Written by Edward Healy, former coach at Cristo Rey Baltimore
I think my absolute favorite story to tell about actual basketball events at Cristo Rey is of the regular season finale of my first season. It is one of those stories that feels like a classic moment in the origin story of something special. As everything else did the winter of 2016-17, it revolved around snow.
As a result of missing six straight school days in late January and the playoff start date being earlier than normal in February, we were forced to play our eight final league games (75% of the league schedule) in the final 12 days of the season. At 2-2, we probably needed four wins to secure a spot in the postseason. We dropped the first one to Key, but then rattled off three straight against Jemicy, Beth Tfiloh (on the road for a 2nd time because of gym availability) and Concordia Prep. That 1-point win at Concordia Prep on a Friday night was crucial, as it put us in the driver’s seat as far as tiebreakers for the 4th and final spot in the playoffs. Regardless of the results in upcoming games vs. Saints Peter and Paul (2/6) and Key (2/11), beating Park just once would put us into the semifinals on Friday February 12th, 2016.
We were slated to play Park away on February 8th and home on February 9th, with the Key game slated for the 10th. I felt really confident about getting the one required win for a playoff berth vs. Park but we dropped the first matchup by just 6 points. As was the story for the season, snow hit on the 9th and forced us to push our two games back.
This however created a logistical problem for the Key School game on February 11th now. Their athletic director let us know they could only play that game at 4pm because of a play that night in their gym. With the seven juniors on my roster working their corporate internship that day, it would be impossible to get them to the game with the Key School being 45 minutes away from campus. After trying to problem solve the situation without success, I agreed to allow the game to be played thinking it had zero playoff ramifications. Later that night, we ended up losing to Park School again by 13 in a game that was never close. With our playoff hopes dashed in a fashion that was tough to bear, I voiced much displeasure in the locker room afterwards to the boys.
Except our playoff hopes were not dashed at all. The next morning I got on the phone with our athletic director and he read to me an email from the league confirming tiebreaker scenarios for the final day of the season. I had misread the tiebreaker rules and been operating under a false assumption the last few days of the season. Beating the Key School would put us in the playoffs. It was hard to not get upset with myself about the situation, but I knew I could do nothing about getting the juniors to the game anyway. I’d have to go down to Annapolis without seven juniors, our manager and all of my assistant coaches. It would be just three freshmen, two seniors who didn’t play a lot, and a rookie head coach trying to clinch the final playoff spot. I decided to keep the news a secret, as not to put unnecessary pressure on the five traveling that day.
Bringing more intrigue to the game, the Key School was 11-0 and had clinched the #1 seed in the playoffs, meaning they had nothing to lose or gain from this matchup. Due to the snow pushing games back, there would be no day of rest or practice before the semifinal the next night. To me, it made clear sense for the Key School to rest their starters for the next night. I thought that might give us a chance, and what a nice little surprise announcement I’d have for the boys after the game if we did.
Maybe a little naively, I decided to see if I could get Key’s coach to tip his hand on how he was thinking about handling the situation in the usual pre-game coach’s handshake. Usually, this meeting is an exchange of meaningless pleasantries, a bunch of sports clichés are tossed around, and then both coaches go back to their benches. Diverting from the norm, I decided to prod and see if they coach might be resting his regulars, knowing the result of the game would determine his semifinal opponent. In almost a Belichikian sort of way, I got stonewalled by Key’s coach who was a little surprised I had even thought that deeply about the situation. Moments after that, I got blindsided with yet another inconvenience. Our freshmen center Sterling Holliday tells me he left his basketball shoes in Baltimore! Of course, the one game I have zero substitutes (and a playoff spot is on the line) a kid forgets his shoes. After scanning the crowd for people who look like they might have size 13 basketball shoes on, the Key School athletic director runs over to me with a pair of size 12 basketball shoes. I’ll forever be grateful for how above and beyond the athletic director went for us that day, even if Sterling’s toes were a little sore after the game.
Without any coaches or support staff with me, I did one thing during the rest of warm-ups – fill up as many cups of water as possible. The game plan was simple. Defensively, stay in a 2-3 zone the entire game to conserve energy. I would call one timeout in the middle of each quarter and save my final timeout for an end of game situation if needed. I needed senior Carlos Brown and Sterling to rebound on both ends like their lives depended on it. Freshmen guards Terry Curry and Ahmaud Jones would have to do most of the scoring and senior Tyler Evans just needed to play within himself and contribute defensively.
With the only record of the game a grainy cell phone picture of our half of the official score book, most of the specifics of the game are a fuzzy memory now. Key pressed and got out to a big lead early in the game unsurprisingly. In one of those early scheduled timeouts, I looked at Terry and Ahmaud and said, “I don’t think we’re coming out of here with a win if we don’t start taking a lot of 3-pointers. Any three is good with me from here on out.” Once the lead was up over 10 points in the second quarter, Key’s coach subbed out his starters and would rest them for an extended period as I had hoped. By halftime, their lead was down to about five. As Terry and Ahmaud got hot, we took the lead early in the 3rd quarter and pushed it to eight with six minutes left in the 4th quarter. In the midst of this run I’m just thinking to myself, “Holy S@%$, we actually might pull this off!” As soon as the lead got to eight though, Key’s coach put his starters back in. I never asked him why he did that, but I’ll always wonder whether that was fear of losing the undefeated league record or if he preferred the playoff matchup he’d get if he won.
As soon as the subs entered, our lead quickly shrunk. In the final two minutes, there was an epic sequence of loose balls, fouls, offensive rebounds, free throws and close calls that I wish I could better relay. I did end up using my final timeout with 24 seconds left and us being down by two points. I drew up something simple that had an option to go for the tie or win, but Terry’s shot clanked off the right side of the rim and we’d go on to lose 55-51. It was such a valiant effort by those five that day, with two freshmen combining for 31 points including five 3-pointers. In the locker room after the game I could express nothing but praise for the effort the boys put forth that day. I looked at the three freshmen and told them that they would always remember this day as the day the Cristo Rey basketball program was born. Little did we know what the next season would bring.