- Christopher Lawlor, High School Basketball
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NEW YORK -- The three most special words for aspiring basketball players, especially in the media capital of the world, are Madison Square Garden.
Dubbed the "World's Most Famous Arena," the fourth incarnation of the building sits on Seventh Avenue between 31st and 33rd Streets. (Note: The first two were on Madison Avenue and 26th Street, with a third building -- built in 1925 -- at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street.).
The Garden, the basketball home to the New York Knicks and National Invitational Tournament, is full of history and tradition.
The grainy image of Willis Reed dragging his mangled knee out of the tunnel before the Knicks dispatched of the Los Angeles to win the NBA Championship in 1970 might be a timeless snapshot of courage, but watching Reggie Miller, formerly of the Indiana Pacers single-handedly outscore the Knicks down the stretch of the a playoff game in 1994 represents heart.
"The Garden is recognized as 'the' basketball arena in the world. You would be hard pressed to name a great player who has not played at least on game there," said George Raveling, Nike's Director of Global Basketball Sports Marketing. "Usually, those in attendance are among the most knowledgeable basketball fans in the USA. Playing there validates you (somewhat) as a player."
The countless college legends -- Chris Mullin, Michael Jordan, Bob Lanier, Rick Mount, Carol Blazejowski, Adrian Dantley, Walter Berry, Patrick Ewing, Christian Laettner, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson -- delighted the savvy fans.
Coaches such as Lou Carnesecca, Pat Riley, Red Holzman, Hubie Brown and Rick Pitino stalked the sidelines for home teams, St. John's University and the Knicks.
And now high school players, namely from six New York area powerhouses, get a rare chance to perform at basketball's Mecca.
Playing at the Garden is goal for most New York high school players, one which germinates at a tender age.
That's why Sunday's Nike Super Six, a tripleheader involving four teams in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 boys' basketball rankings, becomes a destination.
"It's the biggest stage in the biggest city," said Darryl "Truck" Bryant of St. Raymond High in the Bronx. "You dream of playing at the Garden as a kid. It can't wait."
Bryant, a smooth 6-1, commanding point guard who signed with West Virginia, and his St. Raymond teammates, will play No. 5 St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.) at 12:30 p.m. ET; followed by No. 1 Benedict's (Newark, N.J.) and No. 11 Rice (Manhattan) at 2 p.m.
The power-packed event tips off at 11 a.m. with Paterson (N.J.) Catholic and Mount Vernon (N.Y.), a team in the preseason Elite 25 rankings and New York's two-time defending Class AA (large classification) public state champions.
"As of now Nike will continue to sponsor this game," said Raveling, who played and coached in the Garden. "Great venue, excellent teams, New York City. That says it all."
The last two games surely will impact the next round of Elite 25 rankings.
St. Raymond stands to benefit the most from this weekend after St. Benedict's lost earlier this week.
"Our goal is to be No. 1 (in the Elite 25 rankings), but first we have two tough games this weekend," said Kevin Parrom of St. Raymond, a 6-6 junior forward who's being recruited by mainly ACC and Big East schools.
The Ravens cannot relish the Garden experience until they play Rice on Saturday afternoon in the Bronx. The game is the first of two regular season meetings between the rivals in the ultra-competitive New York Catholic High Schools' Athletic Association AA Division. The Ravens' opponent, St. Patrick, also plays Saturday against Cherry Hill East.
"It means a lot for a school to play at the Garden," said St. Patrick coach Kevin Boyle who played at MSG as a collegiate player with Seton Hall and St. Peter's and owns a 6-1 lifetime record against St. Raymond. "Both of us have games on Saturday and usually we'd be resting on Sunday but you don't turn down a chance to play there (at the Garden). You don't know when you'll get back."
When St. Raymond returned from Puerto Rico late last month, the Ravens bagged the Gatorade International Shootout title, beating four of the island's top high school teams.
The Ravens, which lost to Rice in last year's City Catholic AA championship game, can fly.
"Once we get the ball off the rim, it's a track meet," said junior guard Omari Lawrence, who averages 19 points and four assists. "It's attack, attack, attack."
Leading the attack is Bryant who averages 22 points and six assists and shoots 55-percent from the floor. Parrom adds 16 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
Coach Oliver Antigua, a St. Raymond alumnus, likes his team's chemistry.
"It's an unselfish team," he said. "Truck (Bryant) might not be the top-ranked point guard in the city but he's playing like the best. He's our team leader."
The Ravens average 20 assists per game, up from 12 a year ago.
"We've got each other's back" Bryant said. "We're tight. We hang out on and off the court. We've has been together for two or three years and have known each other since we were kids (playing AAU)."
St. Patrick isn't daunted.
"We've played against them plenty in the summer," St. Patrick junior guard Dexter Strickland said. "We know their style and they're our friends but not when you step on the court."
St. Patrick, the two-time New Jersey State Tournament of Champions winner, was top-ranked this season but lost at No. 12 Yates (Houston), 66-60.
"We lost our focus," Strickland said. "We had a few mental lapses; you need to stay sharp for 32 minutes."
St. Benedict's (13-1) heads into the Super Six on a losing note. The Gray Bees were stung Tuesday by Academy of the New Church (Bryn Athlyn, Pa.), 53-50. Louisville-bound forward Samardo Samuels scored 17 points and guard Tamir Jackson added 22 but junior center Gregory Enchenique was scoreless.
The Gray Bees' resume includes a win over Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), No. 1 in the preseason Elite 25, and tournament titles in Charlotte, N.C. (Dell Curry Bojangles Shootout) and Fort Myers, Fla. (City of Palms Classic).
The opening game may not dent the Elite 25 rankings, but will be entertaining.
Paterson Catholic, which is 9-1 having lost to St. Raymond, 82-70, last month, is young but features Seton Hall-bound point guard Jordan Theodore. A talented group of underclassmen consists of sophomores Fuquan Edwin, Trevor Clemmings, Shaquille Thomas, Jermaine Peart and Javon James, and freshman Myles Mack. Paterson Catholic, third in New Jersey's state rankings, is grouped with Elite 25 teams, No. 4 St. Anthony (Jersey City) and St. Patrick, in the Non-Public North B bracket. The Cougars could face both teams in the playoffs, depending on the seedings.
Coach Bob Cimino of Mount Vernon will be coaching in his third game at MSG, having split the previous two.
"I'm thrilled to watch the player's reaction when they reach the court," he said. "They're psyched to be there and we'll treat it special."
Cimino cautions, "we'll arrive early for a shoot around; they can't be in awe. There's still a game to be played."
Mount Vernon (7-2) relies on Kevin Jones, who signed with West Virginia. The Knights lost to Rice, 75-51, at the Iolani Classic last month in Honolulu but defeated archrivals White Plains, 76-56, on Wednesday. Jones posted a double-double, with 27 points and 15 rebounds.
Jones, who made his first appearance in the Garden three years ago as a freshman, will enjoy a moment before the game.
"It's a big deal (playing at the Garden," he said. "A great send off for my senior year; it'll be memorable but we have to take care of business. We have to be ready for Paterson Catholic, they're a great team."
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.
High school players from six New York area powerhouses, will get a rare chance to perform at basketball's Mecca -- Madison Square Garden, writes Christopher Lawlor.