When my Holy Redeemer Boys’ classmates and I used to go to the old Parish Hall to watch CYO basketball in the late 1950s, there was no age limit for the junior competition. You could play junior as long as you wanted if you felt you were not ready for senior, or you weren’t being recruited by a senior team. At some point, probably late 60s, early 70s, the bureaucrats decided you had to be 19 or younger to play junior.
I always enjoyed junior games, because it is always interesting to watch kids growing up, how they interact and how they socialize. In addition, the tension and excitement would be building while you were watching the junior game as you waited for your favorite senior team to take the court in the big game.
In the 1991 amateur basketball season before semi-pro basketball began in 1992, two junior teams met in the finals, as they had so met the year before in 1990. The Amandala team, which won both competitions, was led by Maurice Williams and coached by Marshall Nunez. The Falcons team which Amandala defeated in both finals, was sponsored at least one of those seasons by Santino Castillo. The team was led by Evan “Duck” Garnett was and coached by Mark Usher and Evan “Mose” Hyde, my oldest son. Cordel Hyde, my second son, played on the Falcons team.
This youth basketball on the Amandala compound had begun in the mid-1980s with entries in the Princess Royal Youth Hostel Under-17 tournament. When the Amandala team first won that tournament, both Maurice Williams and Duck Garnett played on the team. They both collated newspapers at Amandala. But the year after the championship, a kind of personality division arose, and Duck Garnett ended up playing with Mesop Suns, along with Travis Santos, in the Hostel U-17 tournament, and Mesop Suns defeated Amandala.
The two future basketball superstars, Maurice and Duck, then, were growing apart. Duck had become a big star in the high school basketball competitions at both the Belize City and national levels, leading Anglican Cathedral College (ACC) to championships. The junior basketball tournaments at the Civic Center in 1990 and 1991 had intensified the rivalry between Maurice (who did not go to high school) and Duck, and their personal “dogs” sweated the fever, as we would say.
Basketball had thus created some division on Partridge Street, and I couldn’t figure out how to bring Maurice and Duck back together. Enter Clinton “Pulu” Lightburn, who wanted the Amandala yard superstars, who included Willie Gordon, to play with a Kremandala team in one of Santino Castillo’s Inter-office tournaments at Bird’s Isle. I immediately accepted Clinton’s offer, because I knew he had the stature to bring Maurice and Duck together on the court.
I remember the Santino’s Inter-office team that year included Kirk Smith, Ray Gongora, and Travis Santos, but Kremandala defeated them in the championship game. After that, it became evident that Pulu was thinking of building a new powerouse team, with the Partridge Street players, to go against the formidable Penta Lakers team, which featured the two greats – Kirk “Shabba” Smith and Fred Garcia, Jr.
Almost twenty years after moving to the Lake (Independence, that is) with my newspaper business in late 1972, I felt that I couldn’t go against a Lake team. (Remember, I had done that in football with Charger in 1975.) I think Pulu was very disappointed with my decision. When semi-pro basketball began in 1992, Kremandala Raiders had to go against the Penta Lakers, but in 1992 Kremandala was led by Ray Gongora, an original Laker. The rivalry between Pulu-led teams and the Lake had grown heated during the middle and late 1980s. I could not be a part of a Pulu team going against the Lake.
Semi-pro basketball was a logical 1992 sequel to the introduction of semi-pro football in 1991. Pulu’s team, Santino’s Jah Jam, had defeated Penta Lakers in the final amateur tournament in 1991. But Jah Jam had lost the Santino’s sponsorship, and entered the first semi-pro basketball tournament as Acros (Louis Leslie) Jah Jam, and the big news was that they did so without the incomparable Pulu: for some reason, he had decided to travel to the United States, where he remained the entire season.
I never imagined that semi-pro basketball could fail as a Southside industry, because the Civic Center was in pretty good shape and, unlike semi-pro football, there were no traveling expenses; all the teams were from Belize City in 1992. In addition, of course, Belize City fans love basketball. This was Michael Jordan’s heyday.
When semi-pro basketball failed, this was the failure of the most important Southside industry to emerge in the last quarter century. There were jobs and vital economic activity involved here which should have been nourished. The critical years of semi-pro were from 1992 to 1997, when the payrolls were under control and the budgets were manageable.
The first devastating blow to the industry was when the ruling PUP’s expansion and refurbishment of the Civic in late 1992 proved to be a con and a disaster. The second devastating blow was the open hostility of the new UDP government which was elected on June 30 of 1993. Dr. Esquivel had a problem with Kremandala, and it so happened that Kremandala won four consecutive championships, from 1993 to 1996. For semi-pro basketball to have survived, I guess, Kremandala Raiders would have had to lose. That was not possible, because the Raiders were the best.