The tragic death of Poughkeepsie’s Caval Haylett last year offered to the basketball community — the area as a whole — a brutal reminder of life’s sometimes harsh reality.
Haylett was shot on March 9, 2016, hours after a stellar performance in the Exceptional Senior all-star high school basketball game. Police believe he was an innocent bystander caught in a crossfire that erupted on Winnikee Avenue that night, and he died the following day.
Haylett’s memory, and the lesson learned that night, was at the forefront of players’ minds on Monday for this year’s Exceptional Senior game, an otherwise lighthearted affair that featured myriad highlight-worthy plays.
“You learn that nothing can be taken for granted,” said Poughkeepsie’s Mo’Quez Dickens. “You learn that tomorrow isn’t promised, and you have to appreciate everything and every moment.”
Dickens and Corey Simmons, another of Haylett’s former teammates, took the court with a slew of senior standouts for this showcase, hosted at Our Lady of Lourdes High School. Typically, attention would be focused only on this being the last scholastic basketball game many of these young men will play. But that tragedy has added perspective.
“You definitely appreciate everything a little more,” said Simmons, who committed to play college football at Hobart & William Smith. “I still think back to that day, hearing the news, and it’s sad. But just thinking of Caval, it’s a reminder to persevere and keep fighting.”
Haylett, who died at age 18, had been named MVP of the game last season after scoring 21 points.
The basketball season ended for local teams on Sunday, when the Lourdes boys lost in the Class A state championship game. Poughkeepsie had fallen to Lourdes in a regional final, after capturing the Section 9 championship in an overtime thriller against Goshen.
The results of this exhibition mattered little. But moments like these, a semblance of normalcy, are what the community has longed for after enduring an emotional gamut.
“This was all about having fun and making sure everybody had a good time,” said Alex Benson, who will play football at Pace University. “It’s great to get on the court again with some of the guys I grew up playing with in (youth leagues). You get to be teammates with some of the guys you’re rivals with. It’s cool.”
For all intents and purposes, the game was a glorified full-court slam dunk contest. But it’s what the players wanted, and it was to the spectators’ delight.
‘Everybody wanted to show out’
The game opened with Lourdes’ 6-foot-5 center James Anozie draining a 3-pointer from the left wing and laughing as he jogged back up court. The public-address announcer then quipped, “That’s the first time the big man has been allowed to shoot a 3 in the presence of (Lourdes head coach) Jim Santoro.”
The 5-foot-11 Benson threw down a tomahawk dunk that brought the crowd to its feet, then later attempted a between-the-legs slam. Arlington’s Zac Dingee shot a backwards half-court three at the halftime buzzer, and the shot just rolled off the rim. Spackenkill’s Ezequiel De La Cruz had a number of highlight-worthy plays. And the audience exploded when Lourdes guard Kevin Townes threw down an alley-oop from Dickens.
Townes and Anozie showed no evidence of having suffered a crushing loss in the state final a day earlier. Instead, they focused only on entertaining themselves and drawing applause.
“We had the opportunity,” Benson said, “so everybody wanted to show out.”
Oh, and the score, if anyone was wondering: The Blue team, coached by Spackenkill’s Tom Bell, defeated the Orange team, 94-83. Stats weren’t kept for this contest, nor was there a game MVP named. Nobody seemed to mind.
Several players, coaches and teams were honored during a halftime ceremony that included an awards presentation. Anozie was voted the Dutchess County Basketball Coaches Association Player of the Year. Zaahir Woody of Roy C. Ketcham was named large schools MVP, and Spackenkill’s Camron Abalos was the small schools MVP. Bell was voted Coach of the Year.
Rasheed Anderson of Franklin D. Roosevelt High School received the Duane Davis Coaches Scholarship award, which recognizes an athlete who “demonstrates sportsmanship, leadership and good character.”
Representatives from Lourdes, Millbrook and Spackenkill, the boys basketball teams that won section titles, were brought to center court and recognized.
“This was great,” Santoro said. “Nights like this, it’s all about having a good time and celebrating the season. We all had fun.”
Well after the game ended, even with the lights turned off in the gym, several players (and spectators) remained, laughing and chatting. Some, even in street clothes, were attempting dunks in the dark.
The kind of merriment Poughkeepsie has yearned for.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with as a parent, seeing my son standing next to his friend’s casket,” said Shawn Simmons, Corey Simmons’ father. “These kids, this community, has been through so much, so we’re grateful for these good times.”
Stephen Haynes: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4