tampabay.com

Dishonest requests must incite change

Home playoff games for Lakewood are going the way of the dinosaurs and mid-range jump shot because of a Florida High School Athletic Association rule.

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published February 19, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG

Don't look now, but there's a boys playoff basketball game tonight at Lakewood.

Not Eckerd College. Not Boca Ciega. Not Gibbs.

Lakewood.

Not surprised? Well, you should be.

Home playoff games for the Spartans, Tampa Bay's best basketball program that plays in just a 680-seat gym, are going the way of the dinosaurs and mid-range jump shot.

A Florida High School Athletic Association rule that states a Class 5A gym must seat at least 1,100 to host a playoff game means that if any opponent says it needs more room to accommodate fans, the game will be moved.

On Thursday night, Lakewood beat Venice ... at Gibbs.

The game had to be played there because Venice insisted.

About two dozen Braves fans showed up.

"That whole crowd could have fit into our gym, with a lot of room to spare," said frustrated Lakewood athletic director Javan Turner.

He has no problem with the rule but is troubled that teams can ask that it be enforced for different reasons - to get the Spartans away from home.

Essentially, the FHSAA has a rule that can be used by opponents to take away homecourt advantage from the Spartans.

That's what Venice did, and it's what anybody can do, though let's applaud Charlotte for doing it the right way.

It's pretty apparent Venice demanded a rule be enforced for the wrong reason. It did not need the extra seats - it needed an edge. Maybe only losing by 32 points was the plan?

Venice made the same request last year, too, bringing about 50 fans, Turner said. He reminded the Venice athletic director about that, who shrugged it off, Turner said. "He told me our gym was too small."

Lakewood won both games, easily, but that doesn't make what Venice did right. It makes what Venice did dirty and cheap and sad.

"They don't have the numbers; they don't have the seating capacity," Venice coach Steve Cavallero said. Then, smiling sheepishly, he added, "Maybe this will force their county to build them a gym. They deserve it."

And maybe next year, Lakewood will field a team of unicorns in their new retractable roof arena, with butterflies serving sunshine by the cup at the concession stand.

Venice abused a well-meaning rule, which needs some tweaking. Think about it. The Spartans, who have won two state titles and been to the state semifinals four times since 2000, could never play a home playoff game again.

That's not fair. The FHSAA agrees and says it plans to question Venice. FHSAA spokesman Robert Hernberger says requesting to have the game moved then bringing a bunch of empty seats is akin to breaking a promise and is frowned upon.

The FHSAA might want to consider this as well: How about if a school asks that the game be moved to accommodate its droves of fans, it's on the hook for at least 200 tickets. If you truly need the game moved for your fans, you can recoup that $1,200 in ticket sales easy.

If not, you shouldn't be making that request.

Lakewood, one of Pinellas County's older schools, is stuck with its gym. A new one is nowhere in sight because of budget reasons, Turner said. The Spartans feel as though they are being punished for that fact.

Yes, games should be moved if hundreds will be turned away. If the safety of fans is at stake. If a riot, which the FHSAA says the rule was mostly created to avert, will be avoided.

But we need to be careful. Gyms like Lakewood's and the atmosphere it creates should be celebrated. In today's age of declining crowds at prep events, those kinds of crowds are unique. It would be a shame to lose those moments to dull, uninteresting games in half-empty, sterile surroundings like we have seen at Gibbs and Eckerd in recent years.

Turner thought all along tonight's game would be at Eckerd. He's used to the automatic phone call, whether it's from Pinellas Park for the conference championship or Clearwater for a hotly contested regular-season matchup the county denied both requests.

The call from Charlotte never came. Lakewood will get what it deserves. A home playoff game.

Maybe the fans will get one of those great moments only the Spartans' gym can provide.

Heck, who knows. Maybe we'll even see a player shoot a mid-range jumper over a triceratops.

John C. Cotey can be reached at (813) 909-4612 or johncotey@gmail.com.