It was Feb. 23, 2007 – a chilly Friday night. The high school basketball team I had helped coach for the second consecutive year had finished its season two weeks before, leaving me free to check out playoff games. Armed with my coaches pass, I drove to Dorsey High School.
I’d been intrigued by both Dorsey and Washington Prep – the two teams matching up that night. Both were good squads of players with exceptional skills, from reputable programs. Still being new to Los Angeles, I wanted to see the faces to the names I’d heard.
The winner of the game would advance to the city finals eight days later, and Dorsey was the favorite by far. They had won their league, and seemingly everything else. They also had a couple of highly-touted players – one of them a senior point guard – who carried the team.
Prep was playing in the game because the champion of their league, Narbonne, was serving a suspension that year for playing an ineligible player (Morghan Medlock, now of Baylor) the year before. Washington, known for their athleticism, had a few name players – one of them being their pint-sized point guard Mykiea Russell.
The general attitude before the game was that Prep was lucky to be there, and Dorsey would scald them.
The Dorsey gym has a round roof, and windows on both ends of the court. You can literally walk right outside the gym and watch the game through the window. Double doors are also at one end of the court, between the windows. Occasionally when a player goes flying out of bounds and can’t stop, she hits the door and lands outside. I’ve never seen anything like it.
One thing was apparent immediately: the Dorsey Dons are serious about basketball. Giant picture posters of the girls basketball team lined the wall on one side of the court, while the boys team was on the other side.
The requisite cheerleaders were in place and ready to go with their sassy attitudes and “bring it on” cheers. For example, during the game when Washington missed a free throw, the Dorsey cheerleaders would clutch their hearts and mockingly moan, “aww!” I loved it down to my toes.
The guy I sat next to ended up becoming a friend of mine. But I suppose it would be hard not to bond with a fellow basketball nut when you happened to see the best high school game of your life together.
I wish I could provide an entire game play-by-play, but I wasn’t armed with a notebook that night and some of the details have fuzzed in the almost two years since. But here’s what I do remember: Dons PG Erica Inge and Russell went at it all night long. So did their teams.
What was supposed to be a blowout was a back-and-forth game of heart-stopping proportions. Dorsey would score, Washington would answer; Washington scored, Dorsey answered. One team would make a small run and then would be stopped by the other team. Back and forth, back and forth. Dorsey was ahead once by six points, but that lasted all of eight seconds. For the rest of the time it was one point, two points, three points, or a tie.
Then, the last 20 seconds.
Washington had the ball. Their 2 guard fell to the floor and almost lost it as the Dorsey guard tried to claw it out of her hands. But the 2 somehow dished it to Russell, who streaked up the court and somehow cut through two guards with this crazy little dribble weave move. She went all the way to the rack for the score, and it was 54-53, Washington. Dorsey got the ball, but the Generals deflected the pass out of bounds. Timeout. Dorsey inbounded from the side and tried this play that didn’t work. The crowd had been on its feet since 30 seconds to go. The tension in the gym was thick.
Washington inbounded from the baseline, but it was deflected, and the second Washington player tried to chase it. She couldn’t get to it, and the ball went out of bounds. Dorsey ball with 6.5 seconds to go. The Dons were passing it around the key when Russell lunged, seemingly from out of nowhere. It was a total shock, and you could hear the cries in the crowd. She hauled ass down the court and laid it up and in as time expired.
Washington, 56, Dorsey, 53, said the scoreboard. Then came the thunderous explosion of screaming, as Prep cheerleaders started jumping up and down and the crowd of red-clad fans poured onto the court.
I sat there, mouth hanging open, while the rest of the Generals piled onto Russell. My new friend Don sat in stunned silence as well. To our right, two of the Dorsey seniors had fallen to the floor in grief. Friends surrounded them, trying to talk them into getting up, but they just laid there, inconsolable.
It was quite a scene, and it exemplifies the reason I love the high school game so much: there’s an incredible amount of passion there. It seems like life and death much of the time – for sure in the playoffs, but at other games, too.
The Generals and their people began taking their celebration out that door I mentioned before. Don and I walked down to the court. I knew one of the Washington coaches from another school, and I asked her what grade Russell was in. She told me she was a junior.
Don and I exchanged info and said goodbye. But on my walk out, the Prep players were running around, giddy, while some adults males shouted sporadically, “who’s house?”
I saw Russell to my left, with two teammates, giggling. I stopped and smiled at her.
“Congratulations!” I said. “You’re amazing – your team couldn’t have done it without you.”
Russell’s smile got a tiny bit bigger.
“Thank you, maam!” she said cheerfully, before turning back to her hyped-up teammates.
I walked to my car chuckling. Geez – she can play ball and she has manners too, I thought.
The following weekend I went to the LA Coliseum to watch the full day of games that would culminate in the city championship. Unfortunately, Washington was no match for the powerful Taft team, stacked with seniors. Taft was ahead by 10-12 for long stretches, but in the fourth quarter, the Generals turned it on and began to catch up. It was too little too late, though, and they lost 36-39.
In an emotional awards ceremony, the Washington principal thanked Coach Ricky Blackmon and told him how important he was to the school. Each player got a boquet of red roses, and I watched Russell bang hers on the floor during the trophy presentation. Petals scattered, but she didn’t notice. She looked both grieved and irritated.
Three days later, the Generals lost in the first round of the state playoffs. But Russell and her team had captured my attention.