Years of decline had given Schenectady residents little to cheer about in their city.
General Electric’s work force was dwindling due to layoffs, many of downtown’s storefronts were shuttered and crime was on the rise. So when an electric group of basketball players at Schenectady High School began winning games in the winter of 1997, they quickly found themselves a rallying point for a city that needed something to believe in.
The 1997-98 Schenectady Patriots ended up winning 28 consecutive games. And when they emerged as state champions, they restored something crucial within their community: Hope.
“It was really a lift in emotion for this team to do so well during a time after the city had given up its soul to GE and had it handed back to them with pink slips,” recalled Willie Deane Jr., whose son was co-captain of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association champs. “This team really breathed new life into Schenectady with its victory.”
The successes of the championship team will be recognized Thursday during a reunion banquet. But moreover, the banquet will celebrate the successes of the players since their storied season.
Deane and other team boosters attempted to gather the squad for their first reunion last year on the 10th anniversary of Schenectady High School’s first basketball state championship. But too many of the players were unable to attend because of career commitments.
On Thursday, about 30 coaches, players and family members will gather at Petta’s Restaurant on Duane Avenue to remember the magic year. And they’re inviting up to 50 people from the public to join them.
“It’s an open invitation to the city,” Deane said.
All of the players went on to college, with most of them securing at least an associates degree. Among the dozen who suited up for Schenectady during the championship year, nine went on to secure their bachelor’s degree.
Not surprisingly, the team also excelled athletically following their championship year. Half the team went on to score more than 1,000 points playing in the NCAA —three of the players achieved the mark at respected Division I colleges.
James Thomas went on to play in the NBA, serving stints with six teams before signing a professional contract in Italy. Former teammates Willie Deane III, Davidek Herron and Jason McKrief also served stints in Europe’s professional ranks.
“They were a special group,” said Gary DiNola, who coached the championship team.
The team also graduated a number of attorneys. Andrew Healey and Adam Hover are both practicing in the Capital Region, while Ben Wiles is employed with a corporate law firm in California.
Despite their successes later in life, many members of the championship team still harken back to the moment when they captivated Schenectady. They also credit their positive experience in high school with providing them with the tools to succeed.
Healey said playing on the team taught him the work ethic that later helped him graduate from Albany Law School. He recalled Coach DiNola demanding his players arrive on time but expecting them to show up five minutes early.
“That season helped get your priorities straight,” he said. “Those were lessons I was able to apply in college and then later in law school.”
Patrick O’Conner, the co-captain of the championship team, was equally thankful for the experience he had at Schenectady. He said the team provided a positive atmosphere, which was reinforced by the unabashed support they received throughout the community.
“The influences we had from the community and the coaching staff —just the people who we surrounded ourselves with —had a lot to do with us being successful,” he said.
DiNola credited his former players for always putting the team before themselves. Aside from their obvious talent, he said the players’ ability to see beyond individual gains was one of the team’s greatest strengths.
“They were a selfless bunch of men who put the experience of something greater than themselves in front of their personal goals,” he said. “They bought into playing the five-man game.”
And in life, the 1997-98 Schenectady Patriots seem to have fulfilled the motto that helped power them to the top. They became shining representations of the city’s potential — the hope their remarkable season seemed to restore to the future.
“That was our motto that year,” recalled O’Conner. “Represent.”
Anyone interested in attending the banquet can contact Willie Deane Jr. at 377-1830. The cost is $20 and tickets are limited.
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Categories: Schenectady County