BRIDGEPORT — The message Bernie Lofton delivered to his players to help them prepare for Monday’s game against Wilbur Cross involved not only scouting reports and X’s and O’s, but also a lesson in history.
The longtime Bassick coach broke from practice this week to speak with his team about the special rivalry Bridgeport and New Haven high schools share on the hardwood.
“Believe me, I made sure they understood it,” Lofton said Friday. “We talk a lot about history in the Bassick program. I was letting them know the history of Cross and everything.”
Cross’ history is littered with crowning achievements. Their 14 CIAC titles are second-most in Connecticut behind only Hillhouse (24). Their 1973-74 Class LL championship team was ranked No. 1 in the country by the Washington Post.
While some might say the rivalry between Bridgeport and New Haven has lost some of its luster in recent years — the cities have produced only three state titles since 2014, two by Hillhouse and the other by Central — both sides believe it still carries plenty of appeal.
The rivalry will be front and center Monday at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, site of the fourth-annual Martin Luther King Classic. The event will feature four games, including Career of New Haven against Harding at 1 p.m. and Cross against Bassick in the nightcap at 5.
Central will tip off the event against Fairfield Ludlowe at 11 a.m., and Notre Dame-Fairfield will play Xaverian (N.Y.) at 3 p.m.
Few have familiarized themselves with the rivalry better than new Harding coach John Bagley, who played guard for two state championship teams with the Presidents in the 1970s. It was in many of those games that Bagley showed what he was made of.
“Being able to play them back in the 70s and 80s really allowed us to showcase and to compare our kids with their kids,” said Bagley, who went on to play three seasons at Boston College and 11 in the NBA. “I think it’d be good to reacquaint ourselves with that and measure ourselves. Our kids need to know where they stand amongst the state.”
Career coach Larry Kelley, a former star guard at Syracuse University, thinks that today’s players don’t understand the meaning of the rivalry. And he insists he knows why.
“You talk about history, they don’t have a clue,” Kelley said. “They don’t have a clue, and I’ll say that to any kid. If you got 10 kids, maybe one of them [would understand]. When I came up, when I first got to high school, all my coaches had to tell me, ‘If you work hard, you might be as good as so and so. He was here before you and he did this and did that.’ That was etched in my mind.
“Kids today, they don’t believe it unless they see it on ESPN. No tape? I don’t believe it, it didn’t happen.”
Bassick-Cross won’t be on ESPN. But Lions guard Kevin Crawford understands the importance of Monday’s game.
“Bernie’s like an uncle to me. He’s been telling me this rivalry means a lot to him,” Crawford said. “It’s just like the Central and Harding rivalry, but this one means more to us than any other rivalry.”