A feel good story with a Rim Country twist unfolded Friday inside Jobing.com Arena in Glendale.
The star in the tale was the Tucson Amphitheater Panther boys basketball team that won the school’s first-ever state championship defeating Tempe High 87-77.
The ties Amphi basketball has with Payson have their roots in 1986 when Pat Derksen took over as head coach after leaving Canyon del Oro where he was a basketball and football assistant.
At the time Derksen assumed the reins at Amphi, the lowly Panther boys program played second fiddle to a football team that continually dominated newspaper headlines and Southern Arizona gridiron action.
Amphi rarely had a winning season and most losses were by double digits.
Among the first challenges Derksen shouldered, as head coach was to uncover ways to build team camaraderie, establish a strong offseason program and change the culture of a losing team.
The new coach decided the way to achieve his goals was to get the players away from Tucson into a setting where he could conduct team building experiences and tough, hard nosed practices. There was to be no big city distractions including girl friends and cruising Speedway.
Pat, who I consider one of my very best friends, and I had coached together at Show Low in the 1970s, so he asked me to help host an Amphi basketball summer camp in Payson.
I agreed to help out.
That goal of holding a first ever such camp for the Panthers came to fruition during a five-day summer stay in which players practiced twice daily and scrimmaged nightly in old PHS gym.
While in Payson, the team resided in dorm rooms at a local church. Members of the church also prepared meals for the players in a dining hall.
The camp, which I admit was a challenge for the young players who were homesick and battered and bruised from rough and tumble scrimmages wrapped up with a parents’ day and picnic in the scenic surroundings of Tonto Natural Bridge.
That camp, as long ago as it was, helped turn the corner in the once-losing Amphi program. From that point on, the teams seemed to get better each successive year.
The success of the camp also prompted Derksen and his staff to return each summer to the Rim Country to participate in the Payson Summer Basketball tournaments hosted by then-PHS coach Jim Quinlan.
For almost 20 years, the Panthers participated until the camps were disbanded.
During those annual visits to Payson, the staff and players stayed with my wife Kay and I at our home in Pine.
The players brought bedrolls and bedded down on the living room floor and we barbecued hamburgers, hotdogs and other goodies on the deck. Being city kids, they marveled at the majestic ponderosa pine trees, enjoyed hikes into the woods, chased squirrels and scooted away in utter terror when skunks dared show up. Probably most memorable to those kids were the nightly “Snipe Hunts” into the darkness of Pine Creek Canyon that over the years turned into legends on the Tucson school’s campus.
In 2007, Derksen retired and turned the coaching reins over to his long time assistant Ben Hurley who had been along on most all of the tournament trips to Payson.
The new coach has taken over where Derksen left off, building the Panthers into one of the finest programs in the 4A conference.
While the players on this year’s state championship team were not yet of high school age when the Amphi teams made yearly visits to Payson, the athletes undoubtedly were buoyed by the tradition and foundation their predecessors built.
So maybe those trips to Payson played some small role in Amphi winning the state crown.
There is, however, one current Amphi player who remembers those Payson visits well.
He’s Tim Derksen, Pat’s son, who for much of his childhood accompanied Amphi teams to the Payson tournaments.
While he was not yet old enough to compete on the high school level, he took in the summer games from the bleachers, fired up jumpers during time outs and absorbed as much of the basketball culture as possible.
In short, he was a gym rat.
Tim has since rounded into one of the finest players in the state and is receiving recruiting attention from several D-1 schools.
In Amphi’s state championship win on Friday, Tim – now 6-foot, 3-inches – led the Panthers with a team high 26 points while hauling in 15 rebounds and pilfering four steals.
All that, and he’s only a junior.
In hindsight, it’s a shame those summer tournaments which Quinlan built into some of the finest in the state have fallen by the wayside. After all, they provided unique opportunity for young players from Payson and other schools to build their game and showcase their skills against some of the finest competition in the state.
And because it was summer league, coaches could coach without thoughts of W’s and L’s.
The tournaments also gave teams and players unique opportunity to come together with a common goal of eventually winning a state championship.
Just as Amphi did.