A week ago, when Lincoln High School senior Tymel Jackson was informed that his basketball team was just two wins away from doing something that no other team from his school had ever accomplished and only one other Jersey City public school had ever done, he was then determined to make sure the Lions reached that unthinkable lofty goal.
“Let’s then go make history,” Jackson said. “We want to be remembered for doing something great.”
Jackson had to be reminded that Jersey City has had a rich and storied tradition in basketball over the last century, but that only one Jersey City public school team, the Snyder Tigers of 1990, had achieved the pinnacle, winning the NJSIAA Group III title.
Lincoln, with its own fine basketball history – the place where legendary coach Charlie Brown once played and first coached, becoming the first African-American high school basketball coach in Hudson County history – had never won a state title.
The Lions came close in 1969 when, with Brown as a young coach, they lost to Newark South Side (now known as Malcolm X. Shabazz High School) in the Group III finale.
But that was it. There were four state sectional titles, the last in 2002, the one prior in 1980.
So the underdog Lions, who didn’t even win their own county championship, were standing on the threshold of greatness, two wins away from local basketball immortality.
Because once you win a state championship, it stays there forever. There are street signs outside Snyder High School that still proclaim it to be the home of the NJSIAA Group III state basketball champs. The banners may become sun-beaten and faded over the years, but the legacy remains forever.
Troy Smith certainly knows a lot about basketball history. The head coach of the Lions played his high school basketball at Dickinson, with his father, L. Harvey Smith, currently a New Jersey state assemblyman and former acting Mayor of Jersey City, as his coach.
The younger Smith knew all about the importance of winning a state crown.
“A lot of people didn’t think it could happen, especially with this team,” Smith said. “Everyone doubts them. No one gives them a chance. But they had a chance to do something that had never before been done at Lincoln High School, the chance to win a state championship.”
So after the Lions won the North Jersey Section 2, Group II title last week, the affable coach reminded his players that they were two wins away from being forever remembered.
“I spoke to them and let them know what they had to do,” Smith said.
But some of them were too young to even realize the magnitude of their accomplishments. After all, many of them weren’t even born when Snyder won its title 18 years ago. Heck, the coach himself was just an infant the last time Lincoln came close.
“A lot of these kids don’t understand,” Smith said. “They just want to come to the gym, play basketball, play hard, and have fun. That’s all. They don’t know anything else.”
But last week, they had to first face Dwight Morrow of Englewood in the Group II semifinals, having to travel all the way to Vernon in Sussex County on a school bus to play that game.
Not a problem. The Lions enjoyed their little excursion to Jersey’s farmland and came away with an 84-69 win, with junior forward Daquan Pettiford scoring 32 points and Jackson adding 29.
“Sure, it was about rising to the occasion,” said Jackson, who along with Pettiford has been downright brilliant during the state playoff run. “But it’s not all me and Day-Day [Pettiford’s nickname]. “We can’t go out and win it on our own. I know the rest of the team looks to us to put the points on the board, but they all contribute.”
The win over Dwight Morrow earned the kids from Lincoln another bus ride, this time to Piscataway and the Rutgers Athletic Center for the Group II state title game against Collingswood last Sunday.
“When they walked onto the court at Rutgers, they were in awe,” Smith said. “They had never even been to an arena like that before.”
But the Lions didn’t play like they were in awe. They came right after the contender from South Jersey and never flinched. Led once again by Jackson, the Lions stormed out to an early lead and never looked back, earning an 88-70 victory and the slice of history.
Jackson scored 23 in the state title game, earning the game’s Most Valuable Player award.
“I think it sunk in after we won, especially after I got the MVP,” Jackson said. “I talked with my teammates after the game, and we all knew that we accomplished something great. The whole experience, being at Rutgers, the atmosphere there, doing something that one else in Lincoln ever got a chance to do. I can’t even explain it. We talked about making history all year by being a team to win back-to-back [HCIAA] Coviello titles. Well, we didn’t do that, but we made history by winning the state.”
Smith said he went to sleep Sunday night not even thinking about the accomplishment.
“But then, I woke up in the middle of the night and said, ‘Wow, we did it. We won a state championship.’ That’s when it sunk in. I’m pretty fortunate. We won the county last year and that was the first time in 27 years. Now, we won the state, and it’s the first time for Lincoln and the second time for a Jersey City public school. It’s pretty remarkable. Everyone in the school is excited.”
And the Lions, who at one point this season lost four straight games and were headed for oblivion, have since won 17 of 20 games and are one of only six boys’ basketball teams in the entire state still having practice this week.
Another one of those teams just happens to reside in the same town. St. Anthony, the No. 1 team in the nation, won the NJSIAA Non-Public B state title and will head to the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions as the No. 1 seed and the heavy favorite to win the T of C title Monday night at the IZOD Center in the Meadowlands.
Six teams left standing, two from Jersey City. It’s quite an accomplishment.
“It’s been a long time since Jersey City’s done this well,” Smith said.
Frankly, it’s been since 1990, when both Snyder and St. Anthony went to the T of C. This time, it’s the Lions and the Friars.”
Smith added, “Now, they know they’ve accomplished something that no one can ever take away from them.”
The Lions were slated to face Rancocas Valley, the Group IV state champ, in the first round of the T of C Wednesday night. A lot of people were telling Smith that anything that happens from this point should be gravy, that the state title was achievement enough.
“But when I talk to the kids, they don’t want to hear that,” Smith said. “They want to win and keep playing. They’re just not satisfied. No one thought they would get this far, and look where they are. They know if they play their hardest that they have a chance to win. We don’t look at it as gravy. We’re going to go and play and have a chance. That’s all we want.”
And who knows? With two more wins, they could possibly see St. Anthony in the finals. What would that be like, an all-Jersey City T of C finale? It’s beyond words.
“If we got a chance to play St. Anthony, that would be the greatest feeling,” Smith said. “I know the kids from St. Anthony, and it would definitely be an honor to face them.”
“It would be wild,” Jackson said. “I know a couple of their players, like Dominick Cheek and Mike Rosario. That would be a great experience, playing the No. 1 team in the country. It would feel good to go up against them. We’d give it our best shot.”
But for now, Jackson will enjoy what he has already accomplished, a piece of Jersey City history.
“I can’t even describe this,” Jackson said. “It’s definitely the most gratifying thing that’s ever happened to me. We have something that no other team in Lincoln history has done before. It makes it all worthwhile just playing basketball.” – Jim Hague