Mike Cardillo: Long climb for Harding to reclaim past brilliance
Updated 12:18 am, Thursday, January 24, 2013
BRIDGEPORT -- Eight wins.
At face value, eight wins from a 20-game schedule isn't all that much.
For many high school basketball programs, it's the minimum goal -- and a massive sigh of relief for the coach -- since it means a trip to the state tournament and the ability to label the season, in some regard, a success.
Right about now, the Harding boys basketball team (3-8) would do nearly anything within its means to crack that eight-win threshold, considering last season the Presidents missed the state tournament for the first time anyone can remember, finishing 4-16.
As much as winning eight games and squeezing into the state tournament would mean for a still-maturing Presidents team, second-year coach Charles Clemons still keeps his eye firmly locked on the big picture -- trying to reestablish Harding as one of the premier teams in the state.
"This year it's a big jump, but historically, eight wins for Harding is a down season," Clemons said this week. "I have to temper my expectations. I know I'm not living back in 1988 when every player who went to Harding, even if they didn't play in college, (was a star)."
It's hard to believe Harding -- the school that proudly displays the jerseys of NBA alumni Charles Smith, Wes Matthews and John Bagley, among others -- hasn't won a state title since 2001, its 12th overall. The Presidents did win the FCIAC in 2006 and reached the Class LL semifinals in 2008, but since then have drifted back into the pack.
Clemons, who likes to refer to himself as an amateur Bridgeport basketball historian who grew up on the East Side, remembers when Harding was the school for boys basketball in the city. But he also realizes it's been nearly a generation since Harding's name rung out and carried a special weight on the hardwood. To a great deal of current high school players, Harding is simply another school with a basketball team.
"It was the flagship high school of Bridgeport," Clemons said.
In turn, Clemons brought back former Harding players such as Al Pettway and Alex Wright and others to practice with his current team, trying to show his players that wearing the Presidents' blue-and-gold uniform isn't something to be taken for granted.
"There's pride when you put on the uniform," Clemons said. "You're not just playing, you've got some shoulders you have to stand on."
Clemons himself has shoulders to stand on, too, namely from the man he took over from in 2011 -- Charlie Bentley, winner of nine state titles (five straight from 1983-87) in his 34 years at Harding.
"He's given me room to learn and grow, probably the same way Jim Kish did with him," Clemons said of Bentley.
Outside factors have contributed to Harding's on-court decline, though some of it could be the cyclical nature of the sport in Bridgeport -- Bassick has won the last two FCIAC titles while Central won the Class LL tournament in 2003 and 2010.
Clemons points to the demolition of Father Panik Village in 1993, which had traditionally been a place where Harding drew many of its players, as a factor.
On top of that, in the current educational climate, parents are more inclined to send their kids, if they have the means, to a place such as Notre Dame-Fairfield or Kolbe Cathedral or St. Joseph. It hasn't helped, either, that Bridgeport middle schools briefly removed basketball, whereas seventh- and eighth-grade hoops is a staple of the region's parochial schools.
"It's not an excuse, but it's something we have to deal with," said Clemons, who himself played at St. Joseph in the early 1990s. "Ten years ago, they'd be more likely to go to Harding. The reason why, again, they had things rolling, but even then there were kids from the East End who would go to the parochial schools."
In practical terms, Harding looked on track for, at minimum, a return to the state tournament this year until the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference stripped two wins from the Presidents last Friday for using an academically ineligible player. Later that day, Harding went on to defeat Wilton on a buzzer-beater by Kin'Shawn Pettway, upping its record to 3-7 until a double-digit loss to Staples Tuesday dropped it to 3-8.
"It let the kids know that there's basketball gods out there. It was something that was unfortunate, but the guys banded together," Clemons said of the Wilton victory after forfeiting two wins. "Everybody was smiling, even the guys that didn't get into the game."
The Presidents are improved this year, regardless of their record. Pettway, juniors Terrance Rogers, Devaun McAlister and sharp-shooting sophomore Reggie Stewart form a talented core going forward. The back end of Harding's schedule isn't brutal, either, although it includes both city rivals Bassick and Central.
Still, eight wins and a low seed in the state playoffs -- although a step forward -- is only a small step in the big picture of trying to restore Harding's basketball legacy.
"The progress we've made this year, I'm partially satisfied. It wasn't going to happen overnight," Clemons said. "I want it where you walk into the gym and you know when you're playing Harding, it's going to be a long night."