NEW CASTLE —
“There are three things that we all should do every day. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is that you should have your emotions moved to tears.”
— Jim Valvano, ESPY speech 1993
The New Castle High boys basketball team won the first PIAA championship in school history Saturday at the GIANT Center in Hershey.
I laughed, I thought, and I had my emotions moved to tears.
It was a great day to be a Red Hurricane.
The day started with a breakfast at the hotel. The team was loose. Everybody was laughing while poking fun at each other. The laughter continued at the team dinner before the game with the coaches ribbing each other unceasingly.
A stranger never would have guessed that we were about to play the biggest game in school history. There was no sign of pressure among either the players or coaches. Certainly the appetites of some of the coaches were not affected by the big game as they ate as if it was their last meal.
The shootaround at a local high school was next on the agenda as we prepared for the 8 p.m. tipoff. That’s when I began to spend some time in thought.
As I rebounded foul shots for Malik Hooker, I was thinking that this is the last time that I would be part of a coaching staff involving this great athlete. Hooker might be the greatest athlete ever to play basketball at New Castle. The only other players that I’ve watched who had comparable athleticism was New Castle’s David Young, who was an NBA draft pick; Dwight Collins from Beaver Falls in the ’70s; and Terrelle Pryor from Jeannette. Both Collins and Pryor went on to the NFL.
There was no conversation between us as Malik stroked one foul shot after another. He shot and I was in deep thought. His stroke was pure and his look was peaceful and so it didn’t surprise me when Malik made five clutch foul shots in the fourth quarter to ice the game for the ’Canes.
My thought process continued as I looked around the GIANT Center before the game. The first voice I heard when I walked into the arena was that of Don Ross, my coach.
I remembered that coach Ross, former head basketball coach of the Hurricane, played in the state final in 1982 only to lose 42-38 to Whitehall. I was told that he went to the old Hersheypark Arena where the game was played to exorcise the demons of that night.
I thought about how satisfying it would be for coach Ross of the Hurricane, coached by one of his favorites, Ralph Blundo, could bring the championship trophy back to the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House.
I saw Steve Sherbak before the game. Sherbak, a 1971 graduate of Ne-Ca-Hi, who played his college ball at Georgia Tech, traveled from Tennessee to see his alma mater play in the championship game. Steve was with his teammate from his ’71 team William “Pud” Stevenson and their coach, Connie Palumbo. Their team beat the eventual ’71 state champion Schenley High that year in the old Hurricane Classic. I thought to myself that nobody loved Hurricane basketball more than Steve, Pud and coach Palumbo. How sweet it would be if we could win.
I saw Angelo Fornataro, the former athletic director at New Castle, who made the over four-hour trip to see the ’Canes. He, too, bleeds red and black. Angelo represents the old guard at New Castle. This guard included legendary football coach Lindy Lauro, who willed the Hurricane to championship glory in the ’60s and ’70s. Were we going to be able to do this for them?
I am by nature an emotional person. It doesn’t take much to bring me to tears. I cry watching reruns of the old western, “Gunsmoke.” So it was no surprise to those who know me to see that my emotions were moved to tears several times Saturday.
My first tear was shed before the game when Jake McPhatter was told that his father, Jake Sr., was at the game. Jake Sr. was in a horrific auto accident Feb. 25 during our playoff run. As a result, he wasn’t able to attend any playoff games from the WPIAL semifinals up until Saturday’s state championship game.
Special arrangements had to be made to get his dad to the game, but Jake Sr. wasn’t going to miss his son playing for the title. When Jake was told shortly before the game his dad was in attendance, his emotions brought him to tears. He then went on to play perhaps his finest game of the year. Playing lock-down defense and banging two second-half 3-point field goals, he turned the momentum of the game in favor of the ’Canes.
After each play, I looked to where his dad was seated and saw him use every ounce of energy he could muster to celebrate the play. It was emotional.
I cried again after the game when Levar Ware, with tears in his eyes, gave me a hug. On Friday, after our last full practice, Levar told his teammates how much they meant to him. In a touching scene that followed, each senior expressed his love for each other. It is what “together” is all about.
To say that Levar played inspired on Saturday is an understatement. In seven minutes of playing time, he scored five points and pulled down three rebounds. His contribution was a seismic factor in the Hurricane victory.
Levar is a big, tough guy — and when big tough guys cry, so do I. But I wasn’t alone. Several of the players were expressing tears of joy after the game.
That group included three former ’Canes who were in attendance. Corey Eggleston Jr., Brandon Domenick and Shawn Anderson were in the front row after the game to congratulate their teammates. It broke my heart that these three warriors could not be on the court in this game. Their contributions over the last three years were major factors that enabled the 2013-14 version of the Hurricane to win the state title. They set the example with their leadership.
When the title was locked up, I looked into the stands for my wife, Marisa. She, along with her mother, Millie, our good luck charm (at 80 years old I only bring her out for big games), were standing and cheering. When our eyes met it, too, was emotional.
Finally, when the game was over, several texts began to pour into my cell phone from all over the country from those former Hurricanes who were listening to the game on the Internet.
Mark Mangino, offensive coordinator from Iowa State; John Latina, assistant head coach-run game from Duke University; Larry Izzo, former golf professional at the Palm Course in Florida; Mark Elisco, former baseball coach at New Castle now living in Florida; and Ken Hlebovy, former voice of the Red Hurricane, living in Ohio, all offered their congratulations.
Some who offered congratulations admitted that they, like me, had their emotions moved to tears.
Jimmy V finished his now-famous ESPY speech by saying that “if you laugh, you think and you cry that’s a full day — that’s a heck of a day. If you do that you are going to have something special.”
On Saturday, I laughed, I thought and I cried. Jimmy V was right. It was because I had something special — a PIAA state championship for my hometown.
(Larry Kelly is a partner in the law firm of Luxenberg, Kelly, Garbett & George and an assistant coach for the New Castle basketball team).