Monday, January 19, 2009

The Need To Step It Up

If you've lived, worked and played in Oakland County for the majority of your life as I have, you might think you know a few things about the city and county you call home.

I'm brave enough to admit today I knew nothing 14 months ago. Of course, I thought I did, but as I researched my football and subsequent basketball book more and more, I discovered my knowledge base was lacking. Over the past 14 months, I've learned so much about the city of Detroit, Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties and our metro region as a whole. My sports knowledge has blossomed and my working knowledge from a socioeconomic standpoint is greatly expanded, too.

Here's what stands out to me today: Oakland County has a long way to go to catch up to other cities and counties in basketball prowess. If you think that's mean-spirited, baseless or otherwise foolish to say, consider what Oakland County's basketball history would look like without Pontiac Northern or Detroit Country Day. When Pontiac Central closes in a few months, a significant chunk of the county's basketball cache will close with it.

Ferndale won a pair of championships under Roy Burkhart in the 1960s. Berkley had some good teams under Steve Rhoades, none better than the 25-0 edition with Bruce Flowers in the mid-1970s. Those Bears lost in the Class A quarterfinals to Pontiac Central, the farthest any Berkley team has ever advanced. The Chiefs went to four title games without bringing home winner's hardware. Southfield had some great teams, including the school's 1983 team that lost to Detroit Southwestern and Antoine Joubert's 44-point effort in the Class A semifinals. Their rival, Southfield-Lathrup, has also had a handful of great seasons in girls and boys' games alike, and save for the last two minutes of the Class A final about 15 years ago, the Chargers could have had a title in boys' basketball, too.

Obviously Pontiac Northern has earned a couple of titles as have the Eaglets of Orchard Lake St. Mary's. Country Day in girls and boys' basketball is a champion many times over along with Mary Lillie-Cicerone's Birmingham Marian teams. Her Mustangs have earned four titles in five finals appearances while neighboring Brother Rice had some good teams under Bill Norton in the 1970s.

There's a small handful of champions I'm omitting but you get the point. At face value that aforementioned list looks pretty good, right? But compared to Detroit, Flint or Saginaw, Oakland County schools, particularly the public schools, are seen within the MHSAA record books as often as the signs that tell you you're still 200+ miles from the Mackinac Bridge. Every so often you see an Oakland County school in the finals or semifinals. And before you get mad, understand that Macomb County's public schools are practically non-existent in this discussion.

What surprises me is one would think with the affluence in Oakland County, the ability to pay for and play AAU, quality coaching, gyms and weight rooms, Oakland County would have a better history. But money can't buy love, as I've heard more than once, and Oakland County school populations love football and baseball a lot more than they love roundball.

However, it's not all negative. Even as rumors swirl of the OAA's potential demise, one must look at the OAA and admit its' role in improving basketball in the O-C. The OAA gave Oakland County a look at Clarkston, Lake Orion and the two Pontiac schools on an annual basis. It forced the county's public schools as a whole to play a different brand of basketball.

Coaches familiar with the 'city game' have been populating Oakland County schools for the past 10-15 years. Not surprisingly, the tenor, tempo and energy of the game changed, too. Finally, when the OAA hired Mike Smith away from the PSL to assign games, the league gained officials who called a tougher, more physical game. It forced soft fouls and soft play out of the OAA. It also opened doors for an entire pool of officials who previously had not intermingled the two leagues to one another.

Obviously I'm starting to touch on some issues that get away from basketball and delve into culture and habit, so we'll stop here. It will be a fun last six weeks of the regular season. Can Clarkston continue an amazing season? Will Pontiac Central offer a final memory for her faithful fans? Pontiac Northern's final season as the Huskies is at hand, too. Will private schools like Country Day and Marian be holding hardware to end their season? Can any other Oakland County team step up and steal glory from a perennial contender?

Here's to a final six weeks of fastbreak, break-neck basketball!

~T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries from Arcadia Publishing. Cameron's 2nd title, Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries, is due August 2009.

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