Westchester’s Basketball Stars Share The Highs and Lows of Their Athletic Careers
Whether the hoopster is in high school, a pro or on the bench, there’s a story to be told in the midst of Westchester’s solid basketball scene.
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Upon entering her freshman year at Ossining in 2009, Chong immediately established herself as a force in Section 1, the region of New York State athletics that includes Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, and part of Dutchess Counties. Chong averaged a team-high 20.4 points per game as a freshman on Ossining’s varsity team in the 2009-10 season. She led her team to an 18-4 record and a trip to the Section 1 Class AA championship game. Ossining was already successful under Coach Dan Ricci, but it was becoming even more competitive thanks to its budding star.
A year later, Ossining went 20-4 and won the Section 1 Class AA title as Chong piled up 33.8 points per game. She was dominant and dazzling, a must-see talent who had people all over Section 1 eagerly waiting to see what top college programs would come calling.
In his time, Mookie also drew the attention of colleges throughout the Big East Conference, one of the best leagues in college basketball. With his lanky build, long arms, and slightly hunched gait, Mookie could have been mistaken for an awkward athlete, but, once he slid his headband over his head, any doubts about his game were put to rest. As the process unfolded, all signs pointed toward a career with the Syracuse Orange. Rizzo is a Syracuse graduate, and one of Mookie’s friends and Hawks teammates, Kevin Drew of Katonah, a basketball and lacrosse star at John Jay High School, was headed to Syracuse to play lacrosse and planned to walk onto the basketball team, for which his dad had played.
“Everything was so hectic,” Mookie says about having to sort through all of the college interest. “I remember walking into school and there were about sixty schools on the board that I had to narrow down. I had at least four or five duffel bags of letters [from college coaches].”
In college, Division 1 basketball is big business, and coaches are in the business of winning.
Jim Boeheim has been the head basketball coach at Syracuse for 36 years and ranks second on the all-time wins list for Division 1 men’s basketball coaches. In his tenure at Syracuse, he’s been known for his short playing rotation. After his five starters, Boeheim typically does not go past the second reserve for playing time. Seven guys see the court, and, if you’re not part of that seven, you’re part of the bench.
Panzanaro was wary from the start. “It’s unfortunate the way things turned out,” he says. “Coaches do a lot of hyping when they’re recruiting. Coach Boeheim sat here and said that ‘My only regret is Mookie will only be here two years and then he’ll be a pro.’ Unfortunately, I think Mookie bought into that too quickly. Coach Boeheim said here that he was going to play ten people, that he had so much talent coming in, but, when push came to shove, he went back to the seven, and Mookie ended up on the bench.” (Boeheim declined to be interviewed for this story.)
For the first few games of his freshman season, Mookie saw the court only after Syracuse had built an insurmountable lead. A hip injury ended his rookie campaign prematurely, but nothing changed when he returned the next year. It was as if the opportunity for playing time had passed him by.
“Everything happened so fast,” Mookie says. “As a kid, I’m looking at my dream coach and my dream school. It was just hard, because Coach [Boeheim] was saying that I was going to be playing thirty, forty minutes [per game]. The sky was the limit at the time. Everybody had me going to Syracuse.”
Kevin had his share of college suitors, too, including several Big East schools. He chose West Virginia and never looked back, playing 19 minutes per game as a freshman before becoming a three-year starter and playing in four NCAA tournaments, including the Final Four in 2009-10. He averaged 19.9 points and 10.9 rebounds as a senior last season and was named first-team All Big East.