NEW BRITAIN - The New Britain boys basketball team’s road to a state championship appearance began long before its 71-47 win over E.O. Smith in the first round of the Division II state tournament 10 days ago.
In fact, the road was paved along cracked concrete in a New Britain neighborhood more than 10 years ago, when a group of local kids began shooting baskets in the backyard.
The group of children is the same one that will take the floor Sunday night at Mohegan Sun Arena, looking to lead the Hurricanes to their first state championship in 69 years, since 1950. New Britain’s core of upperclassmen has shared the same basketball court for over a decade, from the driveway to the floor at New Britain High School to the court at North Haven High School, where they celebrated the program’s first state semifinals win in 17 years.
But as the venues changed throughout the years, the group’s ultimate goal never did.
“We’ve basically been together for 18 years, basically our whole lives,” senior Kaiyon Gunn said. “We’ve always dreamed of playing together for a state championship. We would always practice in the backyard and talk about how we were going to make it one day, and now here we are.”
Gunn is one of a large band of Hurricanes who have dreamed of playing for a state title since they watched past New Britain greats like Mike Robinson, who went on to play in the ACC for the University of Miami, and Craven Johnson, who joined the 1,000-point club back in 2014. While those two local legends left a lasting mark on the program, neither reached the precipice of where this current group finds itself: one win away from bringing a title to the Hardware City.
“When we were younger, New Britain High had great players,” senior Isaiah Jenkins said. “Craven, Mike Robinson, we always looked up to them. We always told ourselves that we would be just like them. Now we’ve exceeded expectations, and we have to stay together and win just one more.”
Sunday’s championship game will likely be the last time Jenkins and Gunn take the floor together with fellow seniors Maurice Turner, Dashawn Clark, Luis Cartagena, Bryan Thompson, Shamaah Charles, Malik Shode and David Quinones, ending a long stretch of camaraderie that was built through years of playing together in AAU basketball, Pop Warner football and youth baseball. Their bonds extended beyond the hardwood, but always came back to basketball.
“The chemistry is there,” Clark said. “We’re like a brotherhood.”
Ironically, the brotherhood started as a rivalry, when separate members of the tight-knit group would face off in youth basketball before joining forces once the kids reached middle school.
“We all grouped up in AAU in sixth grade and that’s really where it all began,” Charles said. “We’ve been playing together and dreaming of this for a long time. Now that we’re actually here, it feels great.”
No longer wearing different uniforms, the Hurricanes have found success at the state level thanks to a fast pace of play that has left opponents dizzy and delirious. The team has thrived with a speed they have no issue playing with, since they always seem to know where each other will be on the floor. After playing together for almost a decade, ball movement and anticipating a teammate’s move becomes muscle memory.
“We trust each other,” Thompson said. “We have that bond. We always know where someone’s spot is on the court.”
The level of chemistry has made things easier on head coach Kurt Reis, who has found the ideal group to play in his system of tough defense and maximizing fast-break opportunities.
“It’s a special group of kids,” Reis said. “They’ve been together for so long, through middle school and high school. They’ve been through it all.”
Sunday will mark one last journey for the graduating Hurricanes, who are not satisfied with their current standing. Just reaching the state championship was not the topic of discussion when they were shooting around in the driveway 10 years ago. They talked about winning it all, and as long as they do what they’ve been doing together since they were seven years old, they like their odds.
“As long as we keep sticking together and playing as a team, we have a good chance of winning.” Turner said.
Playing together shouldn’t be too difficult for New Britain. The players been doing that since they were old enough to shoot a basketball.