February 21, 2020
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Grandmother’s basketball career provides a defense for lack of defense

Ernie Clark | BDN
Ernie Clark | BDN
Henrietta Blackwood Cleland's Washington County champion girls basketball cup.

This story isn’t specifically about this year’s high school basketball tournament, but it does involve a championship trophy.

Not mine, mind you.

The only basketball-related hardware I ever recall winning was from a free-throw shooting contest at a University of Maine summer basketball camp.

My high school varsity basketball career came during what might be described as a “transitional phase” for the program at Foxcroft Academy. It began the year after the Ponies’ 1975 Class B state championship featuring former University of Maine center Kevin Nelson and ending two years before the school’s 1979 trip to the Eastern Maine final.

The 1976 team finished 6-12, the 1977 team 4-14.

My play was noticeable enough that I was given a nickname — “Ernie No D” — as an homage of sorts to one of the top collegiate players of the time, Ernie DiGregorio. Ernie D. was a flashy, All-American guard from Providence College in Rhode Island who went on to play in the NBA and was a 2019 inductee into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

I was not, a reality bolstered by a quality of defensive play on this end that wasn’t later going to be confused with the Celtics’ Marcus Smart.

The fact my coach at the time was the one who gave me the name only added to its validity. I couldn’t argue the point.

But all these decades later I’ve finally found the reason for any perceived defensive liabilities on my part, thanks to a visit to Eastport and a trip back in time through the pages of the Passamaquoddy Oracle, the Shead High School yearbook.

I never really got to know my grandmother Henrietta Blackwood Cleland. I was barely 4 months old when she died.

I never heard much about her athletic exploits for many years as I foolishly went through life thinking I was the best basketball player in my immediate family.

But a search through my grandparents’ home after my grandfather Ernest “Doc” Cleland died revealed a sterling silver cup proclaiming H. Blackwood a Washington County basketball champion from Shead Memorial High School.

Exactly what year that particular trophy was earned isn’t clear, but I learned during a visit to Shead last spring that it could have been any of her four years of high school.

Young Henrietta Blackwood was a four-year starter for a Shead team that during the early and mid-1920s captured at least five consecutive county championships under coach Winifred Brooks.

Those were the days when girls basketball was played 6-on-6, with three players on the offensive end of the court and three others limited to defensive duty.

My grandmother’s career was played strictly on offense as she helped Shead compile a 32-5 record from 1923 through 1926. She led the Tigerettes in scoring during each of her final three seasons.

Her team went 9-1 during her sophomore campaign, which led to the following notation in the 1924 Oracle.

“Two weeks later we put in a challenge in the Bangor paper for the state championship [with no takers].

“Now the question is: Have we the right to claim a State Championship? We certainly have.”

Five decades ensued before schoolgirl basketball state champions were crowned as they are celebrated today in Maine, but it’s hard to argue the Tigerettes’ case either in 1924 or in 1926 when they finished unbeaten at 9-0.

My grandmother’s individual contributions to that effort — as a senior she scored what was believed to be a career-high 14 baskets during a 46-11 victory over Calais — also has since served to answer the “Ernie No D” question regarding my alleged lack of defense back in the day.

Coach, it was hereditary!

 


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