Always appreciate what you have before it’s gone.
That line speaks loudly to me, even though, admittedly, I often don’t abide by it. But over the past few months, I tried really hard to cherish one of the most special seasons the Western Pennsylvania high school basketball community has seen in many years. It’s sort of a golden era of the sport locally, with a pair of players ranked among the top 10 in the country and a few others not far behind.
But with rumors circulating that a few top prospects might be headed elsewhere after this school year, this golden era might not have the shelf life that some might have expected.
From what I have always heard, the local high school basketball scene was booming in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of my knowledge dates back to the early 1990s when, as a kid, I would go to Sto-Rox games with my dad and Uncle Ron, whose brother-in-law was legendary Sto-Rox coach Dick Cetrone. I remember being at the WPIAL championships at the Palumbo Center in 1992. The headliners that year included Dante Calabria (Blackhawk), Ty Law (Aliquippa), Lorenzo Styles (Farrell), Monty Latimer (Sto-Rox) and Kim Calhoun (Penn Hills).
Since then, we have seen great players and teams, but there has never been a collection of talent like we had this season, at least not in the past 40 years. It’s rare for the area to have a player ranked among the top 50 players nationally, but this season we had two in Lincoln Park’s Meleek Thomas and Imani Christian’s Alier Maluk, both considered among the nation’s top 20 sophomores. Lincoln Park’s Brandin “Beebah” Cummings and North Hills’ Royce Parham aren’t ranked as highly, but they probably should be. If Laurel Highlands’ Rodney Gallagher had chosen basketball over football, he might be a top 50 guy, as well. And don’t get me started on Steel Valley’s Makhai Valentine, who is unjustly underrated and is going to be an absolute steal for some school.
What’s great is that Thomas, Maluk, Cummings and Parham are all underclassmen, meaning we’ll see them all do their thing on local courts next season, too.
Or will we?
Rumors have been floating around that Thomas, Maluk and Parham could possibly leave the area and will instead attend one of those big-time national basketball schools next school year. Florida powers IMG Academy and Montverde Academy have been among the schools mentioned for one of the players. Could they just be rumors and that’s it? Of course. But it says here that at least one of those three won’t be playing locally next winter.
I’ve been torn about the whole transferring to a “national team” topic for quite some time. A large part of me wants to see the top talent stay home. It’s best for the sport locally. But at the same time, I can understand why some kids do leave, whether it’s because they want to play better competition or get more exposure. Ultimately, it should be about what’s best for the kid. What’s unfortunate, though, is that sometimes the kid himself has little say in it. Sometimes it’s a player’s parents or “handlers” who call the shots.
Watching Thomas, Cummings and Maluk play on the state’s grandest stage at the PIAA championships last week was something I won’t soon forget. Not only did all three play exceptionally well, but also each led their teams to titles. Most years, it’s Philadelphia players who create most of the hype at these championships. But this year it was WPIAL kids dropping jaws, and those three guys were a few of the brightest stars.
The sun is currently shining brightly on Western Pennsylvania basketball, but it won’t stay that way forever. Here’s hoping you’ve been taking advantage of the great weather. I sure have.
• The PUP released its inaugural high school all-star teams Sunday. Both teams were stacked with talent, particularly the boys team, featuring Cummings, Thomas, Parham, Gallagher and Valentine. It’s the best “top five” from the area since the legendary 2007 quintet of Schenley’s DeJuan Blair and D.J. Kennedy, Aliquippa’s Herb Pope and Jonathan Baldwin, and Jeannette’s Terrelle Pryor. It would be incredible to see those teams square off. Based solely on how successful they were in high school, I believe this year’s team might be just as good, and that’s really saying something because those 2007 kids were something else.
• Thomas and Cummings were the best duo in the entire state this season, and it’s doubtful they had many peers nationally. We all knew Thomas was very good, but the sophomore appears to have that “it” factor that sometimes separates the good players from the truly great players. His winning shot in the final seconds lifted Lincoln Park to a 62-58 win against nationally ranked Neumann-Goretti in the PIAA Class 4A championship. Thomas wanted the ball in that situation, got it, and then made the winning basket in one of the best high school games you will ever see.
• Pitt fans are going to absolutely love Cummings. This junior is already an elite talent and will only get better, but there’s much more to Cummings than just his game. His swagger level is extremely high. It’s not cockiness, but extreme confidence. He’s like one of those New York City guards that played such a huge role in Pitt’s success under coaches Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon. He’s also one of the more personable kids I’ve come across in my 20-some years covering high school basketball. Reporters covering Pitt in future years are in for a treat.
• No local team brought as many fans to Hershey as Deer Lakes. There was a sea of green at the Giant Center to see the Lancers play in their first PIAA final. Even though it ended with an 83-55 loss to Philadelphia West Catholic, the Deer Lakes faithful, which included a large student section, stayed engaged until the very end. That was so cool to see. Props to Deer Lakes coach Albie Fletcher for the job he did in his first season. And this doesn’t appear to be a one-hit wonder. Deer Lakes could really be building something special.
• Speaking of coaches doing tremendous jobs, how about Union girls coach Rob Nogay? Before Nogay became coach in 2019, Union had gone 14-112 the previous six seasons, winning no more than three games in any of those seasons. Union was coming off a 10-11 season when I was working on preseason rankings prior to the 2021-22 season. I remember talking to Rochester coach CJ Iannini, who told me to keep an eye on Union. Iannini must know what he’s talking about, as Union went 22-3 that season before going 23-6 and winning its first WPIAL and PIAA titles this season.