Nottingham poses with its prize at Rutgers Sunday after becoming the first basketball team in school history to win a state championship. The Northstars reward is a first-round game against Group II champion Haddonfield in the Tournament of Champions Tuesday (Photo by Mike Sabo)
By Rich Fisher
Mar. 11: It has often been pointed out that unselfishness has been a key to the Nottingham boys’ basketball team this year.
That is the case off the court as well as on, when it came to the players and their coach. And Chris “The Baron” Raba was more than happy to discuss that to a room full of reporters from around the state after his Northstars beat Chatham, 60-53, to win the Group III title at Rutgers today.
“These guys were very loyal to me,” Raba said. “Three one thousand-point scorers; there is some state history here. What makes a public school good is when these kids who are told to go to a private school stay at their public school.”
Truer words were never spoken. One look at the state rankings in any sport, not just basketball, shows Parochial and prep schools usually dominating the top 10. Preps and Parochials can pick their players, public schools – those that aren’t “choice schools” – take what their district provides. The temptation to transfer is tremendous for talented players who know they can play in some high-profile situations and win a lot of games.
Raba knew darn well that could have been the case with Richie Jones, Darell Johnson and Cliff Joseph, who will go down as the greatest basketball trio in Nottingham history.
“Those three could have played at any private school in the state of New Jersey and they were loyal to me,” Raba said.
The coach noted that they finished 11-14 as sophomores but, as the 16th-seed, nearly upset top-seeded Ewing in the first round of the state tournament. Raba realized then, that the offers would start.
“From that point on I knew that people would probably get to these guys,” he said. “But what they did for me by staying . . . this team’s the most loyal team I ever coached. I love all these guys, I treat these guys like my sons; probably better than my sons.”
From there, Raba’s emotions began to well up.
“I’m almost in tears,” he said. “The last time I was here was in 2006 and my son (Jordan) was born, so that’s why my son’s here at the table today.”
And then it got more emotional.
“These guys have given me their heart, their soul,” Raba continued. “I can never repay them, for what they gave me. Never. They have given me memories that will last a lifetime.
“Those three guys could have played anywhere in the state, at any parochial or private school, and they wanted to play with each other, play for their school. I’m just really happy for them. I don’t have enough words or enough compliments for what they have done in my life and what they have done for the school and the program.”
Joseph was the first to arrive, playing on the varsity as a freshman and going on to become the school’s all-time leading scorer. And if he was like a son to Raba, the feeling was mutual.
“Coach Raba is like a father to me,” Joseph said. “He treated me like his son, gave me what I wanted, told me what to do on and off the basketball court, helped me out a lot in my life. I just wanted to help him get to the state championship like we did.”
When Jones and Johnson came along, they followed in Joseph’s footsteps.
“I saw Cliff was really good,” Jones said. “I thought Cliff being a sophomore and Darell being a sophomore, we could all really do something. I thought nobody in the county was better than us three, and we went down the road and we’re state champions.”
Proving that loyalty does indeed, have its benefits.
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Once all the state games were played, the upcoming Tournament of Champion seedings were handed out. Nottingham is seeded 4th and will play 5th-seeded, Group II champion Haddonfield at Toms River North on 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Third-seeded Shawnee (Group IV) will battle 6th-seeded Woodbury (Group I) in an All-South Jersey final; while Roselle Catholic (Non-Public B) is the top seed and Don Bosco (Non-Public A) is seeded No. 2. A Nottingham victory on Tuesday pits it against Roselle Catholic Thursday.
The championship round will be held at the Cure Insurance Arena next Sunday.
Asked what seed he thought he might be in the TOC, Raba couldn’t give an answer because he had no clue who else would be playing.
“To be honest I never even looked who was in it,” he said. “I was just worried about this game.”
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One of the most fun things about this season has been the Nottingham fans; particularly the student section. They have been loud, enthusiastic, well-behaved and numerous. Raba was happy to see them rewarded as well.
“Any time there’s a sports program that can win the state championship, the school comes together in any sport,” he said. “The camaraderie our student body has, how loud they were at games was awesome. I’ve been coaching for 16 years and the Moorestown game (in the CJ III final) may have been one of the most insane gyms I’ve ever coached in.”
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When Raba guided Hamilton West to the 2006 championship, Najee Lane was second-team All-State and a 1,000-point scorer. This past week, his two state champion stars were unified by cell phones.
“Najee was texting Darell two days before this, telling him what we could accomplish,” Raba said.
As for Johnson, he has far surpassed what many folks thought might happen.
“I feel like I grew a lot since sixth grade,” he said. “I got way taller, I was fat. To see how far I made it, all the controversy I had to play through, a lot of people said I wasn’t gonna be anything. So knowing all the work I put in, it feels really good to leave knowing my team is a state champion.”