When Wendell Saunders broke the news, the first reaction from reaction from his players was to bow their heads. The second was to lash out. Finally, the Benjamin Banneker boys’ basketball team accepted the move down to the PSAL Class A division, the league’s second tier.
“We realized,” senior guard Tyler Sinclair said, “a championship is a championship.”
After winning five of 23 league games the last two seasons, Saunders didn’t feel he had much of a choice. The once-proud program, that had made the city semifinals in 2005, was rebuilding. But in Brooklyn AA, the PSAL’s top division, that didn’t go so well. The Warriors couldn’t compete against powerhouses like Lincoln, Boys & Girls and Thomas Jefferson.
“It was hard for us,” Sinclair said. “We knew sometimes we were going to lose.”
That, however, is no longer the case. After edging Grand Street Campus, 60-56, on Wednesday afternoon, Banneker, led by Sinclair and Din Moore, the two starting guards, has raced out to a 3-0 start in Brooklyn A West.
The two, along with fellow senior Tahrike Carter, spent the summer preparing for their final season of high-school basketball by playing together with the Brooklyn Jaguars. The three struggled as juniors, but the offseason enabled them to grow comfortable with one another and learn each other plays, their strengths and weaknesses.
“That’s the difference,” Saunders said. “We’re jelling as a team.”
There is still a long way to go. The 10th-year coach would like his team to play defense consistently for 32 minutes and build on leads instead of allowing them to slowly wilt away, as was the case against Grand Street. While the competition may be down, the same work habits need to be developed to be a contender come March.
For his players, it is still about the AA division. Sinclair was happy with the road victory, but said it would be better against one of their traditional rivals.
“It doesn’t really feel the same,” he admitted.
Saunders feels the same way. He admits the hype isn’t the same. He even had to convince himself – not to mention his players – that the move was the right thing. But then he looked at his roster, saw his biggest player was 6-foot-5 junior forward Omari Bennett, and realized there was no other choice.
“It was tough, because we have always been an elite program,” he said. “But I want to get the program back to the top. In two years, we’ll be ready to go back up.”
Saunders added: “We’re in position to compete for a championship. That’s always fun.”
The Warriors have faced four AA opponents, beating South Shore and Gompers but losing to Transit Tech and Robeson. They could get a crack at Lincoln or Boys in the borough playoffs if Banneker wins its division. No matter the result there, the Fort Greene school would move on to the Class A playoffs. That is just another opportunity to show where they belong.
“It would prove,” Moore said, “we’re good enough to play in the AA division.”