Tribulations of a Basketball Junkie: Martin L. King Let Me Down!

I confess… I am an addict… I am a degenerate basketball junkie…

I drive all over the Greater Philadelphia Region and beyond in search of my fix…

I NEED to see good competitive, well played basketball games! My addiction is full blown!

In just the past couple of weeks, I’ve been to Baltimore, Bensalem, Bryn Mawr, Malvern, Souderton, 54th and City Ave., 33rd and Walnut and tonight Solly Ave in Northeast Philadelphia chasing… I’ve seen Division 1, Division 2, Division 3, JUCO and high school contests.

All in search of a really good fuckin’ basketball game. Sometimes I come across that good, good…

For example, last Thursday, I watched Martin L. King take mighty Imhotep, ranked 6th in the nation, to the brink of defeat. It was really, really UGLY, but it was GOOD… In a hard fought defeat, King controlled the game throughout much of the first three quarters before falling 53-49 in overtime. Photo below (PennLive/Daniel Gallen)

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That game was full of missed shots, fouls, turnovers… It more closely resembled a bare-knuckle backyard brawl than a basketball game. Shit… I kept waiting to see Kimbo Slice emerge from the King huddle and check in the game. Even though he never appeared, I got my fix… I did witness Wil McNair, standing 6’10” and weighing about 250 lbs team with 6’6” 225 lb Elijah Kiah-El to meet Imhotep’s extraordinary athletes at the rim time after time. Repeatedly, Donta Scott, Dave Beatty and Koby Thomas tried to go over and through the King bigs. Over and over, they were turned away, shots rejected. Repeatedly, they regrouped, reloaded and came back to challenge the big boys somewhere near or over the rim.

This was “good basketball”… Not pretty, not elegant, not fluid… But good…

In the end, Imhotep’s lightning quick superstar Daron “Fatts” Russell was able to impose himself on the less experienced King guards and will Imhotep to the Public League title. Fatts is dat dude! The Pub’s best player on the best team got it done. Nonetheless, I was impressed with King’s performance and their effort.

For a few days, at least, my urges were satiated…

However, the monkey soon reappeared on my back… I was unable to resist the pull of the Palestra, the Catholic League Championship was calling me…

“Gonna be some GOOD basketball” (photo by Zamani Feelings)

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The matchup featured the Philly player having the greatest high school career, Quade Green, going against the player having the greatest high school season, Collin Gillespie. Had to be there..

We all know how that ended… Green and Neumann-Goretti jumped out early and took control of the game. He was able to impose his will and Wood was down 13 at the half, with Gilllespie limited to a mere 2 points… Things looked bleak…

Truth be told… an informal survey among several media members (Randy Miller, Amauro Austin and myself) at halftime gave Wood less than a snowball’s chance in hell to comeback and win… But…

Collin Gillespie is a BAD MUTHAFUCKA!

He finished with 24 points and Wood wins going away.

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This set up what seemed to be an intriguing matchup tonight. Big, bruising, intimidating, aggressive Martin L. King versus the Wood basketball orchestra conducted by Maestro Gillespie.

Now… we all know junkies don’t think straight… Why should I be any different?

Listen to this dumb shit…

I told several of my friends, I think Martin L. King might be able to win. After playing to a full house of 9,000+ in the majestic Palestra, the tiny gym on Solly Ave. couldn’t be an exciting venue. After defeating Neuman-Goretti, Quade Green and Carl Arrigale for the second time this season, Wood had to ripe for a let down. Right? McNair and Kiah-El would be problematic for the competitive, determined and rail thin Seth Pickney. Right?

I envisioned a scenario where the bigger, stronger King players would impose themselves on Wood and cause the symphony to miss a few notes for a change. No way Wood would be able just pick apart Sean Colson’s staunch defense. After all, King just hit mighty Imhotep with body blows, upper cuts and right crosses for four full quarters before finally yielding in overtime.

King’s toughness would be problematic for Wood’s precision… Right?

Fuuuuuuuuuuck no!

How bad was the beat down? Let me try to explain… Let’s put it in a comparative context…

Those of you of a certain age might remember the “body bag game” between the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins 27 years ago. The score that Monday Night was 28-14. A defeat for sure, but nothing epic is reflected in that score. To get a true sense of the magnitude of that particular beat down, one has examine the injury report.

Buddy Ryan’s defense knocked NINE (9) Redskins out of the game with injuries… Nine players left the game and did not return… Simply stated, it was a complete ASS Whuppin…

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I really hadn’t thought about that game until riding home from the Wood-MLK game trying to think of an adequate comparison for what I just watched. How do I convey the extent to which the Catholic League champ crushed the soul of one of the Public League powers?

There I sat, in the balcony with bleachers at full capacity… Good thing the Fire Marshall’s kid wasn’t playing… eagerly anticipating a “good game”…

I was ready…

I needed my fix… I needed a good, competitive and hard-fought basketball game…

Man… Let me tell you… King let me down… Right out the gate…

After 3 minutes of play, the score was Wood 16 – Martin L. King 2.

From there, shit went downhill.

The maestro was in his bag…. Weaving in an out of the King defense, Gillespie dribbled effortlessly right around the King bigs until he located one of his snipers standing, feet set, elbows cocked and ready to rain 3’s.

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The net was barely moving. One after the other, Cerruti, Pickron and Funk hit the back of rim and the ball fell straight down. You could see it developing, Gillespie created space… off a screen, crossover or an in and out dribble absconded his defender… on the loose, he came straight at the King bigs, head up, surveying the entire court… As soon as defenders committed he made a no look and extremely accurate skip pass to Cerruti, Pickron or Funk… for 3…. Splash!

After 4 minutes of play, Wood 21, MLK 6…

It’s worth noting, the Wood wings weren’t the only ones having fun… Seth Pickney and Julius Phillips caught the occasional Wood miss and slammed the ball back through the rim with tremendous force. Hanging on the rim, like second graders discovering monkey bars for the first time, they severely tested the springs in the breakaway mechanism.

With 38 seconds left in the 1st half, Wood 43, MLK 24…

I’m almost ashamed to admit I couldn’t shake my junkie tendencies… I kept hoping and believing the King team I watched against Imhotep would somehow make an appearance. I waited for a run… I pleaded for several consecutive stops on the defensive end… I wanted to see some “good basketball!”

I was trippin’…

With 4:08 left in the game, Wood 81, MLK 43…

Alas, I had to deal with the fact that I wouldn’t get my fix tonight… I had to face facts… King let me down…

No good basketball on Solly Ave… Just a good ol’ fashioned “Ass Whuppin”…

Yo… What time Booty play Quade tomorrow?

AAU/Grassroots: “The Game is the Game”

We have entered officially entered the heart of “basketball season”!

We’ve had a few weeks to digest the Falcons shittin’ the bed like no other team in the history of sports… Except maybe the 2016 Golden State Warriors…

It’s March!

Very soon… in a matter of days… we will be relentlessly bombarded with ads for NCAA March Madness. Shit gets crazy… People with absolutely no interest in college basketball will spend hours pouring over brackets trying to pick a winner from the field of 68 schools lucky enough to participate. Inevitably, some small school with a name like “NorthSouthEast Pennsylvania A&M” will knock off “Big State.” Or, maybe an HBCU with a shoestring budget like “Tubman University” will squeeze past “Big Tech.”

American sports fans, not just college basketball fans, will be mesmerized by the possibility of the 1 vs 16 or the 2 vs 15 upset. It’s magnificent theater! As good as it gets in the American sports landscape. One ALMOST gets a sense of what it was like to watch Roman Emperors feeding humans to hungry lions.

In an orgy of spending, the NCAA will make over $1,000,000,000 dollars televising Lil’ Man’s crossovers and Stink-Stink’s dunks over a three week period. With a couple of good wins a few relatively obscure coaches will go from making $300,000 to $2,000,000 in a three week period as the mega-programs at the top of the food chain poach leaders of the best mid-size basketball programs. All this stuff will be covered in the most minute detail by ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports, YahooSports, ABC, NBC and hundreds of mainstream sports outlets.

Meanwhile… There’s some other really interesting shit taking place…

Out of view, in every major city across the country there is a real fuckin war underway!

Look at a US map and pick a city… Any city? Houston, Baltimore, Miami, Oakland, Chicago, Kansas City, New York… Doesn’t matter…

For illustrative purposes, today I’ll focus on a high school in Jackson, Mississippi. Medgar Evers High School is where Darryl Johnson, a 16 year old 6’7’ high school sophomore, received 87 text messages while he was in school today. Darryl tried to focus on his school work but his jack was on fire…

What the fuck? Bzzzzzzzzz… Bzzzzzzzzzz… in his pocket over and over…

Stealthily, every few minutes he reached in his pocket and read text messages from coaches with various AAU/Grassroots programs.

“What up Kid? What we gotta do to make this happen?”

“What size you wear? I got 2 pair of KDs and the new Duke Kyries for ya!”

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“What’s your Pop’s inmate #? Gonna put lil’ sumthin on his books.”

Darryl tried to listen to the history lesson on the Great Depression, but he couldn’t focus…

The teacher words were gibberish… Just like Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice! (click link)

His team is still alive in the state playoffs. They locked up the county title last week. He’s trying to focus on his High School quest for another state title, it’s 3rd in 4 years, but it’s nearly impossible…

The war is raging!

AAU/Grassroots teams are in the middle of their “tryout” season… Darryl is the top sophomore in Mississippi. The Nike program in his area has been trying to lure him for two years non-stop. Same with the Adidas program.

But Darryl’s surrogate father, Jimmy Earl, is his youth coach and he’s been a fixture on the Under Armour Circuit for years. They met when five years ago when Darryl was in the 5th grade. Back when everybody called him “Dirty Darryl.” He hung out at the local playground while Earl was teaching his own son the fundamentals of basketball. Long, gangly and quiet Darryl caught Earl’s attention when, standing about 6’1″, he said he was only 11 years old. Although he could barley tie his shoes and could not make a layup, Earl knew the kid would have a chance if he worked at it. Besides, his son was a point guard and here was the BIG he could develop alongside his son.

“Where’s your Daddy?”

“I don’t know my Daddy….” Darryl said…

Where’s your Momma?

“She at work…”

“You want learn how to play basketball?”

“Yessir… I do…”

With that, Earl and “Dirty Darryl” entered into an arrangement… They later formalized it with Darryl’s Momma, Bernice, an in-home health aide working 12 hour shifts 7 days a week, 9:00 am – 9:00 pm. Bernice make $8.25 per hour. Just enough to keep a roof over Darryl’s and his 4 siblings’ head and something resembling food on the table.

Her job leaves very little time, however, for actually raising her children… She welcomed Earl’s help with Darryl…

When Darryl first came home with two new pairs of sneakers, she’s pleased. She profusely thanks Earl knowing she would NEVER spend $125 on a pair of basketball shoes.

“No big deal…” Earl replied.

Actually, it’s wasn’t… Earl has three storage rooms where he keeps about $40,000 worth of sneakers at all times.

After a few months, the neighborhood kids drop the “Dirty” from Darryl’s moniker… He wears new basketball gear everyday. Darryl has over 20 pair and he meticulously cleans them each time they are worn. He never wears the same pair twice in a week.

Eventually, Earl learns that Darryl has been suspended from school over 30 times… Shit doesn’t make since since he’s extremely well-behaved when he’s with Earl’s family in his home. Keeping it real, Earl’s wife never fails to mention that Darryl does more around the house than her own children. Why is Darryl so obedient and compliant in the home and disruptive and defiant in school? What gives?

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Darryl requests that the school psychologist “test” Darryl to see if he has any learning “issues.” He’s shocked to learn that while he was in the 6th grade at the time, Darryl was reading at a 2nd grade level and his math skills were barely 3rd grade. Clearly, his long-standing pattern of acting out behaviors were designed to cover up the fact that Darryl could NOT do the work. Facing a perceived choice between being considered “dumb” or “bad”, Darryl chose the later time after time.

Earl intervened and broke that horrific pattern…

The evaluation discovered that Darryl had neurologically-based processing problems. These processing problems interfered with basic skills such as reading, writing and/or math. They also interfered with higher level skills such as organization, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short term memory and attention. In other words, he needed an Individualized Education Plan with special accommodations in place to help him learn.

Earl made that happen… He changed the trajectory of Darryl’s educational journey…

Earl attended every school meeting, dragging the Mother along when a parental signature was required. Within a year, Earl was the de facto parent. Darryl spent at least 5 nights a week at Earl’s house. On Christmas, he reached under the tree retrieved and opened his gifts just like Earl’s other kids. On Thanksgiving, he sat at the table with the rest of Earl’s extended family.

Earl was his Pop…

Earl chose his high school… A local public basketball power with an exceptional special education program. In doing so, Earl had to fend off EVERY private and Catholic school in the region. By the 8th grade Darryl was 6’5” and 190 lbs. He more than held his own with local High School stars in workouts and pick up games. Everyone knew he was ‘next up.”

In the past, Earl referred most kids to private and Catholic schools, but the kids with “special needs” floundered academically. They would receive mostly Ds. They would earn enough credits to remain eligible, but their low GPAs would put them at-risk of not meeting NCAA eligibility requirements.

Not this time…

Earl knew full well that Darryl’s ONLY shot at going to college was a basketball scholarship. His family could never afford to send him… Earl met with the principal, the Special Education Coordinator and the coach. They put a plan in place to support Darryl and make sure he had adequate accommodations in place.

Freshman year, Darryl starts varsity and does well. He blends in with some of the older players and becomes the “glue guy”. He defends the other teams best player… He leads the team in rebounds… He draws charges… He dives for loose balls… The HS coach LOVES him…

His GPA is 2.8…

In the summer, he plays for Earl on the Under Armour 15U circuit… There he shines… He’s the MAN on Earl’s team and they are ranked in the top 5 nationally… He get invited to several Top 100 Camps where he does extremely well against the top players in the country.

Sophomore year, Darryl expands his game… While he still does much of the dirty work, he’s become a much more polished offensive player… He’s also grown… Now, standing a legit 6’7” and weighing at 21lbs, Darryl is real problem at the high school level. Mississippi, Mississippi State, Southern Mississippi, Jackson St, Alabama and about 12 other schools have offered full basketball scholarships…

As noted earlier, Medgar Evers is in the midst of a playoff run. Darryl is trying to stay focused on the task at hand…

But that fuckin phone is on fire… Every 2-3 minutes another text…

“You gotta look out for you…”

“Earl ain’t got ur back… You should come over here…”

“Hit me when you get out of school… Got sumthin’ for you…”

Non-stop… Eventually, Darryl shows Earl the texts… At first, Earl becomes visibly pissed off…

BUT… What’s he gonna do?

He sent damn near identical texts over the past couple hours to 5 kids that play for the same coaches contacting Darryl…

In fact, he has to meet the parents of one the other coaches kids at the Cheesecake Factory in 45 minutes… One thing for sure…

The game is the game…