Once the season ended, they were in Roberto Gittens’ ear.
People asked him why he would choose to stay at Foss High School and prepare for apparently less-than-glamorous 2A basketball when he could transfer and play on the big stages with the big schools.
“They were on me,” Gittens laughed. “It’s like it’s supposed to be like 2K (an NBA video game). You lose and you go pick a new team. I don’t know how people can do that.”
So Foss coach Mike Cocke’ sent out a warning shot on Twitter.
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“Anyone interested in recruiting my players to other high schools, please contact me directly,” Cocke’ posted to the Foss basketball Twitter account in February.
It was like there was supposed to be a fire sale at Foss — a perennial big-school contender with seven 3A state tournament appearances in Cocke’s nine years as the school’s coach that was now moving to 2A based on the school’s 2016-17 enrollment figures.
And what high school players would trade a five-mile trip to the Tacoma Dome for a 160-mile trek to the Yakima SunDome? Especially one like Gittens, an athletic, above-the-rim Boise State commit regarded as one of the top seniors in the state.
“In the spring there were some people talking to him who said, ‘Maybe not being at Foss is in your best interest,’” Cocke’ said. “And then he would report those things to me and that’s when I went on Twitter and made the comment.
“I’m proud of him. He’s a legitimate D-I kid and he didn’t want to go join one of the superpowers. He wanted to stay here, and that says a lot about his character.”
With him and a cast of other key returners, Foss is considered by many to be the favorite to run through the 2A South Puget Sound League’s Mountain division and finish the season in Yakima with a 2A state title.
Not that there haven’t been athletic teams with Division I talent in the “small-school” classifications before. Just six years ago, Clover Park dominated its way through the 2A SPSL with Ahmaad Rorie (now at Montana) and David Crisp (now at UW) and won the state title. Former NBA point guard Luke Ridnour still holds the 2A state record for career tournament points from when he was at Blaine.
“Honestly, they are very good, but we’ve seen better teams in our league,” White River coach Rick Tripp said.
Not that Foss can’t try to prove otherwise.
It first took getting on the bus.
I said to them, ‘You have an opportunity to come back to your same school, all returning players, and we can do something special. ‘If you’re with me, then get on the bus.’
Foss boys basketball coach Mike Cocke’
Foss’ season ended last year with an overtime loss in a winner-to-state game against Kennedy Catholic. Cocke’ saw his players sitting in the locker room afterward, some crying, the rest visibly upset.
“I said to them, ‘You have an opportunity to come back to your same school, all returning players, and we can do something special,’” Cocke said. “ ‘If you’re with me, then get on the bus.’”
Not all did.
It certainly says something about the day and age of high school sports when a coach has to persuade his own players to stay. Cocke’ doesn’t remember that being an issue when he graduated from Stadium after four years of playing basketball there.
But he saw the writing on the wall when he found out midseason last year that Foss would be moving from 3A to 2A ahead of the 2016-17 school year based on enrollment.
And if anyone was going to transfer, it was supposed to be Gittens, right?
His relationship with Cocke’ wasn’t always the best. Cocke’ said he kicked Gittens off the team three times his freshman year.
“And I think he thought about transferring three times his sophomore year,” Cocke’ said.
But they learned their personalities are similar in many ways. Both are fierce competitors and get sick after losses. And Gittens learned that Cocke’ was so tough on him because he saw so much potential in him.
“My freshman year, I was a little hothead,” Gittens said. “I was reckless. He just showed me how I’m supposed to be. But he also helped me believe in myself and how good I can be and that’s why I wouldn’t be as good as I am today without him.”
Cocke’ said it was a process.
“He just learned to trust me,” Cocke’ said. “He’s a good kid. He gets kind of a bad rap because when he plays, he’s so emotional and he’s volatile. People see him pound his chest when he dunks and he’s yelling.
“When you talk to him and take him off the floor, he laughs, he jokes around, he’s friends with everybody on the team and he doesn’t act like he’s above anyone.”
To Gittens, there was no question where his loyalty lay.
“He took a week after the season to think about what he wanted to do and he came to me and said, ‘Coach, I want to be here, I want to get my grades right, and I want to play Division I basketball.”
He lives with his single mother, who often works long hours. His father lives in Brooklyn, New York. So he would often hang out at Cocke’s house with Michel Cocke’, Gittens’ former teammate and Mike Cocke’s son.
The coach sat Gittens down, printed off and pinned to the wall sheets of every class Gittens was struggling in and what it would take to raise his grades. He remembered one night, Cocke’ gave him a plate of pasta and locked him in a room so Gittens could bury his head in books and homework.
“At first I hated it,” Gittens laughed. “But I’m glad it helped me in the long run because we got a lot done.”
Then he got the scholarship offer from Boise State. And now Gittens is the first player to play four years of varsity basketball at Foss in Cocke’s tenure.
I think the whole state would agree, I think we’re the most athletic team in 2A. But how does that transition? Because that doesn’t mean we’re going to win the 2A championship.
Foss boys basketball coach Mike Cocke’
“He’s loyal to the school, he’s loyal to me, he’s loyal to the program — and that should say enough about the kid,” Cocke’ said. “We talked about that before our game (last week against Timberline), just everything we’ve been through as a program and the loyalty that he has shown to all these guys — we need to give the loyalty back and play as hard as we can and put our best foot forward every night.”
Said Gittens: “You got to be different. If you follow everyone else’s path, then you’re everyone else. I got all my guys here — my friends, my coach, my family. I don’t want to go to another school where I’m just there for basketball.”
Foss certainly returned more than Gittens, including senior post Donald Scott and junior guard Demetrius Crosby, who both started on last year’s team.
Now? Instead of the Falcons trying to scratch its way into the Tacoma Dome, they are considered by some around the state to be the favorite out of the 2A South Puget Sound League to end the year in Yakima with the 2A state title.
“I think the whole state would agree, I think we’re the most athletic team in 2A,” Cocke’ said. “But how does that transition? Because that doesn’t mean we’re going to win the 2A championship. I don’t want to downplay it and say we don’t talk about it, but we have a lot to do before we get to that stage.”
Gittens just hopes he can leave a legacy of loyalty.
“I just want to win a state championship so people can see me and go, ‘You don’t need to transfer schools … to get a ring,’ You can stay all four years and get it done at your own school.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
all-state boys basketball
G Daejon Davis, Garfield, 6-4, sr.: UW signee is an athletic combo guard in mold of Kentwood grad Rodney Stuckey.
F Corey Kispert, King’s, 6-6, sr.: Gonzaga signee already has two 1A state titles. Averaged 23.9 points last year.
G Jaylen Nowell, Garfield, 6-5, sr.: Returning TNT first-team all-state selection is now a UW signee.
G Kevin Porter Jr., Rainier Beach, 6-5, jr.: Long, athletic lefty with range. Big reason why Beach is defending 3A state champs.
F Michael Porter Jr., Nathan Hale, 6-9, sr.: Big, athletic and can hit 3s. UW signee is No. 2 recruit in the nation.
F Cameron Cranston, Union, 6-6, sr.
F C.J. Elleby, Cleveland, 6-6, jr.
F Roberto Gittens, Foss, 6-5, sr.
F Emmitt Matthews Jr., Wilson, 6-7, jr.
F Jontay Porter, Nathan Hale, 6-9, jr.
TJ Cotterill: firstname.lastname@example.org
all-state girls basketball
F Jadyn Bush, Bishop Blanchet, 5-11, sr.: Four-year starter averaged team-best 18 points, 9 rebounds per game last year.
F Taya Corosdale, Bothell, 6-2, sr.: Oregon State commit keyed Cougars' success last year, averaging 18 points, 11 rebounds
F Lacie Hull, Central Valley, 6-1, jr.: Stanford commit led 4A state champion CV in assists, steals and blocks last year.
F Lexie Hull, Central Valley, 6-1, jr.: Not a misprint. Lacie Hull’s twin sister also a Stanford commit and led CV in scoring and rebounding.
F Jill Townsend, Okanogan, 5-11, sr.: Gonzaga signee is a two-time 2B player of the year and two-time state champion.
F Kendall Bird, White River, 6-2, sr.
F Ashlee Comastro, Skyview, 6-1, sr.
G Samantha Fatkin, Glacier Peak, 5-9, sr.
G Jamie Loera, Moses Lake, 5-9, jr.
G Oumou Toure, Kamiakin, 6-0. so.
TJ Cotterill: email@example.com