NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk plays at Brien McMahon at 7 p.m. Friday in the annual battle for boys basketball bragging rights. But that is all that has been at stake for most of the last 25 years.
But three times between 1980 and 1987, the Bears and Senators played for the league title — and Norwalk won twice. They even squared off for the Class LL championship in 1983, with McMahon winning, 73-65.
Recently, though, neither team has made a run in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference tournament. McMahon last played in a state title game in 1986, Norwalk in 1998. The Bears last won a state title in 1996; the Senators in 1983. Norwalk also owns the last league title (1998) for either school.
Coaches and youth league directors believe several factors are to blame for the city’s decline as a basketball power: the three-point shot, players who transfer to private schools, coaching instability, improvement by other towns and sports specialization.
Good news, though: Coach Tom Keyes at Norwalk and Coach Ken Dustin at McMahon are committed to improving. “Hopefully Tom and his team are successful, and hopefully we’re successful,’’ Dustin said. “But it’s not all about winning for us, either. We want to build young men that can go out and contribute in society.”
Ralph King, who coached the last McMahon team to win a state championship, said the game has changed since the 1980s. “The biggest change is the three-point shot came in,’’ he said. “In my last season we had the three-point shot and guys were hoisting shots all over the place. The big man became less important.”
Few players left Norwalk’s programs in the 1980s to attend private school. But players from Norwalk now are at King in Stamford, Notre Dame of Fairfield, Fairfield Prep and Kolbe-Cathedral in Bridgeport. In previous years, players have gone to Trinity Catholic in Stamford, St. Luke’s in New Canaan, Greens Farms Academy and even boarding schools.
“It’s hard to keep them home,’’ said Mike McElveen, who has been the director of the Carver Center basketball programs since 2005. “Some of them want to go away.”
Keyes and Dustin are working with the Norwalk Youth Basketball Association and the Carver Center, the two primary feeder programs into the high schools. They hope to encourage players to stay at home.
“I’m optimistic on the future of basketball in Norwalk,’’ said Matt McQuillen, director of the NYBA. “We have two very good coaches who are doing all the right things to build successful programs. There are two strong feeder programs, each working hard to deliver well-rounded student/athletes to our high schools. And, most importantly, there are lots of talented young players in town who love the game.”
But other communities are improving in basketball. “The FCIAC is a much more competitive basketball league today than it was in the past,’’ he said.
Many athletes are also focusing on one sport, even if basketball players are not. “Talking to coaches outside of Norwalk, their guys play year-round,’’ McElveen said. “Our guys play a lot of different sports. They need to play year-round.”
Keyes and Dustin could put the city back on the basketball map even though both teams have struggled recently. Norwalk went 4-16 in 2010-11, and McMahon was 5-16 last year. McMahon has had two winning seasons since 2005. Norwalk has not had one.
But Norwalk is considered a league contender this year. Its best players include sophomores Roy Kane and Jeremy Linton, who transferred to Norwalk after a year at Trinity. Both were members of successful Carver Center teams. Their Carver teammate, Roy Hinton, will be a starter at McMahon. “I think it’s possible that Norwalk could be really good next year,’’ McElveen said.
The dream is for a Norwalk-McMahon game to be played for the league championship before a packed house at a neutral site. It has happened before, but can it happen again?