“Alright man you can do this. Hands on the keys. One…Two…Three…type! Let’s do it. F this writer’s block! You got this.”
Yes it’s taken a long time to complete my hoop trilogy, but the time has come. It’s been 30 years now since these events took place so the timing feels right. Plus the universe has been speaking to me lately. In November a few of us old time ’89 guys played in the alumni game and received a warm reception before shuffling around against the current varsity squad. And in the span of the past few weeks, I’ve had two people randomly bring up our final game, so I’m feeling the need to tell the story once more. Remember, I’m doing this from memory and the aid of a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings that I found in my parents garage, so facts may be distorted. Also, I apologize if I portray any of the characters in this story in a negative light. One such individual from an earlier version has been emailing me over the past few years threatening severe bodily harm. The whole point of this is to serve as a lighthearted trip down memory lane. To quote the great Ralph Barbieri, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.”
So to kick this thing off, I need to step into my trusty time machine and dial it back to ’89. I’m hearing Guns N Roses and bumping 808 bass. My phone is nowhere to be found. I feel like I’m floating down the hall without a care in the world………
The Buzzer sounds and there are 8 minutes up on the retro light bulb scoreboard off in the corner above the visitors basket. The boisterous crowd is in the moment and charged to see a show. The booming voice of Chuck D rapping over a manic groove is blasting through a horrible PA system, creating an environment that feels on the verge of total chaos. I’m quickly hit with a shot of adrenaline, giving me a flash of giddiness and butterflies all at once. I momentarily make eye contact with my father in the huddle and get an encouraging nod in return. Coach Klenow is barking out last minute instructions to deaf ears as we put our hands in and form a circle. I look into the eyes of my teammates and a calmness envelops me. We break the huddle and walk out onto the floor with a sense of purpose and an unbreakable confidence. I size up the guy who I’m assigned to guard like a prize fighter hearing pre-fight instructions, slap hands with our foes, and dig into the circle. It’s Friday night in the Winter of 1989 and it’s showtime.
For those of you who have been following this saga, when I last left you in Part 1.5 I was entering the gym in the first weeks of the school year on a hobbled ankle, unsure if I would ever be the same. I had gone from a confident, fit and free flowing 16 year old to a crusty 17 year old with bad ankles. I hadn’t run for weeks and the thought of jumping again in traffic was intimidating. On top of my mental hurdles, I now had to contend with two bulky air casts strapped inside of my shoes that felt like ski boots, making changing directions feel unnatural. For those who have played any competitive sport, you know that it’s imperative to be free of that negative voice in your head telling you that you are not up to the task. As I got on the floor that first time, my negative voice was yelling at me through a megaphone three inches from my face. I felt like I was in quicksand, while the guys around me were in fast forward mode. The floor looked fuzzy. Defenders were everywhere. The ball felt slippery. The lactic acid was cascading like a waterfall throughout my body. In other words, I was fucked!
Luckily, I had September and October to ease back into this thing and I had youth on my side so my only option was to get back to training and try to be the best damn teenager that I could be. If you had to rate high-school seniors on a mental maturity scale from 0-10, with 10 being the most mature and 0 being a wild banshee, I was somewhere around a 4. Yes I attended class, didn’t do drugs, wasn’t having wild sex, genuinely liked my parents etc., but my personal priority list of fun and entertainment for the Fall of ‘88 looked something like this:
- Grow mullet and attempt a mustache*
- Find mud and/or wet asphalt to spin out my Great Grandmother’s 1963 Chevy Biscayne**
- Attend the Scorpions concert at the Cow Palace
- Get drunk in the bushes at Stanford football games
- Sit in the back of SAT prep class and engage in a running Kiss concert drawing contest with fellow knuckleheads
- Hang out at AM/PM on Friday nights hoping for news of a house party, a bleach burnout, a DeMarco sighting, or somebody willing to buy kids beer for $20.
- Watch Greg Chalberg perform amazing doughnuts in his ’67 Nova.
- Eat Round Table Pizza
- Watch Knots Landing
- Get accepted into college???? Really?? (Well, “That’s for you Mom!)
*When I refer to growing a mullet, or Works as it was called in these parts back then, I have to admit that I was never truly bold enough to let it rip ala Dwayne Schintzius. My works (mullet) and stache were more of the subtle young Jeff Gordon variety. Just enough to make somebody pause and take a second glance, but not enough to stop somebody dead in their tracks. What I had going for me though was a unique style referred to as Sheepskin Works by my fellow Works Brothers. Picture kinky, frizzy, borderline afro teenage hair that could also serve as an accurate weather barometer and you will get the idea. I remember walking into class the morning of the Scorpions show alongside a prominent “A-List” girl who I considered a semi friend and she just started laughing at my appearance. And this wasn’t the kind of laughter that says, “I totally get what you are going for you funny awesome dude.” No, this was a laugh that implied, “Nope. You will still be a virgin after this weekend. Nice try moron!” I attempted to play it off by saying the look was strictly being crafted for the big show that night, but I went straight to the razor the following morning to shave the stache portion.
**The thought of driving through Atherton and Sharon Heights today in a four wheel drift that would make Juha Kankkunen smile is downright preposterous. I can still remember drifting down Continental in Sharon Heights with Niven riding shotgun at such crazy angles that we could wave to people in their kitchens and living rooms on one side of the street and then rotate the car 180 to wave to their neighbors across the street. Are you kidding me? I would have been made out to be the devil himself on Nextdoor and social media if I attempted that stunt this afternoon. Never even received a ticket. What a great time to be alive!
Right about here it seems appropriate to que up the Survivor mega-hit, Eye Of The Tiger, to set the mood for what’s to come.
While many of my friends were slogging through another abhorrent 2 win season on the gridiron, I was training after school two to three days a week with the amazing Coach Ben Parks. I loved it! One day he would have us in the wrestling room wearing full size boxing gloves and doing 5 punch combos until we dropped and next day we’d be doing circuit training on equipment from the 1940’s. I felt like I was partaking in a Jack Lalanne workout, complete with squats and calf raises while balancing a buddy on my back. And just when I thought we were done, he would call for the dreaded chair dips. The man loved to punish people with chair dips. I can still to this day hear that booming voice counting out the dips and yelling, “Rotate!”
Time Out: I may be mistaken but I think our varsity football team won two games over two years in ‘87 and ‘88! No disrespect to the guys who worked their tails off daily, but that should not have happened. As MA proved this year by winning the state 3-AA title, there is always enough talent on that campus to field a competitive football team so here is my ‘88 fantasy lineup:
QB- Ced Reed
RB- Charlie Smith
FB- Cosie P
WR- Atiba Williams
WR- James Smith
WR- Kendrick Reed
TE- Dee Edwards
P/K Returner – Jason Johnson
I’ll stop there but even with 5 stiffs on the o-line, that crew would put up 30/gm.
As November was quickly upon us, it was finally time to officially get the gang back together. There was immediately a feel good factor as we hit the court for our first practice of the year, but it didn’t take long to get down to business and focus on our singular goal. It was win state or fail. Nothing else was acceptable. We put the pressure squarely on our backs and were more than ready for the challenge. Unlike the year before, this wasn’t going to be a Cinderella Story. Cal-Hi Sports had us ranked #6 in the State DII pre-season poll, but that just served as fodder to prove them wrong.
We only had 2 returning starters from the previous year, but the cohesiveness and chemistry of this new group was evident immediately. We liked each other. We knew how to press each other’s buttons and pick one another up when it was necessary. Everybody had a well defined role and there were no egos getting in the way. It was sort of a minor miracle, especially at a public school, but it was a credit to the character of the individuals involved.
Here then, were the ‘88-’89 MA Bears:
F-C – Senior – Atiba Williams: Atiba was a rangy, quick 6’5” slasher who could do everything on the offensive end. He could shoot the 3, score in traffic, post on the block, dribble drive with a pull up mid range J, and get out on the break and finish with a crowd pleasing dunk. Just a few months earlier, I witnessed Atiba foul out Shaq in 3 qtrs with his endless variety of contorted moves in the paint. It was fun to be Atiba on a hoop court. And he was such a loveable guy that he quickly became Big Man On Campus (BMOC) and enjoyed all of the spoils that came with that crown.
PG – Senior – Cedric Reed: First and foremost, Ced was our leader. He was our QB on the floor and the voice in the locker room who said, “We’re not losing fellas!” Nothing felt worse than being on Ced’s bad side. He had D1 speed and handles, and could get in the lane to find a cutter at will. He also spearheaded our full court press which produced turnovers in bunches. If he needed to score 30 he could have, but Ced played within the system and ran the team like a seasoned pro. If it weren’t for bad knees, Ced would have also been playing D1.
SG – Senior – Kendrick Reed: Scoring machine! At about 6’2” and high school skinny, K Reed didn’t look fast or overly athletic, but his scoring was relentless and he has to rank up there with the most prolific scorers in CCS history for a single season. He could shoot the 3, make a variety of mid range runners and surprise with a dunk in traffic. And did I mention confidence? Ken never saw a shot that he couldn’t make. Atiba, Ced and Ken pressed at frenetic pace and Ken would often benefit with a layup after a steal. He had such a knack for being in the right place to score that I would have loved to have seen what he would have done in a league like the Big West.
PF – Junior – Dee Edwards: Big Dee magically arrived on campus at the start of the year and at about 6’3” and 230lbs, immediately filled the role of rebounding machine. At first I was a little nervous about this unknown fitting in, but it was immediately clear that he was a hard working, nice guy with no ego. He was also a capable scorer inside and had nice hands to catch most of Ced’s lasers. As the season progressed he proved to be an unsung hero.
F – Senior – Steve Bulifant: Yes I guess I have to add commentary about myself. Maybe I should have Ced or Atiba provide a few words? On second thought, that may be a bad idea as I prefer to bask in the glow of distorted memories. At 6’5” and a fighting 175lbs, I could shoot and pass with the best of them, my problem was I was too slow to keep up. When we got into the half court I could always find the open man or knock down a shot, but we were seldom in a true half court set. So I found little ways to help and proved adept at getting fingers on shots or in the passing lanes, freeing somebody up with a pick and providing solid help interior defense. It wasn’t glamorous, but the world needs ditch diggers.
G – Junior – Charlie Smith: At about 6ft tall and built like an SEC running back, Charlie played a huge role as our 6th man. Charlie was more of a scorer than a distributor, but he could also play the point and spearhead our tenacious press. Not many schools in the Bay Area had the luxury of bringing an athlete of Charlie’s caliber off the bench.
G – Sophomore – Jason Johnson: For pure outrageous athleticism, Jason Johnson was tops on our team. At about 5’9” and 140lbs, he could do 360 dunks and get his head up around the rim off of a 2 foot vertical leap in his sleep. His game was still pretty raw, but you could plug him into the press and good things would happen.
F – Senior – James Smith: Similar to Jason, James Smith was a ridiculous athlete with a raw game. He was also a late grower because senior year he was about 6’1” and rail skinny, but grew in college into a 6’4” mega stud. It would not be uncommon for Coach Klenow to sit 3 starters and insert Charlie, James and Jason and the lead would grow. Those 3 guys made a great second speed unit that just wore down opposing guards.
C – Junior – Chris Schmoller: 6’6” center Chris Schmoller had crazy long arms and a nice back to the basket post game, but due to the speed of the guys on the floor, he was not a regular in the rotation. However, he did have his moments as a situational player late in games and made a great practice player with his length.
G – Junior – Greg Christianson: Backup Junior PG Greg Christianson was a solid athlete in his own right, playing QB on the football team, but his primary role was to keep the other guards ahead of him honest in practice. He came to work daily and was physically stronger than most guards we faced so he did his part to help the team.
G – Junior – Jerry Jenkins: Jerry was another guy who arrived at MA out of nowhere and was just a great guy to have around. He always had a big smile and accepted that he wasn’t going to get a lot of run. He also possessed a sweet J that I’ll bet served him well if he kept playing into adulthood.
G – Junior – TC Williams: Like Jerry, TC was a fun guy to have around and knew that his sweatpants were not coming off until the lead was 30. He probably could have been a decent player if he was a hardcore hoop nut, but I think he just liked being part of the journey.
F – Junior – Nino Gaetano: I don’t think Nino had more than 1-2 years of organized basketball under his belt but he made the team due to his size and surprising athletic ability. He was/is also a character with a Capital C so there was never a boring moment when Nino was involved.
F/C – Junior – Joe Kobertz: I barely knew Joe but he seemed like a nice guy. He had a rough and tumble look about him where it wouldn’t have surprised me if he was going from practice to knock back a few beers and play pool at a seedy dive bar as a 16 year old.
Sophs: Late in the year, Coach Klenow called up Marlon Lawrence, Kevin Swayzer and Colin Hawkins from the JV team to come along for the ride. They were all good guys who fit in nicely.
Assistant Coach – Rich Bulifant: Yes you read that right. My dad came on board to help out coach Klenow and proved to be a very effective leader. If you recall from Part 1.5, many of the guys on the team had their issues with Coach Klenow. My dad proved to be the perfect intermediary. He had the keen awareness to spot a blow up in the works and in most cases was able to diffuse the situation. In some ways he developed a fatherly relationship with a few of the guys. He also brought engaging drills to practice and was a valuable strategic voice in Coach Klenow’s ear during games.
Assistant Coach – Gene Stamps: Mean Gene was the JV coach but would sit on our bench during games and would bark out some fun coach speak. It’s always good to have a few adult voices telling the refs that they are blind as a bat and Mean Gene could bring it.
Coach Klenow – See Part 1.5 for more detail: He took over the coaching duties when we were sophomores and was the leader of this amazing journey.
Trainer- Jorge Maldonado: Out of nowhere for our senior year we had a professional trainer at our disposal. Jorge was working with us to get credits for his graduate degree or something along those lines and he could handle the tape gun like a gun slinger. It was comical to watch how fast he could wrap up an ankle and have you on your way. For my gimpy ankles, this was a true Godsend.
Manager- Josh: If you were casting a hoop team manager for an 80’s teen romcom, Josh would get the part. He was a great addition to our mini traveling circus and kept the water bottles coming and the shooting shirts from falling under the bleachers.
Our first two games out the gate were an easy tuneup and then it was on to St Francis for a game that had been circled on the calendar for a year. You could make a case that The Lancers were the toughest foe we were going to face the entire year. Their starting 5 was comprised of 3 D1 scholarship players, a D1 walk-on, and a PG who was destined to become a two sport D3 star. And did I mention that they were practically family? I grew up with Rosenberg, Beasley and Clemetson. Through our shared love of hoops we were all great friends. Rosenberg in particular was like a brother and still is to this day. I knew these guys better than my own teammates. And through these friendships, I had also become friends with Darren Brown and Greg Paulson. This felt like one of those big family reunion games where everybody goes to the park and it all starts out as fun and games, but then it gets competitive and deep down you really (really) don’t want to come out on the losing end. They beat us in Mountain View in JV’s during our sophomore year and then kicked the stuffing out of us junior year at our gym while we were feeling our way around. This was the final chance and it felt like our pride was on the line.
As I was focused on our layup line about 15 mins before tip, suddenly the door opened and the Lancers ran out to start their warm up routine. I didn’t want to look over but something in the back caught my attention. I had to take a peek. Quickly, I focused in on Rosenberg and realized that he was newly sporting a jaw dropping mullet. This thing was the classic Christmas tree that my fellow Works Brothers all aspired to achieve. I had seen him about 10 days prior and there was no mention that this beauty was in the cards. My focus immediately unraveled and I was jumping up and down laughing as Rose breezed passed me in their line and gave me one of his looks that says, “That’s right!”
When the pregame festivities ended and it was finally time to get on the court, we settled into a back and forth sloppy affair that saw us go up about 6-8 pts early. I had a nice look on the baseline that I air-balled. The next possession I had the same look and hit all net. It was clear that SF was not very sharp on this night and we built our lead to double digits. You could start to sense that things were well in hand during the 3rd quarter and the 20 or so MA students who made the trek down started to get a little rowdy. It felt like a CCS playoff game. Their student section was screaming all sorts of obscenities our way and our student crew was playing the part of unruly public school kids to perfection. With 3:06 remaining we had a 59-48 lead. The Lancers then quickly went on a 9-0 run and cut the lead to 59-57 with 1:46 left. I remember thinking that if we blow this my life as I know it is over and my hoop career is a total failure! But on this night luck was on our side. We only scored two points over the final 1:46, but miraculously held on to win 61-60. Atiba had 27 pts and was mobbed by our crew who rushed the court. I don’t even think we shook hands because we were celebrating like we had won the national title. Lancer parents were lobbing the insults at our parents for our lack of class and sportsmanship. It was just a beautiful moment to take in that left me in a state of pure teenage euphoria.
Heading back to Menlo Park that night I was screaming battle cries, cranking Winger and driving over 100 mph on 280 in my ‘63 Chevy shod with crappy retread tires probably safe up to 55 mph. After getting home the word was quickly spreading that the Godless public schoolers had prevailed and the phone calls started immediately. It was open season on a few of the Lancer players and the giddiness lasted long into the night.
The next day we had to get our heads back on straight and prepare for the vaunted Cupertino Classic without the services of Cedric Reed, who was out working on his knees. In our first game we beat Andrew Hill in a tight contest and then had to face the hometown heroes, Cupertino. I always thought of Cupertino as some sort of a St Francis Light. They had size and solid guard play and over the course of two years we had played really close games. This was our third go round playing in their tourney and they had defeated us in JV’s while we had won the previous year in the last seconds. For this rubber match, it was the back and forth contest that we had become accustomed to. I remember late in the third quarter I had basically done nothing on offense all night and I caught the ball on the wing. Their best player, Matt Romig, was checking me and said “Shoot it” in a way that got the juices flowing. I shot the three and it went in. The next time down the floor, same thing. “Shoot It”. So I hit another three and we were back in the game. At one point this game got so nutty that one of our reserves checked in, forgot which way we were going and put two points on the board for the wrong team. We tied the game at 66 with 25 seconds to go on a Charlie Smith basket and they elected to hold for the final shot. With four seconds left on the clock and the partisan Cupertino crowd going crazy, Jamie Presser took a jumper and missed, but in the ensuing scrum one of their bigs grabbed the board and put it in as time expired. Now it was their turn to act like they had won the national title and our turn to feel the bitter sting of a loss.
From there we had to regroup and go play in a treacherous four team tourney at Serra High in San Mateo. In our first contest we had to face a rough and tumble Jefferson team led by 6’5” Teeter Marshall and 6’6” Geno Carter. Before the game even started we had one of those pivotal moments that could have unraveled our dreams on the spot. Big Dee and his dad arrived about 5 mins before tip-off and Coach Klenow made the decision to sit Dee. When Dee’s dad got word of this he stood up and in a deep booming baritone voice said something like, “Come on Dee, give him your jersey. We ain’t playing for this clown!” Keep in mind that Dee’s dad did not look like a man to cross. No sirree! He was large and he was looking at Klenow like he was considering coming over and body slamming him. Somehow a deal was brokered to sit Dee for a possession or two and thankfully we were back on our way.
Jefferson was no walkover with the talent that they possessed. Teeter Marshall had offers from major colleges on the table and had the look of guy who had been around the block a few times and seen a few things. Of course somewhere in the first half I felt my elbow make contact with something and when I turned around Teeter was holding a bloodied nose. Sorry! We kept the pressure up throughout the game and prevailed to put us into the final against Serra.
The next night we had to take on a quality Serra team in the jungle led by Jason Stamps and Tony Gillette. This was another family style game for most of our team as we had all grown up playing together and were good friends off the court. Serra was unfazed by our speed and dictated the tempo, turning it into a physical half court game. We were exchanging leads into the final minutes when a few bounces went their way and suddenly the game was over and they were celebrating. That one hurt. I remember feeling so frustrated with the way that I played that I was kicking lockers and having a good cry as we packed it up. (Note-It’s funny how I’m missing the newspaper clippings from 3 or our 4 losses).
Next up was the 31st annual Fremont-Sunnyvale tourney with 16 teams vying for the trophy. We won our opener and then had Mitty in the quarterfinals. Mitty was a team that had our attention because they had 6’9” Iowa signee Jay Webb playing down on the block and their PG was committed to playing at USF. A few of our guys were still hoping to get D1 scholarships so showing up a signed player was a big deal. Similar to the St Francis game, we had control of the game until all hell broke loose with about two minutes to go. Up 54-46, suddenly I looked over and saw Ced Reed and a Mitty player face to face and getting heated. In the blink of an eye our bench mob was flying onto the court like a WWF tag team and tossing hay-makers in all directions. I was frozen with panic. I actually looked to the bench for guidance and Mean Gene Stamps caught my eye and said something like, “Ah man really? Get in there and start fighting somebody!” There was a Mitty guy a few feet away so I got in his face and after attempting some halfhearted tough talk, I think we switched the subject to talk about Christmas break.
When the dust settled we had three players ejected and after technicals the score was 55-49. I hit a couple of foul shots to go up 57-49 but in the final minute Mitty hit three 3’s to cut it to 61-60. K. Reed hit two more foul shots to go up 63-60 and then we had to stomach two Mitty misses in the final seconds to hold on. K Reed had a nice 26pt night and according to the paper, I had a double-double with 10 and 10. Future Iowa big Jay Webb finished with 20 and 12 but was 4-11 from the foul line.
We next beat the home Fremont squad in the semis and moved on to face Westmont in the final. Interestingly, Westmont had defeated our friends from Cupertino to get to the final in their side of the bracket, preventing a chance at early season redemption. Westmont was led by 6’7” St Mary’s signee Ted Bull and PG Eric Lochtefeld. They also had a solid guard in Chris Ressa and a highly regarded coach in Gary Brink, who if you read part 1.5, was part of the esteemed coaching crew at the Santa Clara camps. Eric was another friend who lived around the corner in Menlo Park and was a fellow hoop junkie. After playing with the rest of the Menlo Park crew at St Francis his first two years, Eric mysteriously found his way to Westmont and guided them to some big wins for his final two years. Like the Serra game, Lochtefeld and Ressa were able to deal with our speed, Bull was a Bull down low and they beat us in a tight half court game. For the record books, this was three straight preseason tourney finals and three straight F-ing losses! The losing really sucked but looking at it from a 47 year old perspective, it was all part of the learning process of getting better.
Two other preseason games that come to mind were at Menlo and at Lowell in SF. Playing at Menlo at noon on a Saturday was a trap game. Menlo was a good team and went on to win the state D5 title, but we had more talent and were expected to win. However, the game carried the extra pressure of being called the best in Menlo Park so if we would have lost, it would have been a lifetime of pure shame. It would have been 50 years of going to cocktail parties and having to cop to losing to Menlo. “Oh you guys lost to Menlo right?” That just couldn’t happen. Menlo had a 3 sport star at PG who went on to play baseball at Stanford (Noriega), a massive PF who played 4 seasons in the NFL (Farquhar), and a skilled 6’8” big (Mead). I remember the game felt like we were managing an 8-10 point lead the whole time and I was working my tail off on D to keep Mead from killing us. I think I had 2 pts in the box score but we kept Mead well under his average and walked out of there with our pride intact. One takeaway from that game was a moment when I had to line up next to Farquhar on a foul shot to block him off. I remember looking down at my legs then looking over at his. I couldn’t help but then look at his arms next to mine. My only thought was, “How the hell am I supposed to block this guy out? His damn quads are three times larger than mine.” I was glad to see that John put that size to good use and I was claiming him as a dear old friend when he scored a TD in a playoff game for the Steelers.
The Lowell game was a whole different animal. It was one of those 3pm midweek specials where we had an hour bus ride up to the City to face a team that we had no scouting report on. We were also playing without Ced who was out with an injury. I hate to sound racist here, but I had never played against Chinese players before and I wasn’t expecting much of a contest. Lowell did have Cal signee Akili Smith at PG, but we had no inkling of what was about to hit us. We warmed up in lazy fog while Lowell came out raring to go. After tipping the ball off, they straight up kicked the crap out of us. Think Charley Murphy on the Chappelle Show recalling getting rolled by Prince and his crew. These guys were slicing us up with quick Pete Carril like Princeton precision and perfect execution. I can’t confirm but I “may” have seen a pick and roll where the roller flipped over one defender, slid through the help defenders legs, ran up somebody’s back and threw down a dunk like Teen Wolf. Midway through the third I was wondering if we could just toss in the towel and run for the bus. Do I think we would have beat them in a rematch, yes, but wow, what a cool whipping!
That Lowell game pretty much put our preseason to rest. We had 12 solid wins, but we also had four painful losses that still linger 30 years on. I hate to make excuses, but we were 1-2 without Ced on the floor. Coincidence?
A final incident that I have to mention involved a now infamous New Years Eve party that started with 4 friends eating RT pizza in my living room while my parents were enjoying a night in the City, and morphed into a full blown high school rager. My nickname was Bul (pronounced like Bol) and after discovering a bottle of Bols in the cabinet, I wasn’t long for the night. I passed out at my own party (after taking a bath??) and didn’t wake until my parents were home the next morning and could be heard cursing as they attempted to navigate the mess strewn about. I could hear their shoes sticking to the booze soaked floors as they made their way to my room. My mom came in ready to explode but couldn’t when she noticed my face. In fact, she almost started laughing at my appearance. This got me up in a flash and when I looked in the mirror it was obvious why she paused. Written across my face in heavy black pen was, “I Love Coach Klenow!”
After the roller coaster of the preseason, we settled into league play and started to really have fun. I’ll be honest, the PAL other than Aragon was pretty weak so we were able to coast a bit. There were a few good individual players, but most teams really dropped off when you got to players 3-12. We breezed through league play with a 9-0 record and Atiba was named PAL player of the year while Ced and Kendrick were on the first team. Dee and I were put on the honorable mention team for our work behind the scenes. Funny how at the time I used to get pissed over “just” making honorable mention.
While the games were mostly a blur, there are a few fun memories that still give me a chuckle to this day. Somewhere around the start of league play, we came up with a pregame locker room song and dance routine that would have been right at home on Frenchman street in New Orleans on a Sat night. You’ve seen these Gatorade ads where a high school team suddenly breaks into song and everyone is swept up into the groove, well I can attest that this spontaneously happened for us on a random Friday evening before a game. I don’t know who started it, but somebody yelled out “Who Dat think they gonna beat MA” and within seconds, we had the majority of the team jumping up and down and chanting:
Who Dat think they gonna beat MA
Being born with an ability to play beats, I immediately took to banging out a beat on the lockers while somebody else doubled up with a second line beat. We were clapping, chanting, stomping, guys were dropping their best Soul Train dance moves and everyone was in the groove. It felt being in a gospel church and people were seeing the light.
When the congregation cleared and we were headed towards the gym, I looked into the locker of the opposing team on the other side of the wall and you could tell they were done and wanted no part of this insanity. This song stayed with us the rest of the year and was just a beautiful way to get ready to play a game.
Cable TV comes to Menlo Park! Late in the year a tiny little Menlo Park cable channel decided to broadcast our game against Woodside. At the time this felt like a big deal. Dave Feldman (ESPN and CSN Bay Area) was just getting his start in the business and was the play by play man for the telecast. I don’t think any of us had ever been on TV before so there was genuine excitement before tipoff. Plus Woodside was another team stocked with friends so it had a little rivalry feel as well.
When the game started we quickly pulled ahead and somewhere in the second quarter I caught a pass with a clear lane to the hoop. My mind immediately started vacillating between dunk and layup and in the 1 second while this debate raged, I managed to rise up and miss a point blank layup. I was mortified. Not only had I missed an opportunity for a game dunk, but I missed a layup on TV!! (I’m still mortified to this day). As I ran back down on D with my head down, I was only thinking about the good people at home in the community gathered around the TV having a good laugh over my gaffe. Somewhere late in the game I did hit a cool spinning baseline jumper for a little redemption, but the damage was done.
On the subject of local media and press coverage, it’s amusing to think about the amount of press that we used to get. We were covered by The Peninsula Times Tribune and The San Mateo Times on a regular basis. Our headlines would make the front page of the sports section next to an article about the Warriors or Stanford Cardinal. Jason Cole, who has gone on to become a well known national NFL writer for Yahoo and Bleacher Report, could been seen hanging outside of our locker room on any given Friday night with a pencil and pad at the ready to get some quotes. Atiba was the go to voice while Ced and Kendrick were next in line. I would always just sort of sit there listening to who was being interviewed and always tried to have a good sound-byte ready to go when called upon. The next day I would race to grab the paper and would usually be disappointed to see Dee and I mentioned in the last paragraph as an afterthought with no quotes included.
This was the norm until one day I was approached by a writer from the San Mateo Times who said he wanted to do a feature on me. I was so pumped when I heard the news that I could barely contain myself. The next day after practice I met this reporter and spoke about anything and everything for about 20 minutes. I was hoping that finally someone was going to give me my due and ramble on about how amazing I was. I’ll never forget the anticipation I had as I thumbed through the sports page a few days later to see my headline. After flipping through the big headlines of the day I saw my name and froze. In bold caps was the headline, Bulifant Quietly Contributes. It almost felt like I was missing that layup on cable all over again. Quietly Contributes? No this couldn’t be. I yelled, “Hey Really Goon?!?! (a popular saying in my circles in ‘89). Here I thought I was going to live out a childhood dream of becoming a famous hoop star and this article immediately squashed all hope. I should have played under an alias with a wig and fake stache on. However, this headline has served to become a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts because whether it’s in the workplace, home, band, volunteer group etc, I usually roll with the credo: Bulifant Quietly Contributes.
In our final farewell to the PAL, we played Aragon in the conference tourney final at our gym in front of the home crowd. Aragon was an upstart team of juniors who were playing a run and gun style that was impressive and had them at 20-5. We led the whole game but squandered an 81-68 lead and suddenly with 2 seconds left on the clock, their best player, Jimmy Pryor, was going to the line for a 1-and-1 down 86-85. Pryor hit the first to even the score and after receiving all sorts of cool East Palo Alto smack talk, clanked the second and we were very fortunate to head into overtime. In the extra period we kept the pedal to the metal and finally prevailed 93-90. It felt like I had run a marathon. 93-90 is a lot of scoring in a 37 minute game! The crowd also let out a big sigh and ran out onto the floor to celebrate with us. We were 24-4, PAL Champs and ready for CCS.
While our improbable run to the CCS D2 crown ‘88 was the stuff of legend, our ‘89 run was a more straightforward affair. We were the #1 seed and 21-3 Cupertino was the #2 seed. In our opener we beat a 7-15 Wilcox squad 94-49 in a dunk show that had the student body jumping for joy. At halftime the refs ducked out of the gym for 5 mins and a dunk contest quickly broke out. Somehow our reserve big man Joe Kobertz went to dunk and ripped open the net. When it was my turn to dunk I slammed it off the back iron and the ball accelerated through the ripped spot in the net and knocked me silly. My legs buckled upon landing and I can remember lying on the floor momentarily seeing stars. If it was a boxing match and a ref was giving me a standing 8 count it would have been close. I got back into the game but I wasn’t the same the rest of the night.
In our second game we beat a 15-9 Gunderson by 19 and then we were slated for a rematch of the ‘88 title game with Yerba Buena. YB was 18-7 and came out with a game plan of let Bulifant shoot. I think I averaged around 6-8 shots per game but in the first qtr alone I took 6 wide open jumpers around the foul line extended and made three. (Still pissed I didn’t make them all). I was so open it almost felt weird. To their credit, they kept the game close and at one point we were tied in the 4th quarter 50-50. In the end we prevailed 65-60 behind Atiba’s 22 pt night to advance to the Final vs Cupertino. Holding true to form, the last paragraph of the San Mateo Times report on the game starts with, “Steve Bulifant quietly had a good game for the Bears with 10 points and 6 rebounds!”
About an hour before the final at Independence High in San Jose, we were kicking back in the grandstands when the Cupertino kids entered the gym all smiles and wearing sunglasses. My dad, usually mild mannered around the guys, didn’t take kindly to this display of perceived arrogance and suddenly propped up and said something along the lines of “all right now you really have to kick the f-ng shit out of these guys!” That had a few guys rolling and after another great set of “Who Dat Think They Gonna Beat MA” in the locker room, we were in a good place.
Having Ced in the lineup was the catalyst. Finally playing these guys out of their cozy confines was also a bonus and our defensive intensity set the table early. Through three quarters we had a comfortable 50-34 lead, before we went into cruise control and almost let them back in the game. They actually did cut the lead to 5pts before we hit our foul shots down the stretch and prevailed 67-56. It wasn’t pretty, but redeeming an earlier loss felt nice and being back to back CCS champs was even nicer. Atiba led the way with 20.
Interesting when looking back at our journey to note the winners and losers of the 5 CCS Div final games played that year. We played 6 of the other 9 teams involved including Cupertino and Aragon twice and had a 6-2 mark against quality competition.
D1 Riordan 81 – St Francis 59
D2 MA 67 – Cupertino 56
D3 Westmont 67 – Aragon 65
D4 Mitty 64 – Sacred Heart Cathedral 52
D5 Menlo 56 – Pinewood 53
We opened our NorCal title defense as the #1 seed and played host to Shasta High. Credit to these guys, they came down and led after 1 quarter but eventually our speed wore them down and we took a 79-64 win. From there we packed our bags and were headed to Sacramento to play Enterprise from Redding at Arco, who had come back to defeat Cupertino in their first round contest.
I still remember filing into the school bus with my Walkman on and popping in the ZZ Top Deguello/El Loco double cassette for the long ride up to Sac. That’s right. While most of my teammates were probably jamming some Public Enemy or swaying to some Luther Vandross, I was getting down to Cheap Sunglasses and Pearl Necklace.
When we arrived at Arco we had about an hour to stretch our legs before dressing for the game. We had played 3 games the year before in the NBA arenas but it was always a weird adjustment to go from dingy high school gyms to the bright lights of the NBA. The baskets looked like they were sticking out on an island, the removable hardwood floors had a little different bounce and feel, the lights were blinding when looking up to snag a rebound, and when there were only about 300 people in attendance in an 18,000 seat building as there was for our afternoon tilt with Enterprise, it felt cavernous and quiet.
As the game started we were quick out the gates and had a 35-25 lead in the second quarter when Kendrick Reed picked up his 4th foul. That was a blow because Kendrick was rolling with 11 points and 8 boards early. Enterprise then went on a little run to cut the lead to 37-32 at the half. We maintained that 5 pt cushion to start the 3rd until Atiba picked up his 4th foul with 4:25 remaining in the quarter. This was gut check time and was going to be a test of our mettle. With 1:48 in the 3rd, the game was tied. To start the 4th, Coach Klenow rolled the dice and started both Atiba and Kendrick with the 4 fouls. The gamble quickly paid off as Kendrick reeled off 8 straight and we built the lead back up to double digits. At this this point Enterprise elected to make us beat them from the foul line. In the final quarter, we went to line 16 times and hit 12. We were basically walking up and down the court to shot our foul shots and then would head back down to play D. The game was still within reach when Atiba fouled out with 3:35 to go, but we kept our poise and prevailed 74-63. It was a great team win. Kenrick had 19, Atiba 15, Ced 10, Dee 10 and 15 rebounds, I had 10 and 9 rebounds, Charlie had 7pts, 3 steals and 4 boards. We escaped a dicey game and were back in the NorCal finals the next evening in Oakland, home of your Golden State Warriors.
Before we get to the final, I need to take you across Interstate 80 to a little hotel where the traveling Bears were holed up for the night after the win at Arco. This was our first sleepover game of the year and being crazy high school kids with minimal adult supervision, most took full advantage of it. For the reserves, it was loading up on cases of Bud to pass the time in manager Josh’s room. For some of the others, there was a crew of girls who decided to hang with the team and keep them company. For me I felt like I was experiencing the dilemma that all young NBA players must face: Go to the party or go with the ladies? I think I made the wise choice and retired early to my room to pass out. Sleep was hard to come by though as I could hear the drunks a few rooms down and was constantly jolted awake by a speedy teammate racing past my window dressed in just a white hotel towel on his way to the next room for presumably more loving. Both sides kept raging on until the wee hours of the morning and when we gathered for some sort of McDonald’s slop the next day before getting on the bus, we most definitely did not look like a team playing in the the NorCal finals in 10 short hours. What we likely resembled was one of any ABA teams barnstorming the country in the mid 70’s. I was worried and the bus ride was very quiet.
No surprise then that when the Norcal final tipped off, we got off to a sluggish start. San Ramon Valley was the was the opponent and they were coached by the legendary John Raynor, who was my first coach at the Santa Clara camps. Raynor had a fundamentally sound group of kids who started off executing their game plan nicely until Kenrick Reed started making buckets and steals to keep us in the game. At the half we were down 33-31. Early in the second they were up 41-36 when the Reeds and Atiba started up the dreaded MA speed machine. We quickly went on a 14-2 run to go up 50-43 with 2:05 remaining in the 3rd quarter. Just getting the ball over half court almost became an accomplishment for SRV. To start the 4th, we went into a spread offense where Ced would stand well beyond the 3 pt line flanked by Kendrick and Atiba. Dee and I would run to the corners. Ced would then break down the man guarding him and dish to a cutter. If he didn’t break his man down, he would bring it back out and let Kendrick or Atiba break their man down. It was amazing how well it worked. We stretched the lead to 70-56 and it was time to start smiling. Kendrick was sensational with 31pts on 11-16 shooting. Atiba had 22pts on 10-14 shooting and Cec ran the show with 14 assists. Dee had 13pts and 8 boards, I chipped in with 6 and we were one step from the goal. Final score 75-61. We got to cut down the nets as two time Norcal Champs and we had a lively bus ride back to our little campus in Atherton to cap off a crazy 36 hours!
The next day we found out that 31-2 Glendora had defeated Dominguez 61-57 in the LA Sports Arena to book their ticket to Oakland. Glendora was led by Tracy Murray, who was averaging a shocking 44pts per game, most in CA high school history. It didn’t phase us though as we had a fun week of practice leading up to the big game. Even walking the halls and going to class was suddenly fun because the teachers and admin staff, many of whom may have pegged us for mindless hooligans, became some of our biggest supporters.
It’s hard to believe now but leading up to the big game, we had only read about Murray in print. There was no game film to study. What we knew was he was 6’8”, 220lbs and could score. More precisely, prior to the championship game, he had scored 2,989 points in his career, 296pts more than Santa Monica’s Leon Wood managed to do from 1977-79 for tops in CA high school history. Articles proclaimed him the equal of Larry Bird in the shooting department, others said he was a phenomenal post player and passer. Because I usually covered the other teams big, Coach Klenow gave me the assignment to guard Murray straight up man to man. For some reason the gravity of the moment didn’t feel different from any other game, even as we were warming up and going through player introductions. We had done this before and were in a great frame of mind.
As we walked out and shook hands, a strong crowd of about 6,000 people started cheering and the adrenaline kicked in. I suddenly felt dehydrated and tight. I think we may have won the tip and missed the first shot and as we ran back on D, I set up at the foul line and waited for Murray to come work out of the post. He quickly went to the top of the key and took a hand-off pass and calmly let a three ball fly. I followed the shot in slow motion as it arched and splashed through the net like it had been dropped out of the sky, causing a sea of red Glendora fans to jump up and scream with delight. I was still trying to get my legs the third trip down the floor when Murray got the ball at the top of the key at the pro 3 point line, gave me a look like I was nuts for giving him space, and bottomed another three which now got the entire Coliseum buzzing. Coach Klenow immediately called timeout and gave me a quick, “Bulifant what the F&%$ are you doing??” and switched Atiba on to Murray. As we came out of the timeout, the Murray onslaught continued. We hadn’t faced a player anywhere near this caliber and were basically at his mercy in the first frame. Fortunately we had our own brand of speed ball that was clearly going to cause the rest of Murray’s cast a few fits. There were about three straight trips where I hit Atiba in the post for quick scores. We were trading buckets with Murray and when the horn sounded to close out the quarter, the score was Murray 22, MA 19. Yes he scored all 22 of Glendora’s points.
In the second quarter it started to become clear that Murray’s teammates where not looking to score so we started to sag a bit to help Atiba. Atiba was fighting but was giving up about three inches and 45lbs to Murray who, when he wasn’t canning three’s, was banking nice mid range stuff in or throwing down a couple of drop step dunks in the post. It was hard not to just watch and marvel at the skill. At one point my man ran right by me as I was napping and missed a point blank layup. I hit my first shot from about 12 feet to get on the board and then missed a wide open three from the corner. Funny but I still think about that missed three. In fact I dream about that missed three in super slow mo where I can’t even lift the ball. I made that shot a thousand times in my yard playing in the mythical state title, but missed it on the big stage. At the half we went into the locker room up 39-37 (or 39-32 over Murray) and feeling like we had survived a big punch in the chops and now had the momentum swinging in our favor.
In the third quarter, we started our classic surge. A steal here, a steal there and the next thing you know the lead was double digits and growing quickly. Kendrick Reed was on another of his stealth scoring binges. All eyes were on Murray, but K Reed was giving the score-book man a workout with all the buckets that he was making. The game was playing right into our hands as the pace quickened and we were constantly on the break. One of my favorite memories was getting a steal around our three point line and firing a 3 quarter court pass to K Reed for a dunk. Atiba was scoring in bunches, Ced was controlling the tempo, Dee was boarding, our bench mob was getting in the action and it almost felt like a pick up game. Murray was still putting points on the board but was shooting like a mere mortal and missing stuff he usually made in his sleep. And luckily for us, when we doubled him he was throwing dimes to teammates but they were not converting.
In the 4th quarter we kept the run going to push the lead to 73-53 with 4:08 to play. I picked up two awful calls (#’s 4 & 5) from the starstruck So Cal officiating crew when trying to help on Murray and my job was done for the day. At this point Murray had his average of 44 points and it seemed all was well in hand. I remember walking to the bench up 16 thinking that this amazing journey dating all the way back to 4th grade at La Entrada was coming to an end and I was going out on top. Of course, the great Tracy Murray had one last barrage in hand so my time on the bench was spent biting my nails and praying to the basketball Gods. I don’t know if we let off the gas or the guys were lost without me (kidding. Or am I?), but Glendora, or Murray, quickly went on a 26-12 run in a 3:30 span to cut the lead to 85-79 with 36 seconds left to play. It was literally raining three balls out there and the crowd was loving the performance. Heck, we were all loving the performance! When Murray finally missed, Glendora put our young sophomore Jason Johnson on the line and the kid calmly hit both to go up 87-79 to all but secure the game. Final Score: MA 89 – Glendora 83.
As we were running to the court to celebrate, all in attendance, except for maybe Murray, were standing in a daze and staring at the 64 points up on the scoreboard. In a 32 minute game, the guy dropped 64 to tie his career high. It was a special moment for anyone who enjoyed basketball and one big relief for anybody associated with the MA family. The stats were mind melting. For the game he was 23-44 from the floor while the rest of his team was 7-28. And almost lost in all the craziness was the 36 points on the board put up by K Reed. Our own scoring machine had gone 11-14 from the floor and 13-18 at the foul line to become the third highest scorer ever in the CA state championship behind Murray and Craig McMillan’s 37 in the ‘83 final. This was the stuff of legend.
But credit to our team as a whole. It was another night that everybody chipped in to help the cause. Atiba had a beautiful 23 point night, Ced had 7 assists and had their PG all out of sorts, Dee had 8pts and 10 boards, I had 6pts, 8 boards and 5 assists, Charlie had 8 points and played amazing D, Jason Johnson had 4 big points and James Smith was part of a team effort that produced 14 steals! We were 32-4, DII State Champs and it was job done.
I remember being in kind of a daze while gathering our trophies and cutting down the nets and as we walked off the court, a prolific scorer every bit the equal of Mr Murray gave me a high five and a pat on the rear. Yes I’m talking about the great Lisa Leslie. A player so dominant she once scored 101 points……in the first half!! I was immediately smitten and wanted to hang out to have a chat but they were off to the court to take care of business in the girls D1 final.
Back in the locker room it was fun and games, relief and awe over the journey that we enjoyed together. In a two year period we had gone from being predicted to finish 6th in a ten team public school league to 61-10 with two trips to the state final and a title. It was as if we were living out our own Hoosiers. When my parents took me to the state final freshman year to watch Adam Keefe win the title for his school, being part of a team to accomplish this three years later was beyond my wildest dreams. Credit to Ced and Atiba and Kendrick, who were very insistent that this was the goal even when we were toothpick thin 15 year olds, for taking us all on this ride. Their confidence and belief was something to behold.
Heading back to campus that night we were going bonkers in the bus over the song Stop the Violence by KRS 1 and a crew of early rap pioneers. Once the pressure was gone, we were back to being goofy kids. And as we disembarked the bus and headed into the night, we departed as friends for life.
So what happened to everyone?
This is usually the most popular question when asked by somebody interested in the story. Well, none of us became famous household names, but a few of us kept after it.
Atiba went to Chaminade in Hawaii for two years before finishing his career at San Jose St.
Cedric played for Lassen College for a season before his knees gave out on him.
Kendrick scored a million points for Foothill CC and then played for San Francisco St.
I went to the U of Arizona and was told to get lost by the basketball program and quickly turned to the college life of leisure.
James Smith set all sorts of state CC records as a receiver and was invited to many NFL training camps but never made a squad.
Charlie Smith played CC ball………..
And what about Murray? After three impressive seasons at UCLA in which he averaged 18/gm and was twice an All Pac 10 selection, he entered the draft and was the 18th selection of the San Antonio Spurs. He managed to last over a decade in the league because of that shooting stroke and retired with a 9 ppg average. What I always like to remind people is in 1998 he returned to the Oakland Coliseum Arena and dropped 50 on the Warriors. Somehow in my mind that justifies the 64 he hung on us high school kids.
In November of 2014, MA finally did the right thing and placed the entire ‘89 team into the school sports hall of fame. Just being around the guys and feeling the chemistry that we still share reminded me of why we were able to get it done. Just a remarkable crew of guys who accomplished an amazing goal together.
Who Dat think they gonna beat MA!