The season near its end, the state tournament and its still-haunting challenges next, Cliff Wilson had one more chance to learn something important.
Already having given his 1983 Chester basketball team as tough an out-of-conference schedule as possible, Wilson would cram in one late visit from Dunbar of Washington, D.C., a certified national power.
It would be the last game the Clippers would lose.
And that’s why Wilson took the risk.
“We were rated No. 25 in the nation,” Wilson would recall, nearly four decades later. “They were rated No. 1. And that’s why I chose to play them. They were good. Joe Dean was the coach. We were running traps. We were known for that. We called it the blitz. But they were coming across half court and shooting threes before they were threes. They kept making them.
“They even brought their own oxygen tank. During breaks, they would go and get oxygen. That was one of the five losses we had. After the game, the kids said they let me down. I told them, ‘No, you played your hearts out. You didn’t let me down.’
“But after that, I saw a difference in my team. They noticed that everything Joe Dean asked his players to do, they did. And after that, our guys said, ‘Anything Coach asks us to do, we will do.’ I said, ‘Well, if you do that, we’re going to win it all.’”
The Clippers listened and defeated Carlisle, Penncrest, Williamsport, Reading and McKeesport in the PIAA big-school playoffs for the first of what would become eight state championships. And Wilson, 76, a 40-year resident of Chester Heights, was thinking about that the other day when the topic turned to the Daily Times Delco Madness, a mythical Sweet 16 tournament to reveal the greatest high school team in Delaware County history.
The way he had it figured, he challenged his team to a rough, 37-game schedule for one reason: It had enough ways to win so that no opponent would be impossible to beat … including any team in Chester history.
“Yes,” Wilson said, firmly. “Because we could do it all. You couldn’t foul us. We could shoot free throws. We could hold the ball. We could run. We were a very fast team. We played zone. Pressure traps. We played it all.
“There was no one thing about our team. We played the entire game. And we had good players.”
Every team in the Sweet 16 had great players. None had previously handled the burden of history the way the 1983 Clippers did while being ever-reminded that each of the first seven Chester teams to reach a state-championship game had lost.
“Not only did I feel the history, but I lived the history,” Wilson said. “I graduated from Chester High School in ’61. Em Baynard. Granny Lash. The Foster brothers (Jerry and Bill). The Billy Wilsons. Horace Walker. All those guys. I am from the neighborhood. So you know I felt it. I felt it as a young kid. And I felt it when I started coaching the Clippers. Everybody said, ‘You’ve got to win it.’”
They won it behind three first-team All-Delco players, Eric Jones, Steve Miller and Darryl Green, with second-team All-Delco Darrin Pearsall and 6-7 Ted Williams.
And they won it because the Dunbar game taught them to listen to Cliff Wilson.
“We were just really basic, and we focused on those things that we were taught,” Pearsall recalled. “Being aggressive. Shooting the ball when you were open. Trying to out-do your opponent. Because of what we were taught by our coach, we went into every game knowing that, whether we played the 2012 team or anybody else, we would do just that.”
As it will happen, the 1983 team will have its chance in the Delco Madness championship against the undefeated 2012 Clippers in a matchup of Chester’s first state championship team and its most recent. That, the ’83 team ensured with a thrilling 74-73 victory over 2009 Penn Wood in the semifinals Saturday night.
If the Clippers have an oxygen tank available behind the bench, it won’t be the only valuable thing they learned from a loss that started a winning streak that has yet to stop.
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In the Final Four games Saturday:
No. 1 CHESTER (2012) 52, No. 4 CHESTER (1989) 50 >> The ’89 Clippers controlled both the pace and the defensive boards from the beginning, led by 30-24 at halftime, and forced a 50-50 tie when Lamar Dodson made both ends of a one-and-one with 23 seconds left.
After Larry Yarbray called a timeout to set up a play, Erikk Wright would find second-team All-Delco Darius Robinson free for a back-door layup just before time expired
Robinson delivered a game-high 20 for the winners, who improved to 35-0. Wright had 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 steals. Kareem Robinson made nine steals.
For the 1989 state champions, Keith Wood and Zain Shaw scored 17 apiece. Galen Howard chipped in with 10 points and 15 rebounds, a dozen at the defensive end.
No. 7 CHESTER (1983) 74, No. 6 PENN WOOD (2009) 73 >> Copying a play run against them by Dunbar late in the regular season, the 1983 Clippers freed Darryl Green for an NBA-range 3-pointer at the horn, causing a Wells Fargo Center court-storming.
In a game with 19 lead-changes, Penn Wood grabbed a 73-71 lead with 10 seconds left when Aaron Brown charged along the left baseline, soared above three defenders and long-armed a highlight dunk.
Cliff Wilson, the 1983 coach, called a timeout before drawing up the winning play.
Darrin Pearsall paced the winners (35-5) with 26 points. Ted Williams added 20. Green, who had 10 points in the first quarter, finished with 15.
Clyde Jones’ Patriots finished at 30-4.
The championship game will be Monday night at 9:30 at the Wells Fargo Center. No tickets are available.
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The Delco Madness girls championship game will unfold at 2:30 Sunday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center. No. 1 Archbishop Carroll (1979) will play No. 2 Cardinal O’Hara (1993).