KEARNY, NJ - It is one of my favorite places to work. It is also one of the toughest to get in, literally.
At Kearny High School, there are three backdoor gym entrances off the street that we park in. Getting in takes some pounding on the door or good luck that someone is exiting. Thankfully, the biting cold of the past few days has given way to a 40-degree mercury. Waiting a few minutes to get in the gym was bearable.
The varsity game was heading into the fourth quarter. As it turned out, Lincoln would edge Kearny in a game coming down to the final seconds. After a pregame with my officiating partner, it was on to the court. Near the scorer’s table was Lincoln varsity coach Tommy Best. He played collegiately at Saint Peter’s and I assumed his coach was Ted Fiore. “I played for Bob Dukiet,” Best said. “Ted was an assistant.” I always assumed it was Fiore, but I said both were good coaches and good men. Best agreed.
I joked with the Lincoln coach that is is three times I have done her games this year, and she must be tired of me. She graciously said she wasn’t. The Lincoln coach is great to work for, and 2-0 in games I have officiated for her.
The first trip down the floor by the Kearny bench side, I get in position on the baseline. The senses are hit with the smell of perfume and the touch of a pom-pom. Kearny is one of the few teams with cheerleaders for the girls’ teams. The baseline area is tight here, but with the cheerleaders present, I can’t go too deep off the base and adjust my angle, to referee inside action accordingly. Both teams are very good. The first points are put on the board 5:40 into the game. Not a case of poor offense, but both having strong defenses. Kearny likes to full court press, but after a few possessions, the coach wisely calls it off. The coach sees that Lincoln has a few ball handlers and finishers able to hurt the press. A last second transition basket sends Kearny into the locker room leading 13-9.
In the second half, Lincoln cans a few threes, as they did to get the season-opening win over Bayonne. Kearny solves the halfcourt offense problems by getting out and running. They are finishing and drawing fouls. At one point, there are seven fouls against Lincoln, one against Kearny. Nothing we can do as Lincoln is fouling, especially those converting fast break opportunities while starving from the line due to their perimeter diet of three-point attempts.
The gym is cold. The timer is wearing mittens. Cheerleaders are putting on jackets and I cannot get a sweat going until the fourth quarter. By then, the chill is forgotten, as we have a one-possession game in the balance. Under a minute left, a Kearny player hits two free throws to increase the lead to four. Lincoln answers with a putback then gets a steal. Timeout. The Lions will inbound in their offensive end with seven seconds left, down two. Every time I had them, Lincoln ran some nice baseline or sideline out of bounds plays that produced easy baskets. My thinking here was, what would they choose? Go for two and overtime, or three and a win? They inbound on the side and struggle to gain possession. By the time Lincoln secures possession, they are in their own backcourt about 60 feet away. The player securing possession doesn’t even try a desperation heave. The buzzer sounds. Kearny 27, Lincoln 25.
The Kearny JV coach said these are very good games, as playing a challenging opponent allows your team to learn. “You don’t learn much beating a team by 30,” she said. “By the same token, these games are tough on a coach’s nerves.”
Kearny varsity coach Jody Hill stayed to watch the entire JV game. A former star for legendary Jack Rodgers at Harrison, then Pace University, Hill assumed the Kearny coaching position about two decades back. She remains very dedicated to her team and craft. She would have been excused for exiting at halftime of the JV following a very tough varsity loss. She chose to watch the whole game, getting a read on players coming through the program. Their strengths, weaknesses and contributions. Dedication personified. Probably another reason her assistants are very often former Kearny players coming home to contribute to the program.