Every year, the Jr. NBA/WNBA selects teams from different nations and pits them against one another in a worldwide series of All Star single-game exhibitions. Last year, a team of 12- to 14-year-old All Stars from the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne were chosen to represent New Jersey in a game against Japan.
To make a long story short, it was not a pretty sight. Without going into detail, the final score was 98 to 19 in favor of Japan. In the words of Y’s athletic director John Kerr, “We got the shock of a lifetime.”
To their defense, the traveling basketball program from the Y was drastically unprepared and misinformed about their upcoming challenge against Japan. To give you an idea of how well-equipped and organized the Japanese were, their team was hand-selected from tryouts of 750 players. After the game last year, the officials commented how the Japanese youth team could defeat many local basketball teams as well.
Like any great American story, we were down but not out. The coaches of the New Jersey All Stars immediately began work to convince Eric DiMiceli of the NBA community relations department to schedule a rematch for the following year. On Jan. 6, the youth basketball All Stars from the Y would get another shot (no pun intended) against Japan.
This time, both teams came prepared when they showed up at the New Jersey Nets training facility in East Rutherford last month. Japan brought to the table a team – selected from tryouts of 1,000 players – that had been practicing together for five months. While the Y composed a team with the best athletes from its two JCC Hoop Starz teams (the Cavaliers and the Knights) and the squad from Grace Chapel in Paterson. The New Jersey athletes, coached by Rick Karamian and Kelvin Foreman, had the advantage of scouting the Japan team for two hours as they practiced before the game. Although, if last year wasn’t clear enough, New Jersey would require a lot more than two hours of scouting to even compete with Japan.
Knowing that they had to be on top of their game, and with the memory of last year still lingering, New Jersey shocked Japan with an up-tempo performance early on. New Jersey’s No. 10 Josh Markez stepped it up a notch as well as No. 25 Davon Jacobs, who actually was not supposed to play with New Jersey against Japan. However, due to another player’s injury, Jacobs was called upon to assist New Jersey in its JR NBA exhibition. At the end of the first half, our All Stars were leading the Japanese by the score of 29-21.
The second half began with a barrage of baskets for both teams. The game promised to be a nail biter until the buzzer. After pressuring Japan for the entire fourth quarter, New Jersey found itself with an 11-point lead with only 2:26 left on the clock.
The Japanese played with heart though, using a strategy involving almost only lay-ups with nearly no jump shots. They were quick and talented, and just like New Jersey, they would not go down without a fight. As a last resort, Japan inserted four guards and played a press. For the first time, the Y’s All Stars felt pressure and began to lose composure.
With 20 seconds left, Japan had tied the game 64-64. With a successful inbound and an impressive backdoor pass from Davon Jacobs to Kavon Stewart, New Jersey managed a quick lay-up to take the lead. And as the final seconds ticked off the clock, New Jersey applied enough pressure to prevent the Japanese from scoring and sealed a victory for USA.
For the four players (David Mateen, Matt Karamian, Mike Sasso, and Dominic Pilione) who were unlucky enough to suffer through last year, yet fortunate enough to triumph this year, “the hand shake and shirt exchange [after the game] became the perfect dish served cold,” said Kerr.
I think we’re all waiting for a tie-breaker to be scheduled for next year, because the only thing America loves more than winning is winning twice.