Across Massachusetts, student-athletes, their coaches, and their schools were left to wonder ‘what might have been’ when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 MIAA state finals for basketball and hockey.
While the situation is unprecedented, it isn’t the first time high school athletes have been left wanting more.
Consider the 1981-82 basketball season, which was played under the premise that there would be no games after the sectional rounds because of budgetary constraints.
In November 1980, state legislators passed Proposition 2½, reducing property taxes in towns across the state and forcing large cities to make substantial budget cuts when it went into effect in July 1981.
The response of the newly formed Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association was to cancel the late rounds of the state tournament in order to preserve the regular season and sectional tournaments.
That left powerhouse boys’ basketball programs Don Bosco and Madison Park with a share of the Eastern Mass. championship and a lifetime of good-natured trash talk in lieu of a potential showdown between the Division 1 North and South champions.
“It was a response to the hardship our members were experiencing,” recalled MIAA executive director Bill Gaine, who joined the association in 1979 as an associate executive director.
“It was a time of declining enrollments and you had this financial pinch, so we weren't going to organize things that put additional financial burdens on [member schools].”
To the players and coaches involved, an incomplete ending was disappointing but educational.
“At the time, I felt my kids weren’t getting a chance,” said former Don Bosco coach John Grady. “I’m sure money could’ve been found for two more games. But I never condemned anybody. It’s a life lesson.
"Things come along and are going to be unpleasant. That’s the whole purpose of high school sports — you learn to win and lose — and you wake up the next day and try to do better.”
Yet those who remember that era won’t hesitate to debate who would have come out on top in a clash of titans that never transpired.
Led by first-year coach Dennis Wilson, Madison Park had the advantage in terms of experience.
The Cardinals started upperclassmen Greg “Smooth” Simpson, Earl Taylor, Roscoe Patterson, Anthony Tippett, and Willie “Rocket Shoes” Smith, with Bobby “Quick” Williams coming off the bench.
Don Bosco, a Catholic school on Boston’s Tremont Street that closed in 1993, made up for a lack of experience with talent.
Grady started three sophomores in Steve Malloy (son of Boston legend Jimmy Walker), future Northeastern standout Johnny Williams, and 6-foot-8-inch monolith Chenault Terry. Running the show was junior point guard Shawn Hood, the school’s first 1,000-point scorer, and a brilliant basketball mind who went on to be a four-year letter winner at Cleveland State, where he launched his Division 1 coaching career, one that lasted three decades.
“It was the best team I’ve ever coached, and I’ve had some great teams,” said Wilson, who is still coaching at Madison Park, with five Boston City League titles, three sectional titles, and more than 400 wins. “I knew [the Bears] weren’t as strong and deep and experienced as us. They would beg to differ, but I know basketball aficionados would look at the variables and conclude that we would’ve went all the way.
"You never know the outcome of a game, and yes, it does [bother me] to this day.”
It’s unknown where the game would have been held, but given the star power on both sides and the community connections between the players, the showdown assuredly would have drawn a standing-room-only crowd.
So, why did the state association cancel an event that may have brought in extensive revenue?
Since the decision was made uniformly across all sports prior to the school year, the MIAA decided to give equal treatment to outdoor events that didn't collect any ticket revenue, and huge draws such as basketball.
And girls’ basketball was left in limbo, as well, with the Globe’s 1981-82 Player of the Year, Joanie Powers, unable to lead her Weymouth North squad against Evelyn Oquendo and Salem in a potential D1 state final.
The following winter, Don Bosco once again won its final game, an EMass final against Brookline at UMass Boston. But the school shared the Division 1 state title with Springfield Commerce, and it was not until the 1983-84 season that the MIAA returned to a format in which the winner of the West and Central sections played the EMass champion in a true state final.
Bosco fell to Cambridge in the 1984 D1 North sectional, leaving an all-time team with a 37-game winning streak, which was once ranked seventh nationally, without a true state title.
In the aftermath of the budget crisis, the MIAA enacted several influential changes including a pay-to-play initiative for member schools, removing restrictions on part-time coaches, and expanding the state tournament.
“It was the beginning of many, many changes,” said Gaine. “It was the point where it all went forward into many different directions.”
Leo Papile, the founder of the Boston Amateur Basketball Club AAU program and a former scout for the Celtics, remembers the 1981-82 season as part of a golden age for Boston high school basketball.
He speculated that a game between Don Bosco and Madison Park could have drawn 10,000 fans if it was held at Boston Garden, but understood why the MIAA was unable to commit to more rounds.
“It was bigger than the MIAA because being a state agency, they had a budget, and their budget was sliced drastically,” said Papile. “Their staff and ability to govern was sliced drastically. They were the victim of a political movement.”
Many of the players on those Don Bosco and Madison Park teams were able to put their disappointment behind them and go on to successful careers as athletes and professionals.
Those students who had their chance at a state championship upended this winter will have to draw similar lessons, albeit from a considerably more serious situation.
“It’s a bitter pill for kids to swallow," said Papile, "But it’s a teaching moment for everyone, from the NBA on down.
“It’s a time for reflection. Sometimes I think all of us [overemphasize] the value of sports in society. When something like this happens, it’s a wake-up call for everyone that sport is a privilege.”