14.4 seconds left in overtime of a tie game, and we had to defend to extend the game. The foul a moment earlier determined that our opponent could take the last shot if they wanted it without giving us a chance to respond. We pushed their best player across the lane and forced him into a contested shot without giving the officials a chance to bail him out which was about as much as we could do.
The shot fell anyway. Undefeated. 17-0. The championship. Gone.
We had won in enough different ways, with enough different players that a strain of invincibility grew in the back of the mind, and for that reason, my first thought was disbelief. There was time left. We would get a shot off to tie or win. The player’s faces seemed to register the same thought, but not our leader, Juan Bernal. He knew it was over, and for the third time in seven years, we had been denied a championship in the final game. He was visibly devastated. Pedro’s Posse was now the “Lebron James of the Pro Am.” This one hurt…bad.
We enjoyed great chemistry and camaraderie all season, but the playoffs were tough. Three minutes into the semi-final on Saturday, we lost Rocky Trice, our most versatile and explosive player,. to a back strain. We were already down 14-8 at the time, and things got worse. By the middle of the second quarter, we trailed 39-25 and it felt desperate. We cut the deficit to 11 at the half, but didn’t take the lead until midway through the fourth quarter. Our espirit de corps was best summed up by Jason Williams, who when asked if he was ready to return to the game, responded, “I came out of the pussy ready.” Throughout the comeback, Luke Loucks kept telling me we would win by 10. It seemed incredibly optimistic, but somewhat creepy during a late time out when we had the lead, and Jason Williams noted he had a wager on the game and the spread was 9.5. We won 110-99. Spread covered. Alex Castillo had a career high 44, Bryan Richardson added 31, but who takes action on a Pro Am semifinal game?
With Rocky down for the count…again (he missed last year’s final with a family commitment), we left the gym scrambling to locate a player that could replace his athleticism unaware that a greater crisis would emerge.
During a dinner at Fleming’s, the idea of bringing in Boston Celtic, Brandon Bass, was discussed. Calls were made. A commitment secured. Then things fell apart. Bass was not on the playoff roster submitted two weeks ago. The league would not relent to global Pro Am custom whereby any current NBA player wishing to play basketball is automatically allowed to play in a Pro Am league at his pleasure. Offense was taken. Protest was made. The Posse had to play the final without Brandon Bass, Jason Williams or Rocky Trice. Joey Rodriguez, Mitch Woods and Luis Brito were called to duty and suited up for the final in their place. In an unrelated note, Mark Cruz did not have his number activated.
Despite the roster upheaval, we enjoyed a great start to the final. Bryan Richardson hit a three on our first possession, and we led by double figures for most of the half. Fatigue set in and our offense stagnated late in the second so badly that we trailed 50-49 at the half. We discussed containing their best player, eliminating three point shooting and rebounding as a team. The situation was manageable. Our opponents got a better start in the third quarter and led going into the fourth. We remained resolute and with a burst of offense from Mitch Woods took the lead and grew it to ten points with only three minutes left. We got sloppy, took some bad shots including a flat corner three by Andrew Bachanov that many on the bench found tough to stomach and looked indecisive on offense which led to easy points on the other end. After a particularly bad turnover, ill-tempered Alex Castillo blistered the bench with a profane tirade. It was rapidly going to hell.
We hung on to force overtime where neither team could create much separation. In the final minute, we trailed by 3, but Bryan Richardson hit an incredible contested three in front of the opposing bench. 32 seconds remained which meant we would get the ball back no matter what they did on offense, but we fouled with 14.4 seconds left. The shot clock was reset to 14, and we would not touch the ball again.
We were so flush with confidence going into the playoffs that Richardson had already booked a party room at The Porch in Winter Park for our championship celebration. It became an excessively lavish runner up social. One by one the players, coaching staff and Ryan Currie of Home Team Hoops arrived to eat and enjoy closure on a terrific season. We broke bread and empty bottles, but Juan Bernal remained MIA. Text messages went unanswered. A cheesy anti-suicide video was sent with nary a response. Speculation had Juan back at the downtown rec lost in misery, in a dark, windowless room at his winter park residence, reviewing film of the game on a tablet. Everyone agreed they felt worse for Juan about the loss than they did for themselves. I was given the task of addressing the team, but as we gathered for my words, a lone figure clad in black with dark shades covering his eyes meandered through the door….it was Juan, who insisted, “this almost didn’t happen”. It happened. The 17 wins, the one agonizing loss, the six weeks together and this party.
Pedro’s Posse Forever!