By Sherman Johnson
Contributor for KING Magazine and the latest addition to our Game Notes writers.
Admittedly the last time I’d been to a high-school game, much less a public high-school championship, there weren’t even three-point stripes to stand behind. But the more things seem to change the more they remain the same. Cliché I know, but it’s the truth and it became painfully evident after a series of major European-soccer-style brawls that erupted during the course of the evening at Madison Square Garden last night and ultimately overshadowed a couple of virtuoso outings from Bergstraum’s Erica Morrow and Lincoln’s Lance Stephenson in the Public School Athletic League’s Championship doubleheader. In a rubber match for bragging rights to the city neither one of the two school’s student bodies can stake a claim to being more superior than the other due to the sordid and selfish behavior that tarnished the reputation of a prestigious affair.
Morrow, a Syracuse-bound McDonald’s All-American and this year’s city scoring champ, was the high (wo)man for the Bergstraum Blazers with 24 points and 4 steals. She turned the heat up in the Garden with a few minutes to go in the first quarter when she connected on the first of three consecutive strikes from deep range that propelled her team to a fifteen-point lead. The catalyst was the Blazers’ defense though. Bergstraum scored 25 points off nearly as many forced turnovers while only committing eight of their own, and sophomore guard Shanee Williams (17 points, 4 steals) and freshman center Shakeya Leary (5 points, 5 rebounds) demonstrated that they’re the foundation for next year’s squad of defending city champs since they’ve got big-time experience despite the fact that they’re really young.
Everything was still relatively chill when the girls’ game ended but there were already circles starting to form outside the pressroom in the concession area by the time the marquee matchup between Lincoln and Boys&Girls High began. The atmosphere was charged with the competitiveness that rivalries tend to generate but there was a level of animosity and contemptuousness reminiscent of my own public high-school days in Detroit where metal detectors were part and parcel at sporting and other social events. At first I thought the heightened security precautions were overkill but when the nosebleed section started to fill up and the atmosphere got more charged my opinion of the situation started to change. Weapons would’ve made the confrontations even more brutal and deadly. As the number of cliquish confrontations grew so too did the police presence and it made a lot of people anxious and uncomfortable. Sitting in the stands before the game with a friend soaking up the atmosphere I got the sense that a lot of kids were there just to profile and gawk at the opposite sex and weren’t even interested in the contest at all.
The violent undertone finally reared its ugly head in the wake of an on-court confrontation between some of the players after a hard foul in the midst of a Lincoln run late in the third quarter led by Stephenson. As you probably know, Lance is only a sophomore and is already a leader. He’s gonna be a monster the next couple of years. He’s another T-Mac in the making. Long and lanky, he’s smooth and deceptively quick not to mention deadly from all angles. He got off to a slow start with a couple of crooked crossovers and fall away jumpers in the first half. He broke down B&G’s guards at will, posted up their centers whenever he wanted, and ended the second quarter with eight points despite some careless ballhandling. But like the beef that was cooking in the crowd he started cracking in the second half and broke the game open with five minutes left in the third when he went on a fifteen-point rampage punctuated by all-out melee that erupted on the mezzanine level and spilled down behind the basket (people were literally being tossed over banisters!) and prompted the host announcer from Hot 97 to lose his cool and scream a bunch of expletives over the PA system for everyone to sit down and behave themselves. It would’ve been funny had the scene not been so disgusting.
At that point it was a wrap. Security completely lost control as smaller skirmishes started to break out around the arena and the dome lights were tuned on and a couple of sections were completely cleared out and blocked off. Lincoln was up by 13 at the end of the quarter and by the middle of the fourth it was a blowout with a lot of exasperated people heading for the exits in droves. Brandon Walters’ tomahawk slam with six minutes to go and Stephenson’s breakaway dunk a couple of minutes later were anticlimactic because nobody was really paying attention to the game at that point. Most people were concerned about their safety and police were already starting to herd people toward the exits. Stephenson finished with a game-high 29 points of 11-of-15 shooting from the floor.
Unfortunately, Lance’s superb performance, along with the solid backup provided by his teammates, was lost in the pandemonium of the moment. Which was a shame because this was supposed to be a great rubber match between two prestigious programs. B&G, behind coach Ruth Lovelace, was ranked up there with some of the best teams in the nation and had stolen a game from Lincoln earlier in the year. By the time the final buzzer sounded and Lincoln collectively hoisted another trophy over their heads at center court, B& G weren’t the only ones looking like losers.
Both schools and their student bodies emerged from the affair with black eyes.