Contributors To The Engineers Part One: Samples From My Interviews Of Basketball Coaches And Players From Western New York

“Basketball taught me that your hard work isn’t always recognized. But that doesn’t mean you give up working, because somewhere down the line, it’s going to have a benefit to you.”

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.

*To read the full interview, see parts one and two.

Curtis Brooks, Player, Hutch-Tech High School

“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.

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.

*To read the full interview, see parts one and two.

Dion Frasier, Player, Hutch-Tech High School

“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.

*To read the full interview, see parts one, two and three.

Roderick “Spanky” Peoples, Hutch-Tech High School

“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.

*To read the full interview, see parts one and two.

Bill Russell, Coach, Riverside High School

“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?

Closing Thoughts

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 bwllcnl@gmail.com to register as well. Regards.

The Legend Of Burgard’s Ritchie Campbell: A Story From The Engineers Looking Back At A Buffalo Basketball Phenom

“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!”

A Name That Repeatedly Came Up During My Research

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.

As described on the page I designed for the book, and the numerous pieces I’ve created surrounding it, I interviewed 30-40 players and coaches from Section VI. My research revealed several interesting facts. I learned quite a few back stories and about the players and runs of other teams from Section VI. I learned about players whom I’d only known and seen from a distance. As described in my Cliff Robinson piece, some names came up repeatedly. One of the most notable ones was the great Ritchie Campbell.

Ritchie Campbell’s Legend

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 Do 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 Cochran, 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’d Heard About Only 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.

The Night I Saw And Met Ritchie Campbell

If you’ve never played a competitive sport, you might not understand why someone like Ritchie Campbell holds God-like status for me and others. In a way he’s kind of like a Benji Wilson-type of figure from Chicago’s Simeon Vocational High School in the early 1980s. That’s a very moving documentary and story if you ever get the chance to watch it by the way.

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 bwllcnl@gmail.com . Regards.

A Look Back At Riverside High School’s Basketball Legend Cliff Robinson

“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.”

A Story Revealing Other Stories

This story is another promotional piece for my two-part book project entitled, The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. It looks back one of the few basketball players from Buffalo to make it to the NBA, Riverside High School’s Cliff Robinson. As described on the web page I created for the book, and the numerous pieces I created surrounding the book, I interviewed 30-40 players and coaches from Section VI. My research revealed several interesting facts. As described below, several names continued to come up during my research.

One of the bases for my story is the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. During my freshman year at the school, the team went on a magical run winning our city league, the Yale Cup 13-0. They then won the Section VI Class B sectional, coming within one game of berth in the state final four in Glens Falls, one of many basketball stories from our area over at that time. 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. Ken Jones.

The Power Of Interviews And Research

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.

While the Huskies eventually became a college basketball power, early in Coach Jim Calhoun’s tenure it wasn’t that way. Upon joining the Big East Conference, they were consistently looking up at the teams that dominated it at the time. These programs included the Georgetown Hoyas, the Syracuse Orangemen, and the Villanova Wildcats; the headliner teams of the great Big East Conference of the 1980s. You can throw the St. John’s Redmen in there too.

Cliff’s Journey Through The NBA

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 in that celebrities probably get approached all the time and may tire of it at times.

An Addendum Discussing Cliff’s Business Activities Post Retirement

When I originally published this piece, I was unfamiliar with how Cliff did 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. Conflicting with league policy, Robinson controversially used marijuana during this NBA career admittedly for anxiety, and to increase his personal focus.

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, but they were both notable players in the Yale Cup and Section VI at that time. 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, and I said, ‘Harden just passed 20,000 points and exceeds Clifford Robinson’s total which was 19,950 or something.’ I got 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 Piece

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 bwllcnl@gmail.com . Regards.

The 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Varsity Basketball Team: An Inspiration For My Story And My Life

“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!”

Another Promotional Essay For The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story

This essay is another promotional piece for my two-part book project entitled, The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. To learn more about the project, visit the overview page I created for it here on Big Words Authors. As described in earlier pieces I’ve created surrounding book, I’ve conducted considerable research for this project. A part of this research involved interviewing 30-40 players and coaches from Section VI, and from my era. For those unfamiliar, Section VI is the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s (NYPHSAA’s) western-most section, encompassing the counties of Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Niagara, and Orleans.

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 bwllcnl@gmail.com to subscribe. Regards.

A Look Back At The Yale Cup: Section VI’s Basketball Diamond In the Rough

“The Yale Cup teams developed the reputation for not playing defense or with structure of any kind. It was considered a renegade league!”

“It’s an altogether different picture from when you played at Tech to when I played, and it’s even more of a different look for the kids who are playing in the Yale Cup now. Back then the Yale Cup was not represented in Section VI. There was no state title representation or anything. This was in the late 1960s. I think they went to Section VI in 1971. Our group of athletes and the kids the year after me, we were really upset that in 1971 or 1972, they allowed the Buffalo Public Schools to play in Section VI and compete for the state championship. It was around 1971 and 72 or something like that.”

“That was one of the downfalls or pitfalls which kept our schools from being recognized because there were quite a few kids who could’ve played Division I football or basketball that were not seen at the time. You either had to be a Bob Lanier or a Gil Harmon, who were the biggest and the most athletic – Bob Lanier was 6’9” in high school; or like Marty Cott who went to Tech the same year that I did. He ended up playing baseball for the Houston Astros.”

The Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team: My Introduction To The Yale Cup

This story is another promotional piece for my two-part book project entitled, “The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story”. The previous piece paid tribute to the late Kevin Roberson. I’ve created a page here on my writer’s blog for the book, if you’re curious to learn some more about it. In the numerous pieces I’ve already created surrounding the book, I’ve shared that I’ve conducted 30-40 interviews for the project. These discussions with former players and coaches from Section VI have revealed several interesting facts.

One of the focal points for my story is the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. Our school nickname was the “Engineers”, for which the books are named. During my freshman year at the school, they went on a magical run. They first won the city league championship, the “Yale Cup”, with a 13-0 record. They then won the Section VI Class B championship, coming within one game of a berth in the Class B State Final Four in Glens Falls. From my vantage point at the time, it was a big deal, and I dreamt of doing what they did.

The Yale Cup And Section VI

While my story focuses on the Hutch-Tech Engineers, it also involves other teams from Western New York. Many of the teams are from our league the Yale Cup. It also tells the stories to a lesser extent of some of the other teams in Section VI. Even today, Section VI is the western most section of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA). There are 12 total sections spanning from the Great Lakes to the Adirondack Mountains and finally down to Long Island.

Section VI of the late 1980s and early 1990s was comprised of many city and suburban public high schools and leagues. They were located in the numerous Western New York State counties including Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Erie, Niagara, and Orleans. Our league was called the Yale Cup. It was a 14-team league comprised of schools within the Buffalo Public School System. At one point the Yale Cup was considered the best high school basketball league in Section VI. However, like the City of Buffalo and our region in general, it went through hard times which were arguably rooted in the loss of steel industry. This essay is a tribute to the Yale Cup as I and others knew it, and to a lesser degree Section VI.

Oh, by the way, the private school teams played in the “Monsignor Martin League”. I must mention them because they had some of the best players and teams in Western New York every year. Some of the schools included Cardinal O’Hara, Canisius, Turner/Carroll and St. Joseph’s.

A League Named After An Ivy League School But Wasn’t Ivy League

One of the more interesting things about the Yale Cup, was its name. I don’t know who named the league, but it seemed to have been named after the prestigious Ivy League institution of higher learning in Connecticut, Yale University. Coincidentally, our city football league was named the “Harvard Cup”, I guess after Harvard University. The girls’ basketball league was called the “Canisius Cup”, most likely after Canisius College. I don’t know who named the leagues and why, but “The Yale”, now affectionately referred to by some of its former players, was anything but Ivy League in quality as I’ll describe.

14 Schools Of Varying Sizes

There were 14 schools in the Yale Cup of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The lineup of schools in general changed over the decades. Like the private schools, some of the Yale Cup schools were closed or consolidated for economic and logistical reasons. I think the core line up of schools remained the same though. During my youth, I heard numerous stories of an East High School. During my teen years, it was converted into the Buffalo Vocational and Technical Center (BVTC). City Honors (described below) played its home games there. The schools comprising the Yale Cup of the late 1980s and early 1990s, their nicknames and school colors were as follows:

Bennett: The Tigers, orange and blue
Burgard Vocational: The Bulldogs, blue and white
Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts (aka Buffalo Arts or Performing Arts): The Cavaliers, black and gold
Buffalo Traditional: The Bulls, navy blue and gold
City Honors: The Centaurs, burgundy and gray
Emerson: The Eagles, red and white
Grover Cleveland: The Presidents, green and white
Hutch-Tech: The Engineers, maroon and gold
Lafayette: The Violets, violet and white
Kensington: The Knights, lime green and gold
McKinley Vocational: The Macks, orange and black
Riverside: The Frontiersman, purple and gold
Seneca: The Indians, dark green and white
South Park: The Sparks, red, black and white

If you watch the documentary “Hoop Dreams” or its sequel “Hoop Reality”, both take place in Chicago. Watching them, you’ll see that most metropolitan areas have city leagues where most of the student athletes are black. The bigger cities actually had multiple conferences within their boundaries. With Buffalo being a smaller city, there was only one conference.

Three Phases Of The Season

“What’s about to start after the New Year is the meat and potatoes of the season! Our non-league schedule was just the gravy!” In my first year on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team, our coach, Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones told our team this after a lackluster start in the ‘non-league’ portion of our schedule. He further told us that our Yale Cup league play was the most important phase of the season. It brought with it the potential for a league championship. Our league record would also dictate our qualification for post season sectional play. There the final destination were potential state and federation championships for the truly elite teams.

During the next three years, as I learned about high school basketball on the fly, I realized something interesting. We only played our opponents once in league play. That is the location of the games would alternate yearly. In my first year on the team for example, Hutch-Tech hosted Riverside in our gym and that was it. This was the game that clinched the Yale Cup title for the Frontiersman that 1991-92 season, coincidentally. The next season we played in their gym.

Playing Each Other Once A Year In Conference Play

In the private and suburban school leagues, the teams played home and home series meaning that each team played in the other’s gym during league play. Likewise teams would play each other twice in one season. In some leagues, there was also a potential championship game where the top two teams in the league would battle it out for the league title. With the Yale Cup, you only got that one shot at your opponent in league play and that was it. In those days the final records determined the champions as well. This was probably because of the size of our 14-team league.

If you were in the same preseason tournament, scheduled a nonleague game or were in the same sectional class, there was the possibility of seeing certain teams again. If you were a Class A or B team in Section VI though (described below), you only got one shot at teams like Buffalo Traditional. The Bulls were the perennial power in our league who played in Class C sectional. It wasn’t ideal, but it’s what we had at the time.

The Gyms We Played In

Another aspect that made our league unique were the gyms in which we played. Most of the gyms were less than stellar compared to our counterparts in private and suburban schools. City school gyms were old and antiquated. While many of us look back on it with nostalgia; the gym at Hutch-Tech was essentially a box with a shortened court. It amazingly transformed into an electric venue during games and when fans filled it. It was a less than ideal facility though. The backboards were solid white with non-breakaway rims and the seating was minimal.

At Hutch-Tech, we also had a “small gym”. It was a smaller box with one basket which you could barely cram 15-25 student athletes into. Our boys’ basketball team practiced there for the first hour or so of practice after school. The girls’ basketball team used our “big gym” (described above) for the first hour of practice and then we swapped.

It was nothing like the modern facilities at my alma mater right now. Today there is a regulation-size court, window backboards and breakaway rims. Nor was it anything like the three gyms at my best friend’s high school, Cleveland Hill in Cheektowaga. Cleveland Hill High School was in one of the suburban conferences, the “Erie County Interscholastic Conference VI” (there were four of these conferences). Still, there was something special about our little old gym, and the Hutch-Tech gym was not alone, or the worst.

Playing In Older And Antiquated Gyms

“You play in some of the gyms in some of these schools and it was like you were playing in a bowling alley (laughing)!” In my interview with Buffalo Traditional legend Damien Foster, we discussed the gyms we played in for Yale Cup play. I think the gym he was referring to was at Performing Arts. It was the most unusual of all the gyms in the league. It didn’t have a regulation width, so it didn’t have a complete three-point arc. The floor was concrete-like, and it was in a room very similar to a theater. Other high school gyms, like those at Lafayette and South Park, had those cumbersome tracks overhead. They were similar to the East Ferry YMCA, so you couldn’t shoot the corner three-point shots.

The largest gyms at that time were at Grover Cleveland, McKinley, and Seneca High Schools, and maybe Emerson. This is probably why Coach Jones always had to host our Hutch-Tech “Tip Off Tournaments” at other schools. Safety and security were reasons why we couldn’t host sectional games. This would have involved teams and families from the suburbs coming into Buffalo at nighttime. All these factors are why it was amazing to go into the college, private school, and suburban gyms as a player and see how well equipped they were. They had bleachers on both sides of the gym, window glass back boards, breakaway rims and complete three-point arcs.

Playing In Uniforms With No Name

Now admittedly you must typically go to the Division I level to get players’ names put on the back of their jerseys like in the pros. Typically, in the lower levels, you would at least get the school’s name and/or nickname on the front of the uniforms. Except for City Honors, Grover Cleveland and South Park, most of our uniforms in the Yale Cup, it wasn’t that way.

“It takes a little bit more to be a Champion!” The uniforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s were made by the sports apparel company “Champion”. The only thing that differentiated them between the schools were the school colors. Because the pictures in the Buffalo News were black and white, you couldn’t tell the teams apart without reading the caption when the teams were featured. If you were familiar with the teams and players, you knew who was who. The uniforms all had the same block numbers and were all made with the same thick polyester or nylon, non-mesh fabric. I have fond memories of our old maroon and gold Hutch-Tech uniforms though.

A Lack Of Feeder Systems For The Varsity Teams

In my research for The Engineers, the above-mentioned Coach Ken Jones and I talked about was the lack of a feeder system for the Yale Cup varsity basketball teams. The Buffalo News coincidentally wrote about this a season or two after I graduated from Hutch-Tech. Simply put, there were no official modified or junior varsity (JV) programs to feed the varsity programs. Thus, most of the players had to make the varsity team and learn on the fly if they weren’t receiving any training outside of school. See my interviews with Jason Rowe, Damien Foster and Tim Winn. That said, the best team in any given year could have been the most athletic team, the most talented or the healthiest team (or some combination of the three).

Some of the coaches at the time, including Coach Jones, attempted to create ad hoc JV teams and the games. They did this for the most part with no extra pay, and there was thus no official JV league. Most of the games were likewise played on Saturday mornings. All our classmates were still at home sleeping or doing something else, and thus few people saw them. For suburban schools the JV games were often scheduled and played at night before the varsity games. This was significant becasue classmates, relatives and the entire community could come out and support them which was a big deal as a player.

One Of Many Legendary Yale Cup Coaches

“You don’t know who Romeo McKinney is?” One of my interviewees for this project was Carlos James Gant from City Honors. City Honors was the other ‘academic’ school in the Yale Cup. They experienced their own basketball resurgence during my four years with players like Gant himself, Shaun Nelms, and their highly talented big man Larry Gilbert. During our discussion, Gant shared with me that the legendary Romeo McKinney helped coach their team during the 1992-93 season. He taught them a trapping style of defense which contributed to their increased level of competitiveness that season. By their senior year, they had an exceptional team, but they ascended at the same time as the above-mentioned Jason Rowe– and Damien Foster-led Buffalo Traditional Bulls.

I believe Coach McKinney was the coach of the South Park team that was involved in the infamous fight with Christian Laettner’s Nichols team at the Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium. I think he finished out his coaching career at Kensington. Carlos Gant was surprised that I didn’t know who he was. A recurring theme of my story is that I only started learning about Section VI basketball in the early 1990s, and even then, my coach never talked about him. There were several legendary Yale Cup coaches over the years just like Coach McKinney.

Varying Qualities Of Coaching

My coach at Hutch-Tech, Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, called himself a ‘true student of the game’ and was in fact a basketball junkie. His program was an extension of himself and was very organized and textbook. The suburban and private school coaches were likewise amazed by the disciplined style of basketball Coach Jones’ majority black rosters played. The Yale Cup teams had developed the reputation for not playing defense or with structure of any kind. It was considered a ‘renegade’ league as stated by Adrian Baugh, another key contributor on the above-mentioned Buffalo Traditional teams.

From the interviews I conducted I learned that the quality of coaching in the league also varied from school to school. While researching The Engineers, I found that not every coach in the Yale Cup was in fact a trained coach, who approached the game as a craft. Some of them were simply faculty at their schools or gym teachers. Likewise, not every coach taught the game and treated it like a craft. Not every coach genuinely cared about his players, or what happened to them once they left the doors of their schools. The coach you got was arguably a matter of fortune and luck.

Playing Different Numbers Of Games

“We were one of the only city schools to play a full 20 games. Remember, at that time there were 14 high school teams in the city, and you only played those 13 teams if your coach didn’t give you another 6-7 games to fill out your full 20 games. Russ did that,” said Ed Harris, a star guard from Riverside’s above-mentioned Yale Cup and Class C Section Team in our interview. Ed attributed his Coach Bill Russell’s dedication to his playing development. “He had us playing the Frontiers, the Oleans, the Fredonias – going out there and playing John F. Kennedy (JFK), Williamsville East, South and North.”

Harris’ words described the fact that not every Yale Cup coach scheduled games outside of their 13 Yale Cup league games. This meant that their players didn’t get exposure to other styles of basketball and may not have started playing games until the new year. After interviewing Coach Russell, he turned out to be a lot like my coach at Hutch-Tech in that he put together a complete non-league schedule. He also cared about his players and did extra things for them like getting them into summer leagues and taking them with him to scout opponents.

Our League Games Were Immediately After School

Another interesting thing about the Yale Cup is that our games were immediately after school. If students were allowed into the games, this was advantageous for the home teams. Students weren’t allowed into games at every school though, due to safety considerations.

But what about the players on the teams; the visiting teams in particular? If you were the visiting team, you had to leave your last class early, which I’m sure none of the students took issue with. Unfortunately, none of the city schools had their own buses so players had to catch public transportation to the opposing school. This meant that team members could trickle in at varying times, sometimes after the games had started unless the coaches had a way of transporting the entire group.

Another consequence of this was the difficulty for many of the parents and relatives to come to our games. Many were still working at 3:30 pm in the afternoon. If they worked a 9-5 job, many parents could not get out of work early. As a player, having relatives in the stands can be very, very important psychologically.

Visits From The Trainer Once A Week And Wasted Talent

As described, none of our schools had their own individualized transportation. Nor did we have our own athletic trainer. We had a student trainer who came in from Canisius College to check on injuries once a week. It was better than nothing, but if a student athlete didn’t have the proper specialized medical care at home, injuries could linger and destroy whole seasons altogether. I experienced something like this during my journey.

Some of the players I interviewed suggested that there was a lot of wasted talent in the Yale Cup of the late 1980s and 1990s. The lack of a feeder system was mentioned earlier in this piece, but there was also academics. Some of the more talented players also didn’t receive the proper academic guidance to prepare to play at the next level. Specifically, some players weren’t prepared to take and achieve competitive scores on the standardized tests (SATs and ACTs). As a result, they never went on to play college basketball, and if they did, they had to play in junior college first. Some of them didn’t get to play at the Division I level at all, which they may have had the talent to do.

The Players That Emerged

The opening excerpt for this piece was from my interview with my cousin, Coach Phillip Richardson. When we spoke, it was amazing to hear that he and his peers didn’t compete in Section VI postseason play. Thus, they didn’t have the opportunity to compete for the state or federation championships. They simply put their basketball uniforms away and prepared for baseball or track after a league champion was determined. A few years after Coach Richardson graduated from Bennett High School the rules changed. Competing in Section VI’s postseason play was commonplace for the Buffalo Public Schools 20 years later when it was time for me to go to high school.

In this snippet, Coach Richardson stated that there were several talented players who didn’t get the opportunity to play Division I basketball because of the lack of exposure. Some players did make it though over the years. Among them were Bob Lanier (Bennett), Ray Hall (McKinley), Curtis Aiken (Bennett), Lester Rowe (Lafayette), Cliff Robinson (Riverside), and Keith Robinson (Grover Cleveland). There was also Trevor Ruffin (Bennett), and Jason Rowe and Damien Foster (both from Buffalo Traditional). After I graduated, there was Damone Brown (Seneca) and Mark Price (Riverside). There were also numerous Yale Cup players who played at the Division II and III levels.

I also must acknowledge a couple of guards. There was the great tandem of Ritchie Campbell and Marcus “Ice Cream” Whitfield (Burgard). There was also Antoine Sims (Grover Cleveland and Turner/Carroll) and Jeremiah Wilkes (Burgard and Cheektowaga Central). I don’t know where their paths led after high school. They all played at a high level though. There were so many players and I may have missed some names. If so, please mention them in the comment section below.

Competing In Section VI

In my era, Yale Cup schools competed in Section VI Classes A, B, C in postseason play. Again, the letters designated the size of the school. Classes A and B designated the larger schools and C the smaller schools. The Buffalo News made a similar distinction in its weekly “Cage Polls”. None of the schools competed in Class D.

Postseason sectional play was arguably the most magical part of the season because we were now competing with the suburban teams and potentially teams from places like Grand Island and Niagara Falls in a one-game elimination format. This post season play could ultimately lead to a game with the Rochester area champions in the “Far West Regionals”. There a trip to Glens Falls was at stake. Only a few teams ever made it that far.

A Look Back At The Yale Cup Of Years Past From A Former Burgard Bulldog

“But going back to the junior year, when Gene exploded onto the scene and made All-High and Honorable Mention All-Western New York, the scouts came out and whatever. As a matter of fact, when Gene was a junior, we were playing Tech. The scouts came to scout a guy named Roger Brown because he was Mr. Everything that year. Gene played a good game, but we lost to Tech.” One of the most powerful interviews for The Engineers was with my Uncle Anthony (Tony) Harris. Uncle Tony played at Burgard in the 1960s with the legendary Eugene Roberson and corroborated much of the same information shared by the above-mentioned Coach Richardson.

“Tech had the Cott brothers, Orv and Marty Cott, back then and they had a couple of other stars. Gene had a spectacular game, but we lost.” My Uncle got excited talking about those days and I became equally excited listening to him reflect. As a part of my story, I learned that our family patriarch had a basketball history himself – he was All-High Honorable Mention! This is an important part of my story. I found out about it after my playing days.

“I mean there were some bad people (in a good way) back then. There were a couple who were really good like Bob Lanier. Bennett just ran over everybody, and East had some really good players too. Bennet’s team was so strong that all five guys should have made All-High, but they couldn’t.” Uncle Tony continually emphasized the number of strong players in the Yale Cup season he played in, and you could just feel it when he spoke. We spent a lot of time discussing Bob Lanier and the Bennett High School teams, and so many others.

“My main claim to fame was that Lanier was averaging 26 points per game, and I held him to 24 (laughing),” my uncle joked. “Of course, they took him out, so he sat on the bench in the last quarter. He almost sat out a whole quarter.”

Section VI’s Basketball Diamond In The Rough

“I always wanted to play against each of the city schools. When I was a ‘youngin’ just learning how to play the game – if you go back to when I was a freshman, I can tell you every school had a guy or two guys that could ball. At South Park, you had Damone Solomon along with those Hutchinson boys,” Riverside’s Ed Harris enthusiastically said about the Yale Cup during our era. It was like what my Uncle Tony said about his era 20 years earlier.

“You go to Emerson, and you’ve got Shawn Cunningham. You go to Burgard and you’ve got Ritchie (Campbell) and you got the Pat Jones kid. Each of those teams had guys on them that could play,” Ed Harris continued. “That’s when city ball was city ball. You had a chance to do something, and I looked forward to playing those guys, you know?”

Celebrating The Yale Cup

I’m hoping that this piece came off more as a tribute to our beloved league and not a pity party. I personally still get butterflies thinking about those games in the old gyms, our uniforms, and the school colors. We played in lesser conditions than our counterparts at the private and suburban schools. Still, there was nothing like that feeling of competition no matter where it was and who it was against. Those were fun times.

Again, the Buffalo News covered much of this in writings by Jerry Sullivan, Mike Harrington, the late Allen Wilson and others. While working on this ambitious project it was necessary to revisit the Yale Cup and all its aspects. As a writer, promotion is a major consideration. You also must set the story world for your readers, and the story world for my project is the Yale Cup and Section VI.

Playing Yale Cup Basketball

I’m closing this piece out with one more Yale Cup coach some of you may be familiar with. Bob Mitchell (pictured) was the Head Coach of the Kensington Boys’ Basketball Teams in the early 1990s. Just as in the picture, the times we played Kensington, I remember him wearing suits and being a fiery coach. Names I think of when I think of those Knights teams are Taka Molson, Radaun Hill and Kilroy Jackson who were all stars on their squads. The Knights were generally athletic, long, physical and tall. They played zone defenses and liked to get out in the open court and run like racehorses. Furthermore they liked to score the ball in transition via dunks and layups. They played Yale Cup basketball.

One of my many interviewees likewise played on the Kensington Boys’ Basketball Team, Coach Samuel “Quinn” Coffey. I thus got a feel for what it was like to wear the green and gold. In another promotional piece for The Engineers, I plan to discuss the difference between coaches who set out to build basketball programs versus simply assembling teams. As described earlier in this piece, it was different for all of us, depending upon which schools we attended, and which coaches we played for.

Closing Thoughts

Thank you for reading this piece. As you’ve seen, I’ve used numerous pictures from the Yale Cup and players from the 1980s and 90s. These images came from an archive of Section VI basketball, carefully assembled over the years from issues of the Buffalo News. Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, my first Coach at Hutch-Tech created this archive. Coach Jones was a mentor, a father figure, and is a central in my story. None of this would’ve been possible without him.

While this piece focused on the Yale Cup and Western New York high school basketball in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the themes are universal. They thus may apply to the basketball league you played in as a youth wherever you grew up. Thus, feel free to share your high school basketball experiences and memories in the comments section below. And especially if you played in the Yale Cup, please share any of your experiences below.

More Promotional Pieces On The Way

I’m creating more promotional/teaser pieces for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. These will be 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 more 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. It will promote written and video content from 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. If you sign up, I promise that 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 an issue with the sign up form, you can also email me at bwllcnl@gmail.com . Regards.

The Exchange Street Tunnel And Growing Up Traveling On Amtrak’s Empire Corridor Trains

“Just then the tunnel lit up slowly as did the tracks at the bottom of it. And then the train appeared; a massive, large, gray, squared machine barreling towards us.”

Some of My Fondest Childhood Memories

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of Dad coming to get us on the Amtrak trains. Like many kids in Generation X, my parents divorced when I was young. Afterwards Dad settled down in the Capital Region of New York State, while we grew up in Buffalo. That’s where Mom was from and that’s where most of my childhood took place. But this story isn’t about that per se. It’s about a yearly ritual that came about due to this circumstance.

Waiting for Dad’s Letter and Traveling New York State by Train

Dad had visitation once or twice a year and as time went on, it ended up being in the middle or end of the summertime. As a preteen during those months, I’d watch the mailbox for a letter from Schenectady, NY, the Electric City. It was given that nickname because the General Electric corporate offices were based there. Before my parents split, we lived 20 minutes east in Albany, the state capital. I don’t know exactly why Dad settled in Schenectady, but he did.

Dad initially called Mom to announce his intention to come get us. A formal man, he used that word a lot, and eventually he just sent letters. They’d agree on the dates and the length of our visit, and then he’d show up. The early visits were by car. He’d drive five hours to Buffalo on Interstate 90 (I-90) in his red Volkswagen bug. He would take us to Schenectady, and then bring us back usually in two weeks. Then, at some point, he decided to come get us on the train.

I don’t know what made Dad decide to start using the train for our visits. It could’ve been the grueling four-to-five-hour drive to Buffalo. Maybe it was my love for trains. It developed when playing with the toy train sets Dad had. He had a miniature N scale train set, a medium sized HO train set and finally a Lionel train set with the third middle rail. His father, my grandfather whom I never met, constructed that HO train set we played with. Dad said his father had been a cook on the railroads.

Making the Exchange at the Exchange Street Train Station

Mom agreed to drop us at the Amtrak Exchange Street station in downtown Buffalo. In hindsight, the street and station names were coincidental, but accurate. The station was underneath the Interstate 190 expressway (I-190), across from the Buffalo Bison’s Baseball Stadium. Dad typically arrived in town the day before and stayed at the Travel Lodge Motel on Main Street. He’d go out to the famous Anchor Bar to listen to jazz and get food. I’d be at home in bed, anxious to see him the next day and for the trip.

My most vivid memory of him meeting us at the station was a day when Mom, and her then boyfriend, got us there early. Dad wasn’t there yet, and I eagerly looked around for him. In the tiny station I looked out of the window and up the hill. I saw him turn the corner and got excited. He descended towards the station with his luggage dressed in his signature short sleeve button down shirt, slacks and shoes. I darted out of the station up the hill and jumped on him, while my older brother patiently waited in his seat. My parents were cordial during those exchanges.

“Now you know you have to come back to Buffalo in two weeks, right?” Now just the three of us, Dad sternly made sure that we understood the terms of the agreement he and Mom made for the visit. He especially made sure I understood.

Waiting for Our Train

We waited for the train to arrive. Our tiny station consisted only of a lobby, an enclosed office for the ticketing agent, restrooms, and vending machines. There was one exit to the station’s single track which was for the most part covered by shade from the I-190 skyway above.

Dad usually bought tickets for east/southbound Train No. 64, the Maple Leaf, which originated in Toronto, Ontario. When I studied the free paper schedules available in the station, I saw that it stopped at places like Grimsby, St. Catherines and Niagara Falls, Ontario before crossing over the border to Niagara Falls, NY, the stop before Buffalo. This passage through customs made the train late every time by an hour or more.

Most of the trains in the Empire Corridor had names and numbers. In addition to the Maple Leaf, there were train Nos. 283/284 the Niagara Rainbow, and train Nos. 48/49 the Lake Shore Limited. Both trains made journeys to Western New York and beyond from Grand Central Station, and back again. The even numbered trains were eastbound, and the odd numbered counterparts were westbound trains (Nos. 64 and 63, for example). Trains like the Bear Mountain and the Electric City Express only seemed to journey to the Albany area from New York City. Some operated daily while others operated on specific days. It was all fascinating to me.

Seeing the Train Emerge from the Tunnel

The station attendant alerted us when the train was near, and we’d all file out onto the platform. Because the station sat below the skyway, you could hear the cars and trucks passing over head which created an ambient sound. I eagerly focused on the tunnel though, anticipating the arrival of the train No. 64. I still get butterflies thinking about it.

At that time there was one single track. To the west, it extended straight and then curved into the tunnel. Looking in the opposite direction from the platform, it extended eastward and then curved and disappeared in the distance behind a random building. At some point you could hear an increasingly intense hum which competed with the noise from the skyway. The hum was accompanied by the sound of an air horn, a very distinct high-pitched sound. The engineers typically blew it twice to let you know the train was approaching the station and to stand back.

The EMD-F40PH Engine Leads the Charge

Just then the tunnel lit up slowly as did the tracks at the bottom of it. And then the train appeared; a massive, large, gray, squared machine barreling towards us. There were two windows at the top of the engine car where the engineers sat, the engine’s cabin or “cab”. Two singular vertical running lights were at the front of the chassis, the ‘nose’ if you will. There were two more blinking lights below them on the right and the left, both flashing in an alternating manner. Red, white, and blue stripes wrapped around the body of the locomotive. In the front right half of the lower chassis, in those stripes, was the name Amtrak. The chassis was square shaped, unlike the General Motors (GM) Electro-Motive Division’s (EMD) classic FL9 passenger locomotives from earlier in the century. They were featured in movies like ‘Superman: The Motion Picture’.

After researching this, I later learned that this was a modern “EMD-F40PH” locomotive, also made by GM. Its distinct hum was accompanied by a loud bell which rung at a slow cadence as the locomotive rumbled past us like a goliath. The large beast of a machine literally shook the ground and kicked up dust and rubble as it slowed to an eventual stop. There was the distinct smell of the diesel exhaust fumes combined with the smell of the rails and the ties upon which the trains travelled. The side of the locomotive also read Amtrak, but in larger letters. As directed, we all stood behind the yellow line of the weathered platform, but you still felt the might of the engine.

The initial final draft of this essay affectionately discussed the F40PH engines but had no pictures of them. Amtrak retired them years ago and I had no pictures of them. My mother edited this essay and pointed out that there were no images of the engines in the final essay. In the fall of 2022, I found an interesting channel on YouTube one night entitled, AmtrakGuy365. The content creator is one of many rail fans on YouTube and created impressive highly detailed historic videos on the engines used by Amtrak over the years. To get an understanding of my love for the F40PH engine, watch the following embedded video. Please read the rest of my essay as well. Also, salute to AmtrakGuy365.

The Regal Silver Amfleet

As the mighty locomotive emerged from the tunnel, you could see a sleek fleet of stainless steel, curved cars or coaches behind it. They also wore the same red, white, and blue stripes. These were Amfleet coaches built by the manufacturer Budd. They contrasted the locomotive because their sides were curved, not straight. Also, the body of the locomotive was a dull industrial gray. The top was painted black.

With the train stopped, you could still hear the hum from the engine down at the front end, but the cars made noises themselves. It sounded like a fan or something running similar to an air conditioner which made sense as there was machinery underneath each coach.

At each end there were four bare wheels with springs in the middle. Technically, these were the coaches’ trucks. In between these coaches were connectors through which people could pass. There were also the actual couplers connecting each coach, the air hoses and then electric cables running between each coach. Lining each car within the red, white, and blue stripes were rectangular tinted windows with round corners that were cut in half by separators.

Boarding the Great Silver Coaches

The complement of cars was typically five or six with one ‘café’ car. In the summer months, Amtrak extended the Maple Leaf Train to seven or eight cars, with two engines operating back-to-back when necessary. As the train slowed to a stop you heard another high-pitched sound, almost a whine, as the air brakes kicked in. As the train slowed, the doors at the ends of selected coaches slid open with conductors standing in their vestibules. They lifted hatches revealing stairways which unfolded down to the platform creating stairwells for the passengers. The conductors descended to direct and greet us.

“Schenectady is two cars down. If you’re going to Grand Central Station, get into the forward coaches. The food service car is at the center of the train,” the conductors would say. Most of them were men. You saw some female conductors on the Empire Corridor later, but most were men, both black and white. They wore military style hats, with Amtrak printed on them, short sleeve button down shirts, dress pants and shoes in the summertime. In the wintertime they wore overcoats.

Because the platform at the Buffalo Exchange Street Station sat at track level, passengers literally had to climb up into the coaches with their luggage, which was part of the fun. Looking down at the locomotive as I often did, I could see exhaust fumes emanating from its top side, like a whale and its blowhole. The interior of the coaches smelled like air freshener. The seats were a red color as were the coaches’ upholstery, and there were overhead racks for luggage. Sets of four facing seats were usually at the ends of each car near the restrooms. Because there were three of us, we usually sat there.

The conductors eventually came by and collected our tickets. They used some sort of hole punch and tore them in half. They then gave us each green, orange, or yellow generic Amtrak stubs with scribbles from a black magic marker which were placed above our seats signifying our destinations. Since we were going to Schenectady, our tickets read, SDY. On the return trips to Buffalo, they scribbled, BFX for Exchange Street, or simply BUF for the Depew station. Rochester was ROC and Syracuse was SYR. You get the idea. If you were going all the way to Grand Central Station, your stub read, GCT or NYC.

From Our Single Track onto the Mainline, and from the Inner City into the Frontier

The ride itself was magical. The train took us from downtown Buffalo literally into the countryside. From the Buffalo Exchange Street Station to the Buffalo-Depew Station, we passed the old Buffalo-New York Central Terminal, then the Conrail train yard along Broadway, the Thruway Mall area and then out to the suburb of Depew. I was unaware of Depew until taking those rides. The single Exchange Street track literally merged with Contrail’s mainline right around the old Buffalo Terminal. From there we rode a two to four track network from Western New York to the Capital Region.

After leaving the Depew Station, we immediately passed the Attica State Prison and then passed through an endless series of small towns and villages which included farmland, forests, and marshes enroute to our sister city, Rochester. Between Rochester and Syracuse, the largest stretch of the trip, there was yet more farmland, forests and marshes. You could also interestingly see that we were traveling parallel to I-90.

After leaving Syracuse and heading to Rome and Utica, like magic, the Adirondack Mountains and the Mohawk Valley emerged. New York State was very geographically diverse and beautiful, and this was the ideal way to see it. From Utica to Amsterdam there were more small towns, villages and train yards with old, retired freight and passenger cars. There were even older broken-down structures on land and built into the sides of the some of the mountains. The Mohawk River also appeared, and we rode along its banks until the final stretch between Amsterdam and Schenectady.

“We don’t own the tracks between Buffalo and Albany. We just rent them from Conrail, and their trains get priority.” I once overheard a conductor telling another passenger why we had to stop occasionally to let the Conrail trains pass by. When we were in motion Conrail trains regularly came thundering past us. When we were headed in opposite directions I could feel our train shake. Occasionally we’d also pass westbound Amtrak trains. Along the entire route to Schenectady, there were freight train yards in each of the other cities which were once owned by Conrail and are now owned by CSX, confirming the conductor’s words.

Disembarking in Schenectady

“THE NEXT STOP IS SCHENECTADY IN 25 MINUTES,” the conductors announced walking through our coach snatching the appropriate stubs as we departed Amsterdam. “THE EXIT WILL BE THE REAR OF THIS COACH!” In some instances, announcements were made in person and in others they were made using the train’s public announcement system.

At Schenectady we disembarked from the train onto the station’s elevated platform and entered the fantasy world that was our summer visit with our father. I also liked watching the train depart so we stayed and watched it. Once the conductors took on new passengers they climbed back into their coaches, and the doors slowly slid shut; the opposite of their routine in Buffalo.

With two blows from the engine’s airhorn, the train slowly started back up and disappeared around a curve behind a building heading south to New York City. The two red lights on the last coach were the final parts of the train I would see along with the sound of the wheels on the rails. I often wondered what it was like to ride all the way down to the famous Grand Central Station.

When it was time to go back to Buffalo, we’d do the exact same thing, but in reverse. Early on I’d cry my eyes out. It was hard going back, not because I didn’t want to go back to be with my mother, but because I wouldn’t see my father again for another six months to a year. But that’s a different story. As I got older, I stopped crying. Just like the trip to Schenectady the train would disappear, but this time into the Exchange Street tunnel. The two red lights on the last coach were the final parts of the train you would see as it disappeared into the darkness.

Thinking about the The Empire Corridor in Buffalo

Those trains departed from and arrived at the Exchange Street Station daily. In the mornings they arrived in Buffalo on that single track and journeyed east to New York City. In the afternoons and evenings, they arrived and then departed for either nearby Niagara Falls or further north to Toronto.

Though I only got to ride on them a handful of times per year, I thought about trains regularly. I daydreamed about riding on those silver curved coaches. With my grade school being on the westside of Buffalo and my high school being downtown, I’d hear the trains announce their arrival in Buffalo. It was during the warm weather months when the windows were open when I’d hear that distinct sound of the airhorns the most. As a teen I thought about them along with basketball, girls, and peer acceptance.

Even as an undergraduate and a graduate student in states far away from the Empire Corridor, I still dreamt about travelling back and forth on it. Nothing was ever like watching those trains emerge from the Exchange Street tunnel. While more convenient timewise, air travel never compared to train travel for me personally, nor did bus rides or car rides.

Always thinking about new technologies, my brother once speculated on magnetic trains, which would hover over rails with little or no contact with the ground. In contrast, I always loved the bumpiness, the roughness, and the sounds of those rides on the Empire Corridor – the subtle sway of the cars from side to side, hearing the hydraulics of the coaches, the roughness of switching tracks; all of it.

Riding the Maple Leaf and the Niagara Rainbow

Dad took us to Schenectady on the Maple Leaf probably for scheduling purposes. Because it originated in Canada, when you boarded there were already lots of passengers on the train and they could’ve been from Africa, India or any of the countries in the Middle East in terms of diversity. Since the Niagara Rainbow started in nearby Niagara Falls, NY, it usually ran on time. And because Buffalo was its second stop, I always got my seat of choice, though the train usually filled up the further east we traveled.

As I grew older, I rode the Niagara Rainbow more often, which departed Buffalo early in the morning. Both trains had food service cars where you could choose from an assortment of items on Amtrak’s menu including cold and hot beverages, breakfast sandwiches, burgers, kosher hot dogs, potato chips and mini pizzas. When getting us, Dad often brought cold Kentucky Fried Chicken (no sides) and we’d snack on that for the five-hour journey to Schenectady. That’s right, cold Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The Empire Corridor

Oh, I got so into my story that I didn’t describe the significance of the Empire Corridor. Years ago trains were the primary mode of travel in the United States. There were numerous individual private railroads in multiple states like the multiple airlines today. Examples are the Pennsylvania, the Baltimore and Ohio, the New York and New Haven & Hartford, the Reading (pronounced Redding) and the Southern. These were just the eastern lines. Out west there was the Central Pacific, and the Union Pacific, among others.

There was also the New York Central Railroad. The Empire Corridor is basically the remains of the New York Central Railroad. It is now the New York State portion of Amtrak’s national system, spanning from Niagara Falls to New York City. You might be able to throw in the Adirondack route up to Montreal as well, but the main trunk is the route spanning from Western New York to New York City. The New York Central also extended to Chicago, Illinois and the above-mentioned Lake Shore Limited which, in a way, keeps that part of the old railroad alive to this day.

In Buffalo, the old terminal located on Paderewski Drive, off of Fillmore Avenue, is a relic of that system. Grand Central Station in New York City was once the heart of the system, but Amtrak’s Empire Corridor trains now start and terminate at Penn Station where passengers can easily connect with the electrified Northeast Corridor. Amtrak’s modern system consists of the remains of the feasible routes of the old railroads. The other parts have been sold off or dismantled altogether.

Have I ever completed the journey to New York City along the banks of the Hudson River? Yes, I have. In fact, I’ve done it several times, but I’ll cover that in another piece.

The Author’s Post Thoughts/Reflections

During those times, Amtrak also used a couple of turboliners on the Empire Corridor before retiring them due to technical issues. They were of European design and had engines on both ends of the train like the modern-day Acela Express. My brother preferred them, but I always preferred the single engine with the fleet of coaches.

In case it wasn’t evident from this piece, I know a lot about trains (laughing). They’ve always fascinated me. While in graduate school at the University of Michigan I started collecting issues of Trains Magazine and loaded my brain with more and more trivial railroad facts. Most of the articles were long just like this one. That said, there is a whole demographic of railroad enthusiasts, as is the case with everything else.

If I’ve written this piece correctly, I will have conveyed a sense of innocence to you the reader. My childhood was an innocent one, and in general, that was a much more innocent time for our country and our world compared to what we have now. Though my parents split early in my life, my father wanted to remain a visible part of my life, to which I’ll always be grateful. He did a lot of things for me including helping me develop a love for trains which has lasted a lifetime. It was something we did together, and it helped me to start to see other parts of New York State, and indeed the country, outside of the eastside of Buffalo.

Just as when I was a kid, I don’t get to ride the trains every time I take a trip, but I’m always thinking about them. Whenever I see train tracks, I wonder where they’re going and where they’ve originated from. Furthermore, before I leave this world, I’d like to ride in a locomotive just to know what it feels like. In the Washington, DC area, where I now live, commuter, passenger and freight trains are everywhere, coming and going. Nothing, however, is like the Empire Corridor.

Most of the images used in this piece are from the first decade of this century. Interestingly, I didn’t know how I would use the photographs when I first took them. Like all of the upstate New York stations, the Exchange Street station has been renovated. It’s now larger with a train-level platform and two tracks. Again, there’s nothing like that old station of bygone days.

If you’ve read this article to the end, thank you. I like to tell stories of all kinds on this platform, and before it’s all said and done, I think there will be a collection of stories specifically about trains. I’m also working on a book. If you have a moment, please check out the page for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Finally, I’m also a YouTube content creator. There’s a page on my original blog with links to each of my four channels. Regards.

The Big Words LLC Newsletter

Thank you for reading this piece. 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, 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 that form, you can email me at bwllcnl@gmail.com. Regards.

The Last Time I Walked The Eastside Of Buffalo After Dark

“It was my first time learning that trouble can come find you, even when you haven’t done anything to stir it.”

This short story on Big Words Authors comes from my hometown of Buffalo, NY. It involves something that most everyone who has grown up in the inner city has experienced. Sometimes situations in life come find you, even when you are not looking for them.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley in the shadows of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Psalms 23:4

The last time I walked on the eastside of Buffalo after dark was in the late 1990s. It was definitely after high school and it was before I started graduate school. I was an undergraduate in my late teens and early twenties. Like Detroit, my hometown of Buffalo, NY had started developing its own reputation for violence and deviant behavior, a hallmark of many of the deindustrialized cities in the United States. If you’re curious about such things, a good book to read would be “The Code of The Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City” by Dr. Elijah Anderson who describes this phenomenon in Philadelphia.

Hanging Out on Chuck’s Street

It was a summer night like so many I’d experienced growing up in my beloved hometown. I was on my friend Chuck’s street, Martha, which was near the Suffolk Street intersection and the 33 (Kensington) Expressway. It was the summertime, the sun had set and the streetlights came on after 8 pm. I was no longer a child so I could technically hang out as long as I wanted to with no recourse from my mother. We’d started doing that in high school anyway. I was home on summer break, and was living unsupervised most of the year now already because I was attending school down south.

Chuck was one of many ‘class clowns’ at Hutchinson Central Technical High School (Hutch-Tech) while I was there. He just happened to be one from my graduating class. We befriended one another in our freshman year and were tight ever since, along with another friend by the name of Hestin. Our friendships lasted long after we received our diplomas in the mid-1990s. Starting in high school, it was nothing for me to wander over to Chuck’s house from my own and come back after dark as it was only a 10–15-minute walk.

While at Chuck’s house we’d hang out on his porch, shooting the breeze with the other kids on his street. We would indulge in ‘ribbing’ on each other and talk about all kinds of things in the sports and hip-hop worlds, people we knew around town, girls we wanted to get with – everything. There were always lots and lots of laughs and jokes, some of which Chuck authored and some at his expense. It was always a good time.

A Buffalo Summer Night Unlike Any Other

One night after dark I left Chuck’s porch, I headed for home but this time with a different outcome than previous nights. It was a night I would never forget. That particular night I turned up Millicent Avenue and planned to walk down Orleans Street back to my mother’s street. As I strolled carefree up the street, not far from the corner a car pulled up alongside me, starting events that would forever change my life.

“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR, MAN?” The driver of the car was a menacing-looking black man who could have been in his twenties. If my memory serves me correctly, he wore a short afro and was brown skinned. He might have been wearing all black and maybe not. At nighttime, most dark colors look the same. It was one of those instances which triggers your “Fight or Flight Response” because you know there is imminent danger. It all happened so fast that I didn’t ponder trying to run. Had I tried, he had a clear advantage. By default, I chose trying to reason with him.

“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR MAN?” He stopped his car and got out, crossed the street, and approached me. I felt my chest pounding and my breath shortening in anticipation of whatever was going to happen next.

“NO, I WASN’T. IT WASN’T ME,” I said holding my hands up in surrender hoping that he would recognize that I was the last person who would try to do such a thing to his car.

“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR MAN?” I felt something hard collide with the side of my head, knocking me back. Is this really happening to me? My mind raced is the situation continued unfolding.

“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR MAN?” Something else collided with the side of my head further disorienting me. I looked around for help on the street, but this was the one night no one seemed to be out on their porches. Even if they were out, would someone have helped? To the casual onlooker, me and my assailant could have been a drug dealer and junkie, a bookie and someone who owed him money, or a man seeking revenge on someone who sought to break into his car. We could have been any one of the now ubiquitous statistics involving violence and young black men in the United States’ inner cities.

I turned and ran at first out into the street hoping that someone would see us. A car speeding down the street slammed on its breaks and honked, and then kept going. Again, this could have been an altercation taking place for any number of reasons and why would someone else look to get involved?

My assailant caught me, and I waited for him to present a weapon in that early Buffalo twilight. Something else slammed into the side of my head, this time dropping me to the ground. I waited for what I thought was certain death. I laid still on the ground as the world went silent, waiting for my fate which I just knew was going to involve a gun. After moments of silence, I looked up slowly, and my assailant was gone. I got myself together and then hurried back home.

As I scurried up Millicent to Orleans and then my mother’s street, I turned and looked around every corner. My hands burned slightly from some scrapes on my skin. I probably got them when I fell on the ground. My mind continued racing. Is he still out here? Is he going to come back for me? Why is this happening?

As I entered the house, Mom was in her bedroom praying, just getting up from her bedside if my memory is accurate. In those stages of our lives, she had progressed on her spiritual journey. She told me that she was praying around the time that I described my altercation. It was the second time, she experienced one of her sons coming home after a near life and death experience. The first was my brother’s second or third year of high school when he and some buddies went to a party on the westside of Buffalo where they didn’t know anyone. I remember that night vividly as well.

Getting Closure

In the aftermath of it all, I was a bit shaken up mentally. It was my first time learning that trouble can come find you, even when you haven’t done anything to stir it. All you have to do is look like someone else. This is what’s called a crime of mistaken identity, and I recall my Dad telling me a similar story from his youth in the New York City subway system. I suddenly didn’t feel safe in my neighborhood or my city. What if I ran into this guy again?

One of Mom’s approaches to help me get past the incident was to physically walk with me down Millicent Avenue so that I could mentally confront the incident and get closure on it. I recall feeling a sense of resentment and not wanting to go back there. She was right and it was for the best, to at least get past the fear that was dominating my soul.

“I’ve been walking these streets for years and nothing ever happened to me,” Chucky said afterwards when I told him what happened. I didn’t hear any compassion or sympathy in his voice. I didn’t know if he was just saying that to be a smartass or just making an observation. In hindsight it could have been either, but it sounded like because he’d never experienced it, what happened to me was somehow invalid.

“Well Bro, it’s no secret that some folks in the family question your toughness.” In what was one of many such declarations throughout our lives, my brother put his gift of delivery and counsel on display. It was my first ever visit to see him in “Sin City” (Las Vegas), a lively visit in which our best friend left within one night over some silly spat with my brother.

We ended up in a spat too, and in my case, I resented my brother for a while after he made his judgement on me and the remainder of that trip was ruined. I remember getting on my flight and making eye contact with him as I walked into the jetway with everyone else. I felt bad about being angry with him. He looked back at me wondering what he’d said wrong. My visit to the desert shouldn’t have finished that way. We were brothers and we were all we had as Mom often said then and years later. Over time I got passed it.

Walking The Eastside of Buffalo After Dark

“I walk the streets of Buffalo at night and have been doing so for a while,” my then stepfather said. “I see some streets and when I look down them, they might look dangerous and I don’t go down them. If some trouble comes towards me, I feel confident that I can get out of it or handle it, but I’ve never been discouraged from walking the eastside at nighttime.” He was an older man and a Vietnam veteran, so I imagine he’d seen much worse than the eastside of Buffalo after dark.

In any case, that was the last time I walked the eastside of Buffalo after dark. Would I do it if I absolutely had to today? Sure. But like so many inner cities described in the above-mentioned book by Dr. Elijah Anderson, I won’t do it if unnecessary. If I do, I’ll follow my father’s sage wisdom. A child of upper Manhattan, at some point he started telling us to, “Keep your eyes moving at all times!”

If I had to walk the eastside of Buffalo after dark today, I most certainly would. I’d walk it knowing that trouble may come to find me, even I’m not looking for it. I would know that there’s the threat of violence, and potentially death for me or someone else.

Post Story Reflections/Thoughts

Some experiences permanently become a part of us. This experience is one that I will never forget. We may gain closure and heal from the negative experiences in our lives, but some things you never forget. Furthermore, in the United States’ inner cities, for everyone there is the threat of violence. Dr. Elijah Anderson covered this in his book “Code of The Street”. Finally, to this day when I visit Buffalo, my mother reminds me every time I go out to, “Be careful out there!” I likewise try to get in and out of the city without anything bad happening whenever I visit.