March 11, 2009

Pregame dunk costs team playoff game

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This was a "teaching" moment that comes up for high school coaches from time to time.

You know, one of those, "We just got a bad break, and that's life, we have to deal with it."

On March 5 in Cut Bank, Mont., Isaiah Martin, a 5-foot-11 senior guard for Harlem's boys basketball team, dunked during warmups for a high school tournament game with Shelby.

There was a shower of glass as the backboard shattered.

Harlem had to forfeit the game.

According to the Montana High School Association, dunking is not allowed in pregame warmups in tournament play. If a backboard is damaged by a pregame dunk, the offending school must forfeit. The rule was put in 10 years ago.

Harlem, which had finished second in its district, forfeited the Northern Divisional game to Shelby. Harlem was dumped into the loser's bracket and won on Friday night, but on a quick turnaround Saturday morning it lost in overtime and was eliminated.

"We had that talk about life being tough and you roll with the punches and how you pick yourself up," Harlem coach Harlan Mount said. "It took a lot out of the team."

Almost a week later, you could hear the dismay in the 48-year-old Mount's voice, as if the talk and the lesson did not soothe his team's disappointment. The Wildcats had made a 168-mile trip only to be left face-down with an improbable forfeit, which goes down in the books as a 2-0 defeat.

"I was stunned," Mount said. "At first, the tournament official came to our locker room and said it would probably be a technical for breaking the backboard. Then he came back and asked me to step outside with him. It was in the rule book, in black and white.

"I thought it was harsh."

The Harlem fans made the 168-mile trip, paid for their tickets, took their seats, but did not get their money back when their team forfeited.

Mount understands a rule was broken and there are consequences, but he has other questions. There was a thunderous dunk, he said, in the game before Harlem took the floor, a dunk he heard in his team's locker room.

Did anyone inspect the backboard?

"Isaiah is a buck-fifty, maybe 160 pounds," Mount said. "Hard to believe a kid at that weight shattered a backboard. Was it already defective?"

If a backboard is broken with a dunk in a game, Mount said there is a technical called, but it is not a forfeit. He wonders why there is a difference.

Mount said he told his team no dunking in pregame warmups, but when he got to the tournament there were other teams dunking in pregame. He told his kids it was OK.

Brian Kavanagh, the coach at Cut Bank, said after Harlem forfeited that players on other teams approached the rim gingerly in pregame warmups and there were no more pregame dunks. A lesson had been learned the hard way.

Harlem finished the season 13-10. It was a good record in a rebuilding year, but the Wildcats expected better in the postseason. After all, they were the only team to beat the top seed in the division all season.

Mount is Director of the Native American Career and Technical Education Program at the Fort Belknap College. It is a tribal college, which is near the Native American reservations in north Montana - almost on the Canadian border. He is training students for real life and jobs.

His team's forfeit was just some more real-life, on-the-job training.

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