Sunday, February 26, 2006

From the archives

Some of you may know that I freelance as a sports writer for the Cambridge Chronicle, a weekly newspaper that serves Cambridge, Mass. I don't advertise this because, frankly, I don't believe my articles would interest anybody who does not have a child who plays sports at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.

Exactly two years ago, though, the Chronicle published a story I wrote with a scope that appeals to more than a handful of people. For the first time since it was printed, I reread it on Friday, and I remain extremely proud of it. Normally when I read my old stories, I cringe throughout, but in this case, it happened only once. But that was because of lousy editing.

Here it is in its entirety--all 55 inches.

The story of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin boys basketball dynasty of the late 1970s and early 1980s begins on December 14, 1978, when an unknown freshman named Patrick Ewing took to the floor.

It wasn’t a pretty sight. In five minutes of action, Ewing scored one point and managed to foul out in a 17-point loss to BC High School.

Nearly four years later, as a senior, the memory of his debut was still fresh in Ewing’s mind. Prior to the final game of his high school career—in which he would face the same school that had embarrassed him as a freshman—Ewing told his friends he would score 40 points, plus one more as a nod to his debut.

And so the story ends on March 21, 1981, when Ewing, the most heralded high school player in the nation, fulfilled his promise and scored a career-high 41 points to lead Cambridge to its third consecutive state title.

A generation later, the impact of those legendary teams is still felt across the basketball universe. Ewing starred at Georgetown University, was the top pick in 1985 NBA Draft and his accomplishments with the New York Knicks earned him a place on the NBA’s exclusive list of the top 50 players of all time.

His coach at Cambridge, Mike Jarvis, went on to become one of the more recognizable figures in college basketball, leading George Washington and St. John’s to numerous NCAA Tournament appearances.

And Karl Hobbs, who starred on the 1980 championship team, played at the University of Connecticut and is now the head coach at George Washington.

As wonderful as those three years were—from the 77-1 record to the national recognition to the passionate local following—for those involved with the teams and for the lifelong followers of Cambridge basketball, the sweetest memories are reserved for the 1978-1979 squad that captured the state title 25 years ago next month.

'The one we remember most'

"The first is always the best," Jarvis said. "That first year was also special because what you saw was the beginning of one of the greatest basketball players in history of basketball. You had a young player of the future surrounded by older experienced players like Kevin Moore, Charlie Neal, Bill Ewing, David Dottin and Steve Heywood. It wasn’t the best of Patrick, and if not the best team, it’s the one we remember the most."

The nucleus of that squad formed the year before when the best talent from Rindge Tech and Cambridge High and Latin joined forces at the brand-new Cambridge Rindge and Latin.

There did not seem to be any athletic growing pains associated with the merger as the basketball team won 18 of its 20 regular season games before losing in the first round of the MIAA tournament to Lexington.

"We should have won it my freshman year but sometimes you have to go through defeat to put you over the top," Patrick Ewing said.

The players and the community were convinced they underachieved and lobbied for a coaching change. Although Tim Mahoney had been a well-respected coach, many followers of the team were convinced a better coach was already at the school. Enter Mike Jarvis.

Jarvis, a 1962 graduate of Rindge Tech, was teaching physical education at Rindge and Latin while also serving as an assistant coach at Northeastern. Prior to that, he coached at Harvard.

"The night that they gave Mike the job, me, Billy Ewing, Charlie Neal and David Dottin were at the school committee meeting," said Kevin Moore, a senior on the 1979 Championship squad. "I knew Mike would take us to the championship. We ran down the street, and we screamed, ‘We’re gonna win the championship!’ And we caught ourselves because we were so loud. But of course it came true."

No one-man team

Jarvis was very careful not to overemphasize Patrick Ewing (no relation to Bill). While he was keenly aware of Ewing’s ability and potential—correctly predicting before his sophomore year that he would become one of the best players in the nation by his senior year—Jarvis did not allow Cambridge to become a one-man team.

Instead, he ensured that the talented players surrounding Ewing—guys such as Bill Ewing, Moore, Neal and Dottin—were included in the mix. Not only did Jarvis feel that the team would be better served by a balanced approach, but that Patrick Ewing would be more likely to benefit in the long run.

"What Mike wanted was to have him not become a superstar right away and have him grow," said Les Kimbrough, currently a dean at Rindge and Latin and a former history teacher who has been at CRLS since the merger. "They had such a great team around him and didn’t need him to be a superstar."

While Patrick Ewing’s presence was certainly beneficial, the team’s depth was so strong that the Warriors—as Cambridge was known then—would not have lost much if Ewing hadn’t been there.

"Ewing could have sat on the bench and it wouldn’t have made a difference," said Len Johnson, a lifelong Cambridge resident and an avid follower of local basketball.

The Warriors cruised through the season and did not face many stiff challenges. By the middle of the season, they were receiving national attention and some had them ranked in the top 20. Although most of their opponents were blown out by large margins, that was often not enough for the local fans. They wanted to see Cambridge score 100 points every night and blow out its opponents by obscene amounts.

No chance of loss

Jarvis was concerned that if he allowed his team to get carried away, it might become overconfident. He wanted the team to be prepared for tough challenges that might present themselves down the road.

That's exactly what happened. In the state semi-finals, Boston Latin provided a scare and led by five points after three quarters, before Cambridge thoroughly dominated in the fourth quarter to win by 14 points. Then in the championship game against Holyoke, the Warriors won by only three.

"We were not going to lose a game," said Bill Ewing, who, like Dottin, Moore and Neal, was a senior that season. "It was just not going to happen."

Because the core of that squad graduated, new players moved to the forefront during the 1979-80 season—players such as Karl Hobbs and Kevin Headley. Cambridge continued to dominate the opposition, but the season did not go nearly as smoothly, as a recruiting scandal engulfed the team.

The seeds were planted during the summer before the 1978-79 season, when Moore and Hobbs—who had known each other for years—were casually talking on a lazy summer evening at Hobbs’ home in Dorchester. At the time, Hobbs was about to enter his junior year at the Jeremiah Burke School in Boston, but Moore encouraged him to consider transferring to Rindge and Latin for his senior year. But Hobbs didn’t believe he would be permitted to transfer.

"No one knows that I had that conversation with Karl," said Moore, who coached at Rindge at Latin before current coach Lance Dottin took the helm. "He was nervous about it. We talked about it all night."

Before his senior year, Hobbs chose to move in with family friends in Cambridge when his mother moved to Florida. The controversy began to simmer in the fall of 1979, but exploded as the season got underway in December. Initially, he was ruled ineligible to play by the MIAA.

"I was just trying to go to school and play basketball and enjoy high school and get a scholarship," said Hobbs, who played at the University of Connecticut. "I wasn’t prepared for all that. I didn’t think anybody would expect it to turn into what it did."

The controversy lasted the entire season and took many twists and turns. After Hobbs was later ruled eligible to play, the MIAA further investigated Cambridge on more recruiting charges.

At one point, the MIAA forced Rindge and Latin to forfeit the season and it appeared that the Warriors wouldn’t be permitted to participate in the postseason tournament. But the decision was ultimately reversed by the Middlesex County Appeals court.

The furor did not appear to have much of an affect the team’s performance, but their lone loss during the three-year period occurred during that time. They traveled to New Haven, Conn. to play the defending Connecticut state champions, Wilbur Cross, and had their winning streak snapped at 34.

Other than that, the Warriors handled the controversy amazingly well and defeated Worcester North for their second consecutive title.

Growing through adversity

"Any time you’re really, really good you must deal with envy and jealousy from a lot of people who don’t want to you be as successful," Jarvis said. "Those things make you tougher and stronger and sometimes it helps make your team that much more unified. It wasn’t easy, but only through the grace of God did we get through it. The kids grew through adversity."

By the following season, the controversy subsided a bit, but Rindge and Latin continued to be bombarded with another challenge—racism. As one of the few schools in the Suburban League to feature a predominantly black team, Cambridge was an easy target.

Patrick Ewing was especially ridiculed. Stories of his academic struggles spread throughout Eastern Massachusetts and during one game, fans unfurled a sign that read, "YOU CAN’T READ."

After Ewing announced that he would attend Georgetown and not Boston College, BC fans unleashed their animosity toward Ewing at a Cambridge game played on the Boston College campus.

"It was crazy," Moore said. "That’s when you got signs calling him a monkey. There were so many incidents. It was sad." Other incidents included the slashing of tires and the throwing of bricks and rocks through the bus windows.

But the team remained unfazed by the racism and the relentless pursuit of Ewing. By his senior year, he was clearly the most sought-after player in the country. Most of the top programs in the country expressed interest, including North Carolina and UCLA.

Clearly, they handled the distractions well, as the Warriors completed a perfect season that culminated with the defeat of BC High.

"There was a feeling of jubilation and joy and pride on the way into locker room and then within seconds, the feeling of emptiness and sadness cause these special kids would never be coached by me again," Jarvis said.

Now, more than two decades later, the memories are as fond as ever for those who experienced those years.

"All I know is that they were just great years," Patrick Ewing said. "We defied all the odds. Everyone was rooting against us and we kicked everybody’s butts."


At 12:42 PM, Blogger jeffro said...

if only this post was longer...

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Dan said...

That mentality would explain why the once-brilliant Sports Illustrated has adopted the lowest common denominator approach of the worthlessESPN Magazine.

At 12:33 AM, Blogger Pete said...

As good a read now as it was a couple of years ago. I remember it well. Nice to revisit it, cat.

You are dead-on with your SI-ESPN comparison.

I hate ESPN the Mag, but I'll say this. They came in with a shtick and stuck with it.

SI, on the other hand, sorrowfully panicked and gave up its strength in order to try and cater to the ADD-addled ESPN crowd.

In doing such, it lost its strength, and doesn't do ESPN quite like ESPN does.

In short, SI has no identity. It used to be my favorite magazine. Now, it's the one I'm most likely to cancel. I feel like I'm reading People.

At 3:29 PM, Blogger Dan said...

Cancel your subscription to SI and get The New Yorker instead. I just got a subscription, (thank you, David) and it's awesome.

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Pete said...

We already get the New Yorker.

Even if we didn't, the reason I still subscribe to SI is Gary Smith. His 3-4 stories per year is still worth the price. Throw S.L. Price in there too, and it's still a bargain.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger Pat said...

I remember those year vividly. I played on the freshman team of 1980for the Cambridge Rindge & Latin "WARRIORS" some of the greatest times of my life. Great read. First time I've seen it. Thanks

At 1:57 PM, Blogger skyy22 said...

I also remember this very well.I played for the WILBUR CROSS governors who actually beat the WARRIORS in the 1980-81 yr. The only lost they suffered in Patrick's high school era.


At 5:20 PM, Blogger Chas said...

Hey Dan. Is your last name Guttenhall? If so, I'm pretty sure your friends with PJ Solomon up in Newburyport.

Regardless, I'd like to do a 35th anniversary look back at the 1980-1981 Cambridge team and thought you'd be interested. It's part of a Boston Basketball Journal we're putting out this winter to celebrate the history and culture of hoops in Boston.


- Chas


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