Anthony Tucker and Carlos Thomas sat on the bench alongside each another and watched in exhaustion as a crowd of people hugged, congratulated and praised teammate Lauran Queen. Queen had just made a 20-foot jump shot at the buzzer to give McKinley a 60-58 come-from-behind victory over Spingarn.
Standing next to Tucker and Thomas was sophomore teammate Orlando Vega, who did not play because of personal reasons. Freshly dressed like a million bucks, wearing gray Bally shoes and argyle socks, Vega, posing as a coach, adjusted his Kangol and cleared his throat.
"That's why I didn't play today," said Vega. "Couldn't handle the attention. My head got too big. So Coach (Charles) Perry made me dress up and sit on the bench and act as his assistant.
"Now these two guys," continued Vega, pointing at Tucker and Thomas, "are disciplined, patient and know how to handle the limelight. Look how calm they appear."
It was one of the few times that Tucker and Thomas were not at the center of attention after a victory. "Maturity. They're growing up," said Vega. "They've experienced this before."
Indeed. Considered among the most sought-after players in the city, Tucker and Thomas, or Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, take your pick, have helped McKinley to a 10-2 overall record, 4-1 in the Interhigh. The Trainers have won two tournament championships and earned a No. 7 ranking, feats which become more impressive after realizing McKinley has already surpassed the number of league victories it accumulated in the last two years.
"It's hard keeping a lid on the players' heads when up in the stands during the game (Georgetown Coach) John Thompson, (Maryland Coach) Charles G. Driesell and others are constantly in attendance. That creates a lot confusion," said Perry. "Every day, they (Thomas and Tucker) joke about, 'When is mail call?' They are being recruited by almost every school, but neither has really sat down and made a decision."
While Tucker and Thomas' egos have remained deflated despite all the media attention accorded them this winter, their basketball skills continue to blossom.
With two outstanding years, Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 185 pound guard, has achieved the reputation as one of the area's finest players. Last season he played in the shadow of Spingarn's All-Met Sherman Douglas and Cardozo's All-Met Earl Moore, but this winter, the spotlight is shining brightly on him.
His play in the three-day William Emsley Invitational at Buffalo earlier this season earned him the most valuable player award. He accumulated 55 points in two victories, including a 26-point performance in the title game. In addition, he is one of the league's top scorers with a 17.7 average. He had back-to-back games of 30 or more points, scoring 34 points against Carroll and 30 at Northwestern.
"He's matured a lot, cut down on his errors and is a smarter player," said Perry. "He has discipline and patience to go along with his basketball talents."
Tucker, a forward-center, has been equally effective. Living up to his preseason publicity, (rated as the 13th best junior in the country by Basketball Weekly), Tucker proved his credibility in the Mount Vernon holiday tournament.
Listed at 6-7, 195 pounds, he averaged better than 20 points in victories over Carroll, Herndon and Mount Vernon to earn MVP honors. He is also the team's leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds.
"It's great to have a player like Thomas on the team because defenses don't sag in on you," said Tucker. "If they key on me, then I just get the ball back out to Thomas."
"If I'm hitting the long jumper with consistency, then that usually leaves Tucker open for the dunk," said Thomas. "But because of Tucker's presence in the painted area, I'm usually left open for the jump shot. Right now, I'm in a shooting slump, but that hasn't stopped Tucker from dominating inside and we do have a supporting cast. Against Spingarn, that was proven."
Although Thomas and Tucker were ineffective offensively against Spingarn, scoring 12 and 16 points, respectively, well below their season averages, both remained productive in other areas.
Trailing the Green Wave by 11 points in the final three minutes, Tucker blocked two shots and had three offensive rebounds. Thomas stole the ball five times and assisted on three baskets. In all, they held Spingarn to three fourth-quarter points. Queen took up the scoring slack with a season-high 26 points that included the game-winning basket.