Thirty years apart, South Portland championships tie special basketball teams
The 1992 South Portland boys’ basketball team finally has championship company.
For three decades, when the members of this team reminisced about their unforgettable title match victory, they were well aware that they remained the most recent champions in the annals of one of the most decorated programs in the state. . That game, on March 14, 1992, was one of the most legendary in Maine high school basketball history – an 81-79 win over Bangor in five overtimes.
But last weekend, the Red Riots finally won another Ballon d’Or. The 2021-22 Red Riots, led by 6-foot-11 junior JP Estrella, stellar junior point guard Jaelen Jackson and senior all-rounder Owen Maloney, beat Oxford Hills, 58-44, in the tournament title game of Class AA State.
No overtime was needed. And the stars of 30 years ago paid notice.
“I’ve tried to do other state games in the past, especially the 20th and 25th anniversary games. Considering the impact it had on my life, I always felt it was was where I belonged that night,” said John Wassenbergh, the 1992 State Finals leading scorer with 43 points, who now resides on Long Island in New York.
“Knowing it was the 30th anniversary this year and South Portland were playing, I wasn’t going to miss it. For me, the win was the icing on the cake.
Wassenbergh and Bert Rich, the unlikely hero of the 1992 national final, were well known to this year’s team. Rich came off the bench after star point guard Chris Keene fouled and made a few clutch 3-pointers to rally the Red Riots from a 12-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining in regulation time.
“Wass and Bert Rich have been on separate Zoom calls with the team during the pandemic,” said current South Portland coach Kevin Millington, who was the team’s senior captain from 1990-91, the year before the title. . “I heard about Wass, Bert and Chris regularly during the season.”
And the members of the 1992 team knew this year’s team well.
“I went to YouTube to check out (Estrella highlights),” said Rich, who now lives near Tampa, Florida. “This year’s team looked solid.”
Keene, who now has a son on the South Portland program, has liked what he’s seen all season.
“I was really excited for this year’s team,” Keene said. “They faced high expectations all year, just like we did in 1992. I saw a lot of us in them, especially with the younger guys. That game (1992) is a subject running in our household.Having coached (my son’s) youth teams over the years, this game has appeared in team meetings before.
South Portland has a rich basketball history. The school won the state’s first high school championship in 1922 and has now won 12 total men’s basketball titles.
As was the case in 1991-92, this year’s Red Riots team carried the center of the target and carried it well, losing only once during the regular season before crossing the class Regional AA South.
Before the championship game, Millington was not short of encouragement.
“It was like those guys (1992) wanted it too,” Millington said. “I was getting text messages like, ‘You got this! and ‘It’s been too long!’ They were words of inspiration and it meant a lot to have their support.
After South Portland beat Oxford Hills to end the drought, Maloney, the latest in a litany of players who grew up dreaming of leading the Red Riots to a championship, explained how the 1992 side resonated with the current group.
“It’s a dream come true,” Maloney said. “Tears of joy to finally do this. Living in SoPo all my life and being around South Portland basketball, it’s great to finally bring it home after 30 years.
“Owen was on a mission,” Millington said. “All he wanted this year was to experience the joy of winning a state championship. These guys just wanted to be part of South Portland’s basketball legacy.
Although Millington was not on the roster for the 1992 championship, he is the most obvious link between past and present champions.
“Kevin Millington was kind of a big brother to me and my brother when we were playing sports,” Rich said. “Having him coach the team this year was just perfect.”
“I’m so happy for the boys and their families,” Keene added. “Happy for Coach ‘Milli’, who I played with, and happy for the community of South Portland who had to wait 30 years but never stopped supporting their favorite team. We have the best support from fans around.
Wassenbergh, who came to South Portland as a senior from New York, became the team’s leading scorer before moving to St. Joseph’s College and playing professionally. He said his connection to the current team included Millington, but ran even deeper.
“I know Coach Millington well and know how important it was to him to bring a championship back to South Portland,” Wassenbergh said. “He did a great job and the team should be proud. John Maloney (Owen Maloney’s father) and I both played at St. Joe’s, so I had the pleasure of speaking with Owen over the years. It was satisfying to see his dedication rewarded and I know it was important for him to have played so well. It’s not easy to win a Ballon d’Or and I’m sure it’s something he will treasure. I wish him the best in his college career.
Tony DiBiase was the coach of the 1992 team. At 68, he still works at South Portland High and coaches freshman boys basketball at Cheverus.
“Kevin was my first captain when I came to South Portland and then he was my freshman coach, so we’ve been close for a long time,” DiBiase said. “I was happy to see (the team) do well this year.”
With Estrella and Jackson returning next winter and basketball fever in the city, the program likely won’t have to wait decades for the next champion.
But there will never be another team like 2022.
Just like there’s never been a band like the heroes of 1992.
“I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish in 1992 and the rich basketball tradition in South Portland,” Wassenbergh said. “We beat a lot of good teams from all over New England and New York that year. To stay undefeated and win in five overtime against Bangor will always be special.
“However, I couldn’t be happier for this year’s team, and being connected on the 30th anniversary is a bond we’ll always have. This year is all about them and their accomplishments, but it’s is good 30 years later to still be in the game.