NEW BRITAIN – Kurt Reis, head coach of the New Britain boys basketball team for the last three years, admittedly finds himself caught up in a world of what-ifs when it comes to the program he currently leads.
The Hurricanes have seen plenty of success in Reis’ tenure, winning seven state tournament games over three winning seasons, highlighted by a run to the state final last year, marking the programs’ first state championship appearance since 2002. But Reis has a tendency to wonder how much greater the program’s success would be if all of New Britain’s local talent stayed local and competed for the high school.
“I’ve done my homework, and I know which New Britain kids are at which schools, and if those kids were at the high school, what would the program look like?” Reis said. “Granted, we still have talent to compete at a high level, but there are a lot of other choices nowadays.”
Those alternate options include prep and academy schools that local talents flock to instead of their nearby high schools, especially in recent years. Last year, the Newington boys basketball team lost all-conference forward Mason Romano to Winchendon School, a prep school in Massachusetts, and New Britain has suffered some of its own losses, even after going 42-18 over the last three regular seasons and 7-3 in state tournament competition.
But in spite of recent trends that see some of the area’s most talented players leaving for prep schools, New Britain has experienced a shift in a more favorable direction in recent years. In Reis’ tenure, three key players have transferred to New Britain, with Bryan Thompson, Tahmeen Dupree and Justice Carter all returning to play in the Hardware City, where they were born and raised. There is still a lot of work to do to keep all local talent in the local area, but these three recent returnees at least give Reis a positive outlook that last year’s run to Mohegan Sun doesn’t have to be an anomaly.
“I think what we did last year was a testament to New Britain,” Reis said. “If all the kids that grew up in New Britain played for New Britain High, they would be competing for one of the premiere high school programs in the state.”
REBUILDING A CONTENDER
The Hurricanes’ memorable run in 2019 could have looked a lot different had it not been for two key contributors deciding to come, or come back, to New Britain. Thompson, one of Reis’ top contributors off the bench, had attended University in Hartford for two and a half years, but transportation had become a hassle, and Thompson began feeling a desire to stick close to home and represent that home when he was one the court, along with a core group of fellow seniors that he shared the floor with in youth basketball.
“We all grew up together,” Thompson said. “There were 10 seniors, and we all came up together. It was a goal to make the city happy. For us, making it all the way to the championship game means something to all of us and the people of New Britain. It hadn’t happened in a long time. It took me awhile to think about it, but I felt like it could be our year to do something big. That was one of the reasons I transferred.”
Thompson and the Hurricanes achieved that goal of doing something big, all while embodying one of the main rallying cries for local high schools when preaching for kids to stay put and play for their city. Prep schools may be part of a new wave of exposure for some, but for New Britain, a season like 2019 was so special particularly because of those who got to share in the experience.
“I don’t think you can replace the relationship piece,” Reis said. “Most of these kids, and it’s gotta be close to 100 percent, know each other since middle school, and they played with each other growing up. Then when it’s eighth or ninth grade, they make a decision to leave that group.”
Dupree made that decision after his sophomore season, when the Hurricanes lost to Immaculate, the eventual state champion, in the Division II quarterfinals. Dupree transferred to Sacred Heart in Waterbury prior to his junior season, and ironically, Thompson was in the stands for what was believed to be Dupree’s last game as a Hurricane when New Britain fell 71-56 to Immaculate. That game sparked Thompson’s interest to help the Hurricanes complete their quest for a state title.
“Me and Tahmeen are like brothers,” Thompson said. “I’ve known him since we were young. When I was at University, and New Britain was playing Immaculate, they lost that game and I saw how sad the seniors were. That touched me, because I could be in that position, and if I transferred I could help the team be in that position and even get to Mohegan and win a ring.”
GETTING THE BAND TOGETHER
Thompson and Dupree, along with the rest of the Hurricanes’ core of upperclassmen, had talked about winning a state championship together since they were kids, shooting hoops outside in the driveway. With Dupree gone, that vision appeared blurred if not completely eliminated, but he wouldn’t be gone long. Dupree wound up not playing in a game with the Hearts, transferring back just before his junior season began, representing New Britain’s only non-senior starter during a year in which he was named to the all-conference team.
“I just missed the atmosphere,” said Dupree, the most recent member of the school’s 1,000-point club. “The school I went to, it made me feel like I needed them to be successful and to win. I didn’t like feeling like that. I came back and realized I could win here too.”
With Dupree and Thompson, the Hurricanes had their most successful season in nearly two decades, while Carter completed his sophomore season at Sacred Heart, where Dupree had recently left. The two got together after New Britain’s run to the state final and Carter decided to follow in Dupree’s footsteps and come back to his native city and play at his local high school, going against the grain of many other student-athletes in recent years.
“We talked about how our seasons went and how we wanted to play with each other again, so I decided to transfer,” Carter said. “I came because I felt like it was a better place for me. I wanted to play for my city, and a lot of people I know are over there.”
Carter and Dupree represented the Hurricanes’ only two all-conference selections this season, and helped lead New Britain to a first-round win over Wilton before the Division I state tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Still, it capped a season in which New Britain had once again posted a winning record, played against two teams who were at the time ranked No. 1 in the state, per GameTimeCT’s weekly poll, and also squared up against Bristol Central’s Donovan Clingan - who has multiple Division-I offers - twice in the same season.
That kind of exposure helped Carter and his father Jerry Carter (a former co-captain of the New Britain boys basketball team) realize that New Britain had similar opportunities as prep and academy schools may have.
“The big choice as a father was because [Justice] played so well as a freshman, I wanted to make sure he got the right exposure,” Jerry said. “I was already thinking about a transfer to New Britain, but once New Britain moved up to Division I, it was like a no-brainer. It was an easy choice. I met Kurt and talked to him and saw the way he coached last year. I saw he gave everybody a fair shot and that’s all I wanted for Justice.”
FIGHTING TO CHANGE THE TIDE
Thompson, Dupree and Justice provided a refreshing change of pace for Reis, but the battle continues, and so do those what-ifs.
“Obviously it helps,” Reis said of his recent transfers that have arrived or returned since he took over as head coach. “But with Bryan Thompson, how beneficial would it have been for the program if he was a four-year guy? Same with Justice. I think there’s a perception about the high school, and obviously there’s a lot of kids there, but sometimes the grass isn’t always greener. I think if there weren’t as many kids leaving, all of the sports programs would benefit. In different sports, one or two girls or boys makes a big difference. In football you have 11 guys on the field, and losing even two or three guys hurts as well.”
So, how can the rate of transfers be slowed, or how can more stories like Justice, Dupree and Thompson’s be replicated? Reis has been working on those measures since he arrived in the Hardware City, organizing youth clinics at the high school and forming relationships at an early age. Now, he has more ammo at his side in the form of sustained program success and recent history of kids that have joined the team rather than leave.
“That’s why having the clinics will be beneficial, to build relationships with the kids and parents,” Reis said. “You’re not going to keep everybody, but maybe it’s the deciding factor between staying and going.”
For those that did choose to stay or come back, the results reinforced those decisions. Now the hope is other New Britain kids take that into consideration before making their own decisions on where to play high school basketball.
“When I transferred to New Britain, it was a great decision for me,” Justice said. “I got the playing time I wanted and the exposure I needed at the time. When I got the playing time I deserved, I realized I could play with anybody and so could my team, and all this prep school stuff isn’t really what it is.”
Reis acknowledges the potential for more exposure at prep and academy schools, but also notes the city’s potential to create that same exposure if everyone stayed put. Those that have come to play for him have come to realize it as well. Helping local kids recognize that belief is where the real work lies, but those around New Britain basketball hope potential transfers see the collective talent the city produces, and the success they could have if they were to stick together.
“I think a lot of kids who are still at other schools are looking and saying that they should come back home too,” Jerry said. “Honestly, if those kids came back home, New Britain would be one of the top teams in the state.”