Not from that night, but pretty damn close.
Back in 1991 I was in my second year coaching varsity basketball. We had a really good team and we were playing another really good team from another league. Due to what occurred that night I’ll try and leave our opponent’s name out of the story. However, if you were there that night you’ll never forget what went down . . .
Like I said, we were a very good team that year, as we had been the year prior. We were about to play a team we’d beaten the year before, but they’d improved and really, really wanted to avenge that loss.
How badly? We had no idea.
Oblivious to what was waiting for us, we prepared for the game like any other. Game day arrived and we made the bus trip over the hills, into the next county and into our opponent’s gym.
Upon walking in though, we knew something was different. Although the reserve game was just getting started, the place was packed. In those days a full gym wasn’t that surprising though.
However, the emotionally charged atmosphere that hit us as we walked inside was an eye-opener.
As the home crowd stood and booed lustily, we looked around and there were signs everywhere. Some were of the generic variety, some decidedly not.
The gym we were in was pretty small, with maybe 15-18 rows one one side and a set of bleachers on the stage. On a related note, the crowd was decidedly 95% anti-Bearcats. We had a faction of small, but mighty and boisterous, fans in one corner of that stage.
It was then, as we were walking into the gym and towards our locker rooms, that I noticed a sign. Here’s what it read:
“WELCOME TO THE NASTY PLACE”
Uh . . . oh. Where had I heard that before? And then it hit me. After we’d beaten this team the year before, one of my quotes in the paper was this:
“I was glad to get out of there with a win. That’s a nasty place to play.”
I’ll swear to the day I die I never meant that comment as an insult to our opponent’s small gym. What I meant was that it was a tough place to win because they always had hard-nosed, well-coached teams with loud, loyal crowds. That’s what I’d meant by nasty.
Really, that’s what I meant.
At this point, however? Too late for explanations. I’d insulted their gym, their team, their school, and apparently their entire community, which incidentally was there en masse that night.
We went down to our locker room, which was at the bottom of some stairs under the bleachers. As we dressed we could hear the roar of the crowd, even during the reserve game.
The place was electric.
Eventually we took the floor, of course to loud boos and taunting from the crowd.
As the game progressed, the atmosphere only became more intense. The score was close throughout, which only ratcheted up the intensity. Objects were thrown from the crowd, usually at me, which to my recollection included pennies, candy (my managers loved that), and anything else folks could get their hands on.
At one point the game was stopped and an administrator made an announcement, something along these lines:
“Listen, no matter what the other coach said about our school, please try and stop throwing things at him.”
I swear it was something like that. Probably not the best choice of words, because they only amped the crowd up more.
And man, if you’d have heard some of the things being yelled at me from behind our bench your jaw would have hit the floor.
Anyway, as we entered the last quarter we were in trouble. We trailed a very talented team whose crowd wanted a win very badly. With around 5:00 remaining, we were down by 10-points.
But then, thanks to a timeout followed by a furious full court press, we made a run. Did I mention we had three of the best little defensive guards in the league in Todd Shoemaker, Casey McFadden, and Roman Diekan? All three were 5-10 and they would get after you defensively.
Not only that, they feared nobody. Not even hundreds of angry fans giving them Holy Hell from the bleachers. Shoot, it made my guys play harder.
Bottom line, we held our opponents scoreless the last 5:00 of the game, and eventually forced overtime. It was on.
As we readied for the overtime tip, the din of the crowd was deafening. But the real fun was about to commence.
The Bearcats got the tip, and it was then we made the decision to hold the ball.
Yep, you read that right. We decided hold the ball and go for the last shot.
Hey, we had three of the best guards, defenders and ballhandlers in the Scioto Valley Conference, we were playing in a hostile (to put it mildly) environment, so why not hold it and go for the win?
And that’s exactly what we did.
Todd, Roman and Casey dribbled and passed their way through the overtime, running a weave out front as our opponents tried desperately to regain possession of the basketball.
Wasn’t happening, man. And as you can imagine, this only amped up the tension higher with the crowd, if that were possible.
We burned the clock in that spread offense until there were about 5-seconds left, when Todd Shoemaker rifled a no-look, bullet pass from the top of the key to 6′-5″ sophomore (and future 1st Team All-Ohioan) Craig Kerns under the basket. Kerns was immediately fouled on the wide-open layup, giving him two free throws with 1-second remaining in the tied game.
It was then we called a timeout, and I told Craig to make the first shot (I had no doubt he would) and miss the second, giving the other team no time to get the rebound and call their own timeout and attempt a last second prayer of a play.
As Craig was lining up for the first shot, I saw Todd walk up from beyond the 3-point line and whisper something to him. He actually had his hands cupped over his mouth as he whispered in Craig’s ear. In retrospect I should have known something was up. Alas, in the heat of the moment I did not.
So, Craig made the first to put us up 1 and missed the second as directed. An opposing player grabbed the rebound threw up a desperation shot that missed, and we’d pulled off the big comeback win under very difficult circumstances.
One of the incredible final stats was that we held a very good team, including the last quarter and overtime, to zero points over the last 9-minutes of the game.
As I started to go over to shake hands with the opposing coach, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. As I turned to look, I saw Todd and Craig running towards the opposite wall. Then I saw them rip a particularly offensive sign off the wall.
Uh-oh. So that’s what they’d been talking about.
I can’t say it was the best decision they’d ever made, but they’d also been suffering through some pretty intense verbal abuse the entire game. Did I condone it? No. Did I understand it? Yes I did.
At that point, well, all hell broke loose.
People poured onto the floor and fights seemed to be breaking out everywhere.
My assistant coaches, Daron Myers and Pete Hollon among them, were fending off people trying to get at me, and at one point formed a circle around me as we attempted to get our team to the locker room.
I remember that Craig’s father Brad, our film guy, forgo the ladder that led to his little crow’s nest where he’d been filming and basically jumped down to join the fray.
Finally, we made it downstairs to the locker room. Once there, we could hear people at the top of the steps yelling nasty things down to us. A group of our parents actually stood guard at the top of the stairs. I told my players to sit tight, that we’d have to wait this out until things calmed down. Soon after that, a local policeman came to tell us the same thing, that they were calling in some more enforcement to clear the gym.
My players didn’t even change into their street clothes. They just sat there waiting to be told what to do next.
Over an hour later the gym was eventually cleared, but a lot of people were still waiting for us in the parking lot. Soon, a plan was hatched. Our bus left the lot it was parked in and was brought around to the other side of the school. With a large group of our fans forming a tunnel, we suck out through a side door and boarded our bus.
What happened next seems surreal even today. After we were all seated, the Sheriff of the county we were playing in got on the bus, stood at the front, and said this:
“You fellas better keep your heads down until you get out of _______ County.”
Yep. That actually happened. I have witnesses.
On a related note, do you know how you can tell you have loyal assistant coaches? When, after hearing what the local sheriff just said, you have this discussion with one of them:
Coach Myers: “Coach, switch places with me.”
Coach Myers: “You’d better get away from the window. They’ll be aiming for you.”
That’s loyalty, folks.
As we pulled out we were escorted, front and back, by several cars and trucks from Paint Valley. Behind our fans, in the back, followed a lot of cars that were not from Ross County. When we crossed into Ross County, those cars turned around and went back from whence they came.
You may not be surprised to learn that I got several phone calls the next day, most from angry fans threatening to beat my ass but with a few death threats thrown in for fun as well.
Good times, huh?
Our twice yearly regular season games with that opponent were cancelled for the foreseeable future, although the very next year we happened to draw them in the sectional tournament. Again, they couldn’t beat us.
Thank God it was on a neutral court.
Note: Folks from the school and opponent in question will most certainly have a different perspective regarding what happened that night, and they are certainly welcome to chime in if they feel the need.