The journey began, innocently enough, with a December text from a longtime friend and a former high school golf teammate. Dave Goscin wanted to know if I was interested in joining him and five other Richardson High School alums for dinner and a basketball game. A boys’ night out? Why not? I had read glowing reports about the RHS Eagles and was excited to catch up with childhood friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since we walked across the graduation stage in 1975.
Now here we are, not three months later: that very good basketball team has developed into something special, soaring up the polls to the No. 1 ranking in the country, according to MaxPreps.com. The Eagles are 32-1 and five wins from capturing the first state championship in school history. In any sport. And, unknowingly, these kids are taking a group of giddy sixtysomething alums along for the ride.
Upon returning home from that game, I scribbled a few words and posted a couple of images on Facebook. I was surprised by the response. “When’s the next game?” “How’s the old gym look?” “Sounds like this team is really good.” I have now attended no fewer than nine games, home and away. At first, I practically dragged along my wife, Leigh. Now she wants to know when and where our next excursion will take us. What started as a party of seven has exploded into a full-blown reunion tour. Including a few non-alum spouses, 26 of us met for dinner last week before watching the Eagles’ 34-point bi-district playoff win over Grand Prairie. By my count, we had 36 for dinner last Friday night, a crowd so big that we ate the place out of guacamole. Then we were among a sellout crowd that witnessed a 65-61 nail-biting win over Allen, a game that was tied until the dying seconds. Along the way, we’ve been joined by alums from the 1970 through ’77 classes, my sister, Deborah (Class of ’70), among them. She grew so excited (or tired) hearing me talk about this team and these get-togethers that she finally said, “When are you going to take me to a game?” Deb’s been at the last three games, and she’ll be there again on Tuesday night when the Eagles face McKinney.
Bryan and Susie Jeanes have been there from the start. “This is our social life,” Susie, Class of 1976, said only half-jokingly during a game last month. Bryan and I were best friends in high school, and the three of us go back to elementary school. But as too often happens in life, we went down separate paths over the years. Now we’re breaking bread at least once a week and swapping stories about those days growing up in what was once Dallas’ northernmost suburb, back when Central Expressway was merely a four-lane bottleneck.
It’s a good life, and I’m soaking it all in. I had lost contact with too many other childhood friends after spending 25 years in the Northeast, and although I reconnected with some after returning home in 2015 (and attended our 40th reunion that fall), there was a lot of “we need to get together” talk with next to no followup. Then the pandemic robbed us of our 2020 reunion.
So what’s the attraction? I believe many of my classmates have ventured out with the sole intention of catching up with old friends. Then they witness the wizardry on the court and want to know when the next game is, whether they need to buy tickets in advance (they often do; we have a ticket-purchasing system in place), and if they should grab a couple of extra tickets just in case. A new face or three pops up at every game, sometimes unannounced. Those who can’t make it demand in-game text updates and a roll call of who’s in the building that night. (I sense a couple of budding romances are in the works, but I digress.)
Chuck Carona, our ninth-grade basketball coach at Richardson West Junior High and the best damn coach many of us ever had, joined us for dinner and a game. For the longest time, one grandmother, who shall remain nameless so as not to upset the family dynamic, was lukewarm about the notion of joining the gang, saying she couldn’t attend Tuesday games because it conflicted with the weekly slumber party she hosts for her twin infant grandsons. Then she and her husband showed up for a Friday game. The slumber party has been moved to Wednesday night. I’ve been documenting the proceedings, satisfying my writing gene in retirement by filing a dispatch and a few images on Facebook after every game.
We have these Eagles to thank for our newfound entertainment. They are a seasoned group led by a couple of stars who have bought into coach Kevin Lawson’s philosophy about teamwork and relationship-building. Arguably the most endearing aspect about this team and its success is that Cason Wallace and Rylan Griffen remained loyal to the home school when they had their pick of any number of prep basketball factories around the country. Those two, along with fellow senior guard Tre Howell, have been lacing up their sneakers together dating to their days at Westwood Junior High.
“At some point, the high school they attend is not as important as the experience,” Lawson says. “In the end, it’s about the relationships. These are relationship kids. They’re committed, and they’re very, very loyal. They’ve been told they should go to another school, that they should play other sports. Yet they all committed to Eagle basketball.”
An assistant for three years, Lawson took the helm just as Wallace, Griffen, and Howell were arriving on campus. “I knew they were going to be good, but this level we’re at now, I don’t think anybody had any idea,” Lawson says. “You could see how special they were in junior high, but it’s kind of hard to tell when you’re playing against junior high competition.”
Howell is a ball-hawking point guard who prides himself on his defense. Griffen, the sixth-ranked player in the state and a top-40 national recruit, can fill it up from deep and get to the rim, two attributes that should serve him well in the fall when he plays in Nate Oats’ system at Alabama. And Wallace? A Kentucky signee, he’s the top-ranked recruit in the state, a top-five player nationally. He’s a unique all-around talent who impacts the game in so many ways, and never was that talent more on display than in a tense win over Lake Highlands. Early in the second quarter, Wallace went to the bench after picking up his third foul. When he returned at the start of the second half, he played with the same aggressiveness and intensity while exhibiting remarkable control as he took over the game, scoring 33 points and punctuating his performance with a block of a late 3-point attempt. He departed the floor with a couple of seconds left to a thunderous ovation, having never picked up another foul.
Wallace was at it again on Friday night, delivering the go-ahead bucket with 3.4 seconds left on a driving layup that wasn’t your run-of-the-mill driving layup. The 6-foot-4 senior contorted his body, scooping the ball under the arm of a lurking shot-blocker. Then he made the defensive play that sealed it, deflecting a pass off of an opponent and out of bounds.
Defense is this team’s strength, so it’s no surprise to hear Lawson say, “We play defense every day.” He delivers those five words in a tone that underscores that he is, in fact, serious about playing defense, adding, “They know every day we come into practice that we’re going to play defense and they’re going to be held accountable. It’s all about effort. When you have Cason Wallace so bought into guarding on the defensive end, everybody else buys in. As Rylan has progressed as a player, he has bought in on the defensive end. Now he can shut people down. Tre loves defense. He loves that challenge.”
For all of the points these Eagles can score—and they racked up 97 against Grand Prairie, including 59 in the second half—it might be the defense that makes them so entertaining. Neophytes marvel at what we regulars have come to expect: an intensity and doggedness that often leads to a fast break and a dunk at the other end. Never mind finding a good shot. Getting into the offense can be an adventure for the opponent.
A former football coach, RHS principal Chris Choat appreciates the finer points of competition. But he’s as excited about the impact the team has had in the hallways and around town as he is by the results on the court. “I realize the power of sports and what it can do for a school and a community,” says Choat, who’s in his 12th year at RHS and his fifth year in charge. “We see that on a daily basis with this team.”
He’s also well aware these kids are squarely in the spotlight. “They’re very respectful,” he says. “They understand they’re the face of the school. They’re OK with that. And I’m OK with that.”
It helps that the Eagles have already been down this road. As the playoffs unfold, the players and coaching staff are drawing on their experiences from a year ago, when they reached the semifinals before losing to eventual state champion Duncanville.
What might make this season different? Lawson points to the impact of a couple of overnight trips, to tournaments in Houston and Memphis. “Last year’s group didn’t get to do that [because of the pandemic],” he says. “This year’s group has had more of an opportunity to bond. When you get away and you get into a hotel room and have a team meeting and talk about what Eagle basketball means to me, you bond through that stuff.”
The only loss of the season came in the championship game of the Memphis tournament, to Arkansas’ North Little Rock High, the eighth-ranked team in the country. That trip was about more than basketball. The itinerary included a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum. “This year’s group has just bonded,” Lawson says. “We’re close.”
They have bonded in the same way many of us in the Class of ’75 have reunited. Just as my friends and I are doing now, one day these kids will reunite and reminisce—about the pregame meals and the bus rides and those road trips, perhaps reflecting on the visit to the museum.
In the meantime, there is basketball to be played. And watched. Lawson is big on goals, and it should come as no surprise that this team has a lofty one. “Making it into the regionals [in 2020] was a pretty big thing for us because it hadn’t happened in forever,” he says. “Last year we made it to state. That was a big thing because it hadn’t happened in forever. Now our next step is a state championship. That’s our goal. That’s been our goal the whole season.”
The Eagles are three wins from reaching the Final Four in San Antonio. If they get to the Alamodome, we’ll be right there with them. What a ride that would be.
What a ride it’s already been.
Richardson’s next playoff game is tonight at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland. Tickets can be purchased here.