Remembering The Champs: Twenty-five years ago, Schenectady boys’ basketball won a state title, and brought the city with them

Man stands up in front of car parade arms high cheering

Head coach Gary DiNola raises his arms triumphantly as he rides during Schenectady's 1998 boys' basketball state championship parade. (Photo provided)

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SCHENECTADY — A plain black headline wasn’t going to be good enough.

Not for this.

If you still have a copy of the Daily Gazette sports section from March 23, 1998, the wide, white broadsheet probably has a yellow tint to it now, a telltale sign of age and fading.

The two massive words at the top still clearly distinguish themselves, though, not just by the text, all in upper case, but by their color.

“STATE” is in red, and “CHAMPS!” is in blue.

It’s unusual for a newspaper to trot out such a display flourish for what was essentially a game recap, but these were unusual circumstances, and cause for a proper finishing touch.

The Schenectady High School boys’ basketball team won the Class A state championship on March 22, 1998, 61-51 over Hempstead in Glens Falls, to polish off a 28-0 season that not only echoed to a time when Schenectady bristled with basketball talent, but galvanized a recently merged school district, and by extension, the city itself.

The Gazette headline wasn’t red and blue just for the sake of gratuitous embellishment, it represented the Schenectady school colors and spoke to the former fierce rivalry between the Mont Pleasant Red Raiders and Linton Blue Devils, two separate, opposing parts now fused whole, finally, by a basketball team.

It’s no coincidence that a team that adopted one simple word, “Represent,” as its core principle could accomplish this by following through on that promise to itself.

It didn’t matter that the Schenectady Patriots would go on to lose in the state Federation semifinals. The goal for most schools in the state is to win a public high school championship, then see how much gravy is left in the boat for the Fed tournament.

There’s some serious basketball to look forward to this weekend. March Madness is in full swing, and the New York state public high school championships are back in Glens Falls.

But 2023 also marks 25 years since the Schenectady Patriots won their championship, which also served as a pivot point to another state title in 2001, so it’s also time to look back at their remarkable run, under head coach Gary DiNola.

The core of the team included a starting lineup of senior Willie Deane, junior James “Jakie” Thomas, senior Pat O’Connor, senior Justin Hoffman and senior Jamaar Sims, complemented by the freshman Jason McKrieth, who gradually found his comfort zone as the sixth man, and a bench that included James Plowden, Davidek Herron, Andrew Healy, Ben Wiles, Adam Hover and Kevin Owens.

Deane was the breakout star, having played on the varsity since he was a freshman, and Thomas, who would eventually play college ball at the University of Texas, also had Division I talent and size.

Everyone else had jobs, and did them well.

“I was fortunate enough to be on teams that had the pieces and good coaches,” Deane said four years ago, upon his induction to the Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame. “It was on us to develop chemistry and put in the work and accept roles.”

Playing their home games in the gym that had been named after Pat Riley that fall, the Patriots’ season started with a blowout of Columbia, as Deane scored 32 points, and the smallest margin of victory through an undefeated regular season was eight points, in a win over Albany.

The Patriots did not trail in the fourth quarter of a game until the regionals, when they were down 38-36 to Corcoran, but Schenectady held Corcoran scoreless over the final 6:30 and won 53-38.

In the championship game at the Glens Falls Civic Center, Schenectady and Hempstead were tied 48-48 in the fourth quarter when the Patriots’ big man Thomas asserted himself with six points during a decisive 13-3 run. The 14-year-old McKrieth did his part, putting the defensive clamps on Hempstead’s high-scoring Lateef Myles during crunch time.

Naturally, there was a boisterous parade downtown to celebrate the state championship, but the Patriots represented their community, which was in the throes of post-industrial stress typical of cities across the country, in subtler ways, taking DiNola’s directive about accountability to heart.

If there had been no Mont Pleasant-Linton merger, the players would have been adversaries instead of teammates in many cases.

In 1997-98, red and blue shouted “Represent!” together in the locker room before games.

The only proper finishing touch would be for the Patriots to not let that championship define them by itself.

Be a story, and not just a headline.

With that in mind, 25 years later, DiNola can rattle off the basketball memories, but also the academic and professional accomplishments of all 12 of the players on that team, with equal pride and aplomb.

Contact Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Categories: High School Sports, Sports

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