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Journey ends with painful lesson

Brighton coach Hugh Coleman had inspirational words for his team before and after the state title game. Jon Mahoney/ESPNBoston.com

ESPN Boston High Schools editor Brendan Hall was given unlimited access to the Brighton High School boys basketball program by coach Hugh Coleman before and during the team's state title game last Saturday. For 24 hours, Hall followed the Bengals as they prepared for and battled in the MIAA Division 2 state championship. Here is his account:

FRIDAY, 5:30 P.M. -- FITNESS AND RECREATION CENTER, BOSTON UNIVERSITY

Hugh Coleman is beaming.

It's midway through Brighton High's three-hour practice on Court 3 upstairs at Boston University's FitRec complex, and Coleman, the team's coach, has stepped out for a moment to greet the man who's the reason the Bengals are here in the first place.

By day, Joe Walsh is the university's director of community relations and the commissioner of the NCAA Division III Great Northeast Conference. On a Friday night here, Walsh is hunched over a leg press machine, donning a gray hoodie trimmed with Brighton's familiar orange and black colors. Walsh is proud to reveal the back of his hoodie, which bears the number of his graduation year -- 74 -- below his last name.

Coleman thanks Walsh for the gym time, and the two reflect on the old days of the Boston City League, including Coleman's time as a player and coach at Charlestown, and Walsh's days with the Bengals in the early 1970s.

On most days, Coleman is known to hop over to practice straight from his job as an English and business teacher at Jeremiah Burke High in Dorchester, slipping off his dress shoes for sneakers and playing scout point guard.

In itself, practice has been a daily journey for the Bengals. With the school scheduled for renovations, the team had bused every day to and from the defunct Hyde Park High, which closed its doors last year. On Jan. 1, the school announced it was pushing back renovations until March 15, leaving the Bengals to return to their practice floor in the cramped Brighton High gymnasium, complete with a soggy wooden floor and poor heating and ventilation.

Today is a welcome change for the Bengals, and Coleman wants to take advantage of it.

Coleman is a man forever in fifth gear and forever spiritual as heck, and often the two intersect in his rousing speeches. Tonight he is urging his players not to lose focus for the task at hand and not to underestimate these guys. In less than 24 hours, the Bengals will face Western Mass. champion Mahar Regional for the MIAA Division 2 Championship. After an impressive win over Stoughton for the Eastern Mass. championship on March 12, many have pegged Brighton as the favorite.

Mahar is in Orange, a town of less than 8,000 tucked away in a remote part of the state, some 75 miles northwest of Boston and roughly 10 miles from the New Hampshire state line. Acquiring a detailed scouting report at a time like this can be tricky, so Coleman is more concerned about the team taking care of its own business.

Along with an aggressive array of presses and an extended 3-2 zone that swarms up top, one part of Coleman's game plan is to run a lob play on the first offensive possession of each half, to set the tone immediately and lift the crowd. In that Monday night win, Jerard Mayes rolled off a screen and slammed home a high lob from Theo Oribhabor for the game's opening score. Brighton eventually won 53-42.

The previous night, Coleman had gone back over game tape from the Bengals' Division 2 North final win over Wakefield and said the lob was there for Mayes to throw down.

"I like it, you know why? I want us to get hype," he shouts in his trademark raspy tone. "I want you to get hype, I want the crowd to get hype. Throw me that lob, throw it, let Jerard get it -- showtime. Bring the house down. Wakefield, I watched it yesterday again -- it was there."

Coleman retires to the sideline as he watches his team scrimmage and reflects on the biggest mentor in his life, legendary former Charlestown coach Jack O'Brien. Coleman's childhood was somewhat chaotic -- being born when his mother was 20, becoming the man of the house at just 6 years old, and watching a number of his family members get rung up on drug arrests. He was under supervision of the Department of Social Services when he first met O'Brien as a freshman at Charlestown in 1993, and he considers O'Brien a father figure.

After his playing career at Bowdoin ended in 2001, Coleman joined O'Brien's staff at Charlestown and was part of three state championship squads, the last coming in 2005. To this day, the two talk almost daily. Coleman calls O'Brien "an angel from heaven" and speaks fondly of the strict discipline he instilled.

Practice is concluding, the fitness center is ready to close, and Coleman calls everyone to the center of the court.

"You don't dream about playing the game of basketball to just be like, 'Yo, let's play pickup,'" he starts. "You can do that anytime. You don't play organized basketball to just be like, 'Hey, I just want some refs, and play a game.' You want a CHIP! That's what you play for! And at the highest level you can get as a high schooler is THIS GAME!

"Who the heck, out of all of you, if you don't say, 'This is exactly what I play for, I've hoped for,' then maybe you're from another planet. Maybe you don't like basketball, you don't love basketball, you're more of a football player, a tennis player, or you like pingpong. Who knows. But I'll tell you this -- this is our time."

He swings his left arm around the shoulders of his wife, Emily, and his right around his two children and squeezes them close. He compares their desire for the state title to the love he has for his wife -- "my national championship," he says. He speaks passionately of the joy he gets looking into her eyes -- pure love, deep love -- and tells them "your equivalent is that state title tomorrow."

"Y'all ain't got a real love like that," he starts again. "Y'all ain't got a real love like that yet. Y'all ain't won anything yet. BNBL won't compare to tomorrow. Summer league won't compare to tomorrow. AAU won't compare to tomorrow. Because all of that stuff gets you ready for what we're going to do tomorrow.

"This is your time, this is your age," he continues. "I want you to go home, get some rest, talk to your friends and family, get them excited about this. Because guess what, you are going to be a part of history in Boston. History in Brighton. I want my family there to witness that, because 100 years from now -- 10, 20 years from now -- they're going to say, Tre Dowman's on that team, and Junior Joseph's on that team, and Malik James is on that team, and James Burdette is on that team.

"They're going to have all your names, and that's history, fellas. And guess what? Not too many people can say they made history, and they were a part of history. So be proud of that."

And with that, the Bengals break down, lock arms and form a circle around junior guard Daivon Edwards, who begins the familiar call-and-repeat chant that is customary just before the national anthem is cued up.

"Who are we?"

"Bengals!"

"Who are we?"

"Bengals!"

9 P.M. -- MALIK JAMES' HOUSE, IPSACA STREET, MATTAPAN

Malik James is feeling it.

Like many high school-age players, James, a sophomore point guard, gets pregame jitters. His heart starts pumping. His hands get clammy and sweaty. And as with many, the nerves die down with the first slap of the opening tipoff, and turn into excitement.

Tonight, however, there are no nerves as James rests on the doorsteps outside his house.

"I've been waiting for this day since we won at the Garden," James says, referring to the Bengals' thrilling win over Stoughton at TD Garden on Monday for the Eastern Mass. Division 2 title. "From the beginning of the season actually, now that I think about it. I'm pumped up. I don't think I can get any sleep tonight, that's how excited I am. I've been waiting all week."

James has turned into a special player for the Bengals this season, a terrific north-south finisher with keen vision, terrific passing and the ability to create space for himself with a jabbing crossover and knock down a midrange jumper. As much as Jerard Mayes and Prince Unaegbu do the dirty work underneath, and as much as Daivon Edwards and Theo Oribhabor stretch defenses with perimeter shots, it all starts with James' facilitation.

One of his more masterful strokes of the season might have been that Monday night performance. The Bengals switched to a box-and-one during the game, and James was tasked with marking the state's premier point guard, junior Aaron Calixte. He stayed on Calixte's hip, and while the junior ended up with 17 points on the night, the Black Knights' offense as a whole sputtered, scoring just six points in the third quarter and falling 53-42 -- far from the team's scoring average in the 60s.

The O'Brien hand extends to James, too. After an early-season 20-point win over Community Academy of Science & Health (CASH), O'Brien entered the locker room and had choice words with the team. O'Brien stressed the importance of "the small things" -- boxing out, rebounding, rotating -- but also singled out James, telling him he needed to lead by example.

He's been reminded all week in school, by everyone from peers in the hallway to teachers in the classroom, to stay focused, sprinkled with whispers of "Don't let us down."

Right now he's plotting out what he's going to tell the team on the bus ride over, after it departs from the Reggie Lewis Center.

"I'm going to call everyone on the bus tonight and tell them to get ready," James says. "It's going to be a very long talk. This is our last game, especially for the seniors, and I'm going to have a long talk. First off, get focused, no joking around. We have to go into the game confident.

"We can't go into the game lazy, thinking we're gonna blow this team out. We have to get focused. We have to make sure to rebound, box out and run the floor. Play our game, listen to the coach, we can't get mad at each other out there. This is it."

SATURDAY, 2:30 P.M. -- DCU CENTER, WORCESTER

Willie Veal is grinning.

The oldest of Coleman's three assistant coaches and a 1978 alum of Brighton, Veal opens a shoebox inside the locker room and holds up a pair of Air Jordan Concord XIs, retail price roughly $300. Veal, Coleman and assistants Lavelle Larkin and Kurtis Grant will all be donning pairs.

Per tradition, the entire Brighton coaching staff dresses in matching outfits for each game. They've gotten more formal as the season went, compared to the orange sweaters and black pants they donned in December. This, the state championship, is when Coleman decides to go all out -- jet black suits with matching vests, crisp white-collared shirts, striped ties with the familiar orange and black.

But the piece de resistance is the footwear, one of the hottest-selling models of sneakers currently on the market.

"Are these groomsmen?" Emily calls out to them in the hallway, jokingly. "Because I'm ready to say 'I do' again."

Elsewhere, James didn't end up saying anything special to the team, a decision he'll regret (more on that later). The atmosphere is loose in the locker room, some players stretching, others getting their feet taped up ("Sorry about the funk," Oribhabor says to the trainer, laughing, as he gets his worked on).

Coleman walks around the room, addressing players by name, telling them, "You are lucky." He's loving the energy in the room and wants to bask in it. He pulls out his markerboard, reminds them they have nothing to be anxious about and goes over the game plan.

Every time Brighton scores, Coleman wants the bench to get up and be energized, enjoying themselves. And then he wants the team to go right into "Orange," its diamond-and-one look on defense, and the man picking up the ball handler to force him to one sideline, whereupon James or Edwards should leave his man and trap.

James raises a question: What if the other two players just break all the way downcourt? Coleman tells him "great question" and to just back up all the way to half court.

This back-and-forth, questions to be answered by Coleman, goes on for several more minutes. When all is said and done and the assistants have added their words, Coleman signals for the team to bring their hands into the middle of the circle.

As is customary before each game, Coleman leads them in prayer:

"Dear heavenly Father. Again, you have brought us to another game of basketball. We just want you to know that we are truly blessed and thank you for this opportunity. We have so much that we're playing for, but the No. 1 thing we want to shine out there is Your glory. We want to do this because You blessed us with opportunity, and You blessed us with the opportunity to bless other people.

"So we just ask You to allow us to do Your work. We thank You, we just ask that You give us the strength to come out here and play with the God-given ability that You've blessed us with. We ask that all of our family and friends, and all the people that have traveled out here today, to get here safely and to travel home safely this evening.

"We ask You to bless ALL of the participants. All the players, all the coaches, because there are going to be some people very happy and some people very sad. So we ask that You take care of them, and take care of us. We thank You, we honor You, and in Jesus' name we pray."

All in the room respond with a resounding "Amen."

But Veal has one more thing to add before they exit the locker room.

"What kind of game is this?" he asks out loud.

"Just another game," the players respond.

4 P.M. -- GAME TIME: BRIGHTON VS. MAHAR -- MIAA DIV. 2 STATE CHAMPIONSHIP

The Bengals are lost.

The lob is nowhere to be found on the first play of the game. Same for the overall offense, which sputters out of the gates. Brighton trails 12-3 after one quarter, 17-3 midway through the second, and by 10 at the break.

With athleticism everywhere on the court, and one of the state's most diligent press defenses, the Bengals were the favorites headed into this one. But state championship basketball is unpredictable. Playoff basketball is about being comfortable with the uncomfortable, and out of the gate the Bengals look distressed.

James delivers a snapping crossover on the first possession, and Edwards comes up with a steal in the press going the other way, but things quickly deteriorate. Mahar senior guard Jesse LaCroix repeatedly breaks through the extended 3-2 zone, repeatedly taking advantage of late help-side rotations for high-percentage jumpers or quick dishes for easy layups. Senior center Nate Martin is bringing it underneath for Mahar; in one possession, the 6-foot-4 post extends out to the 3-point line and promptly swats Oribhabor's shot over press row.

The Senators only go seven deep, and don't resemble the Bengals much in the way of athleticism, but their execution is crisp on this day, just as it was in their double-digit pounding of Central Mass. champ St. Bernard's in Tuesday night's state semifinal.

Brighton finishes the second quarter strong, cutting the lead to 10, and heads to the locker room. Coleman stresses the little things -- when grabbing the rebound, for instance, Unaegbu needs to pull the ball in close and not give room for the ball to be slapped out.

"Are you down right now, or are you focused?" Coleman asks the room rhetorically, fire burning in his eyes. "Because I can't tell."

The Bengals come storming out of the gates to start the third quarter, opening with a lob play to Mayes, kicking off a 15-4 run as they pull ahead briefly 28-27.

Mahar is giving little inside. Coach Chad Softic would later tell reporters, "If they were going to beat us, they were going to have to knock down some shots to beat us."

The Bengals get a handful of opportunities to prove Softic right in the final 40 seconds. First, James pulls up for a 3-pointer, down 43-40, and comes up empty. Edwards is next, clanking his with 16.8 ticks to go, but the Senators clumsily turn the ball over deep in their own zone to give the Bengals another chance to win it.

James cuts through the lane and puts up a floater as he is fouled with 11.8 seconds left, but it is off. He misses the first free throw. The second, given the time, should be missed on purpose; naturally, he ends up swishing it.

On the ensuing Mahar inbounds pass, Unaegbu is called for a hold on Mahar's Phil DiPhillipo as he rolls through a pick in the Brighton press. The Bengals catch yet another lucky break, as DiPhillipo misses both free throws.

Down at the other end, Oribhabor has one last chance to tie it up, and it looks good coming off his hands. But DiPhillipo gets a piece of it, and the shot falls well short of the basket. Mahar will go to the line with 0.6 seconds on the clock, up two, with two free throws.

James can't watch this. He stands by himself at the other end, hunched over, hands on his knees, the back of his jersey over his head.

The final buzzer sounds. Mahar 45, Brighton 41. At the far end, 80 feet away from James, is euphoria from the Mahar bench and the crowd directly behind them.

The 25 feet in front of James? Empty, blank stares.

6 P.M. -- POSTGAME: DEVASTATION

Daivon Edwards is frustrated, fuming and forlorn all at once.

He storms off the court and marches to the locker room, not even waiting around for the medal ceremony that his teammates are lining up for, and Emily follows after him to try to console him.

Inside the locker room, the only noise is sobs of varying decibel levels. James is collapsed in the middle of the carpeted floor, lying motionless on his stomach, weeping softly. Freshman Keyon Jones -- a JV call-up who has become a crucial component -- bawls with his head buried in the front of his jersey, as Mayes drapes an arm around him and squeezes him tightly.

Emily is reminding the players, "We've got to find the lesson in this. Think about the lesson in this."

Coleman had flowing tears of joy after the win at the Garden. There are no tears from him right now.

What do you say at a moment like this?

"You have to take the lesson from this moment," Coleman starts off. "Think about it. Go home, on the bus, think about it for the next couple of days, months, think about it. What is the lesson to be learned here? Could you have worked harder in practice? Could you have worked harder in the offseason? Could you have worked harder in school? Could you have been a better PERSON, in YOUR LIFE?

"Every little thing COUNTS. When I was with Coach O'Brien, I tell people this: that the winning and the state titles was a COMPLIMENT to the people, you understand that? So when you're a good person, and you do the right things ... you say hello, how are you doing, shake hands, thank you, please, you respect teachers, you respect adults, all of those things ... the winning was a compliment to that.

"So I want you guys, as a whole, us as a team ... everyone has to be doing that, thinking that. I want you guys to be proud of all that we've accomplished, and two, I want you to be reflective, and I want you to be reflective on the bigger meaning. But I'm very proud of all of you. We've come so far, and you still have so much more to live and to do."

He commends the seniors for their efforts and leadership, both on and off the court, and they are given a round of applause.

Larkin, Veal and Grant are given the floor one by one to have their last words. But before the team breaks, Mayes has some final words for the team.

"For those of y'all that got another year, or a few more years ahead of you -- dog, just come back here," he starts. "Bust your ass. That's all I want for y'all. Seniors, we busted our ass to get here. We didn't know Prince was going to turn out the way he did, and he goes to my school. Look at him now. Work hard out there, be disciplined, dog.

"Yesterday, I'm not going to sugarcoat it -- practice could have been way better. Just next time, work harder, keep it strong up here," he concludes, pointing to his head with his index finger.

In the media room, Dowman stands by himself, eyes watery and bloodshot, and he can't utter anything more than a whisper. Ten feet from him, James reflects on what could have been.

If he could do it again, would he have said something on that bus ride over to the game?

"If I could, I would take everything back," he admits. "I meant to say something."

But to dwell too much on this disappointment would be counterproductive to the program's continued progress. James declares the team is "going to work harder in the offseason. Every day in the gym we're going to work as a family."

That goes for his own aspirations, too. He vows to improve on his jump shot, as well as his ball-handling. But more than anything, James needs to take the next step in leadership, and to do so by example.

"There's a lot of things to work on that I'm going to promise myself to get done this summer, and come back to Brighton and make more history," he says. "Myself, I should have took responsibility and stayed after practice and been a leader, and put up over 200 shots. "

I should have been the first one in and last one out, just like Michael Jordan. That's what I take responsibility in, stepping up as a leader."