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High School Basketball State Tournament

March 19th, 2018

The Gainesville Red Elephants played in the boy’s basketball state championship game on March 9th at Georgia Tech, and my fifteen-year-old daughter Mia went to the game with her friends. I casually mentioned to her that I played in the same building and tournament thirty- years ago. She looked amazed and said “ thirty years”? She was taken aback and for a brief second so was I at the thought of that much time passing by in my life. Mia was not at all interested in hearing more of my story, but I forced her to listen before she could leave the house.

Gainesville VS. Langston Hughes at Georgia Tech.

My dad, John N. Lilly II, became a principal at Jonesboro High School in 1976 when I was six years old. My Friday nights were to become any Jonesboro sporting event that was taking place that night, and I absolutely loved it. I dreamed of Jonesboro winning a championship in something, so I could go about bragging to my friends. During this time my dad would also take me to Georgia Tech to watch the state championships in basketball. There would be four games a night with different schools from all over the state. I was mesmerized by the various school’s fans, traditions, and passions. I made up my mind I was going to lead Jonesboro to the state championship when I got to high school.

I entered Jonesboro in 1986 at a sophomore because we only had three grades at that time for high school. I made the varsity basketball team as a skinny bench warmer. We did not even come close to making the state tournament that year. In 1987 I became a starter early in the year when a young man on the team failed home economics and P.E. class the first quarter. We were one game away from my dream come true when we lost to Morrow High School in the semi-finals of the region tournament. That loss was and still is a crushing blow to my soul. The next day I re-dedicated myself to making the state tournament during my senior year.

I was very proud that I was a Jonesboro Cardinal!

The 1988 basketball season was an up and down season, but we finished the year on a ten game win streak and were seeded third in the region tournament. We won our first game over Newnan easily. However, up next was the old enemy Morrow High School. The Morrow game became very intriguing and stressful when Griffin beat North Clayton in the first game of the night. Griffin was the region regular season champ and was already in the state championship tournament. So, since they were already in the championship game of the region, the other finalist would make the state tournament. I was one game away from the dream. Long story short we beat Morrow on a made free throw by me to win the game. We lost the championship game to Griffin the next night, so we were the number two seed out of region 6 AAAA in the state tournament! I admit I left school early, just left, which you could not do back then to buy an AJC paper. I opened the sports section of the high school basketball section, and there it was! Cedar Shoals VS Jonesboro at Georgia Tech in the first round of the tournament! We, as a team, had done it.

Playing at Georgia Tech against a superior Cedar Shoals team.

No team from Jonesboro High School had ever played in the state tournament. So, our victory was met with some minor celebration around town and in the papers. I could not believe we were going to have a chance to win a championship. We watched a lot of film on Cedar Shoals, and we realized our work was cut out for us. I looked past the doubters and kept thinking we could win it all. The night of the game was electric for the team and our fans.  The Cardinals were going to pull off the upset of the night! Well, the game did not go so good for us. We played a tight first quarter, got behind a little in the second quarter, and were then blown out in the second half.  Cedar Shoals was well coached and a much better team that night. The game went by so fast, and it was over just as soon as it started in my mind. We just could not keep up with the much faster and more talented team from Athens. In the end, we lost by 32 points! That made me feel like we did not even belong in the tournament in the first place.  I did not come out of my room the rest of the weekend because I felt like such a failure. I get a little upset when I think about all of this even now.

The dream was over! It took so long to get there, and it ended badly.

A personal highlight, but not enough to take away the terrible sting of defeat.

P.S. I had to post this because no one would believe me without proof.

So, after telling all of this to Mia, she said “ you lost by 32 points? You were terrible”! I was trying to tie a personal story of mine with the story she was going to make in her life that night. It is normal for kids to not care about anything their parents achieved. I get that completely. I even get that we were terrible on that night thirty years ago. What I don’t understand is how I still feel sick about that loss at forty-eight years old! I had a dream, and I did not achieve that dream. I worked hard and failed. So, I wish I had never even brought this up to Mia since it made me feel so awful for a day or two! She has already forgotten this story, and I will never be able to get it out of my mind.

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