Teams show high school sports not all about winning

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on March 3, 2012
Kevin, Sarah and Lynn Emberley with a poster for the annual basketball tournament held in memory of David, who drowned nine years ago. - Photo by Steve Bartlett/The Telegram

It started with a simple gesture. Sean Doyle, teacher and athletic director at Mobile Central High, wanted to add a girls' division to the David Emberley Memorial Basketball Tournament.

The event had been boys-only since the inaugural tip-off eight years ago, but there were different factors at play this year.

David's little sister, Sarah, plays with the Mobile girls' team and is graduating. Doyle and the organizers thought it would be fitting for her to play in the tourney that remembered her brother. The former Mobile player drowned nine years ago this June.

The tragedy happened on Sarah's ninth birthday - just two weeks before he would have turned 15.

The fact Sarah is coached by her father Kevin and older sister Laura - obviously David's dad and sibling, too - made adding a girl's competition even more apropos.

Still, the Emberleys were hesitant about breaking with tradition.

"I didn't want it to be for every year," Sarah says. "I only wanted it to be for one year if it happened."

Eventually the family was on side.

The tournament went ahead Feb. 16-18, with eight teams vying for the boys title and five after the girls crown.

No one expected that chase by competitive teams would produce two magical moments, where winning took a backseat to sportsmanship and friendship.

The top teams in the girls round robin were to meet in the championship game.

When the buzzer sounded on the final round-robin match, Baltimore High of Ferryland and Stella Maris from Trepassey were set to play for gold.

Host Mobile sat in third and out of contention.

That was until Baltimore did the unexpected and announced they were pulling out of the tournament.

Their decision wasn't fueled by controversy: Baltimore simply wanted Mobile to play for the David Emberley championship.

"We've been around basketball long enough to know how important it is to a team to make it to the finals. ... For Baltimore to give up their place was a big thing and we really appreciated it," says Lynn Emberley, mother to David, Sarah and Laura and wife to Kevin.

Her husband was wowed by the gesture. Coach Kevin has been involved in sports for decades and had never heard of a team giving up a chance to play for a medal.

So Mobile went to the championship game against Stella Maris, with the Baltimore players among the spectators in a packed gym cheering them on.

The title match was hard fought and close, but the Trepassey team emerged the winner by a score of 67-60.

Then the unexpected happened again.

The Trepassey players gave their gold medals to the Mobile girls.

"It was like something you'd see in a movie that would never happen in real life," says Sarah.

According to numerous accounts, there wasn't a dry eye in the gym.

Sarah, her family and her teammates were among those who filled up.

"It even brought tears to my eyes," says Kevin, who had "knots in his chest" recounting the story.

Doyle, who has coached for about 25 years, says it was one of the greatest displays of sportsmanship he's ever witnessed.

The Telegram asked to speak with a Stella Maris player about why they gave up gold.

Instead, one girl offered a team statement on the condition she wouldn't be identified.

She explained it was a team decision to hand the medals to the Mobile players.

"We know that if they were in our shoes then they would do the same for us. We respect them and we're all friends on and off the court. We kind of said, no matter where we play or who we play, we always remember where we are from (and) sportsmanship comes first."

Stella Maris coach Jacinta McGrath say the team told her its intentions before the game.

"It didn't surprise me that the girls did something like that because they are a very nice bunch of girls," she says.

"It was their way of showing them ... we were there for them in the spirit of the tournament."

The Emberleys are moved by the actions of both Stella Maris and Baltimore.

"I think it's a beautiful thing to have happen at (David's) tournament because that's what we want his tournament to be - good sportsmanship and fun and hard play," says Lynn.

"That's what David was like," adds Kevin.

Mobile, Baltimore and Stella Maris are battling on the court again this weekend. Don't expect either team to step aside or give up a medal though. It's their regional playdowns and the top teams advance to the provincials.

"We go out to beat each other," Kevin says. "It's a competitive sport."

But win or lose, he won't forget what his opponents did during the tournament remembering his son.

"It meant a lot. It's something that will never, ever leave you, even when I'm six feet under. It probably won't leave me then."

sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: @SteveBartlett_