When Isaac tried to break Wilt's record

Posted: August 10, 2011

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS later, Reggie Isaac offers no exact thoughts on one specific matter.

All things considered, but especially because of his status as perhaps (definitely?) the best player in world history, is basketball better off that Wilt Chamberlain still holds Philly's male record for most points scored in a high school game?

"I never thought about that," Isaac said recently. "Honestly, as I get older, I just think about being happy that I had the chance to break it.

"Lots of high school players can't tell a story like this one. I'm glad I can."

Infrequently, albeit. Hardly ever, in fact.

On Feb. 20, 1986, as part of an orchestrated effort by his retiring coach, John Dougherty, to smash Chamberlain's 90-point record, accomplished for Overbrook vs. Roxborough in 1955, Isaac launched all but eight of his team's 77 field-goal attempts and rang up 84 points as John Bartram thumped visiting William Bodine, 99-69, in a Public League regular-season finale.

Isaac, who has long lived in the area (Baltimore) where he starred in college (Coppin State), is married with three children. The oldest, son Ronell, 14, is now making basketball headway.

"He's heard bits and pieces about [the 84-point game]," Isaac said, "but that's from other people. I don't bring it up. I haven't sat him down to tell him the complete story."

That's probably a good thing. There are significant parts Reggie Isaac can't remember, either at all or correctly, and it wasn't until recently, during an interview with the Daily News, that he was even informed of the complete reason the whole scenario unfolded.

That breakdown - the first time he has offered it publicly - came from Dougherty, who's now 85 and still energetic, and who remains a frequent spectator at high school games all over the city.

The day of the outburst, Dougherty said he'd come up with the idea of Reggie Isaac Day to honor the 6-2 senior guard's dedication.

"Reggie has put the most into our program," he said. "We felt he deserved a day like this."

Last week, Dougherty was more specific.

"I didn't mention this at the time," he said, "but all of that came out of our William Penn game. We still had a chance for the playoffs, but several of our guys thought it was more important to sit on a bus and hold hands with their girlfriends and to go the Poconos for the senior class trip.

"Reggie stayed loyal to us. He didn't make that trip. I felt he should be rewarded."

When that scenario was presented to Isaac, a 6-second period of silence was followed by a shell-shocked: "I really don't remember that. At all. I don't remember guys missing the Penn game. Or the class-trip thing. That's new."

He added: "It's definitely possible, though. Coach Dougherty was big on discipline. That was his biggest thing: Follow his rules. I definitely was loyal to Doc's program. I never missed a practice. Played in all the games."

A check of box scores from Bartram's 1985-86 season shows two starters indeed were missing for the game vs. Penn. Nevertheless, the Braves won that one, 72-66, and did make the playoffs despite a 6-7 record. They then fell to Simon Gratz, 70-58, in the round-of-16.

Shortly after the 84-pointer, rumors began to circulate that Dougherty primarily had wanted to embarrass Bodine's coach, Ralph Rice, who'd drawn the ire of fellow coaches in the 1980-81 school year (he was Penn's boss then) by crossing picket lines during a teachers strike.

While he acknowledges he "didn't have the greatest respect for Rice," Dougherty says those rumors are false.

Now, as then, Dougherty would bristle at anyone who'd contend the psyche of Bodine's players was irreversibly damaged.

"That was [almost] the closest game they played all year," he said. "People forget that. Most games, they got massacred. This one was competitive [at 68-58] through three quarters. Other teams did things to them far worse than what we did."

One of Bodine's players that day was sophomore Monte Ross, who's now the head coach at the University of Delaware.

Ask him about Reggie Isaac Day and watch him almost turn cartwheels.

. . . Well, he did score a school-record 40 points (since broken).

"Yeah," he said, laughing. "I was thinking, 'I'm having a pretty good game. This is alllll riiiight.' You're so young and naive, you're not thinking about any [negative aspects]. I didn't know the part about going for Wilt's record. I did notice he was taking all the shots, though. Still, I never remember thinking, 'Man, this is messed up.'

"Reggie's a good person. Just a good dude. I later played with him on a team at the Overbrook PAL. I remember telling him he looked kind of uncomfortable through that game. That wasn't him. He was a team guy."

Ross then relayed a story. How he recently attended a summer hoops camp and was approached by someone.

"The guy was all excited," Ross said. "He said he remembered the game when I had 55 against Bartram. I didn't correct him. I let him go with it. When he walked away, I told the guy I was with, 'I only had 40, really.' "

He laughed. "Know what? Fifty-five sounded good. As the years go on, that number's only going to increase . . . I don't hold any ill will about that game. I'm happy I was a part of it. How often do you get asked about a game you played in 25 years ago?"

And what a game it was . . .

Isaac shot 33-for-69 from the floor and 18-for-22 at the line while easily crushing the school record of 57 set in 1968 by Mike Moore (in a 158-89 destruction of Simon Gratz; talk about outrageous!) and tied in 1972 by future NBAer Joe "Kobe's Father" Bryant.

Isaac's recollection is that Dougherty did not announce his plans to assault Wilt's record - Murrell Dobbins Tech's Linda Page had surpassed it for the girls in '81, with 100 vs. Jules Mastbaum Tech - until that morning in school, and that the only-Reggie-can-shoot edict wasn't issued until halftime.

But in the next day's Daily News, Dougherty said he'd informed his players of everything Feb. 19.

"Human nature being what it is," he said back then, "some of the players were a little envious and didn't like the idea. But most of them went along willingly."

Said Isaac: "We had a lot of good players at Bartram then. Good scorers. Like Rudy Yuille and then his brother, George. I can't believe it was me that got the opportunity to go for Wilt's record. That was special."

In '85, senior George Yuille led Bartram with a 25.8 Public League average. Today, he doesn't sound the least bit jealous that Isaac was the guy who got unleashed.

"Reggie was humble. A good guy," George said. "He was calm and collected. Smooth about the whole thing, really. Even now, I'm still not sure he knows what it meant."

While Isaac bombed away, the other 10 Braves combined for eight shots. Guard Jon Owens was a virtual ball hog, taking three.

Center Lenny Ferguson, who swept 22 rebounds, missed a left-baseline jumper 58 seconds into the second quarter and was immediately yanked.

"I begged Mr. Doc to let me back in the game," Ferguson said that day. "I told him, 'I won't shoot anymore. I'll just rebound and give Reggie the ball.' "

Which he did, unfailingly. On one sequence, Isaac missed four shots. On the first three misses, Ferguson and others grabbed rebounds and retreated away from the basket while waiting for Reggie to again free himself.

If this game had taken place a year later, Chamberlain's mark undoubtedly would have fallen. Three-point baskets were not yet part of Public League play in the 1985-86 season, and Isaac, though also an accomplished driver, was rather proficient at long-range sniping.

Drew Petronis played Isaac in a box-and-one through a 44-point first half. A triangle-and-two featuring Petronis and Ross - yes, two men on Isaac - was used in the second half, though a few times four defenders, even five, were close to him as he shot.

"What they did wasn't fair, to give him the ball every time downcourt and not give the other guys a chance," Petronis said that day. "There were times I was so mad, I was ready to swing. He was getting mad, too. We were playing him very tight, and the refs didn't call fouls nearly as many times as we fouled him. That was what really got him mad. He looked like he was ready to swing one time, too."

Twenty-five years later . . .

"I'm still going back to my roots," Petronis said recently. "Basketball's a team game. It shouldn't be one guy taking every shot.

"That game's still in my head. I guess the bonus was being part of history, but I still don't think an adult should boss around kids like that so one guy can get numbers."

The Bartram game was not Bodine's first at the yield-a-record rodeo.

On Jan. 28, 6-6 Southern all-timer Lionel Simmons, who would advance to the NBA after excelling at La Salle, burned the Ambassadors, a second-year Pub member, for a school-record 56 points in a 117-32 frolic.

That game bothered Rice more because his tallest player was only 6-foot. After this one, he approached Isaac and pretty much gushed, "You earned this. You shot your behind off."

Next, the Braves went flying downstairs to their locker room and a beaming Isaac was posing for pics with his joyous teammates.

No family members were in attendance. Reggie, who played 3 years of lower-level pro ball and now owns a small delivery service, said he couldn't remember what happened once he got home - he lived on Angora Terrace, right near 58th and Baltimore, with his parents (Rovenia, James) and older brother (Tyrone) - but does recall the next day in school being crazy.

"People were following me around. I was getting a lot of looks," he said. "And one or two TV cameras followed me to my first class.

"It wound up being a big deal on my block. I had a lot of support. Everybody was loyal to me. I can remember everybody had a copy of the newspaper. Everybody."

Reggie must get his even-keel approach from his mother.

When asked recently whether she'd gone wild when Reggie got home after exploding for the 84 points, Mom said, "I'm not that excitable a person. I just listened. Took it in . . . In a way, it surprised me. In a way, it didn't. He always liked shooting the ball."

Mom - she's in possession of the special game ball - said Reggie got his basketball start in the house.

"Drove me crazy," she said, laughing. "He was always playing basketball up in his room. With a sock."

Sight unseen, at the suggestion of coaches from Louisiana Tech, Isaac headed from Bartram to Navarro (Junior) College in Corsicana, Texas. Not comfortable so far from home, Isaac caught a break when Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, then an assistant at Coppin, caught his act in the Sonny Hill College League and persuaded him to join the Eagles.

After sitting out the 1987-88 season, Isaac became one of the program's best-ever players. His 1,938 points (in only three seasons) were tops in school history, and even now he has fallen only to the No. 2 spot behind fellow Bartram product Tywain McKee (2,158 in 4 years; completed career in 2009).

Coppin coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell, who assumed command for the 1986-87 season, has thrived mostly because of Public League products. In order, Phil Booth (Northeast), Isaac, brothers Larry (Dobbins) and Stephen Stewart (Parkway), Antoine Brockington (Northeast), Fred Warrick (Bok), Nicholas King (Frankford) and Raheem Scott (King) have earned first- or second-team All-MEAC honors during the Mitchell era, and another dozen Pub guys, at least, have helped the program in prominent fashion.

"I've always loved people who can score," said Mitchell, a product of Camden's Woodrow Wilson High. "I knew about Wilt's 90-point game, and when I heard some guy had scored 84, that stirred my interest. You have to put up a lot of shots, but you have to make a lot, too.

"Today, kids are more selfish than ever. Though he scored a lot of points, Reggie was never like that. He took good shots. He played the right way."

And during his time at Coppin, like now, he didn't go around bragging.

"The 84-point game?" Mitchell said. "He never talked about it." *

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