The 25-Year Trail

It’s half-past 10 on a Sunday – the kind of crisp, fall morning that only Denver, Colorado knows. But the air inside Denver’s Montclair Rec Center is already thick and hot. Especially on the basketball court.

It’s old guys versus young guys.

“Older dudes that you don’t think could hoop – but they can hoop,” says De’Ron Davis, a towering 6-foot-10 junior in high school.

“Young punks; oh, yeah, we make them play harder,” says a smiling Johnnie Reece, who’s 41 but – as Davis suggests – can still hoop.

This is how it goes down almost every Sunday at Monclair. It’s a proving ground, a place where the old hold their own, where the young cut their teeth.

“The young guys can’t beat us,” Reece says.

Not many have beaten Reece. Not on Sunday mornings at Montclair. Certainly not back in the day. As a four-year starter at Manual High School in Denver from 1987 to ‘91, Reece won more than most, claiming three Colorado “big school” state championships along the way. Those who follow high school basketball will point to George Washington’s Chauncey Billups as the best player to ever come out of Colorado, but Reece quietly holds a place in that conversation.

“Guys from my neighborhood, like Chucky Sproling and Johnnie Reece, were the ones I watched and idolized,” Billups once told Slam Magazine.

Billups famously earned his stripes at Skyline Rec (now called Hiawatha Davis) in the Park Hill neighborhood. But before him, Reece was there, honing those skills that a young Billups watched ever so closely.

Manual High School is tied with Denver East for the most state titles – 11 – in boys’ basketball. Reece’s teams won Manual’s last three. A 6-foot-3, strong, thick-bodied guard, Reece was a magician with the basketball. He was a point guard who could – as one player who had to guard him in a state title game said – “make the ball disappear.”

During his freshman season, he was a pure distributor. Most Colorado hoops historians recall a game in 1988 when Sproling scored 74 points against Denver North. What they won’t likely remember, however, is that Reece was the one feeding him the ball. That same year, Manual – behind Sproling and Reece – won its ninth state title. And Reece was not just riding the coattails of his talented senior teammate who ultimately went on to star at St. John’s. Hardly. The next season as a sophomore, Reece was a first-team All-State selection.

As a junior heading into the 1989-90 season, he was widely considered the best player in the state – unquestionably the best guard. That season, he proved he could do much more than flick Magic Johnson-esque passes and dribble like Pistol Pete. He could score, too. On the year, he averaged a whopping 29.7 points, while still dishing out 9.0 assists.

That was all then. But Reece still doesn’t like to lose. Definitely not to “young punks” like Davis.

Interestingly, in many ways, Davis is Reece.

On this particular Sunday, Davis – just a junior – is Colorado’s best prep player. Like Reece, Davis is being heavily recruited by the nation’s top basketball schools – “He can go anywhere he wants to,” says Reece – and has had a standing scholarship offer from Indiana since he was a freshman. Like Reece, Davis will likely finish his prep career as a three-time All-State selection.

There are other random connections, too. Davis’ mother attended high school at none other than Manual. Reggie Gibson, Davis’ Overland teammate and fellow “young punk” at Montclair, has a father who played basketball at Manual, just a few years behind Reece. And like Reece and Billups, Davis learned to play on those same Hiawatha Davis courts.

“The same dudes that taught him, taught me,” Davis said recently in a Denver Post article.

And then there’s the ironic link that hardly anyone at Montclair puts together, neither Reece nor Davis. The matchup – old versus young, Reece the guard versus Davis the big man – is a rematch from days gone by. Twenty-five years ago, when the best two teams and two of the state’s best players met in the state championship game, it was also Manual versus Overland.

That year marked the first and only time Overland reached a state championship game in boys’ basketball. Their dream of taking state, however, came crashing down at the hands of Reece, the tournament MVP, and a coach by the name of Rudy Carey.

And Carey, who has now coached his way to nine state championships, put another end to Overland’s most recent quest for a run at state when he bounced Davis’ Overland Trailblazers in the state semifinals last March. It was the first time since 1990 that Overland had advanced that far in the tourney.

***

To this day, Jay Buckner has seen neither the box score nor the videotape of the 1990 4A state championship game.

“If you ask me about any other game from that season, I probably remember the stats verbatim,” says Buckner, now 42, but a junior on Overland’s ’90 runner-up team.

He couldn’t watch. Maybe he just didn’t want to be reminded. A loss like that one stays with a person.

“My recollection of that game is all the things I could have done better,” he says. “All of it is bittersweet.”

But anyone who sat in the stands at McNichols Arena that night, or at any point during that glorious season for that matter, remembers Buckner as a scrappy, lightning quick defender, a key cog on a team that at one point sat at 22-0. His name didn’t often light up the box score – that was reserved for his senior teammates, All-State players like Anthrius Carter and savvy point guard Chris Horton – but his efforts could be found in his opponent’s line.

“The box score would show me playing defense,” says Buckner.

And he loved playing defense. At 5-foot-10 and a hardened 140 pounds, Buckner wasn’t going to out-muscle anyone, but he took pride in “getting up someone’s face” and not letting them go where they wanted to go.

Buckner began the 1989-90 season on the bench. As Overland’s sixth man, he was often quickly inserted into the game. And eventually, head coach Arlandus Lowe moved him into a starting role. The hard-nosed junior played the kind of defense that every coach, especially a defensive-minded one like Lowe, adored. And on the night of March 10, 1990, when Overland and Manual squared up for all the marbles, it was often Buckner who drew the unenviable task – “a huge challenge” – of guarding Johnnie Reece.

By most accounts, Buckner and Overland’s swarming defense did a phenomenal job on the All-State guard who already had one state title on his résumé. At half, Manual led by just one point, 28-27, and Reece, the Thunderbolts’ top scorer, was held in check.

After hitting just one of his six shots, Reece made a halftime adjustment that exists today as both legend and myth. Walking into the locker room, he wore a pair of light blue Nike Flights – “the ugliest baby-blue color west of North Carolina” a Denver Post columnist later penned. But coming out, he emerged with what Woody Paige considered “an equally ugly pair of black high tops.”

The shoes may or may not have been a change of luck, but 25 years removed, Reece owns up to the fact that the first pair simply hurt his feet.

“Everybody made a big deal of it, but really, they were just killing me. They were brand new,” Reece admits.

Reality suggests that the change of footwear didn’t truly do the trick – not instantly anyway. In fact, with just more than three minutes to play in the game, Reece had still only mustered six points.

But that’s when he took over.

Down two, Reece drained a three pointer that gave Manual a 60-59 lead. On the next possession, with two minutes to play, he drove and scored again. Overland knotted the game up at 62, but Reece drained two free throws to regain the lead with 58 seconds left.

After a series of fouls gave Manual a four-point lead, Reece was once again put on the line. Hitting both free throws, he iced the game, finishing with 15 points and another state title.

“(Johnnie) hit a fantastic three down the stretch and didn’t miss a free throw,” Buckner recalls vividly.

He also remembers a golden opportunity coming and going in the blink of an eye.

“We didn’t execute down the stretch,” he says. “We had every chance to win that game and let it slip away.”

Reece went on to win another state title as a senior, averaging a state-leading 35.1 points per game. He was offered a scholarship to Oregon, where he would go on to earn honors as the 1991-92 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. After a transfer to Arkansas following his sophomore campaign, Reece finished his college days as a Razorback.

For the next 10 years, he gave professional basketball his best shot, enjoying stints in Amsterdam, Italy and two tryouts with the Denver Nuggets. Today, he works for the U.S. Postal Service and his the proud father of four children, one of whom currently stars for the Thomas Jefferson High School girls’ basketball team.

Buckner, the only underclassmen in the Overland starting five, led his team to the Elite 8 in the spring of 1991. He was offered basketball scholarships at several Division III schools, as well as soccer scholarships at the Division II level, but ultimately decided to walk on at CSU. In Fort Collins, he spent a year on the practice squad – “I could wear down a point guard, but I was undersized whenever they went down to the post,” he says – and then transferred to Hampton University in Virginia.

At Hampton, he played club soccer and countless hours of intramural and pickup basketball, many times against a talented high school player named Allen Iverson, who lived not far from campus. After graduation from Hampton, as a grad student and sales rep in Dallas, Buckner says he played “the best basketball of his life” when he’d run once or twice a day at the famed North Dallas Athletic Club, where the competition had names like Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Grant Hill.

“It’s funny how life works out that way,” Buckner says. “Sometimes, you don’t recognize how good you are until well after you have an opportunity to show people. In that state championship, I had an absolute opportunity to shine, and don’t think I played up to my potential.

“It was a great learning experience. Losing is never fun, but I became a much better player later in my life because of that game.”

***

“After that loss, it was just a couple days before we were back in the gym,” says Austin Conway.

Conway, the current point guard at Overland, still remembers the sting – and the lessons – of losing to Rudy Carey’s East Angels in March of 2014.

“You have take every opportunity as if it’s your last,” he says.

Now a senior, that’s Conway’s focus – getting back to that elusive game that his school has only experienced once. Since 1990, Overland has only won a single Centennial League title. The Blazers hadn’t sniffed a run at state until Conway and then-sophomore De’Ron Davis guided their team to the semis last season. Conway only knows “a little” about that ’90 team – “I know they lost,” he says.” This knowledge comes from his mother, who – like Reece, Gibson’s father and Davis’ mother – was once a Manual Thunderbolt.

Conway and Davis both live closer to Manual than to Overland. By rights, they could have – some argue should have – gone to Denver East. The state’s most dynamic duo ultimately opted to play for Overland, where their former club coach, Danny Fisher, was anxiously waiting for their arrival.

“I didn’t want to play with the best,” says Davis. “I wanted to play against the best.”

Conway, an All-State quarterback who’s turned down multiple Division I football scholarships in favor a full-ride to play basketball at Wyoming next year, came to Overland for many reasons.

“I came to Overland to play football and for the education,” he says. “I happened to step into a (basketball) program that was rebuilding. If someone asks, ‘Why Overland?’ I say, ‘Why not be at a place where you can continue to build and reshape a program?’”

Since fourth grade, Conway and Davis have been teammates. Since fourth grade, they’ve been building for this season. They’ve pushed each other from day one. Chauncey Billups frustratingly once called Davis “lazy” – “When you hear that from an NBA player, who has won a championship, that you’re lazy, that changed my whole mindset; that woke me up,” the 6-foot-10 junior recently told the Post – but it was Conway who effectively taught him how to work.

“I really didn’t have a motor until I started playing with Austin,” Davis says. “My ability to work hard came from Austin.”

“De’Ron is one of the hardest working kids I know,” says Conway. “Now, he won’t take mediocre from anyone.”

There is a renewed sense of pride at Overland. Conway calls it “a good pressure” – a responsibility and mission to restore the greatness that Overland’s athletic programs experienced through much of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“Last year, playing in the Elite Eight, trying to go to Final Four, they were telling us, ‘This game is not just for Overland now,’” Conway says. “They were telling us about everyone that was a part of that (1990) state championship run. We (played) with a lot more community sense than we did before – just the history. People were saying, ‘Overland… they’re back!’”

And there was that fortuitous – if not auspicious – meeting back in the summer.

Jay Buckner, who travels regularly as part of his job as a consultant for a large software company, found himself waiting at a gate inside Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport. As he watched passengers unload from the plane he was about to board back to Denver, he noticed a group of tall young men, all dressed in green and blue. It was the Overland varsity basketball team, arriving to play in tournament.

Buckner seized the moment.

“I joked with the team; I kind of pulled them together and said, ‘Y’all don’t know me, but you should. My name is on the gym – named after my father,” says Buckner, whose father John Buckner, now a member of the Colorado House of Representatives, served as Overland’s principle from 1989 to 2006. “Trust me when I say that people are following your season. Live up to your potential.

“You have to make the most of every opportunity you have, because you may not get that opportunity again. That junior state championship taught me that when you have an opportunity, you have to go make the best of it.”

This winter, both father and son have been keeping a close eye on their Overland Trailblazers. They attend games regularly and will undoubtedly be there down the stretch, when Conway and Davis try to complete the task that the 5-foot-10, 140-pound Buckner so narrowly missed 25 years ago.

“I didn’t realize it until months later,” Buckner says. “But I could have been the difference maker in that (1990 state championship) game.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps his words will make the difference in the next one.

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