Niagara Falls coaching legend Pat Monti discusses building, and leading the LaSalle basketball dynasty part two

“It’s a great game. I love the game because there are so many facets to it – it’s so exciting and you’re teaching life skills in a sports-setting in my opinion.”

This is part two of my interview with legendary LaSalle Senior High School Head Basketball Coach Pat Monti. In part one, we discussed his background, and how he built the LaSalle basketball program. In part two, we discuss more aspects of coaching, memorable games, notable opposing players and coaches, and his coaching career after LaSalle closed. We end by acknowledging the hardworking staff of the Buffalo News who covered the Explorers and Section VI basketball throughout Coach Monti’s tenure as the Explorers’ leader on the bench.

The pictures in this interview come from an archive of Western New York basketball assembled over the years from issues of the Buffalo News, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, and Sections V and VI playoff programs, by my first Coach at Hutch-Tech High School, Dr. Ken Jones. Other pictures were generously shared by Tim Winn, and Coach Monti himself. Click on any of the images to enlarge them.

Anwar Dunbar: In the late 1980s, Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News wrote a story saying that the Niagara Frontier League (NFL) officially had surpassed the Yale Cup as the best league in Western New York. Was that due to you guys or were the other teams in the NFL very competitive as well?

Pat Monti: No, I think it was just the great rivalries. Kenmore West had Dick Harvey who was a tremendous basketball coach (pictured to the left). I got into the New York Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003, and I think Dick got in a little bit after me.

You had a couple of really, really good coaches at Lockport High School like Dick Crossett while I was still coaching. North Tonawanda always had a solid program. The NFL was really, really good. I don’t think it was just LaSalle. Niagara Falls always had talent. Kenmore West was the team we wanted to beat in the mid-1980s when we started getting really good.

AD: During that 10-year stretch when you guys consistently won the Section VI Class A championship, can you talk about the yearly matchups with the Rochester schools?

PM: Oh yeah. We went up against McQuaid a couple of times, East High School a couple of times – East was supposed to blow us out every time we played them because they had so much more size. The Greece-Athena matchup was really unfortunate. I wish New York State did what they do down here in Florida. In Florida, they don’t call them “Sectionals”, they call them “Districts”.

When you play in your District championship game, win or lose, you’re not out of the tournament. The winner hosts the loser from the District next to you, and your District loser goes to play the other winner so that the two teams could end up meeting again to see who advances to the Final Four. The game with Greece-Athena was unbelievable. We just had no answer for ‘DA MAN’, John Wallace (pictured to the left).

AD: Yes, I remember he actually did have that cut onto the back of his head for that game (laughing). Well it was close for first half and then it slowly slid away from you guys in the second half and –.

PM: No, it was close for three quarters! It was tied after three quarters, but we just had no answer for him. We kept the game under control as much as we could as a low scoring game, but we just couldn’t stop him inside. We were both undefeated at the time.

AD: Yes, they called the game “The Meeting of the Perfect Strangers” as you were both amazingly 23-0 going into that matchup.

PM: They not only won the Public School title easily, but they won the Federation also. Think about it – they struggled with us. Had we had another opportunity, you never know what would’ve happened. It was just a shame that the two teams had to meet each other before the Final Four. I went to the states that year as a spectator as I did most of the time when we didn’t make it ourselves.

The guys at the Glens Falls Civic Center loved us. We never had to get tickets or ribbons – we used to just go in where the players’ entrance was, and these guys would welcome us with open arms because the guys who ran the place just loved the style we played – the unselfish basketball and the way we played defense – we were always undersized, but we never, ever gave in. It could very well have been the state championship game – us vs. Greece-Athena. John Wallace obviously went on to have a great career at Syracuse and after that.

AD: Of LaSalle’s many berths to Glens Falls, are there any memories that stand out to you?

PM: We had some unbelievable runs in Glens. One year we played Hempstead – a powerhouse from Long Island – a much bigger school than us. It might’ve been the year after Jody Crymes and Terry Rich graduated – it might’ve been 1996, Timmy’s last year.

I was told by some people who had scouted them, ‘There’s no way that you can play this team man to man. I know that man is your dominant defense though you do play some zone, but if you play man against them, they’ll just kill you inside.’ They had two brothers that were going to play at Rhode Island – dunking machines – 6’8” guys, the Bell brothers.

Hempstead had us down by 15 points at the half, and I was playing zone because I was told that there was no way I’d be able to match up with them. I went against the voice in my head which said to go with what got us there, so I played my 1-3-1 matchup zone and they just got too many easy baskets and our pressure wasn’t good enough. At the start of the fourth quarter, we were down by 13 and I said, ‘Screw it. Let’s go back to our “Run and Jump” 1-2-2 full court press and see what happens.’ I believe we still hold the state record for points scored in a quarter in a finals championship game. We scored 39 points in an eight-minute quarter, turned them over, and over, and over again and we ended up beating them by 12 points.

AD: Wow.

PM: In hindsight you say, ‘Dammit I wish I hadn’t listened to those people who gave me all of that scouting information. I should’ve just gone with what got us there, but you live and learn. And that’s the thing as a coach, anyone who tells you it’s their thing is crazy because we all steal from each other, or we all share with each other. Even after 50 years of coaching, if I see something I’ll say, ‘Hey that’s going to work with the team we’ve got this year at Gulf Coast High School or Naples High School,’ the two places I’ve coached down here.

That’s what you’ve got to do as a coach, you’ve got to give your kids the opportunity to win, by putting them in position to win, depending on who your opponent is. So, do I prefer man to man? Of course. But do I play a lot of zone? Sure. If I think a team is going to run up and down the court and jump over the top of me, and I don’t think I can match up with them athletically, I’m going to zone them. It’s just the way of life.

Maybe the best example of that is after we won the states in 1988. We weren’t supposed to win the Niagara Frontier League in 1989, but Elon McCracken (pictured to the left) – the experience he had helping us with the state title in 1988 and the cast of characters around him – we not only won the NFL, but we won Section VI again, and then a supposed upset over McQuaid. We then won our first game in the state semifinals against Long Island-Lutheran that had this Vasil Eftimov that played at the University of North Carolina. The guy was a beast – he still owns the record for rebounding in the state tournament, but he was 6’11”.

I played a ‘slowdown’, very smart game and we beat them by a couple of points and kept it in the 40s. The year after that, we were supposedly an even lesser team and we won the league again, and we won the section again. We played East High School out of Rochester with their old coach Sal Rizzo. Our biggest kid was 6’3” who came over from Bishop Duffy/Niagara Catholic, Duke Davis. Who else was on that team? Milo Small? I think Modie, maybe Carlos Bradberry, a really good guard –.

AD: Did Carlos have an older brother named Cazzie?

PM: Yeah Cazzie was a year older than Carlos (pictured to the left). Cazzie was a forward, a solid player who played for me. Carlos was younger – more of a ballhandler and a big guard and could score. As a matter of fact, Carlos was the school’s leading scorer until Timmy came along. Timmy ended up being the school’s all-time leading scorer.

Anyway, we were playing East High and they had six guys 6’6” or bigger. We had one 6’3” guy – chunky Duke Davis (pictured in the gold shirt below). I had one week to prepare for the Far West Regionals and I put in “delay and strike” game – I said I’m going to keep this game in the 40s and it’s the only chance we’re going to have to win because if we run up and down with this team, we won’t have a chance because they had good guards too. That’s why I said you’ve got to do what’s best for your team and not be hard headed and knuckleheaded and think, ‘This is the only way that we play.’ To me you’re doing your kids a disservice. But that game with East High, do you know what the final score was?

AD: What?

PM: It was 36-33 in triple overtime (laughing).

AD: So, you guys did really slow it down.

PM: Well what was great was that Sal Rizzo who was the nicest guy you’ll ever want to meet, God rest his soul – I honestly don’t think he knew a lick about the game of basketball. He had so much talent year in and year out – he should’ve been in the Far West Regionals every year – that’s how talented East High was. He got so ticked off because the score at halftime was something like 17-15. He came out at halftime and came over to me and said, ‘What are you doing? This isn’t basketball!’ I said, ‘Coach, I’m doing the only thing I can do to give our team a chance to win!’ He said, ‘Well two can play that game Coach!’ And guess what he started doing –.

AD: He started delaying the ball?

PM: He started delaying the ball! (laughing). I said to my assistants, ‘Oh my God. Can you believe this? He’s playing right into our hands!’

So, it’s a great game. I love the game because there are so many facets to it and it’s so exciting. You’re teaching life skills in a sports setting in my opinion. If you looked at my contacts in my phone, probably more than half of them are our former players. It’s those relationships you make – I mean some of them still call me, ‘Dad.’ My wife and I weren’t fortunate enough to have children, and it’s funny when people ask, how many grandchildren we have, my wife will say, ‘Oh we don’t have any children or grandchildren, but we have hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of sons and daughters,’ from my teaching and coaching.

AD: When your LaSalle teams advanced to the Far West Regionals, how were you able to scout your opponent from Rochester, if at all? Your Final Four opponents?

PM: We usually got to see our opponent one way or another. Sometimes my staff and I would head to Rochester for their semifinal games when and if they were being played on different nights than ours. Also, sometimes their Finals were on different nights than ours – either Friday or Saturday. There were sometimes when we had to send someone to scout for us if we were playing our Semifinals or Finals at the same time as the Section V schools were out in Rochester.

One way or the other I always made sure that we had adequate information on whomever we were to play. I was and still am a firm believer in deep and thorough scouting of any of our opponents no matter how strong or weak I thought they may be! There’s a very old adage which says, ‘leave no stone unturned,’ and it was a real belief of mine in preparing our team for battle!

AD: What did the LaSalle players do in the offseason? Did they play in camps? Did they play in leagues?

PM: Back in the day there was nothing like there is today with this crazy traveling all over the country – this AAU stuff. They have this great thing down here in Florida. Do you know how in college football they have spring practice and they have a spring inter-squad game? Unless you’re Michigan and you go to Rome or Paris (laughing).

In Florida, football rules and basketball takes a second seat unfortunately. Several years ago, they let them start practicing in May – right now they’re practicing – real football. The first week, no pads, just a helmet, and they walk through stuff and do cardiovascular training. The last three weeks they have full equipment, tackling and everything and then by the end of the month they play a game against another high school that they won’t be playing in the regular season.

I guess the basketball coaches approached the state and said, ‘Hey, we know that we’re second class citizens but we’re a pretty important sport too. Can we do something like that?’ So down here in June, you can coach your own kids in your own gym with your own gear, and then every weekend, there’s a tournament somewhere around the state.

They usually have 16 teams and they break you up into pools of eight. Over the weekend if you make it to the championship, you can play as many as four games on the last day which you play from Friday to Sunday where No. 1 from this side will play No. 8 from that side and so on, so you can play as many as 6-7 games on a weekend. So that’s what’s big down here even though they also still do the AAU thing which is going on right now. Come June, there’ll be actual basketball practice going on which is really great.

Back in my day there was no AAU though there was ‘traveling’ basketball and my better players played on what I would call more ‘All-Star’ teams. There was a guy – Mickey something out of Syracuse – he picked up Timmy one year and he picked up Modie another year. They’d travel around Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York in probably what is now AAU basketball. I myself used to put our team in summer leagues. Based upon the rules I couldn’t coach them, so I’d have one of my unpaid assistants – a player or a parent who knew the game and I would come and watch.

You wanted them to be thinking the game 24-7, 12 months a year but I was a firm believer in pushing my kids to play another sport. Down here in Florida it’s a shame. There are really good baseball players would could be good basketball players. There are some tremendous football athletes who would be phenomenal basketball players. But down here the coaches don’t get along with each other and they have the tendency to almost threaten their players saying things like a, ‘Well if you do that, then you’re not going to do this,’ type of thing.

I was the opposite. I wanted my kids to play a second sport for two reasons. Most of them were inner-city kids and I knew where they were – they weren’t running the streets if you know what I mean. It also kept their grades up because you had to have a certain average to stay eligible.

So, I used to push my basketball players and say, ‘If you want to play football, go play football. Go run track.’ A couple of them used to run Cross Country to get into cardiovascular shape in the fall for basketball. So, I always pushed them to do another sport, and they don’t do that enough anymore. They get them too isolated into the one thing and I personally don’t like that myself, but it is what it is.

AD: Are the kids different today than they were 20-30 years ago?

PM: Oh God. Are you kidding me? Of course. Absolutely.

AD: Are they less tough?

PM: There’s a lot more entitlement. I don’t know why. Maybe not up there, I haven’t been up there in a while – maybe 15 years. I hear from people about how bad the NFL is now. I hear about how bad the Catholic league is except for a couple of schools. Ritchie Jacobs used to be one of my assistants. He called me before he was playing Canisius the second and third time – I guess they got throttled by them the first time they played this year.

He called me and picked my brain for a good 40 minutes asking, ‘Coach what do I do about this? How do I do this? I’ve got this guy who can do this –.’ Over the phone I said, ‘Get your white board out – this is what I think you should do –.’ Then he turns around and wins the whole thing.

My tree has grown exponentially and it’s fun to have these young guys still contacting me. One of our LaSalle super fan’s brother coaches his son’s 10-year old team – they live in Mississippi or Alabama or something. He said, ‘Coach, my brother wants to contact you. Is it okay if I give him your number? He’s got this pretty good little 10-year old team but there’s this one team they can’t beat because they have one kid who scores three quarters of their points and you always run that gimmick defense. Do you think 10-year olds can do that?’

‘Anybody can do it if it’s taught properly,’ I said. So the brother of Dave Universal, this super fan and one of my former students, Dan Universal calls me and with pen and paper out, and I explained to him what I do when I want to, ‘chop the head off of the monster,’ so to speak. He got a hold of me a week later and said, ‘Yeah we beat them. We held that kid to six points,’ and he was so excited. He says, ‘Your thing works.’

‘It’s amazing more people don’t do it. You can’t do it if you’ve got a team that’s got two or three monsters. But if you’ve got one guy who’s primarily the ballhandler and also a scorer-facilitator and kind of the team leader – if you can take him away the right way, the rest of the guys get rattled, they don’t know what to do, and they shoot the ball differently than if he were involved,’ I said. I’ve proved it down here twice. We played two private schools down here – ritzy schools kind of like Nichols is or was. One of them called the “Community School of Naples” costs $22,000 a year to go there believe it or not.

AD: Wow.

PM: They had a kid who was averaging 23 points a game. Just the week before they were being touted in the newspapers here as “the best local high school basketball team”. The team I was coaching at Gulf Coast High School, we were pretty good – we had only lost one game locally. The other losses were to big teams out of Miami and Tampa. I had a week to put in my gimmick defense which held Lamar Odom to 7 points, and Stephon Marbury to 11 points. We put it in, and this kid from this Community School of Naples only scored 1 point. It’s effective if you don’t have too many monsters, but you can’t do it all the time.

AD: Would the LaSalle dynasty have gone on had the school not closed?

PM: Oh absolutely, and I probably would’ve gone on myself another five years or so. Who knows, some people say that if it were still open, I’d be coaching now at 71 going on 72 years of age. I ask them, ‘What are you crazy?’ I enjoy playing tennis or golf every morning. I go to basketball practice after school and just show up and teach without doing anything else.

I remember when I first started doing this down here, my former players and assistants would say to me, ‘Coach you can’t be somebody’s assistant! That’s impossible!’ I tell them, ‘You guys don’t understand. I’ve got the best of both worlds.’

Most of these teams I’ve been coaching, they buy into everything I teach, and it’s like watching LaSalle. As a matter of fact, Mark Simon, the outgoing St. Joe’s coach – he has a place here in Naples and he comes down in the winter once and while when he gets a break from work. He must’ve seen something on Facebook so he reached out to me and asked if he could come by a practice and pick my brain a little bit. He came by practice this winter and stayed the whole two hours of practice – watched our Gulf Coast High School team practice and picked up a few things.

AD: Now you may not know this, but the other Section VI Class A coaches – the Lancasters, the Williamsville Norths, the Lockports, the Hamburgs – did they all breathe a sigh of relief when they heard that LaSalle was closing?

PM: Well (laughing), the last year – the 1999-2000 season, that’s when Niagara Falls finally beat us. God, they had six to seven kids who were just tremendous basketball players, and all we had was Dewitt Doss and a cast of characters, and little munchkins. Believe it or not, that’s when they were still doing that crossover stuff where you had two divisions.

We won our side, and they won their side and we played them at North Tonawanda. We had a 7-point lead on them with about four minutes left in the game, and all we did was turn it over. We ended up losing them by two, and we ended up playing them again in the sectional finals, and they beat us on a buzzer beater. I’ll be honest with you in that we should’ve been blown out by 20 points, and we kept both games in the 40s.

Your kids have got to believe in you, and you’ve got to believe in them. I see too many screamers and yellers. Did I yell? Of course I yelled, but I yelled for a purpose and for a reason. If yesterday I put in an out of bounds play, and we went over it 20 times in row, and then we ran it tonight in the game, and you went the wrong way, you better believe you’re going to hear it from me. Right? I’m a teacher, and I taught you to do it this way and not that way.

I think people misconstrued me as a ‘win at all costs’ guy and it’s never how I’ve been. Am I a competitor? Absolutely. Do I like to win? Of course. I love to win. Show me someone who loves to lose and I’ll show you a loser, right? But you talk to my players and they’ll tell you that they learned more life lessons than they did the game of basketball. Talk to Modie Cox – do you know Modie?

AD: We met and spoke briefly a couple of years ago.

PM: Well you talk to Modie (pictured in the gold uniform below) and have him tell you some stories. He’s got a great program he runs now. It’s his business and it’s called “Winning Because I Tried”, and he speaks all over the place – all over the state at Boys Clubs and middle schools, and he’s just turned out to be one hell of a great and dynamic young man. He was a freshman I brought up from the JV on that 1987-88, 27-0 team. I’ll remember it until the day that I die. We still get together and every time I see him, and he still brings it up. He says, ‘Coach, that was the moment that changed my life.’

He didn’t play a lick in any of those games. If I had 11-12 Varsity players, I would always bring my three or four best JV players up to the Varsity team. They’d practice with us all through the Sectionals and all through the Far West Regionals. I’d take them to Glens Falls so they could see what it was like and want to do it themselves.

He was on that team, and after the game – he didn’t play a second and he was crying like a baby. He hugged me and said, ‘Coach this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me in my life!’ And now he’s turned out to be doing the right things for the right reasons and is just a great young man. He had a nice career at UB. If you have a chance, you should talk to Modie and Timmy Winn.

AD: Okay that would be great. Well thank you Coach Monti. I think readers are really going to enjoy this interview – your players, the LaSalle alumni who I see have their own Facebook page, others who knew you, and basketball fans alike. I have some pictures and news clippings from the Buffalo News to go with what we’ve talked about here.

PM: Well the stuff you want to get is the stuff that Allen Wilson wrote up back in the day. Do you remember Allen Wilson? What a great guy. He loved, loved, loved my kids. He followed us as if he was our number one booster. That guy really, really liked our team. He came to a couple of our postseason banquets – great guy and it’s a shame what happened to him.

His wife Lisa who used to be the sports editor for the Buffalo News – sweet girl. He met her when she was doing sports for the Niagara Gazette when he was doing the Buffalo News, and I sort of introduced them.

AD: I moved away from Western New York in the mid-1990s. What happened to Allen Wilson?

PM: He died of Cancer after my retirement. I want to say that he’s been gone maybe 10 years now. Great guy. Tremendous guy. Great sports reporter. He loved high school basketball – a Carolina guy.

AD: I know Mike Harrington was writing most of the stuff and then Allen took over?

PM: Yes, Mike moved up to the big-time and Allen took over the high school beat. And after Allen, there was Keith McShea. Did you go to college after Hutch?

AD: Yes, but I didn’t play after high school. It was a bit of rocky road for me. I got injured my junior year and had some issues with my grades, and then the coach I started playing under retired. Then my senior season was a wash.

PM: Who did you have at Hutch?

AD: Ken Jones. His 1990-91 team won the Class B Sectional and advanced the Far West Regional where they lost to Newark my freshman year, and we just had a hard time getting back and making things work, and then he left.

PM: And you said one of my teams played you guys in one of the Christmas tournaments?

AD: Yes, it was the 1991 Festival of Lights Tournament – my first year on the team. I remember the day before the game, following practice, one of my teammates said, ‘We’re not going to beat LaSalle!’ I wondered why he would say such a thing, but I was in large part unexposed to Section VI basketball at the time so I didn’t know who you guys were (laughing).

PM: Who did I have on that team?

AD: You had: Carlos Bradberry, Todd Guetta, Curtis Ralands, Chris Frank and Shino Ellis – those guys (pictured in the team photo above).

PM: Oh the team that played against John Wallace and Greece-Athena in the Regional.

AD: Now I hope my Coach and teammates don’t get upset with me for this, but from the opening tip, it was like a Lion jumping on a Deer where the two teams were playing at two different speeds, and you guys beat us handily, 72-42. I was hoping to get at least one basket in ‘garbage’ time, but Jody Crymes and the other reserves were still playing at full speed (laughing).

PM: Oh (laughing). Well towards the end there when we used to go into opposing gyms, people used to say, ‘Well it’s already 10-nothing LaSalle before you even come out of the locker room.’

Yeah so if there was ever a dynasty, for that one stretch, I think we were truly a dynasty. I know there was a lot of banter back and forth. Who was better? St. Joe’s or LaSalle? Traditional or LaSalle? Turner/Carroll or LaSalle? But, I don’t think there’s anyone who did what we did for that stretch of time.

It sounds cocky, but I’m very, very proud of that. We were able to do it year in and year out with a change in personnel every year. And it all goes back to what we talked about in the beginning – the system. It was the system!

To see the first part of my interview with Coach Monti and other basketball-related pieces on my blog, see the links below. There will be one more installment in addition to this ‘question and answer’ portion of my interview with Coach Monti. During our interview, Coach Monti told numerous stories from the LaSalle basketball dynasty which were quite substantial length-wise for a standard interview format, and were more appropriate as ‘standalone’ stories. Those stories are coming soon. Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. If you enjoyed this you might also enjoy:

Pat Monti discusses building, coaching, and leading the LaSalle basketball dynasty part one
Tim Winn discusses playing point guard in the LaSalle basketball dynasty and beyond part one
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup, and State Tournaments
Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional basketball careers and coaching
Lasting lessons basketball taught me: Reflections on basketball camp
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

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Lasting lessons basketball taught me: Reflections on three years of basketball camp

“Basketball is our game and yours can be the same.”

The first principle of my blog is “Creating Ecosystems of Success”. I originally published this series on the Examiner back in 2014. As a teen I dreamt of being a basketball player just like a lot of kids – a dream for which one must have lots of ability, drive, and luck to achieve. My experience turned out to be quite the adventure, and I didn’t formally play basketball beyond high school. The lessons I learned there however, not all of them happy and pleasant, helped me as I progressed into adulthood and into my Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) career. As mentioned when I began reposting this series, I’m working on an ambitious writing project chronicling my early basketball journey in Western New York.

Initially I thought that I would simply republish the original series and let it go, but I’ve decided to add onto it as I continue working on my book project and ideas keep coming to me. Heading into the summer months this particular follow up installment will discuss what I learned from the three years I attended basketball camp. See if you the reader can pick up on the universal themes which transcend the great game of basketball.

* * *

“Basketball is our game and yours can be the same,” was the signature quote of the Ken Jones Basketball Camp – the camp run by Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, my first high school basketball coach. He told us students more times than I can remember, “I’m a student of the game!” He ate, slept and breathed the great game of basketball. Our basketball program at Hutch-Tech High School in Buffalo, NY was an extension of him and was unique in our league, the “Yale Cup”, during that sliver of time he coached there. He taught us the structure and fundamentals of the game which at that time were the hallmarks of only the area suburban and private schools. To learn some more about what the Yale Cup was like, see parts one and two of my interview with Buffalo basketball legend Jason Rowe.

What was also unique about our program at Hutch-Tech was that our coach ran his own basketball camp – the first and only one I’d ever attend. I first heard about the Ken Jones Basketball Camp as a freshman. Towards the end of the 1990-91 school year, a highly successful season for Hutch-Tech’s basketball program, Coach Jones posted fliers for the camp on the bulletin board near the coaches’ offices. I knew very few fundamentals of basketball as most of my play consisted of games of “Twenty-One”, also known as “Rochester”, and ‘pickup’ games on Buffalo’s playgrounds and at the William-Esmlie YMCA. I thought attending the camp would not only teach me more about the game, but it would also give me an ‘in’ going into tryouts the next year – something it may have in fact done.

I’ll point out here that my perception of attending the camp as an ‘in’ to get on the Varsity team was a flawed way of thinking. There were several peers who attended the camp and didn’t make the team during those years. For any prospective players or parents reading this, it’s very important for kids with aspirations of playing sports to understand that spots on their school’s roster should be, and must be, earned. Spots on the roster should be awarded based on skills and preparation – not some form of favoritism or partiality – both of which do happen in the real world at workplaces later in life.

I was blessed that my mother and father were able to come up with the $300 to $400 fee to attend the Ken Jones Basketball Camp, as not all of my peers could afford to go. Keep in mind that I went three of my four years in high school – again a blessing. Also keep in mind that there were several local camps in and around the city of Buffalo which I didn’t know much about; which in hindsight, I also wish I had attended. Later in life I learned that no matter what your craft is, learning from multiple teachers only makes you stronger and more formidable. Each year the Buffalo News actually advertised all of the area camps, and neither I, nor anyone in my immediate family ecosystem at the time, knew to look for them.

At this point I’ll distinguish between the two types of camps and if I’ve misspoken here, please do leave a comment below this blog post. According to what I’ve learned, there were two types of basketball camps; ‘Teaching’ camps which were designed to impart the fundamentals of the game, and also what I’ll call ‘All-Star’ camps – showcases for the nation’s top talent. These included the: Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and ABCD camps. These camps drew your future Division I and NBA talent. The documentary Hoop Dreams shows a snippet of the Nike Camp in the early 1990s where in that particular year, players like Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, and Alan Henderson attended. They were scouted by high-level college coaches like P.J. Carlissimo, Mike Kryzewski, John Chaney, Kevin O’Neil and others.

The Ken Jones Basketball Camp was a ‘teaching’ camp. In the early 1990s it was held at Hamilton College in north-central New York State. It drew kids from all over the state – some from the Buffalo area, and many from the Rochester area where Coach Jones used to coach before moving to Buffalo. There were also kids from the middle of the state and the Hudson River Valley. That was true for the coaches on staff too. Coach Jones had an entire lineup of coaches he’d either coached with, coached against, or in many cases had simply befriended along the way. In a way they were like a group of ‘Mob Bosses’ like in the movie Casino. Instead of organized crime though, they were all passionate about basketball. You could hear and feel it in the workshops they taught in addition to how they coached us.

“It’s a season of basketball in a session,” was one of the other signature quote from the camp’s brochure and it was true. It was one week packed with: workshops, drills, and competition. I’d never seen anything like it before. Towards the end of the camp there was a ‘playoff’ for each age group and an All-Star game for the camp’s best players. It was literally like a basketball boot camp. We had to be up at 6-7 am for calisthenics and stretching, and then breakfast to start our day full of games and drills/workshops. We were also supposed to be in bed at a certain hour each night. As promised, our muscles and joints were aching by Tuesday and Wednesday.

It was a very ‘organized’ style of basketball they taught us there – very different than the ‘street-style’ we played in Buffalo which involved mostly, “going up strong to the ‘hole’,” and usually watching your teammates dominate the ball on offense while everyone else stood around watching – ‘isolation’ basketball. As I was going into the camp looking to become a much better offensive player, I was very much surprised by the amount of time we spent on defensive principles and fundamentals.

I also noticed that some of the other kids my age were much more developed than I was in terms of their offensive skill sets and their overall ‘basketball-IQs’ – their basic knowledge of the game allowing them to know what plays to make offensively and defensively – instinctually in some instances. One teammate from my first year at the camp who was from Palmyra-Macedon (Pal-Mac) High School in the Rochester area stands out to me. We were the same age and similar height, but he had already developed a reliable 15-foot jump shot – something I hadn’t developed at that point as no one had emphasized it back home.

Interestingly, the best basketball I ever played was probably at that camp my second year. I think it was largely due to the players I got to play with. They weren’t selfish, ‘me first’ players. The guards were disciplined and they looked to share the ball. At the camp going into my junior year of high school, I remember regularly touching the ball on my team, and making the All-Star game at the end.

What I’m going to say next is probably the most important part of this piece. I didn’t know how to actually harness what I had learned from the camp, and make myself a better player. That is, I didn’t understand that simply going to the camp by itself wouldn’t make methe best player I could be.

Afterwards, it would take hours and hours perfecting those fundamentals, and then learning how to use them in actual competition. This is the actual “development” – something that takes time, focus and commitment. When I look back on those years, I also realize that I was also developing on my own. In a game like basketball, if you want to play at the highest levels, you have to not only develop yourself personally, but you also have to figure out how to coalesce and build chemistry with the group of players you’re going to be playing with in competition.

What I didn’t understand at the time was how to break out of my ‘comfort zone’. As you might imagine, the majority of the kids at the camp weren’t black, and as an inner-city kid I didn’t know how to blend with kids who didn’t look like me – befriending them and asking them to show me what they knew – also learning about their basketball and life experiences. Making new friends was encouraged, but I just didn’t know how to do it. This was also prior to the cell phones, social media, and the technology we have today, so I didn’t think to try to befriend and stay in contact with the other kids long-term.

Probably the last important principle I didn’t understand was that becoming a great basketball player involved combining the ‘organized’ and ‘street’ styles. The reason I played my best basketball at the camp was because I had become used to playing the ‘organized’ style. A teammate at Hutch-Tech likewise told me later that my game was ‘basic’, meaning that it was very technically sound and very ‘textbook’.

I thought he was picking on me as per usual, but he was right. It turned out that the great and transcendent players at any level could play within an organized team structure, but could also play off of pure instinct when necessary – creating shots for themselves or teammates, or creating key turnovers on defense – again all off of instinct. All of this takes any player time, effort and focus, and it should come from within the individual in order for it to truly bear fruit.

“Damn Anwar. You spent all of that money to go to basketball camp,” a classmate said to me as my junior year season fell apart due to injuries and grades. He was pitying me, and or gloating – I couldn’t tell which at the time. I wasn’t originally going to put this quote into this piece, but it’s a critical aspect of my book project because it underscores how peers view you when you’re setting out to do something of meaning and value. Some are happy for you, while some are waiting for you to fail.

And again, not every family had the money to send their kids to camp which probably created some envy. Some kids wanted to play on the basketball team and didn’t for whatever reason.   When you’re a player on a team, you don’t know how your classmates and peers are viewing you and your opportunities until you yourself are going through a hardship of some sort. This also underscores the importance of having the mental strength I discussed in part three of this series.

And I think I’ll wrap this up here. As I’m working on my book project, all of the things I didn’t know from that time are coming to me – things those in my own immediate familial ecosystem didn’t necessarily know to stress to me at the time – things which the highly successful players are and were taught at those critical stages of their development. This piece is thus highly valuable of young players in those stages. I have a cousin like that right now who thinks she wants to be a basketball player. This piece is very much for players like her who are good on defense for example, but need to develop their offensive games to go to that next level.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part three: People, teamwork, mental toughness and leadership
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part four: Life, success, and failure
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional careers and coaching
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional basketball careers and coaching

“Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the moment and take it seriously. Understand that every decision you make affects the next thing that you do.”

This interview is the second part of my interview with Buffalo basketball legend Jason Rowe. In the first part of our interview we discussed his background, and the run he and his teammates went on at Buffalo Traditional High School in the early- to mid-1990s in our city league, the ‘Yale Cup’ and postseason play. In the second part of the interview we discussed his basketball career after Buffalo Traditional – college, the professional level, and now his current experiences coaching in Western New York. The pictures in this post were shared courtesy of Jason himself.

Anwar Dunbar: It’s been documented that academics prevented some Yale Cup players from going to big time Division 1 schools. What kind of student were you at Buffalo Traditional?

Jason Rowe: I was a ‘Merit’ and ‘Honor Roll’ student. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to play. My parents instilled education in me from day one. My mother and father were constantly on me about grades. If my grades weren’t above a certain GPA, then I wasn’t allowed to play basketball. My father actually took me off the ‘Modified’ team at Traditional for half the season because my average was an 87% and not a 90% or better. So in no way shape or form would I say that Buffalo Traditional didn’t prepare me. No!!! My parents prepared me and instilled how important my education was.

AD: That’s actually a big deal. I saw that happen to a couple of players at Hutch-Tech. It seems that if your parents don’t set that high standard, you’ll do just enough to stay eligible to play and, in some instances, just walk that line of eligibility as I did in some classes.

When did the colleges start recruiting you? Were you a sophomore or a junior? Or were they looking at you as a freshman?

JR: I was a sophomore and it just blew up out of nowhere. I remember my first two letters were from Duke University and the University of Michigan. They were ‘generics’, but you couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t being recruited by Duke and Michigan.

AD: How did it feel?

JR: I thought I was the king of the world. Even though they were questionnaires, these were the guys that were on TV. These were Coach Steve Fisher’s (Michigan) and Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s (Duke) signatures right there so it was a big deal.

AD: Where did you end up going?

JR: Loyola of Maryland.

AD: Why did you choose that school?

JR: It felt like home. I got injured at the ‘ABCD Camp’ and a lot of teams didn’t know how serious it was. My back was just ruined. A lot of schools wanted me to sign ‘late’, but I didn’t want to sign late. My mentality is if you want me, you want me now. I didn’t want to wait for them to figure out if another kid was going to sign. I was second or third on a number of college’s boards, but if you say you want me then I felt like, let’s get this thing done. Let’s figure it out. I wanted to focus on my grades and winning the state championship, so I didn’t want to go the whole season with phone calls and distractions.

AD: So signing late is something colleges want you to do when they’re unsure of your health?

JR: All schools have a list of about five to ten people at your position, and it’s in order of how much they want them. I was two, three, or four on a couple of lists, and I wanted to be their number one. If they wanted me, I wanted to make it happen. I didn’t want to wait for someone else to not sign for them to want me. In my brain, that meant they didn’t want me.

AD: So it’s kind of like dating (laughing).

JR: Exactly (laughing).

AD: What were the biggest adjustments you had to make from playing at Buffalo Traditional to playing on the college level and being away from home?

JR: I had family in Maryland so being away from home wasn’t an issue for me. The biggest issue for me was learning the point guard position because in high school we didn’t have any plays. In college now it was about game management – knowing what’s a ‘good’ shot, knowing what’s a ‘bad’ shot, and how to keep your teammates happy. There were so many things that I was lacking that I had to pick up very fast.

AD: Interesting. So when you were at Buffalo Traditional and an opponent threw up a ‘2-3’ or a ‘3-2’ zone defense against you, how would you all approach that if you didn’t have plays?

JR: We knew what to do whether it was running a ‘Motion’ play or a ‘Pick and Roll’. We felt like we were so talented that we could figure it out anyway. We had athletes, ball handlers, big men, and shooters. We had everything so we could chuck up a shot, and with Adrian, LaVar, and Damien – someone was going to get the rebound (see part one of this interview). We could get a three-pointer if we needed it – enough of us could shoot three-pointers. It was sort of like ‘fool’s gold’ because you could get away with it at the high school level, but at the college level, that’s not how it works.

AD: So in college you had to learn how to play the point guard position from more of an Xs and Os standpoint.

JR: Yes, I had to learn how to play basketball.

AD: Did you play all four years?

JR: I played three and a half. I left halfway through my senior year due to grades.

AD: When I was an undergraduate, I do remember sitting in my dorm room one day and seeing Loyola of Maryland on ESPN, and seeing you suited up in your green and white uniform. What did you major in?

JR: Elementary Education.

AD: Did you just encounter a hard series of classes, or was it just juggling being a Division 1 student-athlete?

JR: There was a lot going on in my personal life and I didn’t know how to handle things.

AD: At any point did you dream of playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA)?

JR: Yes, for a very long time. For anyone who plays basketball long enough, that’ s going to be a dream – especially someone who studied it, watched it, and idolized players in the NBA.

AD: In any of your years at Loyola, did you guys make the ‘Big Dance’ (the NCAA’s Men’s College Basketball Tournament)?

JR: The one basketball thing that drives me crazy to this day is not experiencing the Big Dance. Anything else that goes on in basketball is fine, but not playing in the Big Dance drives me insane.

AD: How did you go from playing at Loyola of Maryland to playing professional basketball overseas?

JR: It was through an agency. My college coach gave me a ton of agent letters – dozens and dozens of them and I literally went through all of them, researched them, and figured out which one worked best for me. I literally had an interview process with a couple of agencies and picked an agent that would best help me to further my career overseas and further my basketball career in general.

AD: So you must have done exceptionally well at Loyola for agents to have wanted to sign you.

JR: Prior to my leaving school, I was actually projected late first round and late second round going into my senior year in the NBA Draft. When word gets around, you’ll have agencies calling.

AD: What kind of numbers were you putting up? Were you putting up ‘Triple Doubles’?

JR: I’m trying to remember – my senior year, I was around 25th in the country in scoring, 15th in assists, and 3rd in steals. In my junior year I was 2nd or 3rd in steals, and in my sophomore and senior years it was similar.

AD: What was it like playing professional basketball overseas? Which club or franchise did you play for?

JR: I played in 11 countries for 18 teams. I played 15 years and I don’t regret a thing. It was beautiful.

AD: Wow. So this was all over Europe?

JR: I’m going to try to do it in order. I played in: Cyprus, Israel, Poland, Argentina, France, Italy, Turkey, Spain, Ukraine, and Morocco.

AD: So you were playing against home-grown European players, as well as players from the United States too? Which names come to mind?

JR: Yes. When I was in Turkey, I played against Allen Iverson. In Italy, I played against Danilo Gallinari and Khalid El-Amin. In France, I played against Hollis Price. C.C. Harrison had a big name. I played against Rudy Fernandez when I was in Spain. Lamar Odom signed to a team in Spain, but he didn’t play that night. Manu Ginobli, Marco Bellinelli – I played against those guys. I played against Troy Bell who I’m still friends with. I played against a lot of people.

AD: I remember you posting a picture of you playing against Allen Iverson, also known as ‘The Answer’ on Facebook. What was it like playing against ‘A.I.’?

JR: There’s two sides to it. There’s the ‘wow-factor’, and there’s the competitive part. The wow-factor lasts about five seconds. I walked on the court and I remember looking at him. He’s not bigger than me – maybe an inch taller. His arms are super long and I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Wow, this was once the best player in the NBA.’ He was for sure one of the best players in the world, and he was no bigger than me. And then it was like, ‘Alright jump ball let’s go.’ It literally happened that fast. You’re in competition mode and you don’t ever want to let your opponent see a weakness. While it was a blessing to be able to share the floor with a Hall of Famer and an icon, the competitiveness kicks in and it’s like, ‘Okay you’ve got to go to work.’

AD: There was always some controversy about whether or not he was 6’.

JR: He’s not 6’ (laughing).

AD: Okay, we’re almost done Jason. One of the common themes in my interviews with some of the former Yale Cup players is wasted and underdeveloped talent. The Buffalo News actually wrote a series of stories on this during your junior year at Buffalo Traditional. With players like you and Damien Foster taking your basketball careers beyond the Yale Cup, what are your thoughts on the challenges of our city league and that era? We didn’t have a solid Junior Varsity program like the suburban and private schools, and most of our ‘league’ games were immediately after school. There were just so many differences between what we had versus the suburban and private schools. Talk about that.

JR: I think that’s a valid argument. Our games at Traditional got moved to 7:30 pm because they were so popular. Being a coach now myself, I do think the development is completely different. I’m in a private school right now – Bishop Timon. The things that I have access to, public schools don’t have access to, and what you said was perfect regarding the development of a Junior Varsity team. Having access to the gym and being able to develop my kids in a particular type of way that public schools don’t have access to – I think it’s unfair, and because of that I think you see the difference between public schools and private schools. One is structured and one doesn’t necessarily have the same structure, because they’re not allowed to do certain things. Because of insurance or whatever the reason is, you see this big difference immediately, and in terms of athletics, I think something needs to be done about that.

AD: Is that something the School Board would have to address?

JR: Yes, because from my understanding, the biggest issue is insurance. That’s what I was told. I’ve always wondered why some schools have access and other schools don’t. It’s unfortunate because for a lot of these kids, athletics is their way out of their toxic situations. So why not have things in place for them to look forward to? If they know that there is an adult or adults who are there in the gym to help develop their minds and bodies to give them a place of peace and tranquility, why not do that? Why not develop these everyday life skills, instead of having these kids with nowhere to go, and no access to anything, and now they’re doing something they don’t need to be doing? I would love to sit in on one of the meetings and get to the bottom of why these things aren’t happening.

AD: I’ve heard you DJ at Dennis Wilson’s Oak Room, but you’re coaching now yourself at Bishop Timon. After your long playing career, how are you enjoying coaching?

JR: I love it. To be honest, coaching wasn’t something I was looking forward to – I just wasn’t into it. I don’t like stress – the yelling and the screaming. I’m actually a calm coach, and my kids think it’s hilarious. I don’t yell and I don’t scream and yet I know how to get my point across without demeaning or belittling the kids. That works for me, and I relate to my kids the best way that I can and it’s working for our team. We’re having huge success this year. I’ve tried to take my experience from playing for four different coaches and meshing everything together to come up with my own coaching style.

AD: So you’re not a ‘yeller’?

JR: No, not at all, and I get that from my mother. I just give the kids a look and they know when I’m serious or something wasn’t done right. I also demonstrate – I get in the practices and in the drills because I think it’s pointless to tell the kids they did something wrong and not show them the right way. That works for me, and now the kid doesn’t make the same mistake twice. I’m very, very hands on.

AD: How are the kids today different from 20 years ago?

JR: I do training as well, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of hardworking kids. I think the era as a whole is more concerned about how people view them as opposed to actually getting into the gym and working. I think kids are worried about rankings and social media ‘likes’. Granted it’s a 20-year difference. We didn’t have a phone to let the world know we were in the gym working out, so their mentality is different because they have access to different things. My kids know that when it’s time for practice and training, they have to shut their phones off. When it’s training time give me an hour, and when it’s practice time, give me two hours. After that you can do you what you want to do, but lock into this and we’re fine.

AD: That’s true. We didn’t have Facebook or YouTube twenty years ago.

JR: In the first week of practice I told the kids, ‘Do not worry about polls. Do not worry about rankings. They don’t mean anything. Polls are just a bunch of people’s opinions of who you are. Being ranked No. 1 in November doesn’t mean we’re state championship material.’

AD: Does that mean when you are at Buffalo Traditional, you guys didn’t look at the Buffalo News weekly ‘News Cage Poll’ to see if you were ranked over Cardinal O’Hara, Burgard or John F. Kennedy?

JR: Of course, but as a retired player, a coach and a trainer, I understand that those don’t mean anything. You still have to go out and perform, and do what you need to do.

AD: Is there a difference between the kids you have at Timon versus what you would have if you coached in the Buffalo Public School system (BPS)?

JR: No. I was doing training and I had BPS kids. What works for me is that I respect them and they respect me. Fortunately, I played basketball a long time and I can help them get to where they want to be in terms of this game. Because of that I’m able to keep their attention for an exceptional amount of time. I’ve gone where they want to go, so if was in the BPS I don’t think it would be a big issue.

AD: Is there anything you would change about your playing days?

JR: I would say not failing out of school, finishing my degree and my senior year at Loyola of Maryland. Otherwise, I enjoyed every single time I stepped onto the basketball court – high school, college, rec-center, international – every good game and bad game – I wouldn’t change a thing in terms of my basketball career.

AD: For youngsters aspiring to play basketball or to achieve any other life goal, what advice would you give them?

JR: Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the moment and take it seriously. Understand that every decision you make affects the next thing that you do. When I left school, it affected me possibly not being drafted which led to me going overseas. And I’m grateful to have gone overseas and to have played in fifteen countries, learned so many things, played against so many people. I was able to accomplish so many things and see the world with a basketball which is something I never thought would happen.

But I didn’t understand the effects of decision making. You’re a kid and you think you’re invincible. You leave school, but you don’t understand how much of a domino effect it is, and how one decision affects everything that you do afterwards. It can alter everything in your life, so my advice to youngsters is to really understand the decisions that you’re making with everything you do in life.

AD: Yes, one injury, a violent crime – anything can change your future. I’m sure you saw ESPN’s 30 for 30 about Benji Wilson’s life. He was the No. 1 high school player in the United States in 1984, was on his way to being a college star and then a professional basketball player. And it was all taken away just like that over a stupid argument with two guys on the street he didn’t know, and who had nothing to lose themselves.

JR: When I was in high school I didn’t go out. When I was at Loyola, I didn’t go out to a club until maybe my junior year. I was afraid of losing my scholarship due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I went to dorm parties, but I didn’t want the club scene. I didn’t want it.

AD: Well Jason, thank you again, and I really appreciate your willingness to talk about your life and playing days. Whether you know it or not, you are royalty, at least as far as I’m concerned. What you guys did at Buffalo Traditional was big and in your successes, you touched a lot of lives – not just at Buffalo Traditional, but also for the rest of us at the other schools – seeing that those types of things could be done and giving everyone else something to shoot for. It was something for the entire area to be proud of – to say that you were there, and that you played against Jason Rowe, Damien Foster, and the Buffalo Traditional Bulls (click on the image below to enlarge it).

JR: You just said something very important, which was that we touched lives. At the time you don’t understand that, but that’s why I also said for the youngsters to be mindful of their every decision because you never know who is watching. That was something that I learned later on in my career – to be mindful, to be in the moment, and to appreciate each moment. There is nothing wrong with stepping outside, smelling the air and saying, ‘Thank you.’ Don’t get caught up in getting flashy rings, a Range Rover and all of those things, because all of that can be taken away from you.

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Niagara Falls basketball legend Time Winn discusses playing in the LaSalle basketball dynasty part one
Niagara Falls Coaching Legend Pat Monti discusses building, and leading the LaSalle basketball dynasty part one
Lasting lessons basketball taught me: Reflections on three years of basketball camp
Lasting Lessons basketball taught me: An introduction

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site or add the link to RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly, follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup, and State Tournaments

“Our goal was the win the State Championship. It was my personal goal and the team’s goal as well. When you have that goal, you get that ‘tunnel vision’.” 

One of the key principles of my blog is “Creating Ecosystems of Success”. A key pillar of creating them is hearing the stories and experiences of those who have made it to where we want to be. Like many kids, an early dream of mine was to play basketball. That dream didn’t reach fruition, but the lessons I learned playing in the Buffalo Public Schools’ ‘Yale Cup’ high school city basketball league laid the groundwork for me to go on to further my education and start my science career.

I’m actually working on a project chronicling my early journey, and as a part of the research for that project, I’ve interviewed numerous Yale Cup players from my era. On February 2, 2018, I had the honor of interviewing Jason Rowe – a Buffalo basketball legend who sits on the ‘Mount Rushmore’ of Yale Cup players with the likes of: Trevor Ruffin, Ritchie Campbell, Marcus Whitfield, Curtis Aiken, Ray Hall and Cliff Robinson. Jason spearheaded Buffalo Traditional High School’s ascension to the top of ‘Section VI’ basketball, leading his Bulls to the ‘Far West Regional’ each of his four years, and then to State Tournament in Glens Falls, his final two before winning it in his senior season. In part, one of this two-part interview, we discuss his background, and his storied playing days at the Buffalo Traditional High School.  The pictures in this interview come from an archive of Section VI basketball assembled over the years from issues of the Buffalo News by my first Coach at Hutch-Tech High School, Dr. Ken Jones.

Anwar Dunbar: Thank you for this opportunity to interview you, Jason. I’m working an ambitious writing project about my high school basketball experience. It was my first major success and failure life lesson. While I didn’t play organized basketball beyond the 1993-94 school year, my high school experience on our team at Hutch-Tech gave me the tools I needed to earn my Ph.D. in a STEM-field – not quitting during the hard times, dealing with adversity, finishing what I started, and so on.

In my project I also tell the story of the Yale Cup in that era, and you can’t properly tell it without discussing the Buffalo Traditional Bulls as you guys were the premiere program/team. As a part of my research, I’ve reached out to some of the other Yale Cup players to gain insight to what it was like playing at Bennett, City Honors, Kensington, Riverside, and others. But to talk to you is like talking to Jordan (laughing).

Jason Rowe: That’s a lot of pressure (laughing), but I’m happy to help out.

AD: Okay, so let’s start. As you know, the Buffalo News wrote extensively about you in the early to mid 1990s. They particularly talked about your father, Jerry, and your Uncle Lester being very influential in your development as a basketball player. At what age did you start playing basketball? Did they put a basketball in your crib as a baby?

JR: It’s funny you should say that because that’s literally the story I was told. When I came home as a baby, there was a basketball hoop on the wall in my crib and my father used to pick me up and have me dunk the basketball as a kid.

AD: Was your father a basketball player?

JR: Yes. He played locally, but he didn’t pursue it at a higher level. My uncle and I were the ones who were fortunate to go on to play in college, and to make some money from it.

AD: So you would describe your upbringing as being similar to that of a Stephon Marbury where basketball was literally in your family?

JR: Yes. All of the males in my family – myself, my uncle, my father, and James Rowe my cousin, who was an athlete at Lafayette High School. He played football, basketball, and I believe he ran track too. My brother, Jeremy, played football, basketball, and he ran cross country at Buffalo Traditional. My whole family was athletic.

AD: When you were playing middle school basketball, were you already in camps and clinics?

JR: I went to the University of West Virginia’s basketball camp as a kid. I went to the local camps at Canisius and the University at Buffalo. I was actually at Georgia Tech’s camp the moment Kenny Anderson got drafted into the National Basketball Association (NBA). As a kid I was a huge Kenny Anderson fan, and that’s why I wore number 12 in high school.

AD: Were there any other college and professional players that you looked up to?

JR: Jordan, Isaiah and Magic were the guys that I idolized in the NBA. In college I looked up to Kenny Anderson, Jason Kidd and Chris Jackson. Locally, I looked up to my uncle, Trevor Ruffin  (pictured to the left), and Ritchie Campbell. I looked at them and felt like I could do something. They were guys I could watch every day in a ‘hands on’ type of way. Trevor grew up across the street from me and he was like a ‘big brother’. He played at the University of Hawaii and he went on to the NBA, but I didn’t look at him that way. This was the guy who, when he was in the NBA, would pick me up to go work out with him. We had that type of relationship where he was my big brother, and I was going in the house and watching TV with him.

AD: Were you familiar with some of the other Yale Cup and Section VI stars who came before you like Ritchie Campbell and Marcus Whitfield?

JR: I grew up watching those guys so I idolized Ritchie, Nigel Bostic, and Marcus Whitfield. I vaguely remember Ray Hall. My experience with him was in the summer leagues. But as far as the big name guys who were in the Yale Cup, I knew them because my cousin, James, was eight years older than me. So he grew up in that era and took me to those games because he played at Lafayette. I was able to get my experience watching those games as well.

AD: Did anyone in your circle talk about Christian Laettner?

JR: I heard stories about Laettner, but I wasn’t around him that much. I was at that infamous game between Nichols and South Park where the fight broke out, but I was too young to remember it.

AD: Being at Traditional for middle school, what made you decide to stay for high school? Is that just what the students did there?

JR: I wanted to have my own name. Traditional was home for me. They had some success leading up to that time and I knew everyone on their team. I wanted to be a part of that, so for me it didn’t make sense to go anywhere else.

AD: Yes, every year Coach Joe Cardinal’s teams were making deep runs in postseason play – a couple of times to the State Tournament. Did you and Damien Foster plan to attend Buffalo Traditional together, or was it a random decision?

JR: We grew up in the Masten ‘Boys Club’. The basketball circle is very small. We became friends and started playing there together. I want to say that he was going to go to McKinley first, but he decided to come to Traditional and it definitely worked out for everyone involved.

AD: For me, you guys came out of nowhere. I wasn’t in the ‘basketball circle’ you described, and I didn’t know who you guys were. Thus, the first time I saw you play was when you guys came to play us at Hutch-Tech in January 1993 and smacked us 96-73. It was right after Cameron Calvin died, and it coincided with the University of Michigan’s storied ‘Fab Five’. We had an all upperclassmen starting lineup and getting routed by you guys like that was a backbreaking loss for the players and our coach. I watched it all unfold on the bench due to an injury, and I even looked at the tape numerous times afterwards in awe. Play after play, you guys just made it look easy. Many freshmen are scared in Varsity competition, but you guys looked so fearless. What was your mentality as a freshman?

JR: It’s funny that you mentioned Michigan’s ‘Fab Five’. If you pull up the videos and pictures of us at Buffalo Traditional, we mimicked the Fab Five – the big shorts and the black socks. My mentality personally was to be the best ballplayer I could be. I grew up around Trevor Ruffin and my uncle so inside the home, the pressure to succeed was one of the things that drove me personally. I was fortunate enough to have that basketball success around me – my big brother was an NBA player, and my uncle was a legend who played Division 1 basketball and then overseas. So when you walked into that house you had to bring something to the table. You can’t just sit there and say, ‘I had 10 points today.’ You had to win convincingly and put up some numbers. As a team and as freshmen we were happy to compete and do well, but I don’t think we knew how good we would become and the success we would have. You’re 14 years old and you want to win, but you don’t really understand how far it can take you.

AD: I imagine you guys caught a lot of teams like that. Riverside won the Yale Cup the year before, and if I recall you all beat them. You had two seniors on that team, Andre Montgomery and Jeff Novarra, along with you younger guys. How did you guys blend it all together?

JR: I was in the school so I was familiar with Andre and Jeff already. They were instrumental in our success my freshman year. Jeff was our shooter, and Andre was like our ‘Draymond Green’ – he was undersized, but he could do a little bit of everything. They were very good leaders.

What also helped us was that a lot of us played together outside of Buffalo Traditional. We were always at the Boys Club – myself, Damien, Damone White, who unfortunately has passed away – we were always together playing. It’s kind of like we weren’t surprised because we knew how each other played and our mentality. No one else really knew. We knew how to compete, we just didn’t know we were going to knock off so many teams and make a name for ourselves. We just wanted to win.

AD: As you know, whenever you experience a high level of success, you’re going to have critics as well. I’m sure you guys heard similar chatter, but one of my teammates at Hutch-Tech once told me about how your Coach, Joe Cardinal, would just go into his office and read the newspaper while you guys played ‘pickup’ basketball during practice every day (laughing). What was the Traditional team like? Was it a thing where Coach Cardinal just put the ball in your hands and let you go or was there more to it?

JR: Coach Cardinal was very honest when he would say, ‘I’m a gym teacher, and I don’t know much about basketball in terms of coaching.’ Because he was so open and honest, and didn’t try to hide that, it actually made us closer. He wasn’t lying and trying to be something he wasn’t. He was the most personable coach I ever played for because he had our backs and we knew that. In terms of Xs and Os, no he wasn’t that knowledgeable so it’s no surprise that we didn’t learn certain things.

In tight situations, he would tell us to, ‘run a pick and roll,’ or something very basic – nothing complex. Fortunately for us, we were able to beat a lot of teams by a lot of points, so there weren’t a lot of tight games. When the games were tight I was able to use some of the things my father and uncle taught me.

AD: Were there any other coaches on that staff that made a difference?

JR: Ellis Woods, who was the coach’s best friend. They were cut from the same cloth, and were very open and honest with us about what they did and didn’t know. We would run through a brick wall for both Coach Cardinal and Coach Woods. They could relate to us.

AD: My junior season was cut short due to grades, an injury and not knowing how to deal with adversity, but I kept my eyes on what was happening in postseason play. I remember watching the news at night and seeing your team march all of the way to the Class C “Far West Regional”. You guys beat Starpoint, Newfane, Portville and then top-seeded John F. Kennedy 71-67 to win the Section VI Class C Championship as mostly freshman and sophomores. Some kids never made the sectionals at all, and the core of your team won yours as freshmen and sophomores. What was that ride like?

JR: Our goal was the win the State Championship. It was my personal goal and the team’s goal as well. When you have that goal, you get that ‘tunnel vision’. We used to say, ‘Get to Glen. Get to Glen. You’ve got to get to Glens Falls.’ That’s where the State Championship was held. For some time the Buffalo teams were having a hard time getting past the Rochester teams in the Far West Regional. We wanted to get past Rochester. For us, we had a lot of confidence because we played against the top notch competition in Buffalo. We were confident enough to get past Buffalo’s competition and we just had to beat the Rochester teams. It was step by step.

AD: It was the Marion team in your freshman year and the Mynderse team in your sophomore year you faced in the Far West Regional – were they bigger? Were they better?

JR: Everything. I think what we lacked is what they exploited. They had the structure we didn’t have. They were big and physical, and they just outworked us. I cried a lot after those two games. I shed a lot of tears. They were well deserved victories for them.

AD: Unfortunately, I didn’t go to that Mynderse game which was at UB’s Alumni Arena, but I did see the highlights and recognized one of the guys Damien Foster was jawing at after hitting a three-pointer. I played with some of those guys at the ‘Ken Jones Basketball Camp’ – my coach’s camp which a lot of Rochester area players attended. I imagine just seeing the clash of styles must have been amazing.

JR: You had this fast paced team versus this half court, slow it down type of team – two completely different styles of basketball.

AD: Yes, you guys were clearly more athletic and more talented. I imagine they were patiently working the ball on offense, and slowing the game down.

JR: They were physical. I remember them being very physical.

AD: So you guys beat Lyons in your junior year in the Far West Regional 74-71, you willed the Bulls to victory against Mechanicville in the state semifinals 81-72, before matching up against Elton Brand and Peekskill in final game. What was the key to beating Lyons? Had you guys just been there two years and you were ready?

JR: I would say that it was the pain of losing in the Far West Regional those first two years and not being able to get over the hump. We felt like it was our time and we wanted that victory more than anything else in the world. Lyons might have been No. 1 in the state that year too, and for a team that was easily motivated like us, we’d had enough.

AD: Your team went on to suffer a heartbreaking 94-85 loss to Peekskill in a public state final game, and then you graduated veterans Adrian Baugh, LaVar Frasier and Jimmy Birden who were featured in the Buffalo News during the playoffs that season. Was it hard to get back to the State Tournament the next year? Or did you and Damien just not miss a beat?

JR: It was hard in the sense that it’s just not easy getting there period. But in terms of remaining focused and knowing that the State Championship is what we wanted, the mental part wasn’t hard, but the physical part was hard. You have to play 20 games just to get to Glens Falls – that’s just getting there. The game by game process was hard, but the mental aspect wasn’t difficult. When we lost to Peekskill, I remember telling the Buffalo News before I walked off the court, ‘We’ll be back,’ and I meant that.

AD: I imagine all four years were fun, but was there one that stood out above the rest? Was it in your senior year when the team won the Class C State crown 62-48 over Mechanicville, and then the Class C Federation crown 92-71 over Collegiate of New York City?

JR: Yes, that was the year that we won. It was fun, but it was also bitter sweet, because I remember when we won a lot of us were crying tears of joy, but we also understood that it was over – our run was over and that it was our last game together. Our team was very, very close.

AD: As I mentioned earlier, you guys lost the three seniors from your junior year, but you still had a strong supporting cast which included guys like: Damone White, Darcel Williams, Jamar Corbett, and Darnell Beckham.

JR: To me Darcel was our ‘X-factor’. We had a good team. We had guys graduate in different years, but everyone stuck together during that time so we already had that bond and that chemistry. So by the time Adrian, LaVar and Jimmy graduated, the other guys were ready because they already had experienced playing in big games. That’s why, in my senior year, we were just running through teams. It was insane.

AD: You and Damien were talked about synonymously – Damien Foster and Jason Rowe, Jason Rowe and Damien Foster. What was Damien like? Did you guys have to talk about who was going to get the last shot? Who was going to get the majority of the shots? Was your chemistry just natural?

JR: I had two personal goals going into high school; I wanted to get 1,000 assists and I wanted to win the State Championship. So passing the ball – I didn’t have an issue with that, and fortunately for us, we blew so many teams out that it was never an issue regarding who got the last shot. There is no issue when you’re up 10, 20, or 30 points – we won so many games convincingly that we never argued about who was going to get the last shot. Again, I wanted the assist, so on fast breaks I’d throw the ball backwards to set up someone else.

AD: Talk a little bit about the Bennett game in your junior year – the 69-68 thriller where you guys lost to the Tigers. Periodically, I still see guys talking about it on Facebook. Did you overlook them?

JR: We didn’t overlook anyone. It’s hard to overlook teams when you go into their gyms and their teams have pep rallies. We knew every team was gunning for us. We knew that we were going to get everyone’s best shot so we came ready to play every single game. That night Bennett played well. It’s a great game and I actually watch it from time to time. It was a great game.

AD: Were there any other players that you especially look forward to playing?

JR: I liked playing against LaSalle’s Tim Winn, Burgard’s Jeremiah Wilkes, Cardinal O’Hara’s Ryan Cochran, and Turner/Carroll’s Malik Campbell. We were all friends. We would play against each other one day and be friends, and then completely hate each other on the court the next time. We were all very, very, very competitive. When you have competitors competing at that high level, it just makes for some great basketball.

AD: In your junior season, the Buffalo News also wrote a piece actually comparing you and Tim Winn as you two were the top two point guards in Western New York. If I recall, he actually hoped to team up with you in Empire State Games at one point. Did your two teams ever match up allowing you to go head to head – Buffalo Traditional vs. LaSalle?

JR: Tim was hurt when we were supposed to play. That was a game everyone was looking forward to, and he had sprained his ankle the week of the game in practice.

In the second part of our interview, Jason and I discuss his basketball career after being a Buffalo Traditional Bull. I want to thank Jason for taking the time out of his busy schedule to participate. After completing this interview, I realized that there are other historical significances to what we discussed here, beyond the basketball court. Just as the city of Buffalo has changed since the early 1990s, so has its school system. Two schools that were a part of our Yale Cup of the early 1990s no longer exist. One is Kensington High School. The second is Buffalo Traditional High School where Jason played. While the building still sits there on East Ferry Street, it is now the home for the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy:

Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional basketball careers and coaching
Niagara Falls basketball legend Time Winn discusses playing in the LaSalle basketball dynasty part one
Niagara Falls Coaching Legend Pat Monti discusses building, and leading the LaSalle basketball dynasty part one
Lasting lessons basketball taught me: Reflections on three years of basketball camp
Lasting Lessons basketball taught me: An introduction

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