For the current generation of high school basketball players, NBA icons like LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving are the face of the sport, the kind of athletes they dream of emulating on the court.
Albert Daniels, a Riverhead senior, wasn’t alive yet when Kobe Bryant joined the NBA in the 1996-97 season as an 18-year-old rookie. Daniels hadn’t even started high school when Kobe’s brilliant career ended two decades later.
But as Daniels grew to understand the game of basketball and began playing it, Kobe was the player he gravitated to. As a little kid he watched the Lakers win the 2009 and 2010 NBA titles; Kobe earned NBA Finals MVP both years.
Daniels became an “ultimate Lakers fan.” For his 9th birthday, he got a pair of Nike Kobe 6 shoes.
“Kobe Bryant’s always been my favorite player,” he said.
A tragedy last Sunday 3,000 miles away from Riverhead hit hard for Daniels as he learned the news that Kobe, his daughter Gigi and seven others had died in a helicopter crash. Daniels had been playing Playstation that afternoon with friends when a text message came over in a group chat saying Kobe had died. Albert checked online to see what he could find and saw the TMZ story.
“I started crying,” he said. “That was my idol.”
As a small way to honor Kobe’s legacy, Daniels switched his uniform number from 4 to 24. His teammate, Christian Campbell, had been wearing 24 and agreed to let Daniels take his jersey. Campbell switched to 23.
Prior to the start of Saturday’s matinee against Bay Shore — Riverhead’s first home game since the tragedy — a 24-second moment of silence was held, echoing the tribute that has been held on basketball courts throughout the country this week. The shot clock counted down for the 24 seconds as the gym fell silent until the buzzer sounded.
“He was the ultimate worker,” Daniels said of Kobe.
Riverhead coach John Rossetti said Connetquot held a 24-second moment of silence prior to Tuesday’s game, which the Blue Waves won. Riverhead assistant coach Elwood Lamb recommended the team pay a similar tribute Saturday.
“It’s a way to respect the game of basketball and [Kobe] was a big ambassador of the game,” Rossetti said.
At stake Saturday was a chance for the Blue Waves to bolster their playoff positioning with a pivotal League II matchup against a Bay Shore team they’re jockeying position with. The Blue Waves trailed most of the way and by as many as 13 in the third quarter before grinding their way back in what became a thrilling game that came down to one final shot.
Bay Shore hung on, 68-66, as a jump shot from the left baseline by Riverhead junior A.J. Johnson, who scored a game-high 25 points, misfired with two seconds left.
The Blue Waves had trailed by nine with 3:14 left in the game, but the drama was just getting started.
A runner on the baseline by Jahquel Blount and a quick steal and basket by Johnson got the Blue Waves to within five. The teams traded baskets until a wild sequence in the final minute. Daniels hit a pair of free throws with 44 seconds left to cut the deficit to two, the closest Riverhead had been since early in the second quarter. Bay Shore methodically tried to milk the clock on its next possession, but the Blue Waves forced a turnover that ended with Daniels back at the line with a chance to tie the game. He hit one of two free throws.
The Blue Waves fouled Aaron Davis after the miss. He sank his first free throw but missed the second, keeping the Blue Waves’ deficit at two. Daniels grabbed the rebound and passed to Johnson with 8 seconds on the clock. Johnson raced up court, dribbled toward the left sideline and pulled up for a fadeaway jumper that just missed.
“We put in a hell of an effort today,” Rossetti said. “I’m very pleased with their effort, the way they played, the way they battled. This was a quality loss, I guess.”
Daniels said they focused on pushing the pace and attacking the rim during the comeback.
“We had a chance late to tie it up, but it didn’t go in,” Daniels said.
The Blue Waves struggled shooting from the outside throughout the game and relied on attacking the rim to score points. Daniels hit a 3-pointer with 1:20 left in the third quarter and it was the first triple of the game for the Blue Waves. He hit one more with 3 seconds left in the quarter. Daniels finished with 22 points.
Johnson and Daniels combined for 47 of the team’s 66 points.
The Blue Waves fell to 7-4 in League II and 13-6 overall. Bay Shore moves to 7-3 in league and 10-8 overall.
Commack (10-1) clinched the League II title Saturday with a win against Whitman (6-4).
The Blue Waves won’t return to action until Thursday at home for senior day against last-place Lindenhurst.
Depending on how many teams make the playoffs, a few outbracket playoff games would be played next Monday. The full slate of first round games will be Thursday, Feb. 13.
Rossetti said his team could wind up anywhere from an 8 to 13 seed once the brackets are unveiled Friday morning.
No matter where they land, the Blue Waves will be back in the playoffs for a second straight year.