Huddled in the locker room at Annapolis High Thursday after their stunning 71-66 upset of Annapolis, the Old Mill Patriots joined hands, put their heads down and in unison shouted, "Team!"
That little act of togetherness was bigger than what had just happened out on the floor. And for those who like to say that winning is not important anddoesn't have any redeemable values, listen up.
Old Mill had never won at Annapolis, and since the school opened its doors in 1975 had not beaten Annapolis in a boys basketball game until January of last year. But the scoreboard didn't tell the real victory here.
Annapolis was the second emotional victory of the week for the Pats. The two wins brought a team headed down a path of ruin back together. It was the makings of an ugly story turned beautiful.
This was a team that had been torn apart by internal strife, with half the team threatening to walk off the court just a week before.Practice had turned into a them-against-us battle with Coach Paul Bunting caught in the middle.
Unfortunately, it had become a black-white issue and spilled over onto the court Feb. 28 with the Pats losing a game, 73-51, they were supposed to win against 9-13 Chesapeake. Several members of the team considered turning in their jerseys before that game.
It was the final regular-season game and the loss to the Cougars dropped the Patriots to fifth seed in the 4A Region IV playoffs.
After the Friday night fiasco, Old Mill's journey into theplayoffs was likely to be short-lived. There was simply too much tension on this team to expect it to win at Broadneck Monday and Annapolis on Thursday.
Well, Old Mill took a 58-56 thriller at Broadneck in Cape St. Claire. The game was settled with no time on the clock and a Bruin on the foul line with the chance to tie. The first shot didn't fall, and suddenly it seemed like all those off-the-court problems had been erased as the Old Mill players celebrated together.
Then came Annapolis Thursday night.
"It feels fantastic, gotta be thebiggest win in Old Mill history," said Bunting, the Patriots' seventh-year head coach. "We beat Annapolis for the first time last year, but it wasn't nearly the situation this one was.
"It's a big win because of the obvious dissension we had to overcome in the last week to 10 days. That's a credit to these guys. I think every kid on the team has had to go through that, and putting it all aside and coming out here and beating a quality team at their place is a credit to everysingle kid."
Several players who called me last week said Coach Bunting had continually "showed favoritism toward the white kids on the team."
One of the callers said, "It has been building up since the fourth game of the season, and it came out this week."
Old Millhad just lost at Severna Park, 79-70, on Feb. 25, and emotions were running rampant as the team reviewed the game film at practice Wednesday.
Bunting gave the players a chance to air their views, and they went home. Not everybody was happy.
The next day at practice, Bunting asked for those who supported his way of running the team to step on one side of the gym and the others to remain where they were. Five white players stepped over the line in support, while five blacksand one white stayed back.
"Coach practiced with them and we had our own practice," said one of the players. "Then we had a meeting afterward, and we decided that if certain players don't start tomorrow night (against Chesapeake), we may take off our shirts and walk off the court."
The dissension was obvious as the group of white players first came out of the locker room for warm-ups, and soon after, theone white and five blacks came out together. It was like two different teams.
The formation of two factions showed in their play as the Patriots fell behind 24-7 at the end of the first period. By halftime, it was 47-17.
Despite the differences, the team came to its senses and pride during the intermission and ran off 24 points to eightby Chesapeake. Bunting could have mishandled a potentially volatile situation at halftime, but didn't.
Bunting deserves credit for theway he controlled his own emotions and began the long road back. Looking back now, you can see that this is where Bunting began to regainhis team.
Some close to the situation believe unhappy parents were talking to the players and encouraging them to demonstrate in some way. That way would have been to walk off the court in protest.
The problem is, protest over what?
Paul Bunting is not a racist, andfor a couple of the players and a parent to say he is is unfair. He's a coach who wants to do what is best for his team, and the lineup and who plays has nothing to do with what color the players are.
Bunting is a coach who refused to play one of his top guards in Ravon Austin the first meeting against Annapolis because his knee was badly swollen. Austin wanted to play with a brace, but Bunting would not let him play for fear of future damage.