By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Naturally, there were hurdles to overcome.
Early in the season, when the makings of an undefeated record were already under way, it became necessary for several Gila Monsters to be kept out of a game against Northland Pioneer, one of Eastern's greatest rivals. The supposed incident involved a fight instigated by several military brutes, and so Eastern took on Northland Pioneer with only six players, one of them newly arrived Harold Joiner from Dayton.
Eastern won the game, 71-59, and Joiner says that is when he realized this team had real potential. "We just stepped up," he says now.
Next came the Mesa Rotary Shootout, a tournament the Gila Monsters crawled out of as champions, but not without scratches and bruises. One game, they were down 19 points in the first half, and came back to win. "The kids just seemed to think they were gonna win, anyway," LaVetter says. "From that point on, they said, 'Hey--we're pretty good.'"
"We had a couple of tough games," admits Jody Beck, who is capable of passes that defy physical logic.
And then they were nationally ranked, and then they kept winning, and then Coach LaVetter began to wonder if all this talent on the floor was playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Stretches of lackluster play followed; the Monsters weathered every one while giving their coaches ulcers.
"We were real flat," says Tyrell Jamerson. "I guess after winning so many games, you just want to get to the tournament."
Still, after escaping a furious comeback in the final minutes of a game at Central Arizona College in Coolidge, Beck and Joiner felt confident enough after that day's practice to predict they'd be back in form against Scottsdale Community College on a pleasant Wednesday night in Thatcher.
As always, in Coach LaVetter's home on the day of a home game, there is spaghetti. Dinner is served about 4 p.m., and the players file through the kitchen, dishing up healthy servings and retiring to the living room to watch Ricki Lake on a formidable Toshiba television.
The players banter and suck down pasta and sauce. Joiner asks Marco Johnson if he heard about Dallas Mavericks star Jimmy Jackson's 44-point game the night before. They rave about Reggie Miller's appearance on a recent television show. They rave about Miller's wife, who apparently is quite stunning.
As the players enter the packed gymnasium later that night, they encounter a festive and vibrant mood. Kids mob them for autographs. "The boys are back in town!" the announcer roars into the microphone as the music plays.
Very early in the game, it becomes apparent that the Artichokes--although armed with Brian Becker, the conference's leading scorer--lack the muscle to deal with the inside play of Tijjani and Joiner and Griffin and Beck, who slice through the forest of bodies like greyhounds. Johnson does his trademark pull-up jumper a few times, and Beck and Jamerson wear down the Artichokes with defense. The Gila Monsters have four of the conference's top five in the steals category, and it shows. Eastern leads at halftime, 45-24.
At the break, there is a drawing. A cap and a tee shirt and some money are given away.
The teams return to the court, and the Artichokes brave such student-section signs as "Undy-Feeted" and "We Want ESPN, Baby!" to fight their way to within ten points, 54-44, as the crowd grows restless and friendly interschool parent rivalries in the stands turn ugly. One of the referees threatens to whistle the SCC bench with a technical.
The Gila Monsters finally get all the pistons pumping. Three-pointers from pals Johnson and Joiner, then a Tijjani dunk off a Joiner feed, and all of a sudden, it's 67-50. But there are still nine minutes left, and the Artichokes are feisty and raging. This is when Jody Beck and Tyrell Jamerson put the game away for good without even scoring a basket.
After one of the Monsters misses a shot, Beck snags the rebound, toys with the idea of going back up but reconsiders. He dribbles, almost casually, out toward the foul line, time seeming to pass slowly. Then, with absolutely no indication at all that he has any idea what he's doing, he whips around like a turret, firing the ball through a field of Artichokes to a surprised Jamerson, who like the rest of the crowd is probably wondering how Beck knew he was under the hoop.
Jamerson proceeds to miss the lay-up, Beck wincing in disappointment, but it is right then that the game is over, because the Gila Monsters have demonstrated their utter dominance for all to see. A few minutes later, with Eastern leading by 25, Jamerson steals the ball and executes a spectacular windmill slam that Beck jokes about later. "Did you see my main man?" he says. "He let me down on that assist. But he made up for it with that windmill."
The final is 93-68. Two days later, Pima Community College falls by 31 points. The Monsters are back to true form, which is very scary indeed.