Commentary

On Utopia Parkway

High school basketball playoffs and young athletes' divergent paths

Updated: March 5, 2013, 4:27 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Carnesecca ArenaJeff MacGregor/ESPNThe stage set for a few hours of high school basketball.

Out past the Panda Garden and the Salad Shack on Union Turnpike, past the rows of red brick low-rises and winter lawns, sits Carnesecca Arena. 8000 Utopia Parkway. This is out in Queens at St. John's University, and this is the quarterfinals of the New York City Public Schools Athletic League Boys' A-Division AA-Bracket basketball tournament.

Two hours before a Saturday morning tipoff the silence is cavernous and a dribbled ball rings like a shot. An hour later DJ Afrojack loops down from the PA and the cops take up stations and sip their coffee and discreetly pump a knee in their baggy tactical pants. The crowd arrives by ones and twos, parents and brothers and sisters, coaches' wives and kids in matching sweaters clutching $5 tickets, small-college scouts in weapons-grade sunglasses looking for overlooked talent, and by 11 a.m. there are a couple hundred of us in the lower stands. We all rise for a recorded national anthem too heavy on the woodwinds.

Basketball is important in New York, has always been important here, and today is no different. This bracket sends high schools through for their chance to play in the finals at Madison Square Garden.

First game of the day is Curtis High, in from Staten Island, versus Bayside, the Queens high school out by the Little Neck Bay. And the first marquee star we'll see is a young man named Hassan Martin.

[+] EnlargeMartin
AP Photo/Gregory PayanEarlier this season, Hassan Martin demonstrated why several schools offered him a scholarship.

A slender 6-foot-6 power forward at Curtis, he's long since signed a promise to attend the University of Rhode Island. In the predictive literature of the Internet preps economy -- that weird online inventory of teenage height and weight and upside -- he is presented as one of the best players in the city, and one of the better prospects in the country.

He works from end to end with a solemn expression of purpose and no theatrics, his one concession to showmanship the meticulously unstuck Velcro closures of his emergency green high-tops flapping at every step. The Bayside defense collapses to him whenever he nears the basket or raises his eyes or hands to the ball, leaving his teammates open to score. The Bayside offense is as subtle as a punch in the nose. Run. Gun. Repeat. At the end of the first half, before anyone in the building is quite awake, Curtis leads 32-27.

One of the joys of watching high school ball is the catalog of bad mechanics: the eccentric shooting, the lunatic handle, the charming tics and the pigeon-toed crotchets not yet smoothed away by practice and ambition. Most of the kids who get to the next level conform pretty closely to the game's ideal graces. The flying elbow and the clockwise-only pivot and the one-eyed free throw get left behind.

Bayside runs hard at Curtis in the second half. But Hassan Martin wakes, rises, stretches. He scores eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter and blocks five shots. Did he really finish with 18 rebounds? He did. Maybe that's when you notice his hands are the size of Japanese fans.

Curtis wins 61-55 and advances to the city semifinals.

In the 1 o'clock game there's A Moment. This is Thomas Jefferson versus Benjamin Cardozo, and the first quarter is a hot mess. After eight minutes, Cardozo leads 17-2. By the last seconds of the last minute of the fourth quarter it is somehow 55-53, Jefferson just ahead and the crowd out of their seats.

Cardozo senior Daniel Janel, who plays as wide as he is high at 6-foot-8, ties the game at 55 as the seconds tick by. Janel, who averages six points a game and makes what he can of size and strength and a high work rate, hustles down to the other end, where he blocks what might have been the winning shot as time expires.

That's the moment, from one end to the other -- that hero sequence of seven or eight seconds no else will much remember, but that he'll carry all his life, up on his toes and the ball into his hand, the feel of it as he leaps and puts the ball up and back into the cylinder and down and through and the crowd noise and his own pulse in his ears and back to the far end arms and eyes wide and looking and there's the ball and he jumps again and feels the shot stop in his palm and the ball starts to move away from him, up court, and then the horn and the cheering.

If he stopped playing tomorrow, he'd still have that forever.

Cardozo loses in overtime, 64-60.

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AP Photo/Gregory PayanTerrence Samuel directed the South Shore offense during a game in January.

The third game feels like an upset but isn't. Wings Academy is down from the Bronx to play South Shore High School, up from Brooklyn, and the other senior star in the tournament, Terrence Samuel. Samuel, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard who can shoot, heads for UConn in the fall. He'll go there lithe and strong and with his reputation intact, but today he scores just two points. He makes a handful of deft passes, some of which are too good for his teammates to corral, including a beautiful alley-oop that goes un-ooped, but he is off his game.

Across the floor from him, a skinny 6-foot Wings sophomore guard named Desure Buie is playing with a kind of cerebral abandon; playing speed chess fast and loose but always two or three moves ahead. He's jawboning his coach and directing traffic and crossing over all at once, launching passes and finding openings and keeping everyone's head in the game. Even with his giant uniform flapping like a sail, he has the relaxed look of an old soul in his eyes, and the kind of easy relationship with the ball that can't be taught. Without trying, he commands your attention. Maybe because he seems so deep in his game, lost in it the way some us get lost in a book, immersed. Maybe that's part of what we come to see. Or to recall. That near-trance state of real joy in purpose.

Wings Academy takes a close game 63-62.

The crowd fusses and paces and eats and waits for the 5 o'clock game. Voices and hopes rise and fall. Kids sass or doze or flirt. The scouts check their smartphones and the horn sounds. Abraham Lincoln beats East New York Transit Tech 56-40 in the closer.

We round again into March and basketball and spring and we come to see the sorting of those who'll stay behind from those who might keep climbing. And to remember how much and how little are at stake. How else to explain Khalil Edney up in Westchester and the small epiphany of that great worldwide surprise? We're all here to be reminded of the possible.

Then out into the evening. And the drive up Utopia Parkway.