which I vaguely remembered about him. Challenging a player to a full court one-on-one game sounds like something Coach Jones would have done, especially with the remarkable shape he was in for his age.
Jermaine ‘J-Bird’ Skillon, Hutch-Tech High School
“Mike (Brundige) was on the ‘BENCH MOB’ (laughing). We were playing in practice, and we always used to go at his boys, but he hates Mike (Coach Ken Jones). Mike was never getting in. He would get in at garbage time with the rest of the Bench Mob. Like I said he shits on Mike all the time. Mike had a little attitude too, he was a little ass holeley. We go to another gym and Mike does not have a jersey, just a white t-shirt. This is when I knew Jones was full of shit. Pep gets hurt and all of a sudden it is, ‘That a baby Mikey!’ Now he loves Mike! Mike is his man!”
J-Bird referred to himself and some of the other players that did not play much as the Bench Mob. It was a play on words. Those who are familiar with the West Coast rap scene of the 1990s know that Ice Cube led a rap group called Da Lench Mob. J-Bird also shared something about another player who had a contentious relationship with Coach Jones, the highly talented Michael Brundige. In J-Bird’s account, Coach Jones ended up having to play Brundige late in the 1989-90 season when Jerrold ‘Pep’ Skillon went down due to an ankle injury.
Jerrold ‘Pep’ Skillon, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“You come up playing in the summer leagues with all of these guys, so a lot of the best hoopers, I knew. They saw the way we warmed up, and we did not just have the regular layup line like everybody else. Jones had other stuff going on, and we were like, ‘What the hell is this? This is crazy! Why can’t we just do a regular layup line?’ So Jones had his little program and it’s funny, he had his dribble, drive, reverse pivot and handoff – and don’t get me wrong, Jones’ fundamentals, to this day, to this day – I learned more from Jones fundamentally than any coach I played for, even college. From the basic fundamentals – drill after drill after drill – no question, I teach kids stuff I learned from Jones. At the time there was pushback. It was like, what is he doing? I mean this is crazy! Why can’t we have just a regular layup line? We never had that, we never did. Everything we had was structured, our layup line was structured, our pregame was structured – structure, structure, structure – like I said he was creating the culture!”
My interview with Pep Skillon was arguably one of the most of fun of them all. Pep was a key piece of the 1990-91 Yale Cup and Class B sectional championship teams. He was a two-sport athlete like his brother Jermaine (football and basketball). You could hear his enthusiasm about those times throughout our discussion. Pep jokingly shared his disbelief when Coach Ken Jones arrived at Hutch-Tech and established his culture and program. Pep played basketball long before being exposed to Coach Jones’ basketball teachings and it was unusual for him and his teammates. Coach Jones was my second basketball coach, so I assumed his methods were typical.
Christain J. Souter, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“There was one time – I don’t remember the school, but I remember getting on the NFTA metro bus from downtown. I had to walk from the school, walk to the metro and I caught whatever bus that took us to Kensington High School or to Burgard or whatever we were doing that day. And I just remember it was probably my sophomore year, maybe the first time it happened, but I got the, ‘Yo. You the white boy that plays for Tech? You need to come sit back here!’ And you’re on the bus with people you don’t know that you get recognized because you played basketball or you know that you’re the white kid who plays for Hutch-Tech.”
Buffalo and the Western New York area have both a history of racism and segregation as do many cities in the United States. This is discussed subtly in The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. The students in the Buffalo Public Schools system were mostly black when I came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. Our high school basketball teams were likewise mostly black with a few exceptions. No. 44 Christain Souter was one of the captains on the 1991-92 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. In our interview he told a story about a memorable experience on a metrobus on the way to a game. There were in fact a handful of non-black players in the Yale Cup at that time. We laughed about it as it was consistent with what we saw.
Tim Winn, Player, LaSalle Senior High School
“Yep, it is. It always starts at the top. The players these kids look up to – they’re all friends. Kevin Durant and LeBron James are really, really good friends. For me, I could never be that good a friend with someone to where it will impact my approach on the court. It didn’t matter who you were, I wanted to go through you on the court – family included, friends included, it didn’t matter – my MOTHER couldn’t get a bucket on me!”
No. 11 Tim Winn is one of the most storied players in the Niagara Falls LaSalle Basketball Dynasty and Western New York basketball. Tim was one of the first players I interviewed and he even returned to my sports YouTube channel for a follow up. In our first interview, we talked about many of the professional layers being friends. I thought about LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade during our discussion as they were the players today’s youngsters looked up to. Tim agreed that many young players are taking their cues from the above-mentioned players and are all friends. Tim jokingly shared that there were no friends for him when it came to the great game of basketball, not even his beloved mother.
Bonus- Eric Gore’s Modie Cox Story from Glens Falls in 1988
“This guy here (Modie Cox) as a youngster in Glens Falls was brought up from the junior varsity team to support the squad. We as a team were excited but knew we belonged there. This guy would not allow me to sleep for the first game because we started a dice game that went on into the wee hours of the morning. HA, HA. This guy continued to leave my room broke but would return back with a pocket full of paper. I would get that too and this went on until the morning. Needless to say I did not contribute my normal game because of exhaustion. We still won and I knew I could not mess with this dude the following evening. Experiences like this last a lifetime.”
I did not interview Eric Gore, but his name came up in interviews with Coach Pat Monti and players from the LaSalle Senior High School basketball dynasty. No. 50 was one of the key players in the Explorers’ magical 1988 Class B federation championship run. Coach Pat Monti described Eric struggling in the Explorers’ state semifinal matchup with the Gloversville Dragons due to quick whistles by the officials. Gore jokingly attributed it to not getting enough sleep the night before the game years later on Facebook when he saw that I was going to interview Modie Cox on my sports YouTube channel. A mischievous freshman Modie Cox from the JV team kept him up all night playing dice. The Explorers fortunately went on to win everything and go undefeated.
Closing Thoughts and Memories
A common saying is, “It’s a small world,” which in many cases is true. Later in the 1990s, I met the mother of one of the players on the Gloversville Dragons team that the 1988 LaSalle Explorers outlasted in Glens Falls. I came to know her well. I first saw a Final Four program with a picture of Coach Pat Monti and the LaSalle Explorers in it. Later on when interviewing Coach Pat Monti, that team came up. That player on the Gloversville team was Robert ‘Bones’ Francis, the son of my stepmother Pam Dunbar.
The opening excerpt/quote for this piece comes from Coach Jones himself. He told us lots of jokes as a team in addition to many basketball strategies and life teachings. He particularly enjoyed the Frankie Harris story. Frankie laughed about it as well when I met him at Coach Jones’ memorial service.
More Promotional Content
Thank you again to the other coaches, players and teammates who shared your stories with me. This project would not have been possible without you. This was a long process, and with each interview I gained the strength to keep going, and resolved within myself that I was doing the right thing.
I have created other promotional/teaser pieces for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story, both via print and video as I journey through the final steps of completing the book. I created a page here on Big Words Authors to give a background of the book and grouping together all the promotional pieces such as this in one place for interested readers.
There are interviews with some of the most accomplished Section VI players from my era on my first blog, The Big Words Blog Site. Those interviews are with Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach, Pat Monti. Finally, there are several other basketball-related essays related to my book project. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and leave a comment beneath this piece.
The Big Words LLC Newsletter
For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Your personal information and privacy will be protected. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. If there is some issue signing up using the link provided, you can also email me at [email protected] . Best Regards.
“Okay here is the deal Dunbar. I am going to keep you on the team as a player-manager! You are not going to play, but you will be on the team, and will come to practices. You may potentially get into some games.”
Basketball Journeys Starting at Buffalo State College
Your work is never done as a writer and an author. There are endless edits to your blog posts, essays and books. Ideas further come to you out of the blue sometimes even after finishing a work. While making the final edits to The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story, I decided to create this hopefully last promotional essay. I created a page on my writer’s blog for the book. There is a summary of it and numerous promotional essays and videos. This essay involves the start of my basketball journey as a player-manager.
I want to salute the members of the Campus West Alumni Group on Facebook. Not everyone went on to Hutch-Tech High School or played varsity basketball. Most of the group has been supportive of what I have shared there. I have further tried to make sure that everything I have shared is germane to the group. I thought the members of the group would find this particular essay to be both fun and nostalgic.
I wrote this essay though because my basketball journey started at Campus West/College Learning Laboratory. Campus West was both a school and a training ground for education majors at Buffalo State College where our school was located. It was many other things as will be described. Our school sat on the western-most part of the campus, hence the name.
“Okay here is the deal Dunbar,” Mr. Cook said in his stern and low-pitched voice one day after tryouts. He always addressed me by my last name. He peered at me almost suspiciously out of the corner of his eyes. “I am going to keep you on the team as a player-manager! You are not going to play, but you will be on the team, and will come to practices. You may potentially get into some games.”
Mr. Cook watched me struggle during tryouts and mercifully gave me a roster spot. It is something I remember to this day as I wanted one badly. Nothing looked more appealing to me than playing on the basketball team at our school at that time. I also wanted to be a part of a brotherhood. He knew me from years of gym classes. I attended Campus West since the first grade and he saw me grow up over the years. I will always be grateful to him for putting me on the team my seventh grade year. I started following the National Basketball Association (NBA) closely that year. It was the year Michael Jordan hit the shot against Cleveland. It was the Golden Age of the NBA and basketball in general. It was a magical time.
Surprise. You just read an excerpt from an early draft chapter from The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. The start of every journey is important. My basketball journey did not start at Hutch-Tech High School, but instead at the Campus West/College Learning Laboratory, Campus West for short. It was set in motion by the boys’ basketball coach there at the time.
Our Middle School Basketball Coach
Our Campus West Boys’ Basketball Team was coached by Mr. Walter James Cook. He was the Skipper for the team for most of my years at the school. I seldom recall anyone referring to him as Coach Cook, only Mr. Cook. He was a tall and thin Physical Education teacher with brownish-black hair. He frequently wore t-shirts and sweatpants. He often wore his blue and gold Empire State Games sweat suit at school. Finally he wore a pair of low cut 1980s-style Converse or Nikes. Mr. Cook could have been from Western New York, a small town in Middle America or somewhere out west.
Mr. Cook saw that I had one of the lowest experience and skill levels of all the boys trying out my seventh grade year. With my chubby build, he also saw my struggles with the cardiovascular demands of tryouts and basketball in general. I was easily winded when running sprints in our gym and the stairs immediately outside of it. Still though, he decided to give me a spot on the Campus West Boys’ Basketball Team.
The Campus West Gym
Much of The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story takes place in the gyms in the Yale Cup. Most of them were abysmal and older. Our big gym at Hutch-Tech was a small box in the basement of our school. We had to split our practices with the girls’ team most afternoons. We had a smaller room with a hoop in it which was our small gym.
Campus West was a large central building with four wings. One of the wings was our gymnasium complex. Our main gym was vast, like those in the suburban and private schools. It had two main window-style backboards with several other retractable halfmoon backboards around the gym. It had wooden bleachers on both sides of the court to host large crowds. It was a large space that my maturing adolescent body had to get used to running around in. At practices, a curtain extended across half court so that Mr. Chritman’s girls’ team could practice on the other side.
A Mixture of Grade Levels
Our team would have formally been called a ‘modified’ team in one of the suburban or private schools. My best friend transferred to Cleveland Hill in Cheektowaga and I first heard the term from him. Our team nickname was the Bengals for the sports teams at Buffalo State College. I did not have any official duties as the name player-manager might imply. I simply practiced and sat at the end of the bench, watched and observed.
Our team was a mixture of seventh and eighth graders that year. Ronald Jennings from my class was one of our leaders that year. He was one of the 40 players I interviewed for my book. Ronald wore the No. 21 for the Atlanta Hawks’ Dominique Wilkins when we ordered our blue and white jerseys. I chose the No. 3 for the Boston Celtics’ Dennis Johnson. The other guys chose their numbers for any number of reasons. Jason Holman chose No. 33 for Larry Bird. He was one of a handful of white kids on the team, like most of the basketball teams in the Buffalo Public Schools.
Another fun aspect was the shorts that came with our uniforms. We wore the John Stockton-length shorts that year and the next year. Most teams did at that time and basketball fans will understand the reference. The Michael Jordan/Michigan Fab Five-length shorts had not yet started dominating the basketball world.
Sitting, Watching and Learning
“West Hertel is playing a zone against us,” one of my teammates observed in a game. It might have been John Barron or Marcus Perkins. I learned a lot that year watching from the bench. One of my big learning points involved zone defenses and how they worked. Zone defenses are used to prevent dribble penetration. They are valuable against teams that do not have outside shooters. They are also useful for coaches when multiple defensive players are slow footed and are liabilities in man-to-man defenses. In the latter defense, each player has an assignment and talking is critical. It was a key learning point for a novice like me.
“Clarence needs to do a better job rebounding the ball!” Our tallest player was a kid I will call Clarence. He wore glasses in the eighth grade and stood 6’3”. That was tall for all of us at the time. I saw that there were taller players later in the Yale Cup. Clarence played the center position for us and was expected to rebound the ball and control the middle. He grabbed at the ball like a butterfly or a ping pong ball when going for rebounds which my teammates observed in several plays.
I learned a lot too just by talking with my teammates. John Barron was a fan of the Showtime Lakers and knew a lot about the NBA. One day he explained to me that players in the NBA had to be drafted. They simply could not try out as I unknowingly said in a conversation one day. He did not laugh at me though I am sure it sounded silly. When you are new to something, you just do not know until someone corrects you.
“The back of Anwar’s jersey says ‘DRA’,” Basheer Cross joked during my first year on the team. Our tanks tops read ‘Bengals’ across the front and curved over our numbers. Mr. Cook encouraged us to use nicknames on the back of our blue and white jerseys. I chose the nickname given to me by my Uncle Scottie, ‘Dr. A’ in honor of Dr. J in the NBA. Unfortunately, the manufacturer left off the period so it just said DRA. Basheer had a good time with it along with other teammates. Dion Frasier shared in the Campus West Facebook group that the same thing happened to him years earlier. That year I wore a pair of blue and white Converse sneakers and pulled my blue and white striped sox up over my calves.
“What is a Swingster? Is it a Chalk Line or a Starter jacket?” While waiting for the bus on our way to a game my eighth-grade year, some of the guys grabbed the collar of my white Chicago Bulls Swingster jacket. Starter and Chalk Line jackets were the popular college and professional sports jacket brands for young people at that time. I initially felt singled out but was later amused by it. There was quite a bit of healthy clowning of everyone. Our team had a strong camaraderie amongst the players. Years later I learned that camaraderie was an important ingredient to most successful teams.
Coming Back the Same Basketball Player
My first coach at Hutch-Tech High School was a ‘fundamentals’ coach so I know the difference when looking back at the coaching we received at Campus West. Mr. Cook knew a lot about fundamentals but there were probably time constraints in terms of what he could do with us after school. Coach Ken Jones packed as many drills and strategies as he could into those two and a half hours after school at Hutch-Tech. Those took place twice a day for some stretches of our basketball seasons from October to March.
“I think we are finally starting to click a little bit,” Mr. Cook said, pacing in front of us in his t-shirt, sweatpants and Converse sneakers. We typically sat on the floor and listened to him talk between drills. The wood floor sharply creaked with every step. His comments about our team clicking was my first time hearing that reference for teams gelling chemistry-wise.
In the time he had with us after school, Mr. Cook taught some basics. I recall learning some iteration of the ‘motion’ offense. I also remember the ‘Three-Man Weave’ drill. There was not much in the way of individual skills development, or guidance for developing those skills outside of school though. I thus finished that season with no concrete plan to improve going into that summer of 1989. Most of my basketball playing consisted of neighborhood pickup basketball games and games of Twenty-One. I thus came back for my eighth-grade year close to the same player skill-wise.
When You Go On to Play Varsity Basketball
“When you go on to high school to play varsity basketball – ,” Mr. Cook often said during practices. Again he paced around in front of us talking about this and that. He talked about some amorphous nebulous thing called varsity basketball. But what was this varsity basketball?
He discussed it in terms of things that we would experience once we got to high school. It was like another world, or a wonderland but he seldom contrasted it to the level we were at. I will describe later that around the time I became a player-manager at Campus West, I was unaware of the great high school basketball being played in Western New York. There were a number of great players in our area, some of whom would go on to the national stage.
The next year Mr. Cook left for Riverside High School. We would reunite at Hutch-Tech High School my sophomore year. He took over for the late Coach Joseph Girard. Mr. Cook’s other specialties were swimming and volleyball. I served as a linesman for him for the girls’ volleyball team my senior year. He also smacked some of my shots around when playing pickup basketball in our tiny gym. He was not a bad player himself.
A New Coach Takes Over and More Lessons Learned
Mr. Dennis Rozlowski took over for Mr. Cook my eighth grade year at Campus West, and the overall feel of the team changed. Mr. Rozlowski looked kind of like a hippie. He had longer hair, a mustache and wore glasses. He typically wore a sweatshirt, shorts and sneakers. His overall approach was looser, and the team was now dominated by players from my eighth grade Class of 1990. He interestingly encouraged us to put our last names on the backs of our now orange jerseys instead of nicknames. This gave us a more business-like feel. That year I wore a pair of black Nike ‘Flight’ sneakers with my uniform.
I learned another important basketball, sports and life lesson that season. Age and time on the team did not necessarily determine skill level. While I had been on the team the previous year, a seventh grader named Muhajer Alwakeel joined our team and got regular playing time. Though a year younger, he was more developed, experienced and comfortable on the court than I was. He thus played more.
Going Up Strong and My First Basket
“Just go up strong,” Ronald Jennings said, encouraging me in gym class. I grabbed a rebound and used multiple pump fakes before laying the ball up that day. His underlying message was to play stronger around the basket and with less fear. His words stayed with me afterwards and were a major learning point early on.
Ronald also assisted my first ever basket in an organized game. Mr. Rozlowski put me into a game after we established a large lead. On an offensive possession, Ronald advanced the ball into our half court. Our opponents were in a zone defense and I ran the baseline flashing with my hands up. While open on the right side of the basket, he threw me a two-handed over the head pass. I caught it in one motion and shot it. The ball dropped into the cylinder, rattled around and fell through the net for me.
“WAAR, WAAR, WAAR!” My Bengal teammates exploded on the bench at my accomplishment as I ran up the court slapping hands. ‘Waar’ was the nickname my classmates gave me by removing the first two letters from my first name. Most everyone had a nickname in my class that year. I exited the game within the next few minutes feeling good and on top of the world. Those were the only two points I scored that season.
My First Basket and Jason Rowe’s Revelation
A couple of things come to mind looking back at my first basket at Campus West. First, it was a big deal for me to get those two points, not eight, not 10 points, not 16 points, but two points. I had not developed the competitive mentality to push myself further and to want more. I further did not know how to push myself to develop so that I could regularly play alongside Ronald and the other guys in a sustained way.
My interview with Buffalo Traditional basketball legend Jason Rowe caused me to think about this years later. Jason shared that he could not come home and say that he simply scored 10 or 12 points in a game. He had to show more. He had to produce and win games. Jason likewise came from a basketball family. He was immersed in the culture and trained hard at an early age. The bar was thus set very high for him and he developed a killer instinct on the court early on. I will discuss this later.
A Good Eighth-Grade Year
We had a good year that year winning the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) championship. Our season came to a tough ending though at the hands of a team led by Jeremiah Wilkes and Shareef Beecher. Their school might have been North Park. We lost to them first in our regular season finale. We then lost to them in the Gold Dome Tournament. The pair would go on to lead the Burgard Bulldogs for the next three to four years in the Yale Cup. After our final game, Mr. Rozlowski treated our team to McDonald’s which I enjoyed.
We had a sports assembly at the end of that season as most teams do. Ronald Jennings not surprisingly won the Most Valuable Player Award. There was one surprise though. I won the Most Improved Player Award. I could not believe it as I did not do much besides sit on the bench that year. Someone saw something though whether it was Coach Rozlowski, my teammates, or both. Someone thought I deserved the award. I always knew how to give effort regardless of the results. I similarly won the Best Practice Player Award two years later after my first year on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. That was my sophomore year, the 1991-92 season.
Leaving Close To the Same Basketball Player and Developing
Even being on the team my eighth-grade year, I went on to Hutch-Tech as a bit of a project skill-wise. I wanted to play varsity basketball, but did not have a solid plan for development. Whose job was it to create that though?
The Buffalo News published a series of articles discussing why Buffalo did not produce many Division-1 college basketball players. The series was published the year after I graduated from Hutch-Tech prior to the 1994-95 season. A big factor was the lack of formal early developmental systems. These were the above mentioned modified and junior varsity teams (JV) to feed the varsity teams. We arguably had modified teams in Buffalo, but there was no formal JV program in the high schools for kids like me to go directly into for continued development.
Coach Ken Jones talked about the lack of ‘feeder’ systems extensively in our discussions before he died. The Ken Jones Basketball Camp was the first basketball camp I ever attended. I learned about it firsthand my freshman year as he was my coach and it was his camp. There were others around Buffalo but me and my family just did not know about them. In summary, my early basketball journey was impacted largely by personal circumstances just like other kids. We were each dealt different hands and had to do the best we knew how with them.
Mr. Amoroso, Derrick Coleman and the Syracuse Orangemen
“I LOVE Derrick Coleman from Syracuse. I tell you I just LOVE Derrick Coleman,” said Mr. Amoroso. Mr. Amoroso was a bearded, shorter, muscular Italian teacher. I do not recall what he taught at Campus West, but he was very excitable and playful. He beat up some of us boys playfully and regularly. He probably wanted to toughen us up, not something I think a teacher could do in modern times. He learned that I took an interest in basketball. He went on and on about some player named Derrick Coleman from Syracuse University some days. The school was two hours east going towards Albany where my father lived. They were coached by some guy named Jim Boeheim.
You just read another excerpt from The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. When revising the book, I added Mr. Amoroso’s love for No. 44 Derrick Coleman for a number of reasons. First, Mr. Amoroso was a memorable teacher at Campus West. Secondly, I did not know who the best player from our nearest big time Division-1 college basketball program was at the time. This is something I would change if I could go back.
This was both pre-internet and social media. I also learned about John Wallace from Greece-Athena High School from Rochester late. I saw him play in the Far West Regional game against Niagara Falls LaSalle in my sophomore year at Hutch-Tech at the end of the 1991-92 season. Who was John Wallace? He was from our sister city Rochester, only an hour away and became the next Syracuse star after Derrick Coleman. He also wore the No. 44, probably in tribute to Derrick Coleman.
Just One of Many Great College Players in the Golden Age of Basketball
Derrick Coleman was just one of many highly talented Syracuse basketball players at that time. Dwayne ‘Pearl’ Washington, a wizard with the basketball was another one. There was also Sherman Douglass and Rony Seikaly. I was still new to basketball and did not know about them. I was wrapped up in the Michael Jordan craze and the bright lights of the NBA. As a result, I did not take a hard look at the college players, the best of whom would eventually make their way to the NBA. Mr. Amoroso did, and his favorite player was Derrick Coleman.
I was unfamiliar with high school basketball in Western New York in general as described. I thus missed seeing Laettner play (and the South Park fight). I further missed seeing other great players play like Ritchie Campbell when I was at Campus West (pictured below with Carlin Hartman on the 1990 All-Western New York First Basketball Team). I will discuss this later. There also was not a lot of encouragement to do so though that I recall.
I am sharing all of this because it contributes to the mastery of one’s craft. Mastery of your craft involves at least partially watching the greats of your time and from past years. Basketball is no exception. Skills development and playing are critical too. But watching and studying is key as well. The college game was the next level up after high school before getting to the NBA. A family friend encouraged me to study the college game as I transitioned into high school. It was something I needed reminding of, but there were not any men around to do so. This underscores another key theme of my story, the importance of male figures for boys especially, and the importance of mentors.
How Did Other Kids in Western New York Learn the Game?
Some kids are born with natural attributes and abilities such as leaping ability, height and quickness. Mastery of any craft however requires honing a set of skills. The great game of basketball is the same way. Some kids in Western New York started their development early. My research for my book revealed how many of the more successful players in Western New York developed their basketball games. This development usually involved some sort of mentoring and or exposure to the game.
I also later observed that the great players developed outside of their academic schools. In the ESPN 30 for 30 The Fab Five, the producers showed footage of Jalen Rose playing and developing outside of his school. The same was true in the ESPN 30 for 30 Benji. Benji Wilson honed his game outside of school. This was long before winning the Illinois State Championship at Simeon Vocational High School and becoming the top high school player in the nation in 1984.
Mentoring in Basketball and Life
Many of the players I interviewed for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story had mentors guiding them early. The late Kevin Roberson mentored Ronald Jennings from my teams. The same was true for the core of our 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team that won the Yale Cup and the Class B Sectional Championships. Chuck Thompson was one of those players.
Jason Rowe grew up in a basketball family. They taught him how to compete early in his life. The legendary Trevor Ruffin mentored Jason as well. Ruffin played Division I basketball at the University of Hawaii and played in the NBA. Jason Rowe and Damien Foster both got more mentoring in a bit of a basketball ‘dojo’ as described below. William Gates had his brother Curtis, and Arthur Agee had his father Bo in Hoop Dreams.
Training With the Best Players
Some of the players I interviewed received mentoring and trained relentlessly at specific locations around their cities. Jason Rowe and Damien Foster described getting rigorous training and mentoring from multiple coaches and players at the Masten Boys’ Club. They played basketball there late on many Friday nights. I will repeat myself. They played late on Friday nights while other kids played video games, partied and did other things. This training accelerated their growth and mastery of the game. It further made them varsity prodigies when they got to Buffalo Buffalo Traditional in the 1992-93 season.
Tim Winn, Darris Thomas and other Niagara Falls players trained early in the Biddy Leagues at the YMCAs and other recreational centers in Niagara Falls. This is largely why the Niagara Falls teams became dominant in that era. Ryan Cochrane from Cardinal O’Hara gained considerable experience playing for his Central Park neighborhood team under his coach, Coach Dean. There were also several leagues around Buffalo such as the Bob Lanier and Randy Smith leagues, and church leagues.
The Bengal Tigers and the Campus West Gymnasium
There was a long line of players who played for Mr. Cook before I became a Bengal Tiger. Each experienced varying levels of success at and beyond playing at Campus West. Carlin Hartman experienced tremendous success afterwards at Grand Island High School (pictured in the back row in blue). This essay keeps expanding, so I will list out the names that came up in my interviews with Dion Frasier and Quincy Lee in the comments section below. I will also shout out the guys I played with in my seventh and eighth grade years. If you know any of them, please pass this essay on.
I captured the pictures of Campus West gym in this essay in a recent visit to Buffalo. I sought to take some pictures of that particular wing of the school and I saw two Buffalo State College undergraduates enter it after hours. I followed them in and went down the stairs to the gym just like old times. I thought I would only be able to take pictures of it through the glass doors, but one of them was partially open so I walked in for the first time in 30 years. Campus West is now the ‘Buckham Building’ or the ‘Buckham Campus’ and is just another college building on campus.
Starting Off as Basketball Player-Managers
I created this essay after the original batch of promotional essays for the book. The inspiration grabbed me as I was doing a final edit of The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Sometimes journeys start by chance and sometimes they start due to the generosity and mercy of someone else. Mr. Cook saw a chubby seventh grader who really wanted to be on the team and decided to make him a player-manager. That led to other things for me.
It is worth noting that some great players started off as managers or player-managers. No. 23 Michael Jordan’s sidekick No. 33 Scottie Pippen served as a manager at Central Arkansas University before his talent was realized. Pippen also became one of my favorite players as I watched Michael’s ascension. Pippen’s story along with others is example for young people that success is not always a straight line. Sometimes it is a winding road.
Thank you for reading this essay. I was one of several of Mr. Cook’s players to go on to Hutch-Tech to play a little bit more. Others were the above-mentioned Chuck Thompson, the late Quincy Lee, Paul Saunders, Dion Frasier, and the late Jason Holman. Ronald Jennings played a little bit at Turner/Carroll High School. Jamel Brown played at Amherst High School. His Tigers defeated my Hutch-Tech team at the end of my tumultuous junior year. Many of the guys did not go any further with the game.
I mentioned the players by their real names in this essay for the sake of nostalgia and remembrance. If you purchase copies of the books, you will see that I have changed many of the names as they did not agree to be characters. Thank you to those who agreed to interviews and to being mentioned in the final story.
I think the lessons shared in this essay and my book project are important for people in general, but particularly for young men. Many struggle in our country today more so than is being discussed in larger arenas. Sports are more than just games that are played. There is a spirituality to them and they are microcosms of life as stated by Alice Jones, the wife of the late Coach Ken Jones.
The Big Words LLC Newsletter
For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Your personal information and privacy will be protected. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. If there is some issue signing up using the link provided, you can also email me at [email protected] . Best Regards.
The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story
This story is another promotional essay for my two-part book project entitled, The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. As described on the introductory page I created for the book, and the numerous pieces I created surrounding the book, I have interviewed 30-40 players and coaches from Section VI. My research revealed several interesting facts. Many stories paralleled mine, even those of the more successful players. One area that many of us had in common was that we played in basketball programs and not just teams. I discuss the differences between basketball programs and teams in this piece. We had a mini-college basketball program at Hutch-Tech High School.
This essay and my story are based out of Western New York, but the themes apply to your locality as well. There are videos from my sports YouTube channel throughout this piece related to my basketball story. Some of the images in this piece were personally shot by the author. Others were donated during the research for this book project from Coach Ken Jones and his family.
Basketball Programs and Teams
The late Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones created a mini-college basketball program during his tenure as coach at Hutch-Tech High School. He did not just assemble teams of players every year and roll the balls out to let them play freely. Me and some of my interviewees made this connection during my research. In writing this project and all the promotional pieces for it, I want to acknowledge something important. Not everyone looks back on Coach Jones and his efforts with appreciation and reverence like I and others do. He had his share of detractors in building his program and running it his way. Some were on the bench with him. Some were in the student body and others were his fellow coaches in the Yale Cup itself. Modie Cox said the same thing about Pat Monti. Coach Monti was the architect of the Niagara Falls LaSalle basketball dynasty.
Blowing Off Steam on the Hardwood at West Hertel
My research for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story started with a visit to see Coach Jones and his wife in 2012 or 2013. Some fellow alumni said that they saw him in stores like Walmart around Western New York so I knew he was still alive. Adonis Coble gave me his phone number ultimately. He got it from Michael Mann who regularly had lunch with Coach Jones. No. 23 and No. 11 were seniors on our 1991-92 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team, my sophomore year.
I had not spoken with Coach Jones in almost 20 years. Seeing him was just like old times despite how my final year playing under him ended. I interviewed him in the back of his San Antonio, Texas house. I asked him how he came to be at Hutch-Tech High School in the first place among other things. Someone of high influence thought he would be the perfect ‘Skipper’ for the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. He thought Coach Jones could build a successful basketball program. It was someone all of us from those times knew quite well.
He was at West Hertel Elementary School on a late Friday afternoon according to the legend. Faculty members gathered from schools around the city late on Fridays to play pickup basketball. I helped Coach Phil Richardson with the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team during breaks after initially graduating from Tech myself. I too played with the faculty late on Friday afternoons a handful of times. It was a fun way for them to blow off steam and communicate after long weeks of teaching the children of Buffalo.
Recruited to Build the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Program
“He tore you up when he got out there and played with you,” said Frankie Harris of Hutch-Tech. He was a player from the Class of 1989 and jokingly recalled playing basketball with Coach Jones during our interview. Coach Jones shared with me there was one faculty member who was a very good leaper. He did not like being guarded by Coach Jones because of his physical play. Those of us who played basketball with Coach Jones know that he was in fact a physical player. He was not shy about using forearms to impede your movements or to put his body into you when going for a rebound.
“I want you to come to Hutch-Tech to coach the boys’ basketball team!” Mr. Joseph Gentile was one of the participants of those games. He presided over Hutch-Tech as Principal when it achieved the ‘National School of Excellence’ distinction in the late 1980s. Mr. Gentile ran Hutch-Tech with an iron fist. He arguably witnessed its ascension as a school and its decline to a certain degree. That was my brother’s freshman year and Coach Jones’ first year. In any case the bearded, olive skinned, bow-legged administrator, saw something in the hoarse-voiced basketball enthusiast. He likewise recruited him to coach the boys’ basketball team at the H-shaped building at 250 South Elmwood Avenue.
I knew Mr. Gentile for running our high school but not running up and down basketball courts shooting hoops. I laughed thinking about it. Again, I guess even school principals needed to blow off steam after a long week of managing schools and dealing with students.
His approach and methods were unlike anything the players on the 1988-89 team and the student body had seen before. They played mostly street basketball at local parks and in leagues like the Randy Smith League in Buffalo. No. 13 Curtis Brooks whom I have cited in many of these pieces made an insightful observation when we talked. He noted that in ‘The Randy’ as many former players affectionately refer to it, athletic ability and size were the keys to winning. It was not the fundamentals of basketball, which were the hallmark of the Engineers’ new coach and his program.
An Extravagant Pregame Warmup Routine
“We were not doing just the regular layup line. Jones was on some other stuff. Players from other schools were looking at us strangely. I could not understand why we could not just do the regular layup line for warmups!” Jerrold ‘Pep’ Skillon noted in our candid interview, one of my favorites, Coach Jones’ pregame warmup routine. It was more intricate than any other in the Yale Cup. “I wondered to myself, what is this?”
I took Coach Jones’ ‘Seven Pass Drill’ and his pregame warm up routine for granted my sophomore season. I assumed that it was all normal when I earned my roster spot. His methods of teaching basketball were a culture shock for his initial crop of players. It was a very different way of playing the game and assembling a team than anyone was used to. It emphasized patient and controlled offenses and disciplined man-to-man team defense. There was another hallmark to his program aside from his fundamentals-based approach though. He looked for a certain kind of kid which was controversial in and of itself.
Establishing a Code and Looking for a Certain kind of Kid
“Jonesy looked for a certain kind of kid!” I first heard the term ‘a certain kind of kid’ from another faculty member who worked alongside Coach Jones in the athletic department. This faculty member asked to remain anonymous, but this phrase was echoed numerous times throughout my research for The Engineers. What kind of kid was he looking for? He handed out packets with an exhaustive list of attributes he was and was not looking for before tryouts. See the picture below for a sample of his list.
I looked back at the list while finishing my final drafts for The Engineers. I saw something I missed as a high school student athlete and in earlier drafts. He explicitly wrote, “We want players that are loyal to each other, the coach, and the school. We will go with boys, if necessary, with lesser ability to have team loyalty.” The last sentence said so much. It explained much of what I and other players involved with the program experienced during that time.
You can infer a lot from that one quote. Winning was the number one objective, but he looked to do it in a certain way. He wanted kids who listened, obeyed, and submitted. He looked to establish a specific code and a culture, an environment in which many players did not fit. He was different things to different people and not everyone appreciated him and his methods. To learn about Coach Jones and to hear what some of his players said about him, see the video below.
Maintaining a Program
Once you set up such a program, how hard is it to maintain it and to keep it rolling? Depending on the conditions in which you are coaching, it can be quite difficult. Our league did not have a formal ‘feeder system’ for the varsity basketball teams. I described this my piece looking back at the Yale Cup. The varsity basketball coaches in our league at the time thus had to do more work. They did extra work try keep their programs successful from year to year, often without extra pay.
The coaches in the Yale Cup also did not have paid assistant coaches. Assistant coaches are important for numerous reasons. They help guide teams in practices. They help with things like the Xs and Os standpoint and tracking fouls. Finally, they help manage the psyches and personalities of the players. Managing and monitoring the personalities/struggles of 10-15 players is a lot for one coach, in addition to doing everything else.
Another aspect is getting a steady stream of talent and developing the talent that you do get. My book, The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story, takes place at the lone technical high school in Buffalo. Admittance to Hutch-Tech required passing an entrance exam. Not just any kid could go there. The coaches at our school thus only had access to a certain segment of kids in the city. Every class at Hutch-Tech in my era had talent. But how many kids in each class wanted to make the three-to-four-month commitment to play basketball each year? And which kids would listen and submit to the coaching?
The Riverside Boys’ Basketball Program: Championships, Conflicts, Fundamentals, Injuries and Repeating
“I hoped to build a perennially strong program at Riverside. Injuries really hurt us the year after we won the Yale Cup and the Class C sectional!” Coach Bill Russell shared his aspirations with me for his early 1990s Riverside teams in our insightful interview. The 1991-92 Riverside Frontiersman won the Yale Cup championship with a record of 11-2 the year after our Hutch-Tech team won it (pictured below). I interviewed Coach Russell and one of his star players, Ed Harris and learned a lot. I found that they too had a program at Riverside with many of the same aspects we had at Hutch-Tech.
They returned their core group of players for the 1992-93 season after winning the Class C sectional the previous year. They lost their 6’7” center, Walter Gravely, for most of that season due to a pelvic injury. This hurt their chances severely of defending their two titles. Injuries decimated many programs and seasons across sports, and they are something that cannot always be planned for. The Frontiersman also experienced their own personality conflicts and squabbles just as we did at Hutch-Tech.
These negative events arguably helped with the ascension of other teams in the Yale Cup at the time. McKinley and Seneca shared the Yale Cup title that 1992-93 season. They also paved the way for the ascension of the young Buffalo Traditional Bulls who began their rise that season. They logged upsets over both Hutch-Tech and Riverside, on their way to ruling the league for the next three years. See my interviews with Jason Rowe and Damien Foster to read more about this.
Players’ Skill Levels When You Get Them
Finally, what are the skill and talent levels of the kids that you are getting as a coach? Another major consideration is the level players are at when you get them. Many kids wanted to play basketball and excel at it in Buffalo in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Not everyone knew how to develop their abilities and skills though.
Not every kid had access to the tools to allow them to develop. Some came from homes that did not necessarily favor them developing their basketball skills. Coach Bill Russell from Riverside noted that many of his kids came from homes with no fathers which is significant. Once again the lack of a feeder system was significant too. We had a middle school boys’ basketball team at Campus West which I played on in seventh and eighth grades. It was not designed though for kids like myself who needed more development to excel. This meant that development had to come from someplace else.
And again, even if you get a crop of kids with some talent, are they coachable? And can you mold them into a cohesive unit? One coach in Section VI created a program that consistently won during that era. Read on to learn some more about how he did it.
The Buffalo Traditional Bulls: Athleticism, Talent and Skill
There were three teams that were strong every year during my short high school basketball journey. I will start with Buffalo Traditional from the Yale Cup. The Bulls were coached by the legendary but controversial Joe Cardinal. Coach ‘Card’ was loved by his players despite his many critics outside of the school. See my interviews with Damien Foster and Jason Rowe to learn some more about the Bulls teams under his leadership. Coach Cardinal’s name also came up in interviews with coaches and players from other schools.
“I am going to write a book called, All of The Way Without a Play!” Damien Foster shared that Coach Cardinal joked at times about not using any structure with his teams. Murmurings outside of Buffalo Traditional were that Coach Cardinal was always the benefactor of tremendous talent. Likewise, he never really coached his Bulls teams in the classic sense. Instead, just let them play and show their brilliance. They likewise rewarded him for it.
“When we played a St. Joe’s, we never beat them. My three years of playing at Traditional, we never beat them and that is because of the fundamentals part of it. We did not have it!” Adrian Baugh from Buffalo Traditional reflected on their matchups with St. Joe’s in our interview. “St. Joe’s had it, we had way more talent than them, but fundamentally they were better than we were at that time!” As successful as the Bulls were during those times, there was one team they frequently struggled with and there were reasons why.
The St. Joe’s Marauders: Consistency, Dominance and Fundamentals
“Sophomore year I played JV. We had a good year. Both years were pretty good. We never could beat St. Joe’s! I made varsity as a junior, so I was backing up Delwyn (Rhines). I was on the team with Delwyn Rhines, Shondell Dupree, Gerald Brown and Malik Campbell,” Dennis Wilson said reflecting on his days playing at Turner/Carroll High School.
“We always kind of – and I do not know if this is a public-school thing or an African American thing, but we always had problems with Joe’s. We did not understand the Xs and Os of basketball,” he continued. “They were good athletes – they were probably as good as athletically. We were probably a little bit more athletic, but they just understood the game. They just understood the game period.”
St. Joe’s Collegiate High School was a perennial power in the Monsignor Martin League. They competed with formidable foes like Turner/Carroll, Canisius and Cardinal O’Hara, to name a few in their conference. I did not have a lot of experience playing against the Marauders aside from one JV game my sophomore year. They had a distinct heritage. They also had modified, JV and varsity teams (the above-mentioned feeder system). They played disciplined basketball, and their players were always well trained by the time they became seniors. Two names that stand out to me from those years are Eric Eberz and Jeff Muszynski.
The LaSalle Explorers Basketball Dynasty: Structure, Discipline and No Nonsense!
“Our program was built on structure, discipline and no nonsense!” Finally, there was Coach Pat Monti’s LaSalle Explorers in Niagara Falls. LaSalle was the ‘bully on the block’ for Western New York basketball for 10 or more years, winning their Class A sectional and regularly making trips to Glens Falls in March. My interviews with Coach Monti, Carlos Bradberry and Tim Winn revealed numerous things.
First. Basketball was almost a religion in Niagara Falls and the players there trained early in the Biddie Leagues. Coach Monti thus had a steady crop of hungry and trained players. He got them into his system early, established his culture and expectations and they just kept winning.
Second. Coach Monti ran a program like Coach Jones that emphasized structure, discipline, and no nonsense in his own stern words. The players who came to him at LaSalle loved the game and wanted to develop, win, and continue to build the heritage of the program. They bought into what he taught them and as Carlos Bradberry shared with me, “Everyone had a role and accepted it.”
Coaches, Cultures and Systems
“Pat Monti was like the Greg Poppovich of high school basketball back then. That was the biggest thing. Talent-wise, body for body and person for person, we had some players, but they just were coached tremendously well,” Darris Thomas said about the coach of their crosstown rivals in Niagara Falls. “We summed it up by saying that they knew their roles and we did not.”
LaSalle and Niagara Falls Senior High Schools both played in the Niagara Frontier League, but they had a fierce rivalry within the city. My research revealed that Niagara Falls usually had the more talented rosters. The difference though was the coaching, game planning and the structure at LaSalle as described by Darris Thomas. It was the program that Coach Pat Monti ran.
A heritage was built at LaSalle over the course of 10 years. It was understood that there was a history and standards for the program when new players came in. There was regular contact with the older players even after they graduated, and it was always understood what the standards were. They never had to reinvent the wheel as they say, as other programs did. In The Engineers, I note that there was not a lot of interaction with the core of the 1990-91 championship team at Hutch-Tech in subsequent years. This would have been helpful for those of us charged with following in their footsteps. That is not to throw shade at anyone. It just is what it is.
What Makes a Good or a Bad Coach?
“Well at least you got to work with Kenny for a couple of years. I thought he tried hard and had everyone’s best interests at heart.” Coach Francis Daumen took over for Coach Jones the year after he retired. He served as an assistant coach my junior year. My basketball journey involved a coaching change which is not unusual in sports. Based upon my coming into the program under Coach Jones and what I expected for my final year, basketball just was not the same after he left. My senior season was an eventful year for Coach Daumen as well whom I realized was a good coach himself in retrospect.
“It sounds like he just was not a good coach if you ask me!” I shared my writing project with a friend years ago. I tried explaining the intricacies and nuances of running a basketball program. I tried explaining what happened surrounding our Hutch-Tech basketball program during my journey, the basis for my story. She responded with a snap judgement about Coach Jones which chapped my hide as they say.
That exchange taught me two things and I can laugh about it now. First, people sometimes want to respond without thinking and just want to be heard. So be careful of who you share your ideas with. Secondly, not everyone understands the intricacies of establishing a basketball program vs. assembling a basketball team.
A Basketball Program
The opening quote for this piece underscores the approach Coach Jones took to teaching the game to myself and others. He was a ‘fundamentals’ coach who did not believe in running a star system. He believed in teaching the game, instilling values, and mentoring his kids through the game.
The clergyman at his memorial service said that he ministered to us through basketball. This was true as most of us remember his many anecdotes, quotes and stories. We also remember his jokes. This is in addition to all of his basketball drills and strategies.
He wanted to win games through galvanizing players under a common culture and a system. Over a course of years this is no minor undertaking. It is not easy, especially when it involves subjugating individual agendas.
“If I scored 15 points and it takes points from someone else or leaves time on the clock – I would rather win than get mine. I still think some guys also wanted to win, but they wanted to get theirs. And that is a hard thing to balance when kids are 15, 16 or 17 years old.” These words were from Christain J. Souter. He was a member of the 1990-91 Hutch-Boys’ Basketball Team and a captain my sophomore year. His words epitomized the challenges in attempting to create and maintain a program like the one Coach Jones and others created.
Coaches Wanting Better for Their Players
“I do not want to be that type of coach where when kids leave, they do not remember anything positive about the experience!” Coach Samuel ‘Quinn’ Coffey discussed his coaching philosophy during our interview. Quinn was a Kensington Knight and graduated in the Class of 1992. He now coached the game in Baltimore, Maryland.
I attended SUNY Brockport for one year and we played some intramural basketball together, long before I started writing The Engineers. I saw his enthusiasm for the game and that he cared about the kids he would coach one day. His experience at Kensington High School motivated him. He strove to be the best coach he could be for all his players, not just the most talented ones.
“I was more concerned with it being a good experience and having the kids get something out of it.” Coach Bill Russell from Riverside shared his top priorities when coaching with me during our interview. His words surprised me. His revelation motivated me to add his and Coach Coffey’s reflections to this piece. They underscore the fact that there are multiple approaches to coaching, some of which do not often show up in the box score and on the statistical sheets.
Playing in Basketball Programs: An Important Tip For Younger Players
“If I could do it all over again, I would ask myself, ‘What is the most natural thing I could do right here on the basketball court now versus just playing in the system,” Carlos James Gant from City Honors said in our interview. “I think the guys who do that have excellent careers and might still be good players.
“We had a motion offense, but you have a three or four role. You also have more liberty to find these gaps, and the more you find those gaps you are going to score. The games where I did that, I had big games. The games where I did not, they were all over the place. That is what I would do. I would just be more aggressive.”
Basketball programs use specific offensive and defensive plays and strategies. Coach Romeo McKinney was known for his defenses for example (pictured above). Players are coached up in specific ways that do not necessarily come into play when playing street basketball. Many players must learn how to play organized basketball in a program. At the end of the day, the goal is still to put the ball in the hoop more than your opponent.
Carlos James Gant’s words underscore a lesson I also personally had to learn. That is the importance of combining your organized game with your street game so that you are just naturally playing and being both aggressive and smart. It is a little-known secret to playing in basketball programs, but an important one. Arthur Agee and William Gates showed the blending of organized and street basketball in the documentary Hoop Dreams. I wrote essays in tribute to them. The following video is another offering from my sports YouTube channel and it discusses another important basketball and life lesson.
Having a Vision for YOUR Game and YOUR Life
“Jones did not teach the one on one-type stuff. We rarely did the one on one (isolation basketball). All of the great dribble drive moves and basic handles – I did not have that. I did not have a freaky handle but that was Jones. Jones did not teach us that,” Pep Skillon said reflecting on his time as an Engineer.
“You know what Pep? You are right!” I thought about my own basketball education as Pep reflected on his. Another teammate made the observation the year after Coach Jones retired but in a different way. He pointed out that I had a basic game in a sarcastic tone. It was true. I developed into a system player. I was a good role player in Coach Jones’ program. I did not seek to develop myself beyond his program though. It did not occur to me. No one in my immediate circle called it to my attention either.
After high school I learned to experiment with my game. I found that I could do some fun and imaginative things on the court. I had fun doing them too. It is a lesson that translates forward into the adult and working worlds. You should always have a vision for yourself and your life. Your employers and supervisors may have their own plans they may fit you into. The same is true for your parents and significant others in some instances. But what do you want? What is your plan for yourself and your life? You should always have a vision for yourself, or develop one.
Thank you for reading this promotional/teaser piece for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. I intend to create more, via print and video, as I journey through the final steps of completing the book. I created a page here on Big Words Authors for the purpose of giving a background of the book and grouping all the promotional pieces such as this in one place for interested readers. On my first blogging platform, the Big Words Blog Site, there are interviews of some of the most accomplished Section VI players from my era including: Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach, Pat Monti. Finally, there are several other basketball-related essays related to my book project. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and leave a comment beneath this piece.
The Big Words LLC Newsletter
For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Your personal information and privacy will be protected. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. If there is some issue signing up using the link provided, you can also email me at [email protected] . Yours in good sports. Best Regards.
Before starting this essay, I want to make a declaration to Arthur Agee and William Gates. I would love to interview the two of you if you read my essays reflecting on Hoop Dreams. I have my own sports YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussion76 Sports. You are both royalty as far as I am concerned and talking to you would be a dream come true for me personally.
Hoop Dreams: Arthur Agee and William Gates
This piece is another promotional essay for my two-part book project entitled, The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Long before writing my story, I fell in love with the documentary Hoop Dreams produced by Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx. Hoop Dreams follows the basketball dreams of Arthur Agee and William Gates throughout high school into college. The two youths grew up in the West Garfield Park and Cabrini Green neighborhoods in Chicago, Illinois, respectively.
The documentary inspired me, and there are similarities between their stories and that which I tell in my own project. Arthur and William came much, much closer to the National Basketball Association (NBA) than I ever did, admittedly. I am thus, in no way saying that I was at their level talent-wise. I crafted this piece simply as a fan. Their stories touched me as there were some common themes between us.
There were several subthemes to Hoop Dreams. My previous piece focused on the Gates brothers. It discussed Curtis Gates’ impact on William’s basketball journey. This piece will revisit Arthur Agee’s up and down basketball journey and its significance. Arthur’s story was one of perseverance with unexpected highs and lows and redemption at the end.
As described in my essay about the Gates brothers, I purchased the special deluxe edition of Hoop Dreams. One of the powerful bonus features in it is Arthur and William’s voiceover commentaries. You can also listen to the commentary of the producers.
Optimistically Starting His Basketball Journey at St. Joseph’s of Westchester
At the start of Hoop Dreams we see that young Arthur Agee, Jr. grows up with both of his parents, Sheila and Arthur Agee, Sr. His father is referred to as ‘Bo’ throughout the movie. Arthur is referred to ‘Man’ by the family, a nickname he received as a toddler as he was ‘Daddy’s Man’.
Coach Pingatore and The St. Joe’s Boys’ Basketball Program
“Basketball has to be second to your academics. If you do not get your grades, then you are not going to play. If you work hard with your grades and you work hard with basketball, then I will be able to help you as far as going to college.” The studious looking Coach Gene Pingatore talks with Arthur and his family in a key early scene. He discusses being a student athlete at St. Joe’s. “I cannot guarantee where you are going to go or if you will be a star. But I guarantee that I will help you get into the school that will be best for you!”
“I am making a commitment to you, if you make the commitment to be a part of this kind of program,” Coach Pingatore continues as the Agee family looks on. Earl Smith took them to the school for an introductory visit and a basketball clinic. While there Arthur meets his prospective future varsity basketball coach and ponders the next four years of his life and beyond. ‘Coach Ping’ describes the culture and expectations of the St. Joe’s boys basketball program. He further seeks to develop an early trust with the Agee family.
Arthur Navigates St. Joe’s
“It was strange for me going to a far out school. I saw a rug, flowers, and clean hallways – things I did not see at an ordinary school. I was excited about seeing something different.” Arthur enrolls at St. Joe’s, though the exact terms are not revealed in the film. He makes the hour long commute every day, sometimes in the harsh winter weather conditions. It is like going to new world for him.
Arthur’s talent and abilities are evident as he leads the St. Joe’s freshman team to a winning record. We see the quick first step Earl Smith described in a clip of him hitting the game winner for the freshman team. While Arthur excels on the basketball court, he struggles a little bit academically and indulges in mischief at times. These were not unusual for young men at that age, speaking from personal experience. In general, his prospects at St. Joe’s are positive going forward.
“I had just never been around a lot of white people. It was different because at a black school I could associate with people who talked the way I talked,” Arthur says describing the environment and culture at St. Joe’s. “It is a little hard, but I can adjust to it.” Though it was not discussed as much, William Gates had to make similar adjustments.
“If he is there, I will be shocked,” Arthur says, going to the basketball clinic the day of his initial visit to St. Joe’s. A producer asks him about the prospect of seeing Isiah Thomas in person. His face lights up at the prospect of meeting the Chicago basketball legend.
“It was like a million guys were trying to be better than the other one. But to me, I was better than all of them, except for Isiah!” Arthur describes the atmosphere of the St. Joe’s boys basketball clinic. The producers show the St. Joe’s gym full of boys going through basketball drills and receiving instruction as he speaks. The scene captures the innocence, newness, and structure of learning how to play organized basketball versus street basketball.
“In every neighborhood there is a guy who can really play and shoot the lights out every time down the court.” Isiah Thomas addresses the young basketball players in the stands after being introduced by Coach Pingatore. He wears his Detroit Pistons practice gear. He acts out making three baskets with a swooshing noise. “Then the guy goes to St. Joseph’s High School and the guy gets cut. They say, ‘Tom was real good. Why did he get cut?’ See, Tom did not learn the fundamentals of team basketball, which is what you are learning how to play.”
Arthur Looked Up to Isiah Thomas
“He told my Daddy that he knew I could play, so he had to play me hard,” the young Arthur says. The footage shows him slowly walking onto the court to play one on one with Isiah Thomas grinning in disbelief. He guards the Detroit Pistons star over one of the riveting horn-led instrumentals of the documentary. Bo is shown laughing and enjoying the scene in the stands.
“I was in a daze just looking at him – looking at the logo on his shorts. This is my idol right here! I did not know that I was going to play him though. Looking at him, I just wanted to hit him on the wrist and just swap at him,” Arthur says in his commentary with William Gates.
“I could not believe it. I was just so geeked. Anything he did like a pump fake, I just went right for it. I was turning around smiling. If that had been anyone else, I would have fouled them,” Arthur says. “He might have made it, but I would have fouled him. I did not even touch Isiah Thomas!”
Team Michael Or Team Isiah? Chicago’s Two Basketball Heroes and Rivals
“I drew on these with my name, ‘Tuss’,” Arthur says part way through Hoop Dreams. The sequence takes place in his West Garfield Park room. He holds a pair of sneakers up to the camera showing the name TUSS inscribed in red letters. This was a common practice for inner-city kids at the time. “I heard his nickname used to be Tuss, so I just started calling myself Tuss!” The comments are played as a black and white photo of Isiah is shown giving his signature grin at a Dominique Wilkins basketball classic.
In Arthur’s room you can see paraphernalia of both Isiah Thomas and the Chicago Bulls’No. 23, Michael Jordan. While Isiah was a homegrown Chicago basketball legend, his position as its favorite basketball son was arguably usurped by Michael. Their rivalry has been covered extensively in basketball lore. Many of the Chicago natives were likewise torn between the two who became bitter basketball rivals at one point.
“Arthur was always more into Isiah Thomas than I was. I was always into Michael Jordan,” William Gates admits during his commentary. While directly compared to Isiah throughout the film, he was more of Michael Jordan fan.
“When I was playing ball back in the neighborhood, they said if you made a nice pass, you were Isiah Thomas. If you made a nice move, you were Michael Jordan,” William Gates continued. “We lived more in the fantasy of the game than the actual reality.”
Arthur and William came of age during what many called the Golden Age of the NBA. It was the era where Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas and other stars played the game with an artistry and passion unique to that time. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird spearheaded it, and it caused kids everywhere to dream, realistically or not.
Challenges Off the Basketball Court, Economics and Their Ripple Effect
“I worked for Sarah Lee and got laid off. I worked for Scholars Meat Packing and got laid off. You know. You look around your house and you see your food getting low. Your bills are due here and your bills are due there,” Bo Agee states in front of the Agee home, looking concerned and tired.
St. Joe’s increased its tuition in Arthur’s sophomore year coinciding with Bo getting laid off from several jobs. Arthur’s family paid half of his tuition out of pocket, which was affected by Bo’s loss of employment. The result was Arthur having to leave St. Joe’s and enroll at Marshall Metro High School, a public inner-city school, and a different world.
Several scenes later, Arthur plays pickup basketball at a neighborhood court with his peers. He wears a red Push Excel replica jersey from the famous Chicago professional charity exhibition game. Arthur puts the ball behind his back and scores from the top of the key before confidently trotting up the court. He also developed the ability to play above the rim and dunks the ball off one foot in stride.
“You have got old legs, Dad!” In this riveting scene Bo shows up with his shirt off, dressed in sweatpants and is visibly not himself. He tries dunking the ball like Arthur and his friends and misses. Afterwards, he participates in a drug purchase in the far corner of the court. I debated noting this scene out of respect for the Agee family. It showed, however, Arthur’s growth as a player and some of the adversities he faced during that stretch.
Arthur’s Altered Trajectory
“If I had known all of this was going to happen, Arthur would never have gone to St. Joe’s,” Arthur’s mother, Sheila, says distraught over what happened to Arthur. “Arthur’s tuition was supposed to have been paid for. His books were supposed to have been paid for and none of that happened!”
After his bills not being paid, Arthur had to sit out of school for weeks at a time before finally transferring. The Agee’s experience was not uncommon as many families over the years had to pull their children out of private schools due to economics. I saw similar things in Buffalo. One player I interviewed for my book project, The Engineers, experienced the same thing; Dennis Wilson of Turner/Carroll, and Riverside High Schools in Buffalo.
“I thought Pingatore and them would help me out. I guess he thought I was not going to be that big of a ball player. So why would he just waste money on me staying there?” A despondent Arthur discusses his treatment by St. Joe’s after enrolling at Marshall. He wears Dwayne Wayne-style glasses and a Dominique Wilkins-era Atlanta Hawks jersey. “Or he just thought I was not going to grow. He kept asking me, ‘When are you going to grow?’ I said I don’t know.”
“If he was going out there playing like they had predicted him to play, he would not be at Marshall! Economics would not have had anything to do with him not being at St. Joe’s,” Arthur’s new Coach, Luther Bedford, an older black man, authoritatively states in his base-filled grandfatherly voice.
“Somebody would have made some kind of arrangement and the kid would have still been there,” Coach Bedford continues. “He was not making it like they thought he was going to make it on the basketball court, so he is not there. It is as simple as that, and it does not take no brilliant person to figure that out!”
From St. Joe’s to Marshall and Navigating Academics and Basketball
“Here you have a youngster caught in the middle of two separate school systems. Had he stayed at St. Joseph’s, he would have been able to receive credit for that first semester. It does not seem fair, but that is the system,” says Marjorie Heard, a guidance counselor at Marshall discussing the turmoil created by Arthur’s transfer.
Like a lot of kids, Arthur had to make the transition from St. Joe’s to Marshall. One could argue that his greater adjustment was going out to St. Joe’s initially. Marshall was closer to home, and he had more in common with his classmates there culturally. You can visibly see how different the environments were when the producers follow Arthur around the hallways of Marshall.
Regardless, his love for the great game of basketball continued in the maroon and gold. He continued pursuing his basketball dream at Marshall joining the junior varsity team in his sophomore year wearing the No. 11 in honor of Isiah Thomas. He then earned a roster spot on Coach Bedford’s varsity team during his junior year where the team was marginally successful.
Being A Leader and Navigating Life Off The Basketball Court
Another sub thread that resonated with me from Hoop Dreams was Arthur’s friendship with his buddy Shannon. Shannon moves in with the Agee family due to problems in his home in a short mention in the documentary. They are kindred spirits and inseparable. There are scenes of them sneaker shopping, working at Pizza Hut and of course, playing basketball. They were once teammates at Marshall. Coach Bedford notes that, “Arthur was the lesser of the two evils,” in terms of personality and needing discipline. In a scene during Arthur’s junior year, Shannon is in fact seen in the stands dancing during a game.
“I told Shannon to stop doing that stuff!” The producers capture Arthur lamenting Shannon’s involvement in the drug game towards the end of Hoop Dreams. Arthur eventually distanced himself from his friend for getting involved in the same thing that plagued his father, Bo. The sequence resonated with me because my best friend in Buffalo and I started off playing basketball together. He subsequently went into the streets, forsaking school, and the game. I kept playing basketball like Arthur who showed leadership by staying on his path.
Arthur’s Return to St. Joe’s And Wondering What If?
“I am going to watch a playoff game out at St. Joe’s later. Would you like to come?” Late in Hoop Dreams, Big Earl Smith comes to one of Arthur’s games as a senior at Marshall. He was the scout who took Arthur and his family to St. Joe’s in Arthur’s eighth-grade year. He asks Arthur about going to St. Joe’s to see a sectional game. Arthur agrees after pondering it momentarily.
“I am at Marshall. Our next game is against Crane!” Wearing his gold Marshall Hoop Squad jacket, Arthur walks through the halls of St. Joe’s before the St. Joe’s-Nazareth game. He runs into former classmates and teachers who are all surprised and excited to see him. Everyone is excited to see him, and some teachers do not recognize him because he has grown in stature and matured.
Arthur passes by trophy cases full of pictures and commemorations of William Gates’ successes as a Charger. Along with Arthur, watching the scene you wonder about what could have been had he stayed at St. Joe’s. You wonder how dangerous St. Joe’s could have been with Arthur and William teamed up in the same back court. Arthur had in fact grown and matured as the St. Joe’s coaches had asked about earlier in the documentary. He also became a force to be reckoned with on the court as predicted by Earl Smith.
We Could Have Used You Arthur!
Arthur and Earl Smith watch William’s final game against Nazareth. The game ends in heartbreaking fashion as William misses the game tying-shot in the closing seconds. Coach Pingatore benched him early in the game for arriving late. The loss ends William Gates’ own bittersweet high school basketball career. To read more about this see my William Gates essay.
“Man, I did not think I would go out like this!” Arthur comforts an emotional William after the game who is processing the early ending to his senior season. Though not well covered throughout the movie, Arthur and William knew each other well.
“I am striving for the same things,” Arthur says as his Marshall Commandos are still alive.
“I love you, boy,” William says as the two embrace and part ways.
“We missed you, Arthur! We could have used you! I talked with Coach Bedford, and I will be watching you!” Coach Pingatore lauds Arthur while sipping on a soda immediately after St. Joe’s end of season loss. As you watch that scene, you wonder what Arthur is thinking when Coach Pingatore utters those words. You wonder about his sincerity. You further wonder if he felt regret about not doing more to keep Arthur at St. Joe’s. Finally, you wonder if coaches look back at their decisions regarding players and if they sometimes regret them.
Arthur and the Commandos’ Journey Downstate
“What’s up man? I told you on the phone what I was going to do!” Shortly after defeating Westinghouse in the Chicago public school championship, the producers show Arthur running over to William in the stands of the Chicago Amphitheater. Dressed in his Chicago Bulls jacket, William came out to see the game with his girlfriend and now wife, Catherine.
“I always dreamed of me and William taking them downstate together. When I was at St. Joe’s maybe we could have gone down state and maybe not. But we did when I was at Marshall.” Marshall defeats Batavia at the state semifinal and Arthur’s voice is heard over footage of their unlikely comeback victory. He discusses once dreaming of him and William doing it together. William watches the game at home as Arthur and his teammates come within one game of winning the whole thing.
In both Arthur and William’s commentary, they acknowledge that their high school basketball careers went in opposite directions. While William and St. Joe’s failed to go downstate, Arthur, Coach Bedford, and the Marshall Commandos embarked on a ‘Cinderella run’. They finished with a strong league record defeating King Preparatory High School enroute to winning the city championship.
All the hardcore basketball fans who have watched Hoop Dreams know that King had a player that season named Rashard Griffith who went on to play in the Big Ten at the University of Wisconsin. Likewise, defeating them was no minor undertaking. In the state tournament they defeated Batavia, led by Lamarr Justice, before falling to Peoria-Manual that led by guard, Howard Nathan. They did not walk away with the championship, but they did experience going downstate. The state tournament is something all high school players covet. In any locale and municipality, going to the state championship is a very big deal, and the experience of a lifetime.
Arthur’s Academics Catching Up
“I do not think anybody in their right mind is crazy about school. Do you think if the President offered to cancel school, that students would protest?” In a comical early scene, Arthur laments about having to do schoolwork. Like a lot of kids he does not understand the importance of academics for life and for his hoop dream.
“I really wish he could have stayed here,” Sheila Agee tells Michael O’Brien, St. Joe’s Director of Finance. Arthur graduating from Marshall required release of his academic transcripts from St. Joe’s for which there was an outstanding balance. Not having the transcripts set him back academically causing him to graduate in the late summer. He went on to play his first two years at Mineral Area Junior College.
Arthur matured physically and had developed the skills to play Division I basketball by his senior season. There was only one problem though. It was a problem that has stifled many talented basketball players over the years, his grades. As described throughout the documentary, he had to figure out how to excel academically, something I can relate to at that age. It was also something I did not figure out until college.
Continuing To Chase the Dream
“When I was young, when I was little, all I used to think about was the NBA. I can go. I can go. If I get into a good college, I can go. But if I do not, I am not going to be a drug dealer crying about it, sticking up gas stations or nothing like that. I will probably go into comedy or architecture,” Arthur says at Mineral Area Junior College. I cannot say that I will, and I cannot say that I will not (experience the difficulties of my father).”
At the conclusion of the documentary, like William, Arthur realizes the realities of his basketball dream speaking with a more somber tone. The producers then show footage of Arthur at Arkansas State University, shooting free throws. The riveting clarinet solo track used throughout the movie is playing. He was projected to be a major contributor on that team.
There was a sequel to Hoop Dreams, Hoop Reality. It captured Arthur’s journey post Arkansas State and chronicled the journey of a newer Marshall Commando, NBA player Patrick Beverly. Patrick also led Marshall downstate as a senior. Arthur describes his continued pursuit of the NBA after graduating from Arkansas State at the start of Hoop Reality. He decided to retire after playing in the CBA for several years. He devoted the rest of his life to his business endeavors which included being a motivational speaker and developing his own clothing lines.
Arthur Agee, Jr. Remembers Arthur Agee, Sr.
“You want to see it rain? LET IT RAIN!” In Hoop Dreams, shortly after the Marshall Commandos lose the state tournament, Arthur and Bo play one on one. They are shirtless and their family and friends look on. It was the perfect follow up segment to the earlier footage of Arthur and Bo in the same park during his eighth-grade year. Bo uttered the same words, “Make it RAIN!”
“You want to see it rain? LET IT RAIN! This is what Howard Nathan did to you!” Arthur is now a Division I prospect. He is likewise more than a match for Bo who jokingly taunts him about raining baskets out of the sky.
“And this what I did to him,” Arthur confidently says hitting the game winning jump shot. Bo takes it in stride and jokes with Sheila and the other onlookers. The scene shows that their family had recovered from the tumultuous period following Bo’s struggles. They had come full circle.
In Hoop Reality we learn that Bo grew closer to God. He started a ministry and a church. We see the seeds for this in Hoop Dreams when he returns to the family. In one scene they all attend church together. It was in that stretch where Arthur had to learn to trust his father again. In Hoop Reality we also learn that Bo had a business himself selling sports apparel and sneakers out of the family’s garage. He died one fateful night during a potential sale and robbery. They recovered from everything the family had gone through. In my opinion that was the significance of Arthur opting to share that part of their lives. They had come full circle, which I think was important to share with audiences.
Important Themes from Hoop Dreams, Sports and Life
“When I heard that you were coming to St. Joe’s I felt like I was not going to be the Lone Ranger,” William jokingly notes in their co-commentary of the film. Arthur further speculates that William needed Arthur there for support. William notes that basketball was Arthur’s refuge during that tumultuous time in his life.
The latter would have is true for countless athletes who faced adversities and injuries that deterred their sports dreams. The reality is that we never know how things would have turned out had things gone differently in key situations. This is one of the most intriguing things about sports and this is something that touched me about Hoop Dreams. It is also a key theme in my own book project, The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story.
Hoop Dreams’ Biggest Lesson
There is another common theme which you can observe in Arthur and William’s journey as it relates to his knee injury at St. Joe’s. You may have your dream, but there are also circumstances in life that are out of your control. Likewise, when adversities occur the only thing you can do is focus on the things you can control. What happened to Arthur was a perfect example of what can happen to young people in the early chapters of life.
Your life circumstances are often out of your hands. This is one of the most valuable lessons that sports can teach us. This is also why Hoop Dreams touched me the way that it did. It continues to be one of my favorite documentaries/movies to date. I highly recommend it if you have not watched it.
Arthur and William are both on YouTube right now, by the way. They have their own YouTube channel entitled, the Hoop DreamsPodcast. There they discuss basketball, other sports-related topics and life. They are also on Twitter, and I follow them there. Arthur (@tusshoopdreams) regularly tweets about Hoop Dreams. He also tweets about the clothing and paraphernalia he has created to continue his brand. Finally, he continues to encourage others to pursue their dreams.
Thank you for reading this piece. Hoop Dreams is a three-hour documentary. I wrote this fan essay touching upon certain aspects of it and not reproduce every detail. I highly recommend watching it in its entirety yourself, especially if anything I said here resonated with you. The images in this piece are from the booklet accompanying my Hoop Dreams DVD and soundtrack. The cartoon illustrations of Isiah Thomas come from the book BASKETBALL (AND OTHER THINGS). Arturo Torres is the illustrator.
More promotional/teaser pieces for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story are on the way, both via print and video as I journey through the final steps of completing the book. There is a page here on Big Words Authors for the purpose of giving a background of the book and grouping all the promotional pieces, such as this in one, for interested readers.
On my first blogging platform, the Big Words Blog Site, there are interviews of some of the most accomplished Section VI players from my era including: Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach, Pat Monti. Finally, there are several other basketball-related essays connected to my book project. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and leave a comment beneath this piece.
The Big Words LLC Newsletter
For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. I will protect your personal information and privacy. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. If there is some issue signing up using the link provided, you can also email me at [email protected] . Yours in good sports. Best Regards.
Before starting this essay, I want to make a declaration to William Gates and Arthur Agee. I would love to interview the two of you if either of you read these essays reflecting on Hoop Dreams. I have my own sports YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussion76 Sports. You are both royalty as far as I’m concerned and talking to you would be a dream come true for me personally.
The Two Stars of Hoop Dreams
This piece is another promotional writing for my two-part book project entitled, The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Long before setting out to write my story, I watched and fell in love with the documentary Hoop Dreams, produced by Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx. Hoop Dreams followed the early basketball dreams of Arthur Agee and William Gates. The two youths grew up in the West Garfield Park and Cabrini-Green neighborhoods in Chicago, Illinois respectively.
The documentary was inspirational for me, and there are similarities between their stories and those which I’m telling in my own project. I must admit, though, that both Arthur and William came much, much closer to the NBA than I ever did. So, in crafting this piece I am in no way saying that I was at their level talent-wise; just that their stories touched me as there were some common themes between us.
Numerous Subthemes in Hoop Dreams
There were several subthemes to Hoop Dreams. I’m going to write something about Arthur’s journey as well. For now, I’ll just share that a powerful aspect of his story is attributed to how his hoop dream was affected many things. They were his father Bo’s decisions, the socioeconomics of Chicago, and finally our country’s economy at the time. Bo worked at Sarah Lee and at a key juncture of the documentary, he got laid off, which led to Arthur having to leave St. Joseph’s of Westchester High School for Marshall Metro High School.
Had Arthur stayed at St. Joe’s he would likely have teamed up in the back court with the movie’s other star, William Gates, the basis for this essay. What happened to Arthur was a perfect example of what can happen to young people, in that your life circumstances are often out of your hands. Again, this piece focuses on William and his older brother, Curtis. Both their stories were up and down journeys that most athletes can relate to, punctuated in the documentary by the emotional clarinet and saxophone solos at its key junctures.
The Next Isiah Thomas or The First William Gates
“If somebody can understand the way William plays, that’ll make me feel better, because they should’ve understood the way that I played!” As just described, the other star of Hoop Dreams was William Gates who started at St. Joseph’s of Westchester High School for the legendary Coach Gene Pingatore; all four of his years in the high school. For perspective, Coach Pingatore coached NBA hall of famer, Isiah Thomas. They went down state a decade earlier to the state finals at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, a focal point in the documentary. They didn’t win it though, something Coach Pingatore revisits during the documentary. Throughout the story he tries to coach William to be the next Isiah Thomas.
“I think I see it in one kid who is coming here. He flows with the smoothness and confidence and strength that you don’t see in every kid. I think he can become a great player!” Early in the documentary, the studious looking ‘Coach Ping’ discusses William after reminiscing about Isiah Thomas. The producers overlay part of Coach Pingatore’s analysis with footage of his freshman phenom. Young William dribbles towards a netless basket at a local playground as Coach Pingatore talks. He launches off his left foot and dunks the ball with his right hand through the basket. Coach Pingatore further speculates that William will have a career similar to Isiah’s.
The Gates Brothers: Curtis and William
“I just bang him and bruise him. I’m just trying to let him know right now, you’re going to get hit. You’re going to get banged around. You’re going to get knocked around. So you’d better get used to it now!” Another early scene of Hoop Dreams shows Curtis and William playing one-on-one on the same neighborhood court. Wearing a 1980s inner city Jerry Curl hairstyle, gold chains and gym wear, Curtis discusses how he intentionally plays physical with his younger brother by eight to 10 years, because he would experience it at the varsity level. If you listen, Curtis also subtly tells William to develop his hook shot which is thought to be indefensible. My own father and another coach highly encouraged me to do the same thing when I played.
“All those basketball dreams I had are gone now. All I see is that all my dreams are in him now. I want him to make it so badly, I don’t know what to do!” Throughout the documentary amazingly you can see Curtis being the driving force behind William. In the same scene Curtis emotionally shares that his basketball dreams are now in his younger brother, who he talks about almost like a son. This aspect of the movie reveals a key secret to how many of the great basketball players became great; there was someone behind the scenes coaching them and guiding them.
Curtis Coaching William
“Jordan might go 15 out of 40. He might. But see, if you do that, you’re going to hear about it!” In another scene in the movie, William and Curtis are sitting in their wintery Cabrini Green projects watching a Chicago Bulls game. Curtis gives William his version of what’s happening in the game. The scene reveals another key area of growth for younger players, watching the games with someone more seasoned and hearing their perspectives.
“He said the boy is good. He’s got talent. He just doesn’t listen!” In the same chapter, Emma Gates, the mother of both Curtis and William, shared the elder brother’s words on the younger brother, a common dynamic amongst most brothers.
“He’s always telling me I should do this, or I should do that. Everybody is trying to be my coach!” Early in the documentary William laments the constant coaching and guidance his older brother gave him. While he ultimately benefits from it, he sounds disturbed by it at times.
Sleeping in The Stands During Practice
I purchased a special deluxe edition of Hoop Dreams. One of the more powerful extras in it is the bonus feature where William and Arthur give their commentary throughout the documentary. You can also listen to the commentary of producers Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx. If you don’t have William and Arthur’s commentary, there are some valuable additional pieces you’ll never know. The two shared stories and other nuggets that didn’t make it into the final film.
“It’s time to get up. Let’s go!” At a key juncture, William reveals that it was Curtis who would religiously get him up in the mornings, sometimes wintery Saturday mornings at around 6:00 am, to get him to practice at St. Joe’s which was roughly 90 minutes from their home. William further commented that he would look up and see his brother asleep in the stands during practice.
This impressed me and revealed that William’s success was in large part built on the shoulders of his older brother who pushed him along in numerous ways. After hearing the commentary, I wondered if William would’ve have gotten to those practices without his brother’s support. My research for my project, The Engineers, also revealed that many of the great players in Western New York in my era were pushed by individuals in their respective circles just as William was pushed.
Curtis’ Choices During His Playing Days
“I know a whole lot about basketball. I guess that in so many words, I feel like I’m a pro at that in my mind,” Curtis reflects as he and William watch the Chicago Bulls game described earlier. In the footage he’s looking at the TV with his younger brother, almost enthralled.
“Curtis’ idea of being really good was you don’t follow the rules, you do what you want to do!” Emma Gates candidly shared her eldest son’s behaviors and decisions on the college level described below. “Even if he didn’t play ball, that was a nice university. He could’ve finished school, but he couldn’t handle it.”
In chapter nine of Hoop Dreams, the producers of the film show footage of Curtis playing at Coby Junior College as a 6’2” guard. Looking at the footage 30-40 years later, the things he was able to do as a basketball player were astounding. He played above the rim and dunked the ball in numerous ways at will. In several clips, he effortlessly launched into authoritative 360-degree dunks.
Who Was Better? Curtis Gates or Michael Jordan?
“When Jordan first came to the NBA, they would sit around and argue about which one of them could play the best,” William said about his older brother. This again was a testament to Curtis’ abilities as a basketball player. Not everyone can realistically be compared to Michael Jordan.
Steve James notes in the film that Curtis eventually signed at the University of Central Florida. He didn’t get along with the coach though and rarely played. This key revelation in this section dedicated to Curtis revealed why his own basketball career stopped. It is a reason that many basketball players didn’t make it. Many highly talented basketball players’ careers have stopped and never progressed over the years due to this exact same reason.
“I’m used to everybody in the neighborhood loving me and knowing that I could play. It just seemed like people looked up to Curtis Gates when it came to basketball. Now I’m just a regular old guy on the streets.” Early on in Hoop Dreams, as he’s working his security job, Curtis ironically laments how his life has turned out post basketball.
“When basketball is over, William may not have a friend in the world,” Curtis says working on his car on a sunny but cold Chicago day. The narrator shares that he had been laid off from his security job for four months. “Sometimes I sit around, and my eyes get watery because I ain’t amounted to nothing. I ain’t got nothing and I can’t even go out there to get a job making seven dollars per hour. I be sitting up there telling myself, ‘You ain’t gonna get no better!’”
Curtis Seeing Things William Couldn’t
“It shouldn’t take that long for that type of knee injury to heal.” Like many basketball players and athletes in general, William suffered a major injury during his junior year which altered his basketball trajectory. The first surgeon William saw opted to fix his meniscus tear by sowing it back together. After missing most of his junior season and admitting that his grades fell due to not being able to play, William returns for the remainder of the season. In the regional game against Gordon Tech, William reinjures his knee. When listening to William and Arthur Agee’s commentary, William reveals that it was his brother Curtis who identified that something was wrong with the way the doctor was handling his knee injury. The opening quote of this paragraph was Curtis’ observation.
It’s worth noting that later in the documentary, Curtis and Williams’ brother-in-law, Alvin Bibbs, was able to use his connections to get William diagnosed by the Chicago Bulls’ team doctor. He determined that the best course of action would be to simply remove the torn piece of meniscus. William subsequently recovered quickly. Curtis was also present and asking key questions of Marquette University’s Coach, Kevin O’Neill, when he visited the Gates family to discuss William’s potential basketball scholarship. The point of all this is that it took another set of eyes to question the handling of Williams’ injury, how to get him the care that he needed, and his basketball future.
William’s Biggest Fan and His Greatest Critic
“He’s going to need to show me something. He hasn’t shown me nothing,” Curtis said, looking on from the stands in one of William’s first games back from his injury in his junior year.
“It was like my injury was making him look bad. I always felt like Curtis should not be living his dream through me,” William says in response his brother continuing to live his hoop dream through him, and his seeming lack of regard for the difficulties of recovering from a serious injury.
“That ain’t no excuse! He got out there. So as far as I’m concerned there wasn’t nothing wrong with him! If he was hurt, then he shouldn’t have gotten out there!” Following St. Joseph’s season ending loss to Gordon Tech in the ‘super sectional’ (the regional) in William’s junior season, the producers catch Curtis’ relentless criticism of his younger brother. The winner of the super sectional earned a berth to the state tournament at the University of Illinois.
William battled back from a knee injury that sidelined him for most of the season. In the final quarter of the game, his knee started bothering him. He could only watch at St. Joe’s lead disintegrated. After hobbling back on the court, he missed two free throws with no time left on the clock. The shots would have won the St. Joseph’s the game. After the game, William is shown crying in his mother’s arms. Curtis looks on shaking his head.
“It was bad coaching. This wasn’t no time to be teaching no lesson!” William’s high school career ended with a loss to Sean Pearson and Nazareth the next year. Curtis criticized Coach Gene Pingatore afterwards for his disciplinary action. Curtis and another individual admitted to getting William to the game late. William cries in his mother’s arms after his last game as a Charger. Coach Pingatore opted to teach his star guard a lesson by not starting him. It was was a lesson that may have cost them the game. I had experienced something similar during my playing days and watched that scene in amazement.
Pushing His Younger Brother
William loved his older brother who was arguably his biggest fan despite how Curtis pushed William, sometimes excessively. William went on to play at Marquette University. At the end of the movie though, he arrives at a place where making it to the NBA is no longer the most important thing for him. He became a father at that point. Furthermore the rigors of pursuing his dream, his injury and seeing the realities of the athletics altered him.
William tried out for the NBA after college. He got one last shot at the dream in his late twenties. That also ended with an injury. He revealed this once again in the special commentary with Arthur. I believe he eventually dedicated his life to his faith and became a clergyman, but I could be wrong. He didn’t appear in the sequel to Hoop Dreams, Hoop Reality starring Arthur Agee and Patrick Beverly. The booklet for the my copy of Hoop Dreams revealed that Curtis passed away. William mentioned it in his commentary as well. Despite what they went through, William loved his older and was thankful for what he did for him.
Emma Gates: Maybe the Most Important Unsung Hero
“Do you think he’s going to stay in there? I think he’s going to stay.” One of the many touching sequences in Hoop Dreams is when both players go off to college. Both them and their families share tears as they get in the cars and leave. The producers share footage of Emma Gates with her screen door half open optimistically speculating on whether William will complete his schooling at Marquette. As described above Curtis had his struggles at the college level and didn’t finish.
Emma Gates was yet another unsung hero in William’s journey in Hoop Dreams. It’s depicted that both Curtis and Coach Pingatore pushed William hard and to his limits. It wasn’t shared though if Ms. Gates ever told Curtis to back off a little bit. What was shared was that while her sons loved basketball, their education was her priority. Furthermore, she was always there to comfort William after his games. She was also there with him during his knee surgery speculating on his future and hoping for the best.
The Realities of The Dream
“Four years ago, I used to dream about playing in the NBA. I don’t dream about it anymore. Even though I love playing basketball, I want to do other things with my life too. If I had to stop playing basketball right now, I think I’d still be happy. I think I would,” William says at Marquette University over the emotional clarinet solo played throughout the documentary. “That’s why when someone says, ‘When you get to the NBA and all that stuff, don’t forget about me.’ I should say what if I don’t make it, are you going to forget about me?”
William is captured in his dorm room at the end of Hoop Dreams contemplating his love for the game just as his collegiate career is starting. He has a new perspective on basketball and on life after everything he experienced at St. Joe’s. He listens to a recording from his from wife Katherine and his daughter. He realizes there are some things that are more important than the great game of basketball.
“William may not have a friend in the world after basketball,” Curtis says during the Hoop Dreams thinking about his own life. Years later we know that is not true as William is both beloved and revered in basketball circles and beyond.
Several Stories Within One Story
I realized that there were other essays I could have written about William Gates’ half of Hoop Dreams as I finished up this one. This essay did expand beyond the original draft my mother edited. I could have written about his knee injury and how it altered the trajectory of his hoop dream. Another aspect of his story involved his view of the game changing from the start to the ending of the movie. Another essay could have involved a more extensive look into his and Arthur Agee’s complex relationship with Coach Pingatore. In short there were several stories within the one story like my book project The Engineers. It is one of fascinating things about Hoops Dreams, sports, and life itself.
The interaction between William and Curtis fascinated me though for reasons described in this essay. In my short basketball journey and in my journey throughout life, I have learned that those around us can greatly impact our success. The same is true for our failures. The transfer of knowledge is critical as well (or the lack of). It certainly helps to have someone in your circle who has walked the path you have embarked on. They can guide you and save you time. Without them, you might have to spend time reinventing the wheel as they say. This is also a key them of my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story.
A Recommendation For Hoop Dreams in 2022
The images in this essay come from the booklets accompanying the DVD and CD soundtrack of Hoop Dreams. I both own and I encourage you to watch the documentary if you haven’t. I guarantee that it will touch you and teach you something. That applies whether you have a sports background, or you don’t. The documentary chokes me up inside every time I watch it. I can relate to the stories in my own way like a lot of boys from the inner city who once dreamt of the playing the great game of basketball, realistically or not.
Arthur and William are both on YouTube right now by the way. They have their own YouTube channel entitled, the Hoop Dreams Podcast where they discuss basketball and other sports-related topics. They are also on Twitter, and I follow them. Arthur (@tusshoopdreams) regularly tweets about Hoop Dreams and the abundance of clothing and paraphernalia that he has created to continue the brand.
Thank you for reading this piece. I intend to create more promotional/teaser pieces for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. They will be both via print and video as I journey through the final steps of completing the book. I created a page here on Big Words Authors. There is an in depth background of the book. I have also compiled all the promotional pieces, print and video.
On the Big Words Blog Site, there are interviews of some the most accomplished Section VI players. They include Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach, Pat Monti. Other basketball-related essays related to my book project and also there. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and leave a comment beneath this piece.
The Big Words LLC Newsletter
For the next phase of my writing journey, I have started a monthly newsletter for the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words and select print and video pieces. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. I will protect your personal information and privacy. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. If there is some issue signing up using the link provided, you can also email me at [email protected] . Yours in good sports. Regards.
The following are quotes from the many contributors to my two-part book project entitled, The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story who were gracious enough to each tell their stories. The contributors will also be acknowledged in the books themselves and these are being shared for promotional purposes. To tell this story the way I wanted to tell it with depth and substance, I couldn’t have done it on my own. Telling this story was a long process and there were times when I felt self-doubt and wondered if this was a big waste of time. Each contributor reminded me in their own way that I was creating something worthwhile and to stay the course. Thank you all again.
Adrian Baugh, Player, Buffalo Traditional High School
“It was all new to me, just the process. I’ve had people tell me, ‘If I had you,’ like when they had Jason, Damien and Malik (Campbell), there’s no telling where I’d be, and I believe that. When we played St. Joe’s, we never beat them. In my three years of playing at Traditional, we never beat them and that’s because of the fundamentals part of it. We didn’t have it. St. Joe’s had it, we had way more talent than them, but fundamentally they were better than we were at that time!”
The 6’6” Adrian Baugh was one of the key cogs in the Jason Rowe– and Damien Foster-led Buffalo Traditional Bulls teams. He was also one of their unsung heroes. The Bulls literally took a stranglehold of the Yale Cup partway through my time as a Hutch-Tech Engineer. In this excerpt from our interview, Adrian described how he gradually learned about organized high school basketball at Buffalo Traditional. While they were extremely talented, he discussed how the Bulls didn’t fare well against fundamentally sound teams like the perennial powerhouse from the Monsignor Martin League, the St. Joe’s Marauders.
Carlos Bradberry, Player, LaSalle Senior High School
“I was satisfied (with my senior season), but I hate to lose so that last game wore on me for a long time. I probably sat there for a week or two and thought of every play I could’ve done differently. I still remember it to this day. We lost by three points, and I missed five or six free throws. I said to myself, ‘If I’d made those six free throws, we would have won the game!’ For me it was bitter-sweet because we got there and showed well, but I thought we could’ve gone one step further. What made it worse was, I think Hempstead either won or had a very close game with Mount Vernon. I thought we could’ve been the state champs if I’d played a little bit better.”
No. 50 Carlos Bradberry was one of the many great guards in the LaSalle basketball dynasty. He had been a LaSalle Explorer for several years and emerged as the leader of the team as a junior. I first saw him play in a lopsided loss they handed our Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team in December of 1991. His Explorers team broke through and advanced to the final four in Glens Falls his senior season. There they fell short against Hempstead from Long Island by a narrow margin. In this excerpt Carlos lamented the free throws he missed in his final game. They likely would’ve helped them advance to the state final game against Mount Vernon.
“I wasn’t an Alpha Dog. Just growing up, I knew Pep was athletic. I knew Chuck was the big man. I knew Frankie and all of them. We grew up in Central Park. Central Park was four streets away from me. I used to cut over the tracks and play at Central Park. I used to go to my old School 68, I think they call it Westminster now. I just knew what I could do, and I grew up with everybody. So I just had to trust that, you know I’ve got the ball, and if a teammate is open, I’ll give it to him on the fast break, and then let’s play D! But I wasn’t an Alpha Dog at that time.”
No. 13 Curtis Brooks was one of the leaders of the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team, one of the bases for my story. That season he was one of the statistical leaders of the team in terms of points and assists and hit several big shots for them. I considered him to be the engine that drove that team. I was still in awe of him 20 years later when I interviewed him. Only seeing him play from the sidelines as a freshman, I never got to know him personally. When we talked about those times, he was both humble and wise. That season, he made the Buffalo News’ All-Western New York Second Team. In this snippet from our two-part interview, he shared that he didn’t consider himself to be the star of that team and didn’t look to be. He was a pass first point guard who looked to set his teammates up first offensively.
Adonis ‘AD’ Coble, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“That was a great feeling being around a group of guys who played together and really liked being around each other. Those guys were great, they were great teammates as well as great guys off the court. They were a very close-knit group that were friends as well as teammates (the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team).”
The first player I interviewed for this project was No. 23 Adonis Coble. Adonis was one of the seniors on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team for the 1991-92 season, my first season. He and the Class of 1992 seniors showed a lot of leadership that year. Interviewing Adonis led me to several other players and Coach Jones himself. He was also a member of the 1990-91 team. One of my questions involved what being on that team was like. His answer described some of the secrets of championship teams, camaraderie and togetherness. This was a recurring theme throughout my interviews. While important parts of the equation, talent and skill aren’t always enough to win consistently.
Ryan Cochrane, Player, Cardinal O’Hara High School
“Being a part of the team is everything, whether its basketball or the team I have at work. It’s a team. I can go back to my O’Hara team in my junior year. There were plenty of teams that were way more talented than us. Turner-Carroll, St. Joe’s and Lackawanna were more talented than us. But as a team putting all of our pieces together and putting the team first, that was what got us winning the championship. It’s weird because you can take not all, but some of us – some players may not have started on another team, but our team together as a whole, we were way better than anybody else.”
No. 12 for the Cardinal O’Hara Hawks, Ryan Cochrane reached out to me on Facebook after publishing my Jason Rowe interview. Knowing of his legend, I immediately asked to interview him to which he agreed. Prior to the 1993-94 season, I hadn’t heard of Cardinal O’Hara, Ryan Cochrane or Calvin Price. I became quite familiar with him that year though. He led the Hawks on a magical run through the Monsignor Martin League and in postseason play his junior season.
Samuel ‘Quinn’ Coffee, Player, Kensington High School
“It taught me that your hard work isn’t always recognized (playing on the Kensington Boys’ Basketball Team). But that doesn’t mean you give up working, because somewhere down the line, it’s going to have a benefit to you. I never gave up, I never slacked in practice, I never missed practice!”
I met Coach Quinn Coffey my first and only year at Brockport State College. He had played at Kensington and was a member of the Class of 1992, two years ahead of me. We reconnected on Facebook years later, and I knew that I wanted to interview him for my book project. He loved the game and now coached both boys and girls in the Baltimore era. As a coach, he wanted all the kids he touched to get the most out of their playing experience. This is something he questioned about his playing days at Kensington. His quote gets to the essence of my book project. Everyone’s playing experience was different depending on your coach, teammates, and your overall life circumstances. In life, your hard work may not always be appreciated initially. Somehow you must find ways to keep going as someday it might.
Maurice ‘Modie’ Cox, Player, LaSalle Senior High School
“We were very familiar with them (Ritchie Campbell and Marcus Whitfield from Burgard) because we felt like second class citizens. We were not getting the respect that the Buffalo basketball players were getting. So, whenever we came to Buffalo, we knew that it was going to be different. It was going to be a track meet and we were going to show what Niagara Falls was all about. I know that at least for myself, I played with a chip. I knew that when we went to Buffalo, we had to come with a certain mentality and a certain attitude. Again, we looked at Buffalo as the big city and we are little Niagara Falls and nobody knows about Niagara Falls basketball. We do not get the big headlines and we do not have the big players that they had in Buffalo, so we were well aware of the players in Buffalo. And when we had the chance to go to Buffalo it was straight business!”
Of the great guards to play in Head Coach Pat Monti’s LaSalle basketball dynasty, perhaps the greatest guard was Maurice ‘Modie’ Cox. Like many players in Western New York, I only heard of Modie’s legend and never saw him play. Modie was the leader of the LaSalle dynasty between the Eric Gore and Michael Starks-led 1988 Class B Federation Championship Team and the Carlos Bradberry led teams of the early 1990s. This excerpt comes from Modie’s visit to my sports YouTube channel Big Discussions76 Sports.
Francis Daumen, Coach, Hutch-Tech High School
“The game (basketball) by nature brings out the bad in people. You’re required to be violent. You’re required to be a team player. You’re required to run, and hit, and smash into one another – to jump and run and to be physically and mentally exhausted – and that’s only practice. The games are fun, it’s the practices – the day-to-day grind. It’s a tough sport!”
Coach Francis Daumen took over for Coach Jones my senior season at Hutch-Tech. I didn’t know how to handle the coaching change and struggled through that year. I don’t think we understood one another that 1993-94 season. When I interviewed him 20 years later, we shared what was happening in each other’s lives and it all made sense. His approach to the game was different than Coach Jones’. This snippet from our interview reveals how he viewed the game of basketball, battle.
Carlton Ford, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“That’s something that was never really clear to me from varsity practices. I don’t recall Coach ever saying, ‘Take that shot. You could’ve taken that shot at the top of the key!’ On the junior varsity (JV) team it was a different story. I was in double figures scoring, and it was known that I could score and get to the basket. On the varsity team, there was never a green light given. I just think that over time, I realized that I would take this shot and there would be no complaints and I would just get back on D. But I think by senior year I learned how to play in that offense.”
Carlton Ford was a two-year teammate on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. A member of the Class of 1993, he was a year ahead of me. We were similar in terms of temperament and personality. Our interview revealed that we viewed our first year on the varsity team similarly, a learning year. I discovered later that some kids looked at their first year differently. They demanded to get on the court and play immediately. He was a mature and unselfish pass-first guard who like me, had to learn to play in Coach Jones’ fundamentals-based offense.
Damien Foster, Player, Buffalo Traditional High School
“I’ve heard it 1,000 times! Coach Cardinal heard it 1,000 times and we all heard it. Most of the time you’d hear it from the suburban coaches and schools. My opinion on that is that Cardinal wasn’t trying to be something he wasn’t. Cardinal was more so a father figure to us. He was there for us. We could come to him for anything, and he’d give us advice whatever the case may be. You’re dealing with city kids – kids that come from single parent homes. You’re dealing with a lot of things and lots of these kids don’t have structure in terms of playing organized basketball, so they come to the city schools and play on these teams. With their attention span, you draw up a play and they get in the game, and they might forget the play. Or they might not have that discipline to run a play.”
Damien Foster and Jason Rowe seemingly burst onto the scene together the 1992-93 season as freshman. They had prepared for a while, and only those who were unaware of them were astonished by their brilliance. It was always whispered that their coach, the late Joe Cardinal wasn’t much of a coach. He simply inherited talented players every year and let them go while he sat back and racked up the wins. According to Damien though, he cared about his players and looked out for them as best he could. Furthermore, he knew what and who he was in terms of coaching and didn’t pretend to be something else.
“Anwar. You know it’s one of those deals where I talk about it – when I talk about a team, when I talk about buying into a system, when I talk about leadership, when I talk about being a part of something that’s bigger than yourself, when I talk about everybody has to play a role. I talk about that season (the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team). That’s my go to sermon, and it’s so engrained in who I am and it’s a matter of me knowing I played a vital role on that team and so it’s something that’s extremely special.”
Reverend Dion Frasier was a junior on the 1990-91 Yale Cup and Section VI Class B championship teams. He was a senior my first year on the team, the 1991-92 season. In my book project, I credit Dion and two other seniors for helping keep the 1991-92 team together. It was a tough season which could’ve easily come off the rails. He and his peers were sorely missed once they graduated. In our interview, he discussed how the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team regularly comes up in his Sunday sermons 30 years later.
Jermaine Fuller, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“I know that Coach Jones always suggested that we ‘get in shape’ and maybe lift weights, etc., but nothing was ever mandatory or scheduled. I look at schools today that have actual WEIGHT PROGRAMS, something we did not have at Tech (maybe it did not exist at any Buffalo Public Schools?). I do agree that Jones kept us aerobically conditioned during the season. He did keep us running, etc. And I always appreciated the early morning free throw shooting. Until this day I remember that and think that was an excellent practice.”
No. 30 Jermaine Fuller and I were teammates for the 1991-92 and the 1992-93 seasons. I didn’t interview him verbally as I did most of the other players. He graciously answered the questions I shared with him electronically though. He pointed out that Coach Jones indeed highly encouraged us to lift weights and get stronger. “A good strong player is better than a good weak player,” Coach Jones told us all the time. There was however no formal weight training program for us though. This meant that most of us were left to our own devices and had to figure it out, if at all.
Carlos James Gant, Player, City Honors High School
“If I could do it over again, I would – I think one of the things I personally conceded was – it had to be the system. I think the system helped us be successful. What I learned more in my senior year is that you still have to be you as an athlete as well. As an example, there were times when you had to sacrifice parts of your game for the team and I’m all for that. But I think you can also get lost in that. There were times when I could’ve been more aggressive offensively and defensively. We played within the system.”
When I was at Hutch-Tech, the City Honors Boys’ Basketball Team followed a similar trajectory to our 1990-91 team. They improved every year and matured into a competitive team by the time the core of their team were seniors. One of them was Carlos James Gant. In our interview he spoke to something that I didn’t figure out during my short window playing the game. That is figuring out how to play in a system versus just playing and then switching between the two. It’s something many players struggle with and don’t figure out until they’re done playing.
George Gayles, Player, Bennett High School
“After the Festival of Lights game, Veronica (Coach Larry Veronica) said I had a nice arc on my shot. He said, ‘I have him because he shoots really well.’ My shot was terrible at that time. He also may not have had enough people, and he saw that I had an eagerness for the game and a heart and a willingness to learn. Students like that, you can’t not let them on the team. I would rather have ten kids like that than a couple who have a horrible attitude and are uncoachable. The two people we had on our team that year were really good. Years later when I met up with them at Shoshone Park, one asked, ‘It’s like that now?’ I was able to keep up with them now and it wasn’t like that in high school.”
Like Coach Quinn Coffey, I met George Gayles at SUNY Brockport. George played for the Bennett Tigers under Coach Larry Veronica. George described himself as a ‘project’ in high school like me at Hutch-Tech. He wanted to play but was undeveloped and learned where he could. In our interview, he described how Coach Veronica saw that he wanted to play and had a willingness to learn. George further went on to discuss how he looked for coachable players himself years later. He further talked about how he met up with two of the best players on his Bennett teams years later and had grown to their skill level. Our growth as players continues often times beyond our organized playing days.
Anthony Harris, Player, Burgard Vocational High School
“But back then when we were juniors, there were some pretty good ball players. Emerson had a good team. They had Glen Mayfield, Paul Tolbert. As a matter of fact, do you remember Bernie Tolbert? The FBI guy? His brother played basketball. He was a guard. Paul Tolbert, he was sweet. They were some pretty competitive dudes back then. As a matter of fact, Phil came out after me and was playing. I think he got rookie of the year on the freshman team at Bennett. As a matter of fact, he might’ve cracked the varsity team when he was a sophomore. I’m not sure but oh yeah, they were pretty competitive back then. And then Lafayette had this guy named George Stevens, a dark skinned brotha. He was bad!”
A part of my story is discovering key information about family by accident and after it’s needed. I didn’t discover that my Uncle Anthony Harris was himself an accomplished basketball player back in his day. He played alongside Eugene Roberson at Burgard and even matched up with Bennett’s Bob Lanier during those years. During our interview, we discussed the Yale Cup and Buffalo basketball from years past. It was the era of the Buffalo Braves and when there was only one court at Delaware Park.
Ed Harris, Player, Riverside High School
“I went to camps every year. Russ made sure of that. Most of all of us went to the local camps, the Canisiuses, the University at Buffalos and the Buff State camps. We all went to those. I don’t know if Russ and those local colleges had some sort of agreement, but we were all at those and I can’t say that was the case for all the other city schools. Like I said, we were one of the only schools that had a 20-game schedule. Russ did a little bit more than the other coaches did. I think he knew the significance of it, I would say – to get that exposure, to get us out into those games to see those different environments which helps when you go away for school. You’re not just out in the city playing city games. You’re experiencing their culture, the suburban culture.”
The 1991-92 Riverside Frontiersman won both the Yale Cup title and Section VI Class C Championships. One of their leaders was the versatile Edmund Harris. Like a lot of teams, the Frontiersman ascent was gradual. During our discussion, Harris’ description of Coach Bill Russell reminded me of Coach Ken Jones. They were both students of the game. They cared about their players, gave thorough instruction and meticulously their schedule their games each year. In both instances, their efforts weren’t always appreciated at the time.
Frankie Harris, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“Mike Brundige had a lot of talent. He also had a little attitude, you know what I mean? He was about 6’5”. And he can still get up and down the court right now. In the 40 and over league, he can get up and down, and I think he can still dunk! But he didn’t always buy into what Coach Jones was trying to do. With Coach Jones you had to be disciplined in terms of being a team player and sometimes he would just get on you. And he didn’t handle that well. So he had his days, but he was a good basketball player. Jerome Freeman and Ed Lenard, they came off the bench. They gave us defense and energy. They were defensive stoppers. They were quick! They were team players.”
My essay discussing the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team and their magical acknowledged two groups of players. I acknowledged those who took the court that season. I also acknowledged those who were instrumental in building the program but graduated before the championship years. That happens with many championship teams. One of the players was Frankie Harris whom I met Coach Jones’ funeral service. In our interview, we talked about a player named Michael Brundige. He was physically gifted but butted heads with Coach Jones regularly due to his attitude and temperament. Mike was 6’5” and very athletic though. Many coaches face the dilemma of keeping highly talented players even if there will likely be personality conflicts.
Keith Hearon, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“It definitely taught me that nothing comes for free (the game of basketball). You have to work hard. You have to pay your dues for the benefit, and nothing is going to come for free. You have to work hard if you want the success. And then really life and basketball are not too far disconnected. That’s something that kind of stayed with me. They go hand in hand. Every lesson in basketball is a lesson about life.”
Keith Hearon was a teammate on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team for the 1991-92 and the 1992-93 seasons. A member of the Class of 1993, he was a year ahead of me. “Stretch” as Coach Jones referred to him my junior season was mature and even keeled personality-wise. He was a wiry 6’5” and played center for our team and was very reliable. This quote from him once again captures the essence of my book project. Hard work is involved in most anything worthwhile activity or goal in life. Finally, basketball and life are interrelated. The game teaches you about life.
Derrick Herbert, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“I think he (Coach Jones) and I got along because I was that guy who was always on the floor diving for loose balls and taking charges. Whenever ‘Ice Cream’ (Marcus Whitfield), or Nigel (Bostic) who were some of the best players in the city at the time in the public school system, when we played those teams, I had to guard them – and I got lit up a lot too. But I think that he appreciated that I was willing to take on that challenge because I would dive for the loose ball, this, that and the third and our relationship was pretty cool. It did have its contentious times. But for the most part we had a good relationship. I pushed back a little bit, but he would always have his ways of getting his point across and in hindsight, he was always right.”
“You have to talk to D-Herb!” Jerrold ‘Pep’ Skillon told me that I need to talk a senior from the 1989-90 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team at Coach Jones’ funeral service. I had only seen Derrick Herbert in pictures like the other members of this class. I acknowledged them in my essay dedicated to the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. They helped lay the groundwork for the 1990-91 championship season. In our discussion, Derrick talked a lot about Coach Jones, and their relationship. As with many of the players, it wasn’t a 100% smooth all the time. He ultimately appreciated Coach Jones, his coaching and his teachings though.
Reggie Hokes, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“Yes, I knew I wanted to play varsity basketball right away. I knew about Ritchie Campbell and Cliff Robinson. I knew about those guys. I heard about Christian Laettner. I was familiar with Trevor Ruffin because we had a park called 75 and they would come down and play and they’d call it ‘Live at 75’, and they used to have games down there – Ritchie and all of them would have summer league games. Ritchie actually stayed around the corner from me. He stayed in the Willard Park Projects, about five blocks from where I stayed on Emslie.”
I first saw No. 22 Reggie Hokes play basketball at the William-Emslie YMCA. He was a pass first point guard, and I was amazed at this ability to assist the ball like Magic Johnson in the open court. I enjoyed playing with him as he always looked for you in the open court on fast breaks. He came to Hutch-Tech during a bit of a youth movement where underclassmen fought to play right away. This was in large part inspired by the University of Michigan’s Fab Five. In all my interviews, I asked the guys who their influences were. Some names came up regularly in terms of the Buffalo basketball. One of them was the great Ritchie Campbell as was in Reggie’s case.
Earl Holmes, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“He (my father) said my grades weren’t up to par so he didn’t let me play anymore that year. He told me if I couldn’t keep a GPA and play, then something had to go. That sophomore year was the same and first year I played football too. So, he was like, ‘If you’re gonna play all these sports, you’d better make sure these grades are up to par. As of right now, basketball is off the shelf. I can’t do anything about football because football season is over with, but if these grades don’t improve during the school year, then you won’t be playing football either. I was an A student all my life. I just chalk it up to normal teenage rebellion. I was having some success, so I felt like I didn’t have to work as hard and I wasn’t putting all my effort into my elective courses.”
Earl Holmes was an outspoken multi-sport athlete from the Hutch-Tech’s Class of 1995 (football and basketball). We were teammates on the 1993-94 boys’ basketball team. We were almost teammates on the 1992-93 team. His father “Big Earl” took him off the team because his grades slipped below the Honor Roll level. This always stood out to me because I didn’t have a stringent requirement academically in my home. My grades were average my entire four years, and I wouldn’t have made the standard in Earl’s house. Academics tripped up a lot of players, me included that year. Some parents mandated their kids not just do enough to get by, but to excel academically. That was the case with Mr. Holmes.
Ronald Jennings, Player, Campus West and Turner/Carroll High School
“My first two years I was playing both football and basketball. I was playing freshman-junior varsity ball with coach Fred Bachelors. Fred is now the head coach at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. And then, in my junior year, I dedicated myself to football. Actually, my first two years, I played football, basketball and baseball. And then my junior year, I just played football and baseball.”
Reverend Ronald Jennings was my first ever point guard in an organized basketball setting. We were teammates for two years on the Campus West/College Learning Laboratory Bengals Boys’ Basketball Team in middle school. I looked up No. 21 and was in awe of him. I didn’t know how to develop so that I could play alongside of him and contribute to the team. This is a key theme throughout my journey/story. Ronald coincidentally assisted my first basket in an organized game, something I can still see in my mind today. While I went off to Hutch-Tech for high school, Ronald went off to Turner/Carroll. There he played football, basketball, and baseball before focusing completely on football. Afterwards, he focused completely on his Christian faith and ministry.
Brandon Jones, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“Neither of my parents were athletes, so they were like, ‘You’re playing basketball, we’ll come to the games.’ They weren’t necessarily coaching me up. So, he (Coach Richardson) was the first one to see something in me that I didn’t see in myself yet. And he rode me hard. I was not allowed to play in gym class as a senior. He’d say, ‘I want you jumping rope! I want you doing this or that. You’re good enough to play at the next level, and I think I can get you there, but you’ve got to want it. Stop being lazy!’ He was really hard on me and at the time I thought, ‘Why in the hell is he doing this?’ And now 20 years later and I can’t believe I was saying that. I can look back and say, ‘I know why he was doing that.’”
I didn’t overlap with Brandon Jones in terms playing on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. Brandon was a versatile front court player who could put the ball on the floor and shoot it from long-range. I wanted to know what the basketball program was like at Hutch-Tech after Coach Ken Jones retired. Coach Francis Daumen (above) took over for my senior year and then stepped down opening the way for Coach Richardson. Thus, it was educational to talk with Brandon to understand what things were like under Coach Richardson’s leadership. Like a lot of players, Brandon didn’t understand why Coach Richardson was hard on him. The same was true later with Coach Dick Bihr at Buffalo State College who yelled at him constantly. Later, like a lot of players, he realized that it wasn’t out of contempt or malice. It was done to get the best out of him.
Quincy Lee, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“Curt Brooks? It was his first time making the team, sophomore year. He had a chip on his shoulder because he didn’t make it freshman year. Curt Brooks was vicious. Curt Brooks was going to go the distance with anybody. He was dedicated and the thing is, I ended up moving with my father in my sophomore year and moving around the corner from Curt Brooks. Me and Curt Brooks, you go to the park and play every day, winter time, it didn’t matter what temperature it was or what was going on, we would play every day just trying to get better to make sure the team was better. Curt Brooks never stopped trying to get better. EVER! He was a worker and definitely motivated. Jones loved him too. He loved Curt. Curt earned it though. He was a hard worker, and he was 100% into basketball.”
No. 11 Quincy Lee was one of the seniors on the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. Coincidentally he also attended Campus West but was four years ahead of me. He agreed to be interviewed after reaching out to him on Facebook. He told three of the other seniors what I was doing and opened the door for me to interview them. I looked at the 1990-91 team as a utopia. Quincy revealed that playing for Coach Jones wasn’t a bed of roses which was helpful to learn for perspective. He loved the game and wanted to play though and toughed it out. The support of his teammates and faculty members helped as well. He eventually settled in and got back to playing his game. In addition to discussing Coach Jones, he spoke very highly their point guard No. 13 Curtis Brooks (discussed above).
Pat Monti, Coach, LaSalle Senior High School
“Everyone was there – Mike Kryzewski (Duke) and Digger Phelps (Notre Dame) – all the bigtime coaches. It was a game for the ages. I can still see it as if it was yesterday, and it was 1988. Nobody led by more than four – they didn’t take us for granted this time – they were very well coached. It was back and forth, back and forth – just an incredible high school basketball game. I think that with about a minute or so left, we might’ve been up four. They came down (Christian Laettner’s Nichols team), scored, called time out and cut it to two. I only had one time out left and I’ve always taught my young coaches to save your time outs for the fourth quarter. If you know, you’re going to be in a tight ballgame, don’t waste time outs. It’s amazing how simple it sounds and how important it is in coaching.”
My first-time seeing Coach Pat Monti’s LaSalle Explorers play was in a lopsided loss they handed our Hutch-Tech team. It was in the 1991 Festival of Lights Tournament in their gym. They were in the middle of 10-year run in which they dominated the Section VI Class A playoff bracket. They were our area’s regular Class A representative in the Far West Regional game with the Rochester area champion. At stake was a trip to the Final Four in Glens Falls. Coach Monti saw many great players over the years on his bench and his opponent’s. This excerpt from our interview discussed one of LaSalle’s many matchups with Christian Laettner and his Nichols teams. LaSalle won the New York State Class B Federation Championship after defeating the Vikings.
“I started playing basketball when I was about 10 and I thought I was pretty good. It wasn’t until meeting Adonis Coble for the first time and getting cremated by him and two others in a game of three on three, that I became serious about improving my game.”
Roderick ‘Spanky’ Peoples was a first-year player along with me and other on the 1991-92 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. He played football as well and had quite the motor, bringing a fearlessness and intensity. Like a lot of guys from his Class of 1993, he had a bit of a mischievous side. I admittedly didn’t know what to make of him at times. Going into the 1992-93 season, his senior year, and my junior year, he developed significantly as a basketball player. I don’t think that season turned in a way either of us expected. In hindsight, he taught me a lot about competition and toughness.
Brian Reith, Player, Hamburg High School
“But then when the season was over, we’d pick up our baseball gloves and jump into baseball season and play baseball. And then summer would come and then there would be this interesting mix between summer baseball leagues and then pickup basketball and there was always this combination. And when fall would come, some kids played football or soccer. I played volleyball, I was one of the few people and I loved that I did that. I wasn’t allowed to play football. I wasn’t big enough to play and wasn’t going to do much good if I did, but we played three different sports and we didn’t stick with basketball all year round. So, when it came back to basketball season, some of us were lacing them up for the first time in months, which I’m sure made it more difficult for our coaches.”
Brian Reith was the only player from one of the Erie County Interscholastic Conferences (ECICs) that I interviewed. He reached out to me after reading my Carlos Bradberry interview. He and his Hamburg Bulldogs were quite familiar with the LaSalle Explorers in those days due to their many sectional matchups. It was big to talk to him because I wanted to know what it was like to play in one of the suburban conferences. I had driven past Hamburg numerous times but had never stopped there. Most of the suburbs of Buffalo felt like distant worlds to me. In this excerpt from our interview, Brian discussed what he and his teammates did in the basketball offseason. While other kids worked on their basketball games in the offseason, they played other sports. They didn’t give basketball a serious look until the next winter.
Phillip Richardson, Coach, Hutch-Tech High School
“The thing is I knew Reggie’s father. I knew Earl’s father. I knew Brian’s mother and father. His mother’s brother was married to your Aunt Melva. That was the connection. So, when I made them stay after to run wind sprints, nobody said nothing about, ‘You’re killing my kid!’ No, they already knew that I wasn’t a knucklehead and wasn’t trying to be mean. So, I knew their fathers and some of their moms, and they knew that I had their best interests at heart.”
A central theme to my project The Engineers is benefiting from the knowledge sets within your family (and not). Coach Phil Richardson is a second cousin on my mother’s side. I didn’t spend a lot of time around him in my youth prior to high school due to life circumstances. I thus didn’t learn about his vast sports history until he arrived at Hutch-Tech in the fall of 1993. In hindsight, I could’ve benefitted from his knowledge years earlier. He didn’t assume the reigns of the head basketball coach until the fall of 1994 after I graduated. He inherited a talented crop of players the 1994-95 season. Based upon similar backgrounds, he was the most well-suited coach to teach and motivate them of the coaches they’d had.
Jason Rowe, Player, Buffalo Traditional High School
“Jordan, Isiah and Magic were the guys that I idolized in the NBA. In college I looked up to Kenny Anderson, Jason Kidd and Chris Jackson. Locally, I looked up to my uncle, Trevor Ruffin, and Ritchie Campbell. I looked at them and felt like I could do something. They were guys I could watch every day in a ‘hands on’ type of way. Trevor grew up across the street from me and he was like a ‘big brother’. He played at the University of Hawaii, and he went on to the NBA, but I didn’t look at him that way. This was the guy who, when he was in the NBA, would pick me up to go work out with him. We had that type of relationship where he was my big brother, and I was going to the house and watching TV with him.”
I had already conducted several interviews by the time I got to talk to Bishop Timon’s Coach Jason Rowe. I told him that his interview was ‘the big one’ as it lent credibility to what I was doing. We still laugh about it today. He, Damien Foster and the Buffalo Traditional Bulls became a force to be reckoned with in Western New York, across the state and beyond. In all my interviews I asked the guys who their influences were. Each had players they looked up to at the college and professional levels. Jason came from a basketball family, but he also looked up to two great guards from our area. They were Trevor Ruffin and Ritchie Campbell, two of the greatest guards to ever play in the Yale Cup.
“My priority was defense. We spent a lot of time practicing that. We played primarily a lot of man- to- man, or a man- to- man trapping defense, not very much 2-3 zone. It was my least favorite defense, and we didn’t play a lot of that. Defense was my biggest priority. I think we did a good job. When I say defense, I don’t just mean man-to- man or each player was good defensively, but we really worked on the team concept of man-to-man defense. We spent a lot of time with that in practice. Offensively I had some structure. We worked really hard on having some structure. We also worked hard on having a team concept, team practiced fast breaks, so that was a big part of our philosophy as well. We worked on a lot of fast break offense, but we also had some structure to what we were doing offensively. We spent a lot of practice time on that too. Defense was a priority, but I thought we paid attention to some other details as well.”
One of my final interviews for The Engineers was with Coach Bill Russell who guided the Riverside Boys Basketball Team when I was a player at Hutch-Tech. I didn’t know much about the Frontiersman besides their clinching the Yale Cup title by beating us my sophomore year. Coach Russell turned out to be a student of the game and a basketball junkie like Coach Jones. He also cared about his players and wanted to make sure they had the best experience under his leadership.
Jermaine ‘J-Bird’ Skillon, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“I used to go on the bus trips with them when they would play in the holiday tournaments. I used to scrimmage with them. So, when I came in, Mr. Shae knew me. The seniors then, Kev Roberson, he was from my hood, so I knew them. Flash, I went to their tournaments, and I played with him, so I knew them. When I came in, Shae said, ‘There’s a new coach.’”
Jermaine ‘J-Bird’ Skillon played on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team for three years. He was a member of the Class of 1992 like Reverend Dion Frasier (discussed above). He’s the younger brother of Jerrold “Pep” Skillon discussed below. He played football and basketball and had lots of game on the basketball court. We didn’t overlap as teammates. You’ll have to read my story to learn about that but talking to him was valuable. It gave me a balanced perspective of the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team under Coach Jones’ watch, like Quincy Lee’s account. It wasn’t always necessarily the utopia that I thought it was when looking on from the bleachers.
Jerrold ‘Pep’ Skillon, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“Hey, I have a quick question for you. Did you watch John Calipari’s 30 for 30 on ESPN? Well, what he said made sense. Sacrifice so your brother can succeed too. How can you be mad? If everybody wins off of it – I thought that was big when I saw that from Calipari. That does make sense. How many players felt like I held it back? But again, you sacrificed to win, and you sacrificed so your brother can receive. That’s what makes LeBron good. LeBron is unselfish to a fault. There’s no question he’s the best player out there, but he wants to see his teammates succeed, and that gives them the confidence to certain things to help them win. Don’t get me wrong. I get it if people think they could’ve don’t better. I get it. I get it. Would I sacrifice that senior year to have a better individual career and to go to a better school? HELL naw, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I don’t know about them. I wouldn’t.”
Arguably the most fun of all the interviews I conducted was that which Jerrold ‘Pep’ Skillon. Pep was a key piece of the 1990-91 Yale Cup and Class B sectional championship teams. Like his brother, he was a two-sport athlete (football and basketball). You could hear the enthusiasm about those times in Pep’s voice throughout our discussion. In this excerpt from our discussion, Pep shared a little-known secret in athletics and life. In many instances, you must give to get. In this context, winning in basketball involves buying into the team concept and sacrificing for your brothers. The stars on most teams all learned this at one point or another.
Christain J. Souter, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“When I went to college, I played Division III at the Coast Guard Academy. I didn’t play varsity, but instead played on the equivalent of our JV squad. We played against a bunch of junior colleges and prep schools. I’ll say that I was able to shoot the ball a lot more. I look back though, and I think if we were able to play defense like we did in high school, we would’ve been able to keep up with a bunch of those teams. So, shooting the ball wasn’t always the best policy. I would’ve liked to have scored more, but from a personal thing, I valued winning over scoring. If I could’ve scored, I might’ve finished my career 10 points a game my senior year. If I scored 15 and it takes points from someone else or leaves time on the clock – I’d rather win than get mine, and I still think some guys, they also wanted to win too, but they wanted to get theirs. And that’s a hard thing to balance when they’re 15, 16 or 17 years old.”
No. 44 Chris Souter was a member of the Class of 1992. He was one of the seniors my sophomore year on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. In opinion, he was part of the glue that held our 1991-92 team together. In our interview he had many insightful things to say about his time playing under Coach Ken Jones. Like most of Coach Jones’ players, he teaches the same lessons and drills to his kids. This excerpt from our interview goes back to the principle of sacrificing for the team to win. He further discussed the complexities of getting a group of teenagers to buy into a common vision, especially today.
Darris Thomas, Player, Niagara Falls Senior High School
“We had motion. We had plays. He would draw it up but think about it (Coach Vazanni). The key thing in anything is adjustments because when you run a play for four quarters, they know it and they adjust. He meant well, but he wasn’t a good adjuster. When the defense adjusted, he didn’t have the smarts to adjust like Pat Monti. You knew Carlos (Bradberry) was the guy and you came out with a box and one on Carlos. Guess what, he specialized in getting Carlos open still (laughing). He didn’t just say, ‘Carlos is locked up, so we’ll go to Tim or Jody. No, I’m going to free Carlos up. I don’t care if you have a box and one. You know what I mean? That was the difference in Pat Monti. He was more daring, ‘Okay. You think you’re going to stop me, but I’m going to draw something up!’ So, what did he do? He brought Carlos off two or three screens. I remember. A box and one, you have to get through two to three screens and by that time, the defender is tired. Just strategies.”
My research for The Engineers revealed that Niagara Falls was a breeding ground for great basketball players. It turned out that LaSalle and Niagara Falls Senior High Schools had a Duke vs North Carolina-type of rivalry. LaSalle won most of those matchups, but the games were like wars. All the kids knew each other and competed in the Biddy Leagues. Darris Thomas starred for the Power Cats while I was at Hutch-Tech. His opinion was that the teams weren’t very different talent-wise. The difference was that LaSalle had Coach Pat Monti who both loved the game and cared about his kids. It wasn’t that way at every school.
Charles ‘Chuck’ Thompson, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“He knew what he wanted. You had to work hard. It was natural for us because we already had good skills and just needed to be molded into that direction in which we needed to go. It was a way of weeding out the players from the not so good players, but more so for us, especially me, Pep, Curt and Quincy. We already had that background in terms of being good players. We just needed that right connection in terms of putting us all together and Coach Jones had that.”
The 6’5” Chuck Thompson was the center for the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. He also attended Campus West for grade school and was a two-sport guy (football and basketball). He led the 1990-91 Engineers in rebounding and described himself as the “black hole”. When the ball was thrown into the post to him, it wasn’t coming back out. Chris Souter recalled how Thompson was clutch from the free throw line and had a soft touch for a bigger guy. In this excerpt from our interview, he discussed how Coach Jones effectively molded their group into a winner.
Dennis Wilson, Player, Turner/Carroll High School and Riverside High School
“Nah, he wasn’t a yeller (Coach Fajri Ansari). He would yell, but he wasn’t a – Faj is a good guy, I really can’t say – he was a good coach. We always kind of – and I don’t know if this is a public school thing or an African American thing, but we always had problems with St. Joe’s because we didn’t understand the Xs and Os of basketball. They were good athletes – they were probably as good athletically – we were probably a little bit more athletic, but they just understood the game. They just understood the game period. There’s a lot of fine details you have to understand as you go along in any art. Like blogging, I’m sure there’s some dos and some don’ts in terms of techniques that you use, and once you understood those, you became a better blogger. Some people just have the gift of writing, but they still have to learn the process and the craft, and for a lot of basketball players, they understand how to play, but the mental aspect of it, you have to learn and for some reason, we’re just a little bit slow in learning those things.”
Dennis Wilson played at both Turner/Carroll and Riverside High Schools. As such, he got to experience high school basketball in both a private school and a public school. In this excerpt from our interview, Dennis discussed the importance of understanding basketball as a craft. He observed that the teams at Turner/Carroll frequently struggled with the perennial power St. Joe’s. Because St. Joe’s was always proficient in terms of Xs and Os, they were able regularly best more athletic teams.
Tim Winn, Player, LaSalle Senior High School
“We all grew up playing in the Biddy League, so you were already cool with these guys. So the transition to being their teammate on the Varsity was seamless, because we were already like brothers. I lived two houses down from Carlos when I was in high school. Before I became a varsity player, I was at his house everyday playing video games. That’s the environment we were in – most of the guys who played varsity hung out together. You grew up playing against the older kids, and a lot of those guys were the older kids. So to become their teammate was almost expected, and that we would all eventually play together.”
As described in my discussion about Darris Thomas above, most of the players at LaSalle and Niagara Falls Senior High Schools knew each other before they got to high school. They not only knew each other’s games, but they also knew each other personally. This created an increased camaraderie and chemistry later. In this excerpt from our discussion, Tim Winn discussed knowing Carlos Bradberry before getting to LaSalle. This probably had something to do with the immediate success experienced once joining the Explorers that winter of 1992.
The Pictures Used In This Offering
The pictures used in this offering come from several different sources. Some came from the late Coach Ken Jones. This project wouldn’t have been possible without the vast basketball records he kept. Some pictures came from Coach Pat Monti. At least one came from Laura Lama, a classmate from Hutch-Tech high school who still had all her yearbooks. Some came from my own records. It wasn’t clear what pictures to use and as you can see the final lineup is an assortment of pictures of players, box scores and visuals from some of Coach Jones’ materials. Some are location shots from Western New York.
Just like the players and coaches I interviewed, the pictures are a snapshot of that time and era in the Western New York high school basketball scene. I think this is appropriate because my book project, The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story is just one story in the entire fabric of that time. Likewise, during that time, I looked around and saw other players teams either excelling or going through the same struggles I experienced (or some mixture of the two) during my own unique journey.
While I attempted to give each interviewee a picture that related to them, I also sprinkled in pictures of other notable players of the time whom I didn’t interview. Some of them include Fredonia’s No. 24 Mike Heary, Kenmore East’s No. 22 Mike O’Bryan and Cleveland Hill’s No. 23 Carlton Holder. The thumbnail for this piece is Cardinal O’Hara’s No. 12 Ryan Cochran whose team went on its own magical run during my senior year. Interestingly, I hadn’t heard of Cardinal O’Hara High School until that year. This offering also features the first image of myself that I’ve used in any of these writings. Can you identify me?
The opening excerpt/quote for this piece comes from Coach Samuel ‘Quinn’ Coffey. I highlighted it because I think captures the essence of my book project and life itself. One of the ingredients to being successful in the great game of basketball is hard work. Depending upon your circumstance and situation, your hard work could go unrecognized. You must figure out how to push forward though. And just because your work is unrecognized in that moment, it doesn’t mean it always will be. It also doesn’t mean that it won’t pay off at some point.
Thank you again to the other coaches, players and teammates who shared your stories with me. This project would not have been possible without you. This was a long process, and with each interview I gained the strength to keep going and resolved within myself that I was doing the right thing.
More Related Content
I’ve created other promotional/teaser pieces for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story, both via print and video as I journey through the final steps of completing the book. I created a page here on Big Words Authors for the purpose of giving a background of the book and grouping all the promotional pieces such as this in one place for interested readers. On my first blogging platform, the Big Words Blog Site, there are interviews with some the most accomplished Section VI players from my era including Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach, Pat Monti. Finally, there are several other basketball-related essays related to my book project. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and leave a comment beneath this piece.
The Big Words LLC Newsletter
For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Your personal information and privacy will be protected. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. You can also email me at [email protected] to register as well. Regards.
“As a freshman, I’m sitting on the bench watching Ritchie and Damon Rand go at it at Burgard, and he has the flu. He literally gives us 38 points and he’s falling and coughing and laying out. This dude literally put up 38 points on us and he’s got the flu!”
This story is another promotional piece for my book project entitled, “The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story”. One of the bases for my story is the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team and their magical run. In my freshman year at the school, they won our city league, the “Yale Cup”, 13-0. They then won the Section VI Class B sectional and came within one game of a berth in the state final four in Glens Falls. It was amazing to witness. There were many more stories surrounding the Yale Cup and Section VI basketball however. Only those who were a part of them, witnessed them, or did the research would know them.
Depending on your vantage point, what the 1990-91 Engineers did wasn’t that big a deal. In terms of public schools, the former LaSalle Explorers, and the Buffalo Traditional Bulls, were regular visitors to the state tournament in Glens Falls. St. Joseph’s Collegiate High School (St. Joe’s), in the “Mognsinor Martin” league was regularly the team to beat amongst the private schools in our area. From my vantage point at the time though, what the Engineers did was a big deal, and I dreamt of being just like them. Whether that got done is a different story. For those curious to know, what happened is revealed in my book project.
One of the pieces I’ve published reflected on the Yale Cup, its history and some of its most notable players. One player whom I highlighted was Ritchie Campbell who played at Burgard Vocational High School. Even before setting out to write The Engineers, I’d heard of the legend of Burgard’s No. 13, Ritchie Campbell but never saw him play in person.
There might have been murmurings of Ritchie from the Class of 1992 seniors our 1991-92 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team my sophomore year. They saw him play and shared the court with him. Interestingly though, I didn’t start hearing about him in a meaningful way until graduating from Hutch-Tech, a recurring theme in my book.
It was at the SUNY College at Brockport. During my one year there, there were several other former Yale Cup players whom I befriended. I played intramural basketball with some of them. One was former Kensington “Knight”, Samuel “Quinn” Coffey, who went on to coach both boys and girls himself in the Baltimore area. He, along with everyone else who saw Ritchie Campbell play, spoke of him like a God.
He Could Do Whatever He Wanted To On The Basketball Court
“I saw Ritchie play and saw why they said he should’ve gone to the NBA,” said Adrian Baugh. No. 30 Adrian Baugh was one the unsung heroes on Jason Rowe and Damien Foster’s great early 1990s Buffalo Traditional Bulls teams. Everyone said these types of things about Ritchie Campbell. Personally, I’ve only seen clips of him playing here and there on video, in addition to hearing about his play through word of mouth. Thanks to the scrapbooks created by my first coach at Hutch-Tech, the late Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, I was able to read up on Campbell’s playing days.
He originally played high school basketball at a Catholic school which no longer exists called “DeSales”. My research for The Engineers revealed that there was a whole lineup of private schools in our area in the 1970s and 1980s that closed over the years due to the declining economics of the region. Aside from DeSales, other schools that closed included “Cardinal Doherty” and “Father Baker”. My late cousin, Al Richardson, played for Father Baker and was a star on the basketball court.
Burgard’s Dynamic Duo
“Ritchie and Marcus (pictured above) were the two guys I’d always hear about in the seventh grade when I started playing for LaSalle. Those dudes were amazing!” During my research, I learned that Ritchie Campbell’s legend reached up to nearby Niagara Falls into the LaSalle basketball dynasty (and probably beyond). One of the players on the Explorers’ Mt. Rushmore of great guards, No. 50 Carlos Bradberry noted hearing about Campbell’s brilliance starting in middle school.
Ritchie Campbell eventually enrolled at Burgard Vocational High School where he teamed up with No. 32 Marcus “Ice Cream” Whitfield. Ice Cream is also considered a legend. The tandem wreaked havoc in the Yale Cup and Section VI under Coach Don Brusky for two to three years. During the 1987-88 season, they led the Bulldogs out to Glens Falls and into the Class C State Final Four. They finished their careers on the All-Western New York First Team. Both had the abilities to play far beyond the Yale Cup, but ran into personal difficulties off the court.
Elite Basketball Company
In my first year on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team we made the Class B-1 section final. There we all complimentary sectional programs recognizing all the playoff participants. In the back of the book, Section VI captured the all-time Western New York scoring leaders courtesy of the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington. That was the 1991-92 season.
I’m certain the records and rankings have changed since then with all the players who have competed over the years. In any case, at that time, the number one and two players were Ritchie Campbell and Marcus Whitfield with 2,355 and 2,285 points respectively. The rest of the list was a who’s who of Western New York high school basketball with names including: Christian Laettner (Nichols), Damone James (Turner/Carroll), Ray Hall (McKinley) and Eric Eberz (St. Joe’s), again to name a few.
Hearing About Ritchie’s Legend Late
If it sounds strange that I had lofty dreams of repeating our 1990-91 team’s successes but didn’t learn about players like Ritchie Campbell until after the fact, this underlies one of the key threads in my story. That is I’ve learned that our lives are often a matter of circumstance. I would’ve jumped at the chance to go to the high school games and learn about Section VI basketball while I was in middle school. Unfortunately though no one in my ecosystem was there to point me in that direction. Had I seen players like Campbell play early on for myself, it would’ve shaped me as a player.
Another key piece to this puzzle is that Coach Jones, my first coach at Hutch-Tech, didn’t talk about players like Ritchie Campbell much. I suspect it was because he didn’t like or teach the isolation/one on one, street-style of basketball. He taught us a disciplined style on both end of the floor. Likewise exposing us younger players to phenoms like Ritchie Campbell might’ve been counterproductive. I’m just speculating here though.
Everyone Spoke of Ritchie with Reverence
In working on these promotional essays for The Engineers, I’ve stated that I’ve interviewed 30-40 players. Going through my notes I realized that many of my interviewees mentioned Campbell in their stories. In addition to Adrian Baugh’s and Carlos Bradberry’s comments above, the following are excerpts from my interviews where Ritchie’s legend came up.
Ryan Cochrane, Player, Cardinal O’Hara High School
“I’ve got a funny story about Ritchie Campbell. I didn’t know Ritchie at all. After getting on the Dewey Park team, Coach Dean would talk about him all the time, ‘Ritchie Campbell, Ritchie Campbell, Ritchie Campbell.’ I would say, ‘Who is this guy Ritchie Campbell?’ He took me to go watch Ritchie Campbell. He said, ‘Ritchie Campbell is going to score 50 points in this game.’ I think he had 15 points at half time, and I said there’s no way this guy scores 50 points and I think Ritchie wound up scoring 45 points in the second half which got him around 60 points.
“They would say, ‘Oh, Ritchie would dog you,’ and I’d say, ‘Ritchie can’t beat me.’ So, one day Coach Dean called Ritchie and we drove to this gym to play one on one. We got there and the gym was closed. So that’s a running joke to this day.”
Damien Foster, Player, Buffalo Traditional High School
“You had no choice but to study the players before you. I heard about Ritchie Campbell and I saw him play one time. That was when him and Trevor Ruffin went head-to-head in “The Randy”, the Randy Smith League. I was young. I want to say 13 years old maybe. But I remember that game. I just remember seeing Ritchie come down and just ‘letting it fly’ – two steps across half court and just letting it fly. I was like, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’ Ritchie Campbell never really came through the Boys Club. Neither did ‘Ice Cream’ (Marcus Whitfield). They played more so downtown. They were down at ’Live at Five’.”
Dion Frasier, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“I think we went 3-15. It was miserable in the sense that you never want to be part of a losing team. That was the year – I played against Ritchie Campbell, Marcus Whitfield – we played Burgard at home that year and I think we lost by 60 points (laughing). Man, these cats – Ritchie was throwing it off the backboard and ‘Ice Cream’ was catching it and dunking it. They KILLED us!”
Ed Harris, Player, Riverside High School
“I met Ritchie my freshman year. I didn’t know Ritchie like that, and I don’t know Ritchie that well to this day. But shit, as a freshman, I’m sitting on the bench watching him and Damon Rand go at it at Burgard and he has the flu (Ritchie). He literally gives us 38 points and he’s falling and coughing and laying out. I’m like, this dude literally put 38 points up on us and he’s got the flu. He could barely run around and I’m like, this guy is amazing. I’m looking at Ritchie – the way he can just shoot and command the game – as a young boy I’m looking with a star struck look at him like, this dude is unbelievable.”
Reggie Hokes, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“Yes, I knew I wanted to play varsity basketball right away. I knew about Ritchie Campbell, Cliff Robinson and those guys, and I heard about Christian Laettner. I was familiar with Trevor Ruffin because we had a park called 75 and they would come down and play and they’d call it “Live at 75”, and they used to have games down there – Ritchie and all of them would have summer league games. Ritchie actually stayed around the corner from me. He stayed in the Willard Park Projects about five blocks from where I stayed on Emslie.”
Frankie Harris, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“I think my best game a was a game we lost to Bennett at the buzzer. I think I had 19 points. Another good game was in my senior year against Burgard and we lost that one too. Ritchie Campbell was player of the year. I remember that being a good tough close game. I remember he made some free throws at the end. We played good. I remember Curt played real good against him.”
Quincy Lee, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“We got destroyed by ‘Ice Cream’ our sophomore year, I believe. They destroyed us, but junior year, we were actually in that Burgard game until the end. I got benched the whole game and he (Coach Jones) asked me to go in with 20 to 30 seconds left and he asked me to go in to shoot threes to try to win the game. I didn’t get a shot off, but that’s how that game went and it was that close – a couple of three-pointers and we would’ve won. Ritchie was good and I believe at that point, it was the last game that we lost because junior year. We couldn’t afford to lose another game, because it would’ve been our seventh loss and we had to win the last two.”
Jason Rowe, Player, Buffalo Traditional High School
“Locally, I looked up to my uncle, Trevor Ruffin, and Ritchie Campbell. I looked at them and felt like I could do something. They were guys I could watch every day in a ‘hands on’ type of way. I grew up watching those guys so I idolized Ritchie, Nigel Bostic, and Marcus Whitfield. I vaguely remember Ray Hall. My experience with him was in the summer leagues. But as far as the big-name guys who were in the Yale Cup, I knew them because my cousin, James, was eight years older than me. So, he grew up in that era and took me to those games because he played at Lafayette. I was able to get my experience watching those games as well.”
Christain J. Souter, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“So, freshman year I played anytime we were getting blown out. I think coach did set up a couple of scrimmages, but I can’t recall any of that or any detail on that. Mostly it was, you would go play these guys and you go out to Burgard and there was Ritchie Campbell, and he’s still in the game and they’re up by 30 and he’s getting his points. Here comes the skinny white kid out there and it’s me, Dion and Mike, and everybody is trying to get into the score book and trying to get their first points and play defense; then you realize that you’ve got some different athleticism to deal with. Most of the time as freshman it was garbage time. That is what it is, I guess.”
Dennis Wilson, Player, Turner/Carroll High School and Riverside High School
“No. You just read about them in the news at that time and see the ‘Super Seven’. I didn’t have transportation at that time, so I didn’t see Ritchie play really until Randy Smith, and then when I was at Turner, he actually came and practiced with us. Fajri knows everybody. Ritchie was out of school at that time, and he came one Saturday morning.
“That was obviously the highlight for a lot of us at the time. Him and Trev (Trevor Ruffin), I got to play with him at the Boys Club. This is when he was in Junior College in Hawaii and then I played against him a couple of times when he was a pro, so I got to see what a pro player looked like. Coach Russell at Riverside knew basketball. He was a great historian. We went over his house on winter breaks. We got pizza and we’d be watching old clips of Cliff and Ritchie and everything. I don’t know if he was the head coach with Cliff, but I think he was on the staff.”
Tim Winn, Player, LaSalle Senior High School
“I remember Ritchie Campbell coming to Niagara Falls to play against Modie (Cox) in an All-Star game. That was the first time ever seeing him play. I was in awe because he was one of those rare talents that you never see come through your area. From that point it made me pay attention. I wondered, what else was happening in Buffalo? It made you start paying attention to things outside of your neighborhood. Modie was a pure point guard – a pure leader, and I thought Ritchie was the kind of player who could just do anything. I don’t think there wasn’t anything Ritchie couldn’t do as a basketball player. He could shoot and make it from half court, and his ability to get assists was just as effective.”
Other Yale Cup Phenoms I Learned About Through Their Legends
It’s worth noting that Ritchie is just one of many Yale Cup legends, many of which I didn’t learn about until after I was finished playing. I played against the above-mentioned Damien Foster and Jason Rowe. Trevor Ruffin, Jason Rowe’s “big brother” and mentor’s name came up in numerous discussions as well, and if I had time, I could arguably write a piece on him. He was one of the few Yale Cup players to make it to the NBA. The former Bennett Tiger did it by way of the University of Hawaii.
There was also Campbell’s backcourt mate Marcus “Ice Cream” Whitfield. I coincidentally met Marcus recently at a cigar lounge in Maryland. Buffalo is a small city so you can quickly distill out a person’s history when meeting them. He was surprised that I knew of his and Ritchie’s legend.
I had never heard of him (a recurring theme), but McKinley’s Ray Hall came up in a discussion with a former Niagara University “Purple Eagle” player named Greg. It was at a gym in northern Virginia. He wasn’t from Western New York, but Ray Hall made so much noise on the court at McKinley that the area college players heard his name regularly. There was also Bennett’s Curtis Aiken, and then later Cliff Robinson from Riverside. Mark Price was another Riverside alum who made lots of noise after I graduated from Hutch-Tech, and I think went to play at Siena. I describe others in my Yale Cup piece.
Unlike Benji Wilson, Ritchie Campbell is still amongst the living, and I saw him a couple of years ago. It was Saturday, November 24, 2018. I had just come from the Buffalo Wild Wings Restaurant on Niagara Falls Boulevard. There I watched my Michigan Wolverines lose once again to the Ohio State Buckeyes in a lopsided game 62-39, which we were favored to win.
Afterwards the Park School hosted the University College High School from Rochester. Carlos Bradberry’s son, Jalen, transferred to the Park School and started for them. That night he treated us to one of the nastiest dunks I’ve ever seen.
On this particular play he advanced the ball up the floor with only one Rochester kid to beat. The kid mischievously shook his head looking to stop Jalen from scoring as both converged on the basket. They both rose up to the basket. Jalen leapt up off one foot and authoritatively slammed the ball through the basket on the kid causing the entire gym to erupt. I looked down for a brief second, but still caught most of it.
The Legend Walks In
Bishop Timon’s Head Coach and Buffalo Traditional legend, Jason Rowe, was there in the crowd among others. Later in the game, Ritchie Campbell walked in. We had never met, but I recognized him immediately. He was a little older and graying just like all the guys in our age group. He wore a bit of a beard and athletic gear, a sweatshirt, and jeans, I think. I looked on in awe, and everyone greeted him like the royalty he was.
After pondering it, I approached him, gave him my card, and asked to interview him. He smiled and thanked me for the compliments I gave him. He probably got asked for interviews all the time. We never talked afterwards which wasn’t surprising. After all, who was this scientist from out of town wanting to interview him and claiming to write a book? I got to shake his hand though and acknowledge his legend.
Burgard’s Next Great Guard after Ritchie: A Biblical Prophet’s Namesake
My research for The Engineers, revealed that years before Ritchie Campbell and Marcus Whitfield teamed up at Burgard, there was another duo. My uncle Anthony “Tony” Harris teamed up with Eugene Roberson for the Bulldogs in the 1960s. Shortly after Ritchie Campbell finished at Burgard, there was a guard-big man duo who teamed up in the red, white and blue. They were No. 11 Jeremiah Wilkes and the 6’7” No. 55 Shareef Beecher.
The pair coincidentally ended my middle school basketball team’s season my eighth-grade year at Campus West in the “Gold Dome Tournament”. They also both joined the 1,000-point club in my final Yale Cup game at Burgard my senior year. I don’t know that Jeremiah got the notoriety that the other great Yale Cup guards got, but those of us from that era remember him and his game. I wanted to acknowledge him in this piece.
Ritchie had that ‘Mike’ in Him!
“I saw Ritchie for the first time when I was a freshman! There were a lot of talented kids in Buffalo who didn’t leave, like Ritchie!” In addition to our talks at SUNY Brockport, Ritchie’s name came up again in my interview with the above-mentioned Coach Samuel “Quinn” Coffey decades later for my book. He saw Campbell play when his Kensington Knights, coached by Bob Mitchell (see my Yale Cup piece) matched up with the Burgard Bulldogs in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“He (Ritchie) and Damon Rand had one of the best halves of basketball I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m going back to how they traded three-pointers back-to back-to back. Ritchie would come down and hit a three. Damon would come down and hit a three and get fouled,” Riverside’s Ed Harris said reflecting on witnessing Ritchie Campbell play for the first time. “It was literally high school basketball at its finest at that time and I was like, ‘I’m really in the right spot!’
“Ritchie had that ‘Mike’ in him because he could put that ball in the hoop. He definitely could put it in the hoop! My first time seeing him play was in the Pepsi Tournament when he had – it was him and the Pat dude – I can’t remember his name (Pat Jones). He threw the Pat dude an alley-oop and I was like, ‘OH!’”
Closing Thoughts on Ritchie Campbell’s Legend
Throughout this essay I hyperlinked Ritchie’s name to a feature from WGRZ in Buffalo which is still online. It goes into Ritchie’s entire story on and off the court. It also discusses the documentary that was made about him. In the feature it said that he had started coaching at one of the local high schools. In fact, when Ritchie walked into the game at the Park School, I recall one of my teammates from Hutch-Tech addressing him as “Coach”.
When I think of Ritchie Campbell, I think about a lot of things. In addition to not witnessing his brilliance as a basketball player, I think about the importance of studying your craft. No matter what you set out to do, it’s important to know the history of what you’re doing. In this instance if you want to be a basketball player, you must know the history of basketball. This applies beyond the basketball court though. It applies to business, music, politics, etc.
Studying your craft and knowing the history of it. It’s a theme that personally applied to my science training as my graduate advisor at the University of Michigan reminded me of it repeatedly. It’s also a key them in my book The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Thank you for reading this piece. If you have memories of Ritchie Campbell or thoughts on anything I’ve said, please leave a comment under this essay.
More Related Content
Thank you for reading this piece. The images used in this essay came from an archive of Section VI basketball, carefully assembled over the years from issues of the Buffalo News. This archive was created by my first Coach at Hutch-Tech High School, Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones. Coach Jones was a mentor, a father figure, and is a central in my story. None of this would’ve been possible without him.
I intend to create more promotional/teaser pieces for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story both via print and video as I journey through the final steps of the book’s completion. I created a page here on Big Words Authors for the purpose of giving a background of the book and grouping all the promotional narratives such as this in one place for interested readers. On my first blogging platform, the Big Words Blog Site, there are interviews with some the most accomplished Section VI players from my era including: Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach Pat Monti. Finally, there are several other basketball-related essays related to my book project. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and feel free to leave a comment.
The Big Words LLC Newsletter
For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Your personal information and privacy will be protected. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. If there is an issue with the form, you can also email me at [email protected] . Regards.
“But then years later when Clifford was retired from the NBA, the kids at Riverside didn’t even know who he was. I was shocked at that. The kids so much are living in the present. Players from two or three years ago, it seems like it’s of no interest to them. More today’s players.”
One of the most powerful aspects of conducting interviews is that you get to hear multiple points of view. In doing so you get to hear commonalities to your own experiences, and differences with others. There were several recurring themes in my interviews for The Engineers such as playing at Delaware Park, the conditions we played in within the Yale Cup league of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the importance of coaches who genuinely cared about the players. Certain names came up consistently including Ritchie Campbell and Marcus “Ice Cream” Whitfield (Burgard), Trevor Ruffin (Bennett) and finally, Cliff Robinson (Riverside), to whom this piece is dedicated.
I decided to write this narrative after the final interview for The Engineers. It was with one of Cliff Robinson’s coaches at Riverside High School, Coach Bill Russell, who coached the Riverside “Frontiersman” during my time at Hutch-Tech. Under Coach Russell’s leadership, the Frontiersman led by players including Ed Harris, Billy Nelson and Walter Gravely won the Yale Cup and the Class C sectional in 1992.
Ours was a fun interview which lasted two hours. During which Coach Russell, a true student of the game like my coach, Ken Jones, mentioned Cliff Robinson regularly. Throughout my research Coach Russell was the only one to refer to Cliff as “Clifford”. This essay is going to thus revisit my memories of the late Cliff Robinson as a distant onlooker, as well as present excerpts from players who remembered him, and one of his coaches.
My Memories of Cliff Robinson
Just like Christian Laettner who went on to become a superstar at Duke University from Western New York before playing in the NBA, I didn’t learn about Cliff Robinson until he was drafted by the NBA’s “Rip City” Portland “Trailblazers” team. That 1989-90 season he was a rookie on a veteran laden team with players including Clyde ‘The Glide’ Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, Terry Porter and Kevin Duckworth. They were a fun team to watch.
Coach Rick Adelman’s Trailblazers made it all the way to the NBA Finals that season before falling to the Detroit Pistons in five games, a ‘back-to-back’ championship for the Pistons, “The Bad Boys”. I vividly remember Robinson wearing the No. 3, flying down the lane in the open court dunking the ball with authority that season and in the playoffs. As time went on, he developed his entire game and began regularly shooting the ball from beyond the three-point arc.
Also etched into my memory is Cliff looking on painfully in the background wearing a red headband, as Michael Jordan trotted up the court with his palms in the air acting confused about his iconic Game 2 offensive performance. It was the 1992 NBA Finals, and he was in the process of burying the Trailblazers with a barrage of three-pointers. The Chicago Bulls went on to win that series in six games.
From Riverside to UConn
As described in The Engineers, I didn’t discover the Western New York high school basketball scene until I got into high school and was attempting to make the team there. So, I missed seeing players like the above-mentioned Christian Laettner, Cliff Robinson, and a host of others. Cliff wore No. 53 for the Riverside Frontiersman and was a key factor in their successes in the 1980s. His final year, the 1984-85 season, he earned All-Western New York honors at Riverside. I likewise missed Cliff’s career at the University of Connecticut (UConn) where he was credited with helping to put the school’s basketball program on the map. There he wore No. 00.
Cliff started his professional basketball career with the above-mentioned Portland Trailblazers, but he played for numerous clubs. I think one of Cliff Robinson’s final stops in the NBA was coincidentally with the above-mentioned Detroit Pistons in the early 2000s. He was a veteran in the league at that point and played for several teams over his 18-year career. I was in graduate school at the nearby University of Michigan so his getting signed by the Pistons had a special significance for me. It was a few years before the 2004 season when the Pistons assembled their next championship unit, and they were cycling veterans on and off the team, trying to find that right chemistry.
“It’s time to say goodbye to Uncle Cliffy!” I’ll always remember the famous sportswriter, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, declaring his opinion that it was time for the Pistons to move on from Cliff. The 2002-03 season was his last one with the Pistons. From there he made stops in Golden State, Toronto, and New Jersey (now the Brooklyn Nets). I had stopped following the NBA closely by the time he retired, and the next time I recall hearing his name was when he died late in the summer of 2020. It turns out that he passed away at age 53 from lymphoma, and not Covid-19.
Stories about Cliff Robinson from My Research
As described when I conducted interview after interview for The Engineers, Robinson’s name continuously came up. The following are excerpts from my interviews where Cliff was mentioned.
Ryan Cochran, Player, Cardinal O’Hara High School
“There was talk about Cliff Robinson. My stepmom was friends with him, and I still remember him pulling up in his black sports car, cheesing ear to ear. We wound up going to Delaware Park and playing a couple of games there. I couldn’t believe that I was playing with a caliber of player of Cliff Robinson, a legend in Buffalo.”
Ed Harris, Player, Riverside High School
“I cried when Michael Jordan retired, but as far as local talent, Trevor Ruffin was the guy that I loved to guard. Trevor brought the best out of me. Going up to Delaware Park – they were some of the best battles that you could ever have playing in the city of Buffalo. Guys like Trevor, Cliff (Robinson) would come back and play, and just the battles and all the kids and players who were in college at that time, they were just some of the best battles.”
Frankie Harris, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“From my junior to senior year, I was playing with those guys and they dogged me out, but that’s how you got better! Cliff Robinson used to come to the park and he and his brothers could play too. Nigel Bostic, Leonard Russell – all those guys could play, and I could only get better because I’m playing against them every day. I see kids today, they don’t have that, especially in Buffalo, kids are running the streets and there’s too much other stuff going on.”
Keith Hearon, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“First, Cliff Robinson, his sister used to live on the street after me. His sister was a big baller, so I used to go over their house to hoop in the back yard and she used to come down and play and talk about him. My uncles used to talk about him.”
Reggie Hokes, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“Yes, I knew I wanted to play varsity basketball right away. I knew about Ritchie Campbell and Cliff Robinson, all those guys. Also I had heard about Christian Laettner. I was familiar with Trevor Ruffin because we had a park called 75 and they would come down and play and they’d call it ‘Live at 75’, and they used to have games down there – Ritchie and all of them would have summer league games.”
Earl Holmes, Player, Hutch-Tech High School
“I actually knew about them because Cliff Robinson lived on my street. In the summertime he used to take me to Roosevelt Park in Langfield to play with him and his sister. I used to play with them all the time. They lived three houses down from me! That’s my guy right there.”
Bill Russell, Coach, Riverside High School
“We had previously had some talented players. That team Clifford Robinson was on, that was a talented team. We had the unfortunate destiny of seeming to have to play Lackawanna every year. We played them several times and Lackawanna was a legendary and successful program. There were several state championships and then a few years later there was a Niagara Falls team that seemed to overpower teams. And we seemed to have to play Lackawanna in those years, several times in the sectionals. We lost to a very strong Lackawanna team. We might’ve won a state title that year. Despite having Clifford, we lost in the first round. Lackawanna would always be seeded No. 1 and undefeated!”
Dennis Wilson, Player, Turner/Carroll High School and Riverside High School
“Oh, absolutely. He knew basketball (Coach Russell). He was a great historian. We went over to his house on winter breaks. We got pizza and we’d be watching old clips of Cliff and Ritchie (Campbell) and everything. I don’t know if he was the head coach with Cliff, but I think he was on the staff.”
My Brother’s Cliff Robinson Story
On my sports YouTube channel, Big Discussions76 Sports, I recorded a voice-over video shortly after Cliff died in 2020 (embedded below). Sometimes when you record things, you listen to the playback and you realize that you misspoke. Or someone points it out to you. My brother, Amahl, had a funny story about Cliff. It involved when Cliff Robinson and his family visited the Homestyle Family Buffett. It was in Tonawanda, NY on Niagara Falls Boulevard in the early 1990s.
Legend has it that my brother, who worked at the restaurant (his first job), approached Robinson for an autograph. The 6’10” star replied, “I’m eating!” The story makes me laugh every time. If you check out that video, I state that my brother approached Robinson for an interview. He quickly corrected me in that it was an autograph. Robinson’s reaction was not surprising. Athletes, celebrities and entertainers often get approached and may tire of it. Cliff was a big deal for Buffalo kids like us at the time who did not know him growing up. It was likewise a big deal to see him anywhere around the city.
An Addendum Discussing Cliff’s Business Activities Post Retirement
When I originally published this piece, I was unfamiliar with how Cliff spent his years between his retirement from the NBA and his death. This essay received a lot of engagement/support in some of the basketball groups in Facebook that I’m a member of. There one of the other members pointed out that like many retired professional athletes, Cliff entered the realm of entrepreneurship.
Specifically, his interests were in the cannabis industry where he started a company called “Uncle Cliffy”. He partnered with a company called “Pistil Point Cannabis” out in the Portland area where he started his professional career. He was particularly passionate about increasing awareness that players could use marijuana-related products medicinally to help them through injuries for example. Robinson controversially used marijuana during this NBA career admittedly for anxiety, and to increase his personal focus. This conflicted with league policy.
Final Thoughts on Cliff Robinson
This concludes my piece on Cliff Robinson. Going back to the images used in this piece, they’re all from the Buffalo News. You’ll notice that he was pictured a couple of times with another notable Robinson, Grover Cleveland’s Keith Robinson. To my knowledge the two weren’t related. They were both notable players in the Yale Cup and Section VI at that time though. They were both taller front court players and went on to play major Division I basketball. As described, Cliff went on to UConn and Keith went on to Notre Dame shortly afterwards.
The opening quote for this piece was from Coach Bill Russell who had nothing but fond memories of Cliff. If you have memories about Cliff, whether they be from Buffalo, UConn, or the NBA, please feel free to share them below this essay. By the way, Buffalo is admittedly a small city, but it’s interesting how many of these stories led back to Riverside High School which, by the way, is my mother’s alma mater. There are excerpts from my discussion with Coach Russell throughout this piece. I’m going to conclude this essay with on more which speaks to what Cliff accomplished at the professional level.
“Clifford grew up by the Erie County Medical Center (ECMC), near Delevan and Grider. Those are kids that grew up with us. Clifford played 18 years in the NBA, 18 years. Even for people in the city – Clifford is not really a hero in the city as much as I thought he would be,” Coach Russell said. “About a year ago, or two years ago, James Harden passed 20,000 points and they made a big deal out of it. Harden hits the 20,000-point mark.
“I made a little statement on Facebook. I said, ‘Harden just passed 20,000 points and exceeds Clifford Robinson’s total which was 19,950 or something.’ There were a bunch of follow up comments saying, ‘Oh, my God, I never knew that Clifford scored that many points in his career!’ That’s true because nobody knew how significant a player that he was. Because it’s a big deal when somebody scores 20,000 points in the NBA. Clifford never had 1,000 points in high school, but he almost got 20,000 points in the NBA. That’s crazy!”
Related Content to My Book Project and this Essay
Thank you for reading this piece looking back at Cliff Robinson. I’ve created other promotional/teaser print and video pieces for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. I’ve created a page here on Big Words Authors for the purpose of giving a background of the book. There I’ve grouped all the promotional pieces such as this in one place for interested readers. On the Big Words Blog Site, there are interviews of some of the most accomplished Section VI players from my era. They include: Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach, Pat Monti. Finally, there are several other basketball-related essays related to my book project. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and leave a comment beneath this piece.
The Big Words LLC Newsletter
For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter. It will be for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words and pieces from both my blogs. I will also share select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Your personal information and privacy will be protected. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. If there is an issue with the form, you also email me at [email protected] . Regards.
“Don’t get me wrong. I get it if people think they could’ve done better (individually). I get it. Would I sacrifice that senior year to have a better individual career and to go to a better school? HELL NAH! I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I don’t know about them. I wouldn’t!”
Some of the pictures used in this essay come from an archive of Section VI basketball. It was assembled over the years from issues of the Buffalo News by my first Coach at Hutch-Tech High School, Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones. Other pictures were taken from yearbooks from Hutch-Tech High School from the early 1990s. Coach Jones is discussed throughout this piece and is hyperlinked to a previous essay. Finally, a video about him from my sports YouTube channel is embedded at the end of this essay.
The Story Of The 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Varsity Basketball Team
“That was a great feeling being around a group of guys who played together and really liked being around each other!”
During my freshman year at Hutch-Tech High School, the 1990-91 Engineers went on a magical run winning our city league, the “Yale Cup” with a record of 13-0. They then marched through the Section VI Class B playoff bracket to win that championship. Their season ended one game short of a berth in the State Final Four in Glens Falls, NY, which I’ll discuss later. From my vantage point at the time, it was a very big deal. Afterwards I dreamt of doing what they did.
Interestingly, my research revealed multiple points of view on that magical season. It also revealed the significance of the 1990-91 team’s accomplishments relative to those of other Section VI teams of that era. In my book project, there is an entire bonus chapter dedicated to the 1990-91 Engineers. However, I also wanted to create a promotional/teaser piece just dedicated to them.
We Didn’t Do Anything That Spectacular! A Perspective On The Story
“When I heard you wanted to interview me, I was thinking, ‘Man, we weren’t a special team. We didn’t do anything that spectacular,’” said No. 13, Curtis Brooks (pictured above guarding Mike Mitchell of Williamsville South High School). He was the starting point guard and one of the leaders of the 1990-91 team. It was a summer-fall day when I interviewed him in downtown Washington, DC at L’ Enfant Plaza. We sat outside at lunch time, and you could hear the flurry of government workers and contractors walking by as well as the commuter trains coming and going in the background.
One of the most exciting interviews for me was that with No. 13. In The Engineers, I describe him as the ‘engine’ that drove the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys Basketball Team during its magical season. Interestingly, while I looked back at Brooks, his teammates, and their accomplishments with reverence, he surprisingly wondered what they had done that was so special.
Keep in mind that we were both in our 40s at the time. We both travelled the country and had many experiences outside of Buffalo. Furthermore, in all honesty, when you think about high school state championships, NCAA championships and NBA world championships, how big a deal is it to win your city league and sectional championships in high school? In comparison to the former three accomplishments, maybe it isn’t that big a deal. However, for a freshman just coming into the school with little understanding of the game and its multiple contexts and layers, it was a very big deal.
We Still Don’t Know How Ya’ll Did That!
“We weren’t the most talented team, but we knew each other. What that team had been through with Jones (Coach Ken Jones), we were comfortable with the system, and everyone had gotten better. We had played together,” Jerrold “Pep” Skillon said regarding the 1990-91 team’s championship run. “To this day, some of the players from the other the Yale Cup teams still say, ‘We still don’t know how ya’ll did that!’” I laughed at this revelation by Skillon as I could imagine the disbelief of players from the other schools continuing years later. How did Hutch-Tech of all the 14 Yale Cup schools do that?
“We did have some good players but even if you were better talent-wise, we had better team chemistry! That goes back to what you were saying in terms of the teams you played on – they didn’t have that chemistry. It was like everybody for themselves,” Skillon continued contrasting his experience with mine. “Well, we didn’t have that! These were my boys. We all came up in high school together, and we hung out after games. We were boys!”
Going 13-0 In The Yale Cup
By the way, how common was it to go 13-0 in the Yale Cup? In some of our last talks, our late coach, Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, a central character in my story, asked me to investigate who had done it before his beloved 1990-91 team. Approximately four years earlier, the Trevor Ruffin-led Bennett “Tigers” did it on their way to the State Class B Final Four in Glens Falls, NY.
I believe the Buffalo Traditional Bulls, led by Damien Foster and Jason Rowe, did it in their magical senior seasons in 1995-96 (all their seasons were magical in my opinion). It also turns out that Hutch-Tech had done it back in the 1970s. Someone on Facebook who commented an earlier Engineers team had done it when I shared the overview page for The Engineers in the group, “You know you’re from Buffalo, NY if……”. Regardless, it was a head scratcher for many at the time that the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team got it done in the fashion they did.
Losing To Buffalo Traditional By 49 And Marcus Whitfield Scoring 50 Points
“I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t embarrassed. I remember to this day, the Traditional game sophomore year. They beat us by 49 points. I never lost a game like that game in my life! We were embarrassed. My cousin went there, and Traditional had a bunch of pretty girls,” Pep Skillon said reflecting on a lopsided loss to Buffalo Traditional his sophomore year, Coach Jones’ first year. “We go in there and everybody’s got their hair cut, all that. We got stomped!
“Don’t get me wrong, they were one of the best teams in the area at the time. They went on a run to the states that year, whatever, but I remember that. They stomped us. I’ll never forget that game, they stomped us out. That was an embarrassing game sophomore year.”
“Marcus Whitfield, he scored 50 points on us! We were losing but we were like, ‘He’s not going to get 50 on us,’ but then he got 50 on the nose. We did have some pride, but we didn’t have the horses,” Skillon continued. “I remember that Burgard game where they blew us out because he scored 50 and the Traditional game. Those games stood out because that was the first time, I was embarrassed on the basketball court. We didn’t fight hard. Traditional beat us by 49 points and he put up 50 points again us (Whitfield).”
Experiencing Sobering Losses Early On: Iron Sharpening Iron
“I think we went 3-15. It was miserable in the sense that you never want to be part of a losing team. That was the year – I played against Ritchie Campbell, Marcus Whitfield – we played Burgard at home that year and I think we lost by 60 points (laughing),” said Reverend Dion Frasier of his freshman season. “Man, these cats – Ritchie was throwing the ball off the backboard and ‘Ice Cream’ was catching it and dunking it.
“They KILLED us! Ice Cream was Marcus Whitfield. They waxed us but that was a memorable game for me because that was the first time, I ever played in a varsity game. I got in the game because we were getting blown out and that’s when I scored my first two points. It was miserable, but it was fun!”
These two excerpts from my discussions with Pep Skillon and Dion Frasier, were fun to listen to and educational as well. The core players of the 1990-91 Engineers not only grew up in Coach Jones’ system together, but they also experienced several difficult losses early on which helped galvanize them as a team. Furthermore, they got experience playing against some of the Yale Cup’s all-time greats including Ritchie Campbell and Marcus Whitfield. I’d heard about the legend of Ritchie Campbell before, but this was my first time hearing about Marcus Whitfield’s brilliance.
The “Risk Factor”: A Key Ingredient To The 1990-91 Team’s Success
There were several keys to the 1990-91 Engineers’ magical season. One was the hands-on experience against some of the area’s greatest players just described. The term “The Risk Factor” came also back to me as I was writing this essay. Coach Jones shared the term with me when we discussed his beloved 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys Basketball Team. As I’ll describe, it involved one of his key basketball teachings, disciplined ‘man to man’ team defense.
“We were small,” said Reverend Dion Frasier reflecting on the 1990-91 season, his junior year. The 1990-91 Engineers weren’t the biggest or most physically talented team that ever took the floor in the Yale Cup. A part of their secret to success though was the disciplined and staunch man to man team defense that they played, particularly their backcourt.
In addition to the above-mentioned No. 13, Curtis Brooks, there was also No. 40, Paul Saunders. Neither guard was taller than 6’2”, but they were stellar defenders. In fact, Coach Jones attributed the team’s success in large part to No. 13’s and No. 40’s defensive tenacity. Their long arms and quick feet allowed them to take ‘risks’ or anticipate/gamble for steals. Likewise, they recovered easily whenever they anticipated incorrectly. Their play created lots of easy baskets for the team, a key ingredient to its success that season. This was one of the ways they were able to score 100 points or more multiple times that season (or close to it).
Was It The Chemistry?
“It was the chemistry that made that team successful, NOT the coaching!” Most of the content I’ve created surrounding my project has lauded Coach Ken Jones. In fact, there are many of us who still look back on him with gratitude and reverence. That said, as described in my piece entitled, Lasting Lessons Basketball Taught Me: Different Things To Different People, he did have his share of detractors and critics. Some of them sat on the bench with him wearing the maroon gold Hutch-Tech uniforms. To learn some more about Coach Jones and his legacy, once again see the embedded video at the end of this essay.
The last quote regarding the team’s chemistry came from a player whom most of us knew around school as ‘J-Bird’. J-Bird was No. 34 Jermaine Skillon, the younger brother of the above-mentioned Pep Skillon. His was another one of my favorite interviews due to the levity in our discussion. J-Bird was yet another talented player on the 1990-91 team, and he was from my brother’s and the above-mentioned Dion Frasier’s Class of 1992. Let’s just say that J-Bird didn’t always see eye to eye with Coach Jones. Looking back, he believed it was the chemistry amongst the core of the 1990-91 team that led to its success that season and not the coaching per se.
I’ve shared this not to stir controversy, but to note that for a given piece of history, there are often multiple points of view, and I think J-Bird’s is worth considering. I experienced the importance of team chemistry during my short basketball journey, and what happens when you don’t have it. It’s also something I’ve witnessed play out in sports as a spectator years after high school. This spans across all levels: high school, college, the pros and even in the Olympics. It even plays a role in work settings.
Playing Both Yale Cup And Fundamental Basketball
“On defense you ANTICIPATE, and on offense you REACT!” This was one of Coach Jones’ most fundamental teachings. Other players in fact attributed the 1990-91 team’s success to Coach Jones’ fundamentals, principles, and his system. As described in many of my writings and videos, Coach Jones’ hallmark teachings were fundamentals, team defense, and both disciplined and unselfishness on offense. He encouraged taking good shots on offense and ‘working’ the ball for uncontested layups. Having played under him for a brief period, and after conducting my many interviews, my conclusion is that the 1990-91 team’s success was a mixture of both the team’s chemistry and Coach Jones’ system.
J-Bird’s brother, Pep, acknowledged that the 1990-91 Engineers were equipped to play multiple styles of basketball. They could play a more ‘up and down’, ‘racehorse’ style of game that the Yale Cup was known for. They were also trained to play the slower more disciplined suburban-style which involved set offenses, often to counter zone defenses. Many Yale Cup teams played zone defenses to prevent penetration and to avoid individual players getting into foul trouble. Many of the suburban teams also played zone, but for the purpose of countering the more athletic style played by most Yale Cup schools.
When necessary, the 1990-91 Engineers were trained to methodically ‘work’ the ball to find good shots for the team. They routinely did this instead of hoisting up the first available shot or driving to the basket with ‘reckless abandon’ as they say. Working the ball was a term Coach Jones used for patiently finding quality shots on offense, and not taking a shot early in a possession if unnecessary. Likewise, many of the suburban teams were astonished to see a Yale Cup school play this way as it was out of character for our league.
More On Chemistry, Competitive Will And Killer Instinct
Again, the chemistry was critical too. If you look throughout sports, the players on most championship teams enjoy being around one another. They often hang out together in their spare time. They unselfishly accept their roles within the unit even if it means not being in the spotlight. If certain players within the team are struggling, the others have a way of encouraging them. Carlos Bradberry, of the LaSalle Explorers, noted this in my interview with him regarding team chemistry.
“Curt Brooks was a warrior! He was at the park every day in the summer before our senior year practicing in a weight jacket,” said another senior from the 1990-91 team, No. 11, Quincy Lee. Brooks was humble about this as well when I asked him about it. It was something he did for a competitive edge and to make up for the hours he spent at his job that summer of 1990, and away from the basketball court.
This is significant because as I learned in my own basketball journey, regardless of how thorough a coach’s system is, it can’t completely cover up a lack of talent and ability, bad team chemistry and a lack of camaraderie. It can sometimes cover up for injuries and having lesser talent. It also can’t give players a sense of drive, killer instinct, or passion. The core of the 1990-91 team had these qualities.
The “Mighty” Hutch-Tech
“On the news at nighttime they called us ‘The MIGHTY Hutch-Tech’!” I was a freshman that 1990-91 season so I didn’t witness all the fanfare surrounding the team. A low grade in one class prevented me from participating in the program early that season as their momentum gradually built. I just watched a few games from the sidelines and listened to the morning announcements, not understanding the significance of everything. The above-mentioned Quincy Lee, one of the seniors on that team shared with me during our interview that one of the news stations gave them a special nickname as they continued winning that season.
“I can’t believe they had us ranked third in the state,” Coach Jones said in my first year on the team (the 1991-92 season) and then years later. After two early season losses to the Willie Cauley-led Niagara Falls Senior High School “Power Cats”, they went on a 17-game winning streak, during which it seemed they couldn’t lose again. That winning streak included going 13-0 in the Yale Cup. They won four more games in postseason play in route to the Section VI Class B championship. They knocked off teams including: Maryvale, Clarence, Kenmore East and Williamsville South. By the way, for all of you basketball junkies out there, Willie Cauley turned out to be the father of the University of Kentucky’s and the NBA’s Willie Cauley-Stein. One of the players from the 1990-91 team revealed this to me in our talks.
Doing It A Different Way
As described earlier, other teams had gone 13-0 in the Yale Cup and went on to make deep runs in postseason play. I’m thinking about the above-mentioned Bennett High School, in addition to Burgard Vocational and Buffalo Traditional High Schools. It was probably how Coach Jones, and his 1990-91 team did it that season that was so impressive. And again, as a novice at the time I didn’t understand everything I was seeing. Researching the entire series of events years later though, it was remarkable in my opinion.
Again, most of the players on that team admitted that athletically, they were small in terms of size. Their tallest player, No. 55, Charles “Chuck” Thompson, was 6’5”. They also didn’t play a flashy style of basketball with lots of high-flying dunks and no-look passes like you would see in some of the old And1 Mixtape Tours, by players like Rafer Alston, best known as ‘Skip 2 My Lou.
A Winning Formula
Instead, they played a patient and disciplined style as described above using fundamentals, disciplined man to man team defense, methodical offensive sets and unselfishness across the board. They talked on defense, boxed out and rebounded the ball, and created an abundance of easy baskets for one another.
“Games are won and lost on the free throw line!” They were also a solid free throw shooting team, one of Coach Jones’ other basketball gospels. They didn’t win every game decisively and it was their free throw shooting which secured some of their close victories. Some victories required late timely baskets by No. 13, Curtis Brooks, from close range or out beyond the three-point arc. Others were due to team efforts where there were balanced point totals, assist and rebounds.
Unselfishly Putting The Puzzle Pieces Together
“Basically, it’s like I said. Everything was a piece of the puzzle. Like me for example. They used to call me the ‘Black Hole’, because they knew that if they threw the ball down to the me that I was going to shoot it! That’s the way that I was when I got the ball,” said Charles Thompson, the center for the team.
“Not everyone had that scoring mentality. I had it, Pep had it, Curt had it. Quincy was the outside three-point shooter. Everybody was learning how to play their role to get us to a point to play better,” Thompson continued. “Because after Frankie (Harris) left, it was just us there, the original people that came in that freshman year. The entire starting five, we could now work together, and we did good.”
It Wasn’t A “Star” System: No One Was Looking To Be A Star
“So that’s what his structure was. We didn’t really have – it really wasn’t like a pro-offense. It wasn’t about dumping the ball down to one person. It was like that, but it wasn’t designed for that,” Curtis Brooks said during our interview. “He (Coach Jones) never said, ‘Get the ball. I want you to SHOOT! SHOOT! SHOOT!’ He’d say, ‘Move the ball and if you’re in that area, that’s your shot!’ It wasn’t a star system!”
Of the many fascinating aspects of my discussions with Curtis Brooks, none was more fascinating than that of Coach Jones’ offensive philosophy. Still a novice and a ‘project’ at the time, I didn’t understand everything. In a nutshell, Coach Jones taught a team-oriented style of offense where no one player was featured. The focus was on moving the ball and creating good shots for everyone, especially “uncontested” layups. He also encouraged easy baskets off created turnovers.
This arguably conflicted with players who wanted to play “isolation-style” basketball which we learned by default on Buffalo’s playgrounds. It also conflicted with what I call in The Engineers, the ‘Fab Five Era’. It was the era where highly talented younger players came in and immediately demanded to play based upon their talent levels, but not necessarily embracing the coach’s culture and teachings.
A Special Group Of Players
“Jones was looking for a certain kind of kid, a coachable kid!” I could attribute this quote to a single player, but because multiple people stated it, I consider it a recurring, underlying theme. Coach Jones was in fact not looking for the most talented kids, but instead kids who would submit to his coaching and culture, and sacrifice for their teammates.
Keep in mind that this was all at our city’s lone technical high school which required an entrance exam for admittance. In writing my story, I’ve pondered that while Coach Jones knew his fundamentals and was a “true student of the game”, he also gathered a special collection of players at the right time. Interestingly, many of these players decided to attend the school before he got there (see my Kevin Roberson piece). They were coachable, driven, had good chemistry as described above, and they loved playing the game. The latter point is important because some of them went through hard times and pondered quitting but didn’t.
That said, Coach Jones gathered those players in such a way that they all grew up together in his program. They stayed together, and this created a bit of a family. It wasn’t a smooth ride for every player, but they loved each other and the game enough to persevere through the early losing they experienced. They also persevered through their knowledgeable, but at times onery coach, who admitted that if he could go back that, “I would be just as demanding, but more understanding!” He ran the entire program by himself with no regular assistants and no formal modified or junior varsity program feeding him trained up players. Again, remarkable.
“You have to be good to be lucky and lucky to be good,” Coach Jones said to his players often among other things. Arguably, there was a bit of luck and circumstance in what the 1990-91 Engineers accomplished. A bit of a ‘vacuum’ was created in the Yale Cup that 1990-91 season. Super stars like the great Ritchie Campbell and Marcus Whitfield from Burgard, Trevor Ruffin from Bennett, and Chris Williams from Buffalo Traditional had graduated. This left the championship “up for grabs” as my Uncle Jeff used to say. The next year in the 1991-92 season, the Riverside Frontiersman won the Yale Cup with a record of 11-2. The year after that, the McKinley Macks and the Seneca Indians shared the title with a similar record. The Buffalo Traditional Bulls dominated the league for the next three years.
The Difference One Team Can Make
“It was a nice chapter.” As described in the opening of this piece, Curtis Brooks, the engine who powered the 1990-91 Engineers initially felt that what they did wasn’t that big a deal. I interviewed him twice. The second time we spoke, he acknowledged that for our school at that time, it was in fact a big deal. While they were in Coach Jones’ program doing what they had been groomed to do the previous two to three years, others of us looked on in amazement. When you’re in a little fishbowl like a high school and one of your sports teams is winning in dominant fashion, it is a big deal. It also means something when you see the guys on that team up close around the hallways of the school in between classes. You can start to dream of doing it yourself.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve never forgotten the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Engineers. I learned of them two to three years before getting to Hutch-Tech through my brother Amahl’s yearbooks. Once I got to the school, I wanted to be just like them. I first saw them play in their 93-90 thriller they pulled out against the Grover Cleveland “Presidents”. That day they wore their white tank tops, and their maroon and trunks. They mostly wore black sneakers like the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. Yellow ribbons were pinned into their laces in tribute to our military servicemen and women fighting in the Persian Gulf (Operation Desert Storm).
Did I accomplish that goal of being just like them? Well, I would encourage you to check out my book project once its finished. I’ll just say that it was a lot harder than it looked for a number of reasons. The 1990-91 Engineers did, however, inspire me to strive for something for the first time in my young life. They helped teach me a set of lessons that arguably carried me through the rest of my life into multiple arenas.
The Class Of 1992 Seniors: The 1990-91 Team’s Unsung Heroes
“I loved Michael Mann. His head was always in the game!” I couldn’t finish this essay without acknowledging the 1990-91 team’s unsung heroes. On any championship team, there are players in the background contributing who may not get as much recognition.
The times I saw the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team play, I observed that Coach Jones kept a ‘tight player rotation’. He typically subbed in three juniors: No. 21 Michael Mann, No. 24 Dion Frasier, and No. 44 Christain J. Souter. They had been in the program since day one when Coach Jones took it over two years earlier when they were freshman. Like the Class of 1991 seniors, they literally grew up in the program.
Michael Mann usually spelled Curtis Brooks at the point guard position albeit not for long. In our discussions Coach Jones always spoke of Michael Mann affectionately. He always noted that, “His head was always in the game even if he wasn’t on the floor.” The next year I found that he also supported his teammates even when he was sidelined by injury and unable to play. He always kept a positive attitude, something not easy to do.
Chris Souter and Dion Frasier got in to play defense and took the occasional open shots that year. The three of them were the tri-captains, the next year for the 1991-92 team, my sophomore season and first year on the team. They were arguably the last remnants of the culture Coach Jones originally established when he got to Hutch-Tech.
It Was The Culture
“It was the culture. Jones set the culture,” Pep Skillon said discussing the basketball program Coach Jones created at our school. In hindsight it was a mini-college program. One of the main pillars of that culture was perseverance. That is staying focused and hopeful during adverse stretches. The 1991-92 team likewise experienced struggles that the 1990-91 did not. Somehow though, it rebounded for a deep sectional run of its own. In my opinion, this was due in large part the above-mentioned tri-captains, and things weren’t the same once they graduated.
“That was a great feeling being around a group of guys who played together and really like being around each other. Those guys were great. They were great teammates as well as great guys off the court – a very close-knit group (the 1990-91 team). They were friends as well as teammates.” The second opening excerpt for this piece is from No. 23 Adonis Coble who played on both teams. He was also a member of the Class of 1992. His words expressed the importance the culture of that 1990-91 team. He led our 1991-92 team in his own way during some difficult stretches the next year.
Their Final Game: The 1991 Far West Regional
The 1990-91 team’s final game was a lopsided loss to the Newark “Reds” from the Rochester area. It was the 1991 Class B Far West Regional or the Super-Sectional. There the winner earned a trip to Glens Falls. The Reds were a physically bigger, stronger and more experienced team. They defeated the Kensington Knights also from the Yale Cup in the same game the previous year.
As often is the case in sports, there are multiple explanations for what happened. There were rumors of the core the 1990-91 team staying out late the night before the game. My research revealed that this wasn’t altogether true. It further revealed that the team was late getting to Rochester’s War Memorial Stadium. There was an accident on the I-90 expressway. They started changing on the bus and got to the arena with little time before tipoff to settle in before the challenge at hand. It was a loss that Coach Jones lamented until his last days.
How Would They Have Fared Against The Dominant Buffalo Traditional Teams?
One of the most fun (and nerve-wrecking) parts of sports is speculating on matchups that we’ll never see. In the movie Rocky Balboa, there’s a scene where a sports network simulates Rocky matching up with the current much younger champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon. The computer likewise predicts Rocky knocking out the younger fighter, setting up the movie’s plot. Likewise, we speculate on how Mike Tyson would’ve fared against Muhammad Ali. We speculate on how players like LeBron James and Stephen Curry and their teams would’ve fared in the 1980s NBA when the game was more physical. We speculate on how today’s NFL champions would’ve fared against the more physical 1980s and 90s teams.
I’ve likewise wondered how the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team would’ve matched up with the above-mentioned legendary Damien Foster– and Jason Rowe-led Buffalo Traditional teams which dominated the Yale Cup from 1993 to 1996 (and other notable Yale Cup champions). The Bulls were athletic, tall, and highly skilled. Most of their players could shoot the ball from long-range and they eventually made two trips to Glens Falls, winning the federation championship the second time. It would’ve been an interesting matchup as the 1990-91 Engineers had a level of athleticism and physicality of their own. They were fundamentally sound though on both ends of the court. Many would give the advantage to Coach Joe Cardinal’s Bulls, but I predict the 1990-91 Engineers would’ve been a formidable foe for them.
The Players Who Contributed To That Season But Graduated
The Damien Foster– and Jason Rowe-led Buffalo Traditional teams seemed to instantly ascend as champions. In contrast the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team gradually built up to that point. As described, there were numerous lumps along the way leading up to that season. For many teams that evolve to become champions, there are often players who contribute along the way who don’t ultimately get to hoist the championship trophies.
For the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball team there was Adrian Brice of the Class of 1989. The lone senior on the 1988-89 team, he played point guard the year Coach Jones took over the program. He came up in numerous interviews, and his nickname was “Flash”. From the Class of 1990, there was Ed Lenard, Jerome Freeman, Frankie Harris, Derrick Herbert and Michael Brundige. One of Coach Jones’ favorite stories to tell us was that of Frankie Harris passing up uncontested layups. He embellished the story for humor, and used it as a teaching tool.
Closing Thoughts On The 1990-91 Engineers
“Curt Brooks’ work ethic was unbelievable. He would wear a weighted flap jacket during basketball practice. Although he was ‘the star’, he didn’t slack off during practice, or during the games,” said Jermaine Fuller, one of two sophomores on the 1990-91 team. His words reflect the lasting impression No. 13, Curtis Brooks made, and it reminds me of a quote that Brooks shared with me that Coach Jones told them all the time. That quote said, “Every person can make a difference, and everyone should try!”
I also want to acknowledge the other players on the team that I didn’t mention. In the book, the names are changed for those who didn’t agree to be a part of this work. For historical completeness however, I want to mention the other guys here. They are Jason Parrish and Juno Patterson both from the Class of 1992. There was also Andre Huggins from the Class of 1993. The 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team was very close to Coach Jones’ideal make up of a team. This consisted of five seniors, five juniors and two sophomores.
I’ll divulge that it’s a rule that he bent his final two years at Hutch-Tech. To learn about that and how those of us who tried to continue what the 1990-91 team’s success fared, you’ll have to read The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. I’ll just say that it turned out to be a lot harder than it looked for everyone. And again, there were a number of reasons for that.
I spoke of Coach Jones numerous times throughout this piece. If you want to learn some more about him and his importance my story and my life, take a look at the at the video below from my sports YouTube channel. If you watch it, please give it a like and leave a comment.
Acknowledgements And Final Words
The opening quote for this piece is from the above-mentioned Pep Skillon, which I think underscores a major theme of this account, unselfishness. I want to acknowledge a lot of people without whom this essay (and others) would not have been possible. Thank you to the players and coaches I interviewed. There is also Coach Jones and the Jones family. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge all the team managers who were critical parts of the basketball program during those years.
I also want to acknowledge Laura Lama from my Class of 1994. The second picture of the 1990-91 Engineers as a team is from our 1991-92 yearbook the next year, which Laura kindly shared with me. There was a back forth to get the image just right, and she had more important matters to deal with at the time. It’s missing one player, but it was always one of my favorite pictures of the team. You can see the old and antiquated gym we played in which no longer exists. Finally, I want to thank the previously mentioned Michael Mann for the visual of his gold jacket he shared from the 1990-91 team’s championship season.
Thank you for reading this piece. I intend to create more promotional/teaser pieces for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. These will be both via print and video as I journey through the final steps of the book’s completion. As described, I created a page here on Big Words Authors for the purpose of giving a background of the book and grouping all the promotional pieces such as this in one place for interested readers.
On my first blogging platform, the Big Words Blog Site, there are interviews of some of the most accomplished Section VI players from my era including: Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach, Pat Monti. Finally, there are several other basketball-related essays related to my book project. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and leave a comment beneath this piece.
The Big Words LLC Newsletter
For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter. I will be for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. I plan to share numerous things. They include inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. I promise to protect your personal information and privacy. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. You can also email me [email protected] to subscribe. Regards.