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Selfless Somerset Hills Boys Hoops Team Soars to Championship Season

Teary-eyed and hoarse-voiced, Buzz Williams sat before the press last week-end (March 18th) after his Marquette team had clinched a spot in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. "It's gotta be about more than winning and losing," said the team's head coach. He also said when speaking of his team's togetherness: "Faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love."

His words have been resonating with me ever since. As a basketball player for all my growing-up years, the game taught me just about everything I know about life: how to win; how to lose; how to get along with teammates; how to fix something I was doing incorrectly; how to listen and respect a coach and teammates; how to deal with and overcome selfishness and frustrations with various personalities including my own; how to practice rigorously when I didn't feel like it; how to set daily practice regimens and stick to them, and why not doing so would diminish my performance in the next game; how to approach life philosophically and spiritually; how to learn; how to think; and how to never quit no matter how bad I played. Basketball, especially coaches and teammates, taught me how to live each day of my life right up until now. The court and all that surrounded it was my living laboratory.

Buzz's words and my youthful basketball experiences became a "Circle of Life" experience last Tuesday night (March 20th) as I watched my son, Kevin, compete with this Somerset Hills teammates for the 8th grade Garden State (NJ) Boys Basketball League playoff championship against Westfield. These were the two best teams, from the most competitive league, in the entire area which includes Chatham, Warren, North Hunterdon, Orange, Summit, Basking Ridge and others.

To say the game was non-stop tension and tenaciously fought would be like saying Tim Tebow generates interest. Words can't get at how frenetically this game was played, what it meant, the stakes involved, and the young lives being moved and shaped. March Madness has been dull by comparison.

This game was for the epitome of a boy's youth sports career, a championship that no one could ever take away from the winners; and an imperfect, slightly melancholic memory for the team that lost, maybe fueling years of wonderment about how, if they made one more shot, didn't turn the ball over just one fewer time, a life-time of glory and bragging rights would be theirs forever. This was a rarified bond of 10 teammates for a single season, a page from their personal lifetime photo albums.

So what happened? Somerset Hills "lost," 54-52, when a Westfield player nailed a 20-foot 3-pointer with three seconds to play. Bam-like that-they were not champions of the post-season tournament. Oh what could have been. Oh what wasn't. Oh what will never be. Losing-we all experience it and I don't know anyone who enjoys it. Ironically, losing often teaches and benefits us the most.

Despite the final score, this team, if you had been watching them all season as I had, moves on from this journey as all-time winners despite the final score. They won the regular season league championship with 13 wins and 3 losses. They captured the Drew University and Gil Saint Bernard tournament championships. Overall, they finished with a 19 and 3 record. No one expected them to do nearly as well as they did, including themselves. Overachievement gushed unabated all season.

All these titles were nice and impressive from a pure statistical perspective. But this team won so often for reasons that go far beyond the numbers. The biggest reason is none of them were concerned about their individual numbers. Many basketball teams have two or three players who compete to be the leading scorers so they can brag that they lead the team and position themselves effectively with future basketball coaches and, potentially, high school and college scholarships. "Look, coach, I led my team in scoring, averaging 18 points per game." This all-too-common scenario didn't happen on this team, and is what made them worthy of respect and admiration, special. It showed they're good kids who root and support each other. What could be more important than that? Faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.

Basketball at its best, at its core, revolves around one ideal:  finding the open teammate for an open shot. This team excelled at this, always, every time, every game, no matter the score, no matter the situation, no matter the day, no matter the time, no matter the opponent. Selflessness-it's a beautiful and elusive character trait. We all care so much about ourselves; it's hard to care as much about others. Yet these players cared about each other. They played the game the right way, as a unit, as a collection of boys working like an orchestra, playing music together that complemented each others' skills. The drummer didn't try to out-pound the guitar player. They were all about making a sweeter melody by blending. They showed precocious maturity.

What makes this team even more unusual, striking and inspiring is many didn't even know each other a few months ago when the season began. Five players live in Bernardsville-Griffin McParland, Andrew Sanders, Michael Isselin, Nico Britt and Kevin Hartley; five are from the Bedminster area: Dylan Khan, John Phelan, Zack Walljasper, Noah Bream, and Devin Rivera.

Together, they coalesced seamlessly to form a larger harmonious unit. From the outset they played together as if they had been doing so their whole lives, winning their first three games en route to the Drew University tournament title. Cooperation, encouragement and finding the open teammate transcended all else, the one rule the team lived by. Complementary to this, they played like wild, scurrying cheetahs on defense. Their full-court press probably created more than 250 turnovers over the season. Steals, deflections, and forced errant passes happened non-stop. This pressure was spellbinding, wild, ubiquitous, often hard to keep up with, breathtakingly blazing. They would trap opposing players all the time, wave their hands, swipe at the ball, steal, steal, steal, pass, pass, pass, layup, layup, layup, hit the open teammate, hit the open teammate, hit the open teammate. It was beautiful-basketball at its best.

Now the boys have started new seasons, competing in baseball and soccer this spring. In the fall some will be attending different high schools. This exact team will likely never be together again. But they will be together in other ways, in different venues, as friends with memories of this special season, as pals at high school proms and parties. By playing on this team each player broadened their personal experiences, grew as young people, learned more about other people and themselves.

Marquette coach Buzz Williams was right: Basketball can't just be about wins and losses. There must be more to it, and this Somerset Hills team proved it. Basketball and life are about faith, hope and love-and friendships, and sharing the basketball, and selflessness. This team lived these values. This season amounted to a timeless treasure beyond words, a basketball run beyond belief. These 10 boys soared as champions in the most important game, the game of life.

 

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