By Miguel A. Melendez Staff Writer
The rivalry between Muir High School boys basketball coach Gamal Smalley and Pasadena coach Tim Tucker has gone beyond the court.
It’s gotten personal.
With the packed crowd all but gone following the Mustangs’ first meeting against Pasadena last year, there stood Smalley waiting for a warm embrace from his mother after Muir relinquished a 16-point lead before losing by three. With a warm smile and outstretched arms, Smalley’s mother, Flossie, walked toward him from the other end of the court.
“Her loving smile was just what I needed,” Smalley recalled.
As she walked in his direction the unthinkable occurred: Flossie walked past Smalley and embraced Tucker instead. Smalley stood there in shock, looking at his brother Omar who could only laugh hysterically.
Smalley asked Omar what was up with the family betrayal. Omar’s answer said everything there is to know about their mother’s attitude:
“He told me mom said, `What can I say? I love a winner.”‘
It’s been over a decade since Muir (17-1, 6-0) has beaten Pasadena (13-5, 6-0). In the Bulldogs’ run as nine-time defending Pacific League champions, they’ve lost only twice, both times to Crescenta Valley.
Muir will get its chance at claiming a piece of basketball supremacy when it travels to play crosstown rival Pasadena at 5 p.m. today. The game is expected to sell out.
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Smalley, a 1976 Muir graduate, was a senior when Tucker was a freshman at Pasadena,but they never faced each other on the court. The closest Smalley got to stepping on the court with Tucker was when Smalley’s oldest son, London, played for Tucker during his second season at the helm.
Smalley and Tucker’s friendship has led them to start an All-Star game to raise funds and scholarships, and partner up in the renowned Rose City Classic. They’ve even made yearly trips to the NCAA men’s Final Four.
But with the rivalry game looming and bragging rights on the line, there’s been absolutely no contact this week in preparation for a game that promises to evenly match teams that possess speed, size and athleticism.
Muir’s lone loss was to Village Christian, which features three Division I recruits. The Mustangs lost that game at the free-throw line, and their bid for a third straight tournament championship fell short.
Pasadena’s five losses came against some of the top teams in the state, including La Verne Lutheran. The Bulldogs faced stiff competition in Sacramento before rounding out the nonleague season by steamrolling opponents to win the Mt. Carmel Tournament in San Diego.
The closest team on paper that could have challenged Pasadena in league this season was Crescenta Valley. In the first meeting, the Bulldogs led by eight at the half before leading by as many as 28 in the second half. Pasadena won by a 21-point margin.
This week, Muir led Crescenta Valley by four at the half and won by 20.
“We do have some similarities in our style of play and even in our personnel,” Smalley said. “So it should be a very entertaining game.”
Pasadena is used to having a target on its back, so the experience of playing in a game with so much hype is nothing new for the Bulldogs.
“This is what the city wants and it’s what the city has been asking for,” Tucker said. “But everybody comes to play us. For them, if we beat them, well, we were supposed to beat them. But if they beat us they’re the new kid on the block. There’s more to lose on our side.”
Muir’s Jelani Mitchell (14.5 points per game) leads the team in scoring. He has a strong supporting cast in Andre Frazier (10.5 ppg, 7.1 rebounds per game), Taturs Mayberry (11.6 ppg) and Deon Nelson (9.7 ppg, 3.1 steals per game). Those numbers look modest, but Mitchell recorded a 38-point performance in league and Mayberry scored a career-high 42 points with 15 rebounds, also in league play.
Pasadena’s Blake Hamilton, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, has the ability to take over games. Ajon Efferson is only a sophomore, but he has made giant strides at point guard. John Hayward and Perris Hicks are relentless on defense.
Then there’s Brandon Jolley. The 6-5, 220-pound forward is a power presence in the post. His free-throw shooting has improved dramatically this season, and he’s become more aggressive, giving him the tools to be a dominant big man.
Muir and Pasadena take pride that their defense creates offense, and it’s in transition when Muir and Pasadena can overwhelm teams. With both teams possessing that quality, it’ll come down to which team succumbs to the pressure.
“I see that we do have a similar game,” Mitchell said. “We have guys who are fast and get up the floor. We can definitely make the fast break effective.”
Muir returns 10 of 11 players who were part of this rivalry last year and went on to play in the CIF-SS Division 5 championship game.
“We have a lot more experience,” Smalley said. “They know what this game feels like, what it smells like. It won’t be a culture shock for them.”
Smalley wants to set Tucker straight this season, and his agenda is obvious: He’s losing his mother’s affection to Tucker.
This past Thanksgiving, the doorbell rang in the middle of dinner, and there stood Tucker with his homemade sweet potato pie.
“It’s my mom’s recipe,” Tucker said.
“I can barely do toast,” Smalley said.
With a packed house and Smalley’s father-in-law yelling Tucker’s name over the dinner table, Smalley’s mother stopped in her tracks and gave Tucker a bear hug in the middle of the kitchen, while Smalley’s wife was flattered by Tucker’s kind gesture.
“It seemed like confetti was coming down from the ceiling,” Smalley said. “I could have swore I heard a marching band in the living room.”
Later that night, Smalley remembers sneaking into the kitchen for a late-night snack.
“I’ll be dog-gone if it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had,” he said.
Yes, this is personal.