GARY | It was a who's who of NCAA Division I men's basketball coaches.
North Carolina's Roy Williams, Minnesota's Tubby Smith, Purdue's Matt Painter, Indiana's Tom Crean and Illinois' Bruce Weber were just a few of the high-major D-I coaches sitting on the front row of the north baseline at Conseco Fieldhouse last March 27.
They were there in the morning, watching Bowman Academy's DeJuan Marrero dominate in the Class A state championship game, won by the Eagles 74-52 over Barr-Reeve.
They returned for the Class 3A state final that night, when Washington edged Lew Wallace 65-62 in overtime. They saw Hornets standout Branden Dawson shoot two long-range potential game-tying 3s that seemed to go halfway down the hoop before rolling out.
These coaches were there to see Gary, Ind.
"It was an unbelievable day for the city," Bowman coach Marvin Rea said. "Rico (Marrero) is B.J. (Dawson) and B.J. is Rico. They are the same kind of player. They bring attention. They play their best on the biggest stage.
"The city should be proud of both of them and all the other kids putting Gary back on the map."
For the first time in the 100 years of the IHSAA state tournament, Gary had two teams advance to the state finals. And when you look at the current economy and the corresponding consequences, it's amazing that Gary teenagers are even playing basketball, let alone that they're playing at a level that brings Roy Williams into the front row.
In recent years, some other phenomenal talent has left the Steel City. Elijah Johnson played guard at Pulaski Middle School. He moved to Las Vegas when his parents got jobs in the desert and he became a top-25 national recruit and led his high school to a state title.
He is now a sophomore at Kansas.
"We would've loved to have kept him," Roosevelt coach Larry McKissack said of the prospect who would've worn Panthers Black and Gold. "But people need to eat."
Last year, two of McKissack's best eighth graders moved to Indianapolis. The Times 2008-09 Player of the Year, Xavier Jones of West Side, left his home for Ohio where he played his senior year.
Lew Wallace hopeful A.J. Hammons, a 7-foot Top 10 junior who played at downstate Carmel last season and is now at Oak Hill Academy, also left town.
Carmel beat Valparaiso last year and Vikings coach Joe Otis said that Hammons' dominance reminded him of Shawn Kemp.
Lafayette Jeff grad from last year, Jesse Berry, played for Rea at Bowman until his eighth-grade year was over. His parents got jobs in Lafayette and another one bit the dust.
Berry finished 10th in Indiana in scoring (23.5) and had committed to Dayton before losing his scholarship.
"That's what makes last season so special," Rea said. "What would've happened had all those guys stayed home?"
Gary Emerson played in the 1916-17 state basketball championship game. Coach Louis Erickson's team lost to Lebanon 34-26 at Indiana University.
The young steel town had not yet gained its edge.
A Gary school would not return to the final until 1955, when Roosevelt lost to Crispus Attucks 97-74. In 1968, Bo Mallard's Panthers got Gary its first state championship with a 68-60 win over Indianapolis Shortridge.
The next year Gary Tolleston lost by three points to one of Indiana's greatest teams, Indianapolis Washington with George McGinnis and Steve Downing.
"That was when we really got it going," McKissack said.
In 1972, newly-formed West Side lost to Connersville and the Steel City rub that continued emerged. Great basketball collided with off-the-court foolishness, causing many Hoosiers to despise Gary.
A riot ensued due to a feeling that the officials had robbed the Cougars of their state title.
In 1982, Plymouth beat Roosevelt 75-74 in double overtime and current Lew Wallace coach Renaldo Thomas still has the box score ingrained in his mind.
Scott Skiles' Pilgrims shot 38 free throws to Roosevelt's 16.
To add salt in the wound, in last year's 3A final, Washington shot 45 free throws to Wallace's 17.
"Anyone who was there knows we got robbed," Thomas said. "They took it from us. It gets old time after time."
Legendary Roosevelt coach Ron Heflin finally got his state title in 1991. He needed Mr. Basketball and National Player of the Year Glenn Robinson to get it done.
But in the semistate final that year, the Panthers did not shoot one free throw in the game.
"For whatever reason we knew we had to overcome," Heflin said last year. "In the region we play a much more physical style of game. The teams and officials downstate are not used to it. You have to adjust when the calls are going against you and you have to find a way to win.
"That's what we did in 1991."
That's also what West Side did in 2002 when the Cougars won the Class 4A state crown.
Heflin took his team all over the state in 1991 to get his players ready for postseason games. That's what Thomas is doing at Wallace and Rea is doing at Bowman.
Many suburban schools have taken the Gary schools off their schedules. While it is frustrating for area fans and players, both Thomas and Rea believe they got to state because of this slight.
The Eagles are only playing three games against area teams this year.
"Our schedule is unbelievable," Rea said. "It got us to Indianapolis last year and it will help us get ready to make another run this year."
Wallace is playing four regular-season games against area schools, plus the Gary Holiday Tournament.
"If Merrillville doesn't want to play us, we'll play someone who will," Thomas said. "We'll play teams that aren't afraid of us. It worked for us last year."
A player's game
The upswing in Gary talent has two foundations. The Glen Park Biddy Basketball League, run by Wallace assistant Kenya Stines. And the Gary Falcons AAU team, which was started by Rea.
All nine of last year's Bowman seniors were in the Falcons system.
"Gary basketball is back because of the youth leagues," Stines said. "That's where these kids developed their games. These kids started young and worked their tails off to improve. When you get that many kids working like that you're going to have success."
"We got to state, we put Gary back on the map, because we're in the gym everyday," Thomas said.
When Dawson signed on at national power Michigan State two weeks ago, he said that coach Tom Izzo and his Spartans all knew of Gary's hoop rep.
It's not the Jackson 5, or slowing steel mills, or Karl Malden or blocks of urban decay or crime that the "GI" is known for in basketball circles. It's deep, rich, historic talent.
And it's coming around again.
"They all knew of Gary," Dawson said of those in East Lansing. "They know we play tough, hard basketball. They know we work hard. Our reputation is winning. And I think we all showed that last March."
Marrero and Dawson played in Glen Park as youngsters. While Bowman and Wallace do not play, there were deep friendships between the Eagles and the Hornets.
Bowman players sat and cheered for Wallace last year at Conseco.
"We all knew those guys and they knew us," Marrero said. "It seemed like the whole city of Gary was down there. We are proud of our home and I know those guys are, too. We play the same.
"It would be great if we could all do it again this year."
And if they do, the odds are that Roy Williams and the rest will be scribbling notes in shock and awe.