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Talent overflowed in Eighties

This is the third of a five-part series selecting all-decade All-WNY teams as The News counts down to its all-time All-WNY basketball team.

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Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, your 1980s Dream Team.

Now excuse me while I slip into the Witness Protection Program.

I'd say the task was impossible, except it wasn't that easy. We read your e-mails and your blog comments, took all your suggestions and observations under advisement. So it's only right that we say thanks . . . for confusing us all the more.

I will tell you one thing. I now hate Gary Bossert. Hate him in the kindest way imaginable. If Bossert had just played like 5-foot-8, 150-pound guards are supposed to play we'd have had room on the first team for one of those How-can-he-not-be-on-the-first-team? players. But we couldn't eliminate the Kenmore West sensation, not after a journey through the clip files affirmed a long-held belief: The kid was a clutch player for the ages and thrived when the lights were brightest.

So the first team goes: Bossert, Bennett's Curtis Aiken, Nichols' Christian Laettner, Grover Cleveland's Keith Robinson and Burgard's Ritchie Campbell, all two-time first-team All-WNYers.

And it all sounds so reasonable until you realize that there's still caviar on the plate: multiple-time All-WNYers Ray Hall, Tony Kelly and Rick Torgalski, along with the likes of Cliff Robinson, Lester Rowe and James Clinton.

And only now are we mentioning Players of the Year Jeff Taggart, Bryan Randle, as well as Trevor Ruffin, he of the 76-point game, and Marcus Whitfield, he of the 50.3-point Yale Cup scoring average.

Otherwise, it was all so crystal clear.

Cliff Robinson's place on the third team warrants an explanation given his long NBA career.

Cliff was a member of the one and only All-WNY team (1984-85) that included six players. In that story, he was cited as a "controversial" choice because of his wavering intensity. So while it's acknowledged that Robinson evolved into one of the top players ever to come out of Western New York, he was a very good -- but unexceptional -- high school player whose development soared during his years at UConn. No doubt he gets the last laugh.

The Dream Team:

*Curtis Aiken: It's the 1983 Class B Far West Regional and Bennett is going up against Pitt-Mendon in a jam-packed Rochester War Memorial. The game's made all the more special by the presence of Aiken and Syracuse-bound Greg Monroe of Pitt-Mendon. Doubtless Aiken's taking this challenge personally. Final score: Bennett, 79-77. The other final score: Aiken 47, Monroe 27.

There was no containing Aiken, who finished his career as WNY's runaway career scoring champion with 2,130 points before the advent of the three-point line. Opponents tried everything to slow him. Before the legendary 1983 Bennett-South Park showdown at the Koessler Center, South Park coach Romeo McKinney told his Sparks to knock Aiken to the floor whenever he drove, then help him up and tell him he'll get the same treatment whenever he comes inside. So Aiken backed his game away from the basket and burned South Park for 44 in Bennett's 105-102 win -- in regulation.

Aiken's range was absurd. I saw all but a handful of his games his senior year (missing, of course, the one in which he singed Emerson for 65 to break the Yale Cup's 32-year-old single-game scoring record). I'll never forget the 30-foot turnaround jumper he nailed at Bennett's gym directly in front of Kentucky assistant coach Leonard Hamilton, who broke into a wide smile.

Aiken averaged 38.3 points his senior season in '83 as Bennett became only the second Western New York team at that point to win a state public school championship. Consider him a five-star candidate for the all-time All-WNY team.

*Gary Bossert: A glimpse of what was in store was provided during his sophomore season at Sweet Home. Bossert came off the bench to score 18 against Hamburg in the sectional quarterfinals, sinking two free throws with nine seconds left in a two-point win. In the semis, Bossert subbed in to make 10 of 12 field goals and score a career-high 23 points as the Panthers beat Kenmore West. And then the fun really began.

With playing time an issue at Sweet Home, Bossert transferred to Kenmore West, which, as fate would have it, came upon the unbeaten Panthers in the Class A-1 semifinals. Bossert scored 29, hitting 10 of 16 from the field and 9 of 10 from the line, as Ken-West struck for the 65-63 upset. Turned out, he was merely warming up.

South Park, led by eventual Player of the Year Clinton, had a rugged powerhouse and one of the quickest guard tandems in Western New York history in David Lias and Tim Stewart. The Sparks erased a late five-point deficit to win, 91-84, but not before Bossert torched them for 44, including a 26-for-26 performance at the line that prompted the Sparks' McKinney to say, "I'm not complaining because Bossert made 26 free throws. I'm complaining because he shot 26."

Sweet Home and Ken-West met again Bossert's senior year in '83, in the Class A-1 title game at the Aud. The Panthers had a late eight-point lead before Bossert went to work, scoring 14 of his 32 in the fourth quarter. When he fouled out in the first overtime of Sweet Home's 74-70 double-overtime victory, Panther fans and students expressed their admiration with a standing ovation.

Bossert, an extraordinary ballhandler, averaged 23.7 as a junior (shooting 90.2 percent from the line) and 26.4 as a senior (88 percent at the line) while setting a school record of 1,077 points in just two seasons. A former opponent still involved in the WNY basketball scene said: "If I had to win a game and take one player from the '80s to do it, I'd probably take Gary Bossert."

*Ritchie Campbell: It's testament to the magnetism of sport that Campbell accomplished great things on the basketball court, emerging from the drug-infested projects, from a drug-infested single-parent home, to become the most prolific scorer in WNY high school history. And perhaps it's also testament to the dangers of a one-dimensional life that once his marvelous run at Burgard concluded and the cheers faded to silence, Campbell reverted to his roots. Drugs and alcohol played a role the night he pulled the trigger, killing a young mother. He's currently serving the 16th year of a 12- to 25-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter.

There's no telling what Campbell might have accomplished if he'd seized upon the importance of high school academics and went on to play Division I ball. What's widely conceded is that his shooting range equaled or exceeded that of Aiken and Bossert, and that he drove the basket with a quickness that belied his muscular frame.

"Greatness. Just flat out greatness," former Grover Cleveland coach Art Serotte told The News for a 2006 story on Campbell, who graduated in 1990. "He had the quickest first step to the basket I ever saw. He shot threes from 25 to 30 feet. How do you stop that?"

Campbell averaged 25.4 points as a sophomore, drained 76 threes, and seized the moment in the Far West Regionals, scoring 34 in a victory over Clyde-Savannah. As a junior, he teamed with another offensive phenom, Marcus Whitfield, as Burgard became the one and only team in WNY history to average 100 points a game. That season Campbell balanced his 30.4 scoring average by handing out 14.9 assists a game.

With Whitfield graduated and Burgard dressing a young team, Campbell took control by necessity as a senior. Thing was, although everyone knew he had to score, no one could stop him. Campbell averaged 43.8 and had four games of 50 or more, including 62 in a rout of McKinley. Chew on this: He shot 60 percent from the field that season while smashing his own WNY record by hitting 120 threes. And he also averaged nearly 10 assists. Even when accounting for the error/embellishment typical of high school stat-keeping, the numbers astound.

"If anybody should have been a pro, it was Ritchie," Buffalo State coach Fajri Ansari said in the 2006 story on Campbell. Doubtless the potential was there. More than one-third of his 2,337 career points came from outside the arc.

*Christian Laettner: There were two no-brainers in our in discussions of the all '80s team. Aiken was one. Laettner was the other.

The national recognition came pouring in as early as Laettner's freshman year at Nichols, a 22-3 season capped by the State Federation Class C title. Publications were citing him as one of the country's top freshmen, putting him in the same class as Alonzo Mourning and Billy Owens. But it was during Laettner's sophomore season of '86, a 24-1 campaign capped by another State Federation Class C crown, that his coach, Jim Kramer, felt his big man truly came of age.

The Vikings were up against an Our Savior Lutheran team out of New York City with a front court that included a pair of Division I players, 6-8 Duane Ivory and 6-6 Jonathan Duck. It was the Alliance of Independent Schools Class C title game. The contest was physical and then some, with the teams combining for 44 fouls.

"Game was close at the half, and at the start of the third quarter we ran a back screen lob play right off the inbounds play at midcourt," Kramer wrote via e-mail. "Christian dunked with authority over all that size, setting the tone for a solid victory. If he wasn't before, he became a man in that game."

Laettner emerged with 31 points, 18 rebounds, 16 blocks, a black eye and a 73-70 Nichols victory. Ivory and Duck combined for 20 points and 20 boards.

And so it went. Laettner averaged 21.4 points as a junior, then 27.7 points and 16 rebounds as a 6-11 senior, earning The News Player of the Year nod both seasons and state POY as a senior. He was named to the Parade All-America Team, played in the McDonald's All-American game. His 2,066 points, including a then-school record 48 against Bennett, put him second to Aiken at the time.

Nichols went 85-12 during his four years before he left for Duke and became one of the all-time great performers in the history of the college game. Has WNY ever had a more accomplished high school big man? Is he not a shoo-in for the all-time All-WNY first team?

*Keith Robinson: Grover Cleveland never had won a Yale Cup title until Robinson came along and showed the Presidents the way. At first he didn't receive a whole lot of love in our discussions, probably in large part because he was a silk-smooth talent who made the game look exceedingly easy. He wasn't as physical a player as Laettner, although their numbers were comparable as juniors and seniors.

The 6-foot-9 Robinson made first-team All-WNY as a junior in 1985, becoming the first underclassman since 1982 (Bossert and Aiken) to secure that distinction. He averaged 26.2 points and 16 rebounds, shot 62 percent from the field and 73 percent from the line, and put up 44 points against Kensington. Lest he be regarded as a big man who merely cleaned up in the low post, it should be noted that Robinson had a solid mid-range jumper and dazzled onlookers in the sectional finals with a behind-the-back, between-the-legs dribbling maneuver in the final seconds of a one-point victory over Trott.

By that time his phone was ringing off the hook as college coaches courted his services. He turned the process over to his coach, Serotte, and Robinson committed to Notre Dame before the start of his senior season. And what a senior season it was. Robinson averaged 30.3 points, 20 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while finishing with 1,527 career points, good for 10th on the WNY all-time list at the time. Eastern Basketball magazine ranked him the fourth-best senior in the East, noting that, "Robinson exemplifies the new breed of athletic big men that Digger Phelps is now recruiting at Notre Dame."

Named New York's Mr. Basketball, Robinson was one of 25 players on the McDonald's All-American Team. He played professionally throughout Europe before settling in Atlanta.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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