Camden Hills basketball players hone their skills at ‘The Rock’

Posted March 03, 2011, at 5:36 p.m.
Last modified March 03, 2011, at 8:34 p.m.

“Take me to the old playground

Where the old ones rule, and the young ones do their time

Take me to the old playground

Where the talk is cheap

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And the restless stalk the baseline”

— Bruce Hornsby

CAMDEN — As Keegan Pieri made four straight 3-point shots during the first quarter of last Saturday’s Eastern Maine Class B boys basketball final, it was a spectacular moment for the Camden Hills of Rockport boys basketball team — but probably nothing he hadn’t done before on Chocktaw Ridge.

And when earlier in the tournament he took a pass off the backboard from teammate Joel Gabriele and finished off an emphatic dunk, Pieri likely recalled throwing another basketball off a red shingled roof, catching the carom and similarly slamming the ball through a rim.

For many of this year’s Windjammers, as well as predecessors who have helped the program win five state titles and nine Eastern Maine crowns since 1998, winters that have ended in championship celebrations have stemmed in part from summer evenings spent at “The Rock.”

Many high school basketball dynasties are rooted in playgrounds, local courts where kids play pickup games free from their coaches’ scrutiny and with nothing more at stake than personal pride and the chance to keep playing while losing teams wait for their next chance.

For more than a decade, a 60-by-40-foot court in Dan and Becki Gabriele’s back yard on Limerock Street has served a similar purpose for a Camden Hills Regional High School program  that will play Cape Elizabeth for the 2011 Class B state title at 8:45 p.m. Friday at Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center.

“The Rock,” as it is known to all who have played there, has one basket attached to the side of a barn, with the barn’s red shingled roof situated at such an angle that Pieri, teammate Tyler McFarland and plenty of other past, present and future Windjammers who can jump high enough can practice dunks without the aid of a passer — though it certainly doesn’t hurt to have an assist man.

“When I passed the ball off the backboard so Keegan could dunk it during the tournament, one of our assistant coaches asked me if that was something we do at my house,” said Joel Gabriele, Dan’s son and the senior point guard on this year’s undefeated Camden Hills team. “The Rock is just a good place to hang out, do the right things and get better at the game we love to play.”

Of course, The Rock has its rock, a large boulder that’s in play at one corner of the court. Veterans of The Rock occasionally pass the ball off the rock to a teammate, or shoot 3-pointers from behind the rock while using it as a screen of sorts.

And Chocktaw Ridge? That’s along one of the sidelines near the 3-point line, where frost has raised a section of pipe up through the ground over the years, creating a lip that occasionally sends a player unfamiliar with it to the pavement to the guffaws of The Rock regulars.

“I just think it hearkens back to the old days,” said Camden Hills coach Jeff Hart. “Every town  used to have a place where kids went and just played basketball, and that’s exactly what this is.

“The alumni come back to play there as well as the younger kids coming up, and it just builds a bond that links links them all together. It’s a place the kids can go and and just play ball without coaches around, and they wind up learning things from the older kids.”

Dan Gabriele, who grew up in New Jersey playing basketball in local parks before moving on to play college football, erected two baskets in his family’s back yard some 15 years ago for his older son Troy, who went on to win state titles at Camden Hills in 2001 and 2002.

“It was a rocky old lawn,” Dan Gabriele said, “and over the years we had hashed out a court with the barn at one end and hoops at both ends. We played on grass for years.”

Around 2000, Gabriele decided to have the court paved, in part because of a growing paucity of courts within walking distance as the intown Camden-Rockport High School was being replaced by Camden Hills in neighboring Rockport and a new YMCA was being built slightly removed from the center of the community.

“I just thought it would be good to have a place where kids could feel safe and go at it,” he said.

Since then fencing and lights have been added to the facility, which has become a basketball destination for players throughout the Midcoast region.

“It used to be that we’d plan to play on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer,” said Joel Gabriele, “but now I can just text a few guys and they can text a few guys and we’ll go play.

Sometimes it’s just me and Keegan and Tyler, other times it’s a whole bunch of guys, sometimes 20 or 25 of us.”

There also are the occasional visitors from well beyond the area who have heard about The Rock. Current Nokomis of Newport star Chris Braley has played there several times, and one time a group of players from Presque Isle took time out of an academic field trip in the area to seek out a game.

“The kids were out there playing one day and looked up and all of a sudden there are six kids from Presque Isle walking up the street looking for the court,” said Dan Gabriele. “They asked if they could get a game, and they jumped in and played.”

Players call their own fouls at The Rock, and there are just three other rules — “no cussin’, no cheatin’, and no cryin’.”

“It’s pretty much the toughest basketball I’ve ever played,” said Joel. “Once you get out there and start playing, there’s no joking around.”

As for his father, who operates Marriner’s Restaurant in downtown Camden, his playing days at The Rock are largely over at age 55.

Dan Gabriele continues to coach the Camden Hills undergrad team at the Harbor House tournament on Mount Desert Island each March, but it’s watching the generations of Windjammers and their basketball comrades race up and down The Rock and moving on to successful careers at Camden Hills and beyond that ultimately sustains his own love of the game.

“It really keeps you young,” he said. “It really does.”

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