The scene has replayed countless times for Mo’Quez Dickens. The images in his mind are still vivid; he and Caval Haylett arguing over who would eat the last slice of pizza.
It was the most pressing issue in their world at the time.
Brian Laffin, then the head coach of the Poughkeepsie High School boys basketball team, had brought his players to a local pizzeria last winter and the teenagers dug in.
Days later on March 10, Haylett would be dead at age 18, struck in the head by a bullet that police believe wasn’t intended for him. The senior would have graduated in June.
“At the time, all we were worried about was pizza, wings and soda,” Dickens said. “Then all of a sudden, he’s gone. Everything got real, fast.”
The tragic death began what was a tumultuous offseason for the Pioneers, which continued with the unexpected dismissal of Laffin, their longtime coach, in July. And, in recent weeks, both Dickens and teammate Corey Simmons have lost grandmothers — Ester King and Patricia Simmons, respectively.
The emotional toll of the past nine months has been severe for the Pioneers, they said, but basketball offers temporary refuge and a new season has begun as it does every year.
“It’s been a lot to go through, but it’s a relief to be back, and now we have something more to play for,” said Dickens, a senior guard. “More than just playing for yourself and your teammates, you know there’s someone looking down that you want to make proud.”
The community mourned Haylett’s passing, remembered him as an affable youngster and an honor roll student, and in the months after, bewailed the violence that cut down a kid who seemingly had a promising future.
Former teammates — friends — continue to grieve. The healing process is ongoing, Simmons said, but the memories still are painful.
“He was about to get out of here and do good things,” Simmons, a senior, said. “Then he gets killed after an all-star game.”
Laffin, beloved by his players, had accrued close to 300 wins in 16 seasons and led Poughkeepsie to a Section 1 Class A championship in 2013. He guided them to the Section 9 Class A final in February.
Parents, community members and rival coaches lashed out via social media. The players still speak fondly of Laffin and Dickens called him a “smart coach and a cool guy.”
Poughkeepsie Athletic Director Bob Murphy, himself a decorated basketball coach at Woodlands, a Section 1 school, said then that he believed the coaching position could be upgraded. In August, Poughkeepsie filled the vacancy by hiring Jerome Elting, a venerated former star player at the high school who works security in the district.
Elting had worked for years as an assistant for Murphy at Woodlands High School in Westchester.
With all those elements and factors blended, what effect did it have on the players? Where does the team stand in December?
“We’re doing better now,” said Simmons, a 6-foot-7 center. “I was antsy to start practice. Being back on the court is kind of an escape from it, a way to get our minds off what’s gone on.”
Poughkeepsie dedicated a memorial to Haylett in its gymnasium: a blue plaque bearing his No. 5 that rests high on the wall above the entrance.
“I don’t think (that number) will be worn again in this program,” Elting said.
Children are often resilient and move on more easily from sadness than adults, Murphy said, but Haylett “will always be in our hearts.”
Before the Pioneers tipped off the season opener at home against Franklin D. Roosevelt last Friday, several players said a prayer and pointed to the sky in tribute to Haylett.
“We loved him,” Simmons said. “Thinking of him should be a reminder to us to never take anything for granted and keep fighting.”
Poughkeepsie lost that game, 66-65, after rallying from an 11-point deficit in the second half. Simmons (19 points) banked a layup that tied it with five seconds remaining, but Nowah Rosado was fouled on a shot with 0.8 seconds left and hit a winning free throw.
“I thought they were disorganized at times, trying too hard to be organized and it led to some mistakes,” said Murphy, who was in attendance. “They did a great job coming back. There are new things being implemented and they’re still learning as they go, but I think the season looks bright.”
The Pioneers rebounded on Saturday to beat Albany High School, 63-46, behind Marvin Lunsford’s 21 points. Tremell Reaves added 11 points.
Though the players acknowledged they miss Laffin, they lauded Elting’s acumen and approach. Dickens said the two share several similarities, but “Coach Elting is on us more. He’s really strict, but he’s a good motivator.”
He speaks to the players sternly, with a booming voice, and becomes animated during games.
“He yells a lot, but it’s not to break you down, but to make sure you get it and it stays with you,” Simmons said. “He’s good at teaching the game, so that’s helped with our transition to a new coach. He’s already taught me moves in the post that I didn’t know.”
As well, they said, Elting having grown up in the area is a benefit in relating to the players and parents.
“Getting to coach at my alma mater is a pleasure,” Elting said. “I feel like I’m servicing the community.”
He, too, remembered Haylett as a “very personable individual,” though he never coached him. The team, he said, wants to “put it on the line” to honor their fallen friend.
The Pioneers have a relatively inexperienced squad now, with a roster comprised heavily of sophomores and juniors. Elting praised the upside of the youngsters including Lunsford, Niyal Goins and Jamik Carter.
But this is somewhat of a rebuilding season, he warned, asking that it not be judged “until the end of January, as we’re entering sectionals.”
Progress will be measured in daily increments. Each day, they hope, things will be a little easier, a little brighter. On the court, too.
“We have to fight to make it back to that championship game and win,” Dickens said. “It won’t come easy, so we have to fight through. We have to do our best to make him proud.”
Stephen Haynes: email@example.com, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4
Poughkeepsie boys basketball
Dec. 9: at Middletown, 7 p.m.
Dec. 14: vs. Marlboro, 6 p.m.
Dec. 16-17: Terrence Wright Memorial Tournament at Beacon