Kragthorpe: Shawn Bradley, Ryan Cuff and a game that 'never ends'
Castle Dale • After the Emery Spartans returned to town with the state championship trophy, celebrating with fans who packed the school's tiny gym, someone asked Steven Gordon to relive the winning shot.
Wouldn't you know, he made it again.
Gordon's 45-foot, 3-point shot, banking into the basket just before the buzzer sounded in overtime, ended one of the greatest games in Utah high school basketball history: Emery 84, Richfield 83, on March 4, 1989, in Cedar City.
Richfield forward Troy Brown marveled how the game keeps resurfacing in his life after 25 years. "It just never ends," said Brown, whose two free throws with six seconds left would have won the game, if not for Gordon.
The matchup featured Emery center Shawn Bradley and Richfield guard Ryan Cuff. Bradley, then a 7-foot-4, 185-pound junior, was among the country's top college recruits. All you need to know about Cuff's aura in central Utah was a rival coach's written advice to his players: "Ryan Cuff is not God."
Cuff, also a junior, scored 43 points that afternoon and Bradley scored 37, as the teams went back and forth. Bradley once showed the videotape in the Dallas Mavericks' locker room. At one point, a teammate observed, "I thought you said you won this game."
Bradley responded, "Just keep watching."
The title game in Class 2A, then Utah's third-biggest classification, was highly anticipated, with 5,300 fans filling Southern Utah University's Centrum. The previous week, in the Region 10 tournament, Lynn Tuttle's rebound basket had given Emery a thrilling, one-point win. "Everyone was saying there's not going to be another game like that," Bradley said.
But the teams topped it, with an epic performance that leads Cuff to say now, "In some ways, we didn't lose that game."
Bradley started slowly, scoring nine points in the first half in his continuing effort to live up to expectations. He'd grown 3 inches every year since kindergarten, when he already was so tall that the high school coach at the time visited his parents and made them promise not to move. The family was entrenched, with Bradley's mother being a descendant of Carl Wilberg, who settled the Castle Valley.
Todd Jeffs was promoted as Emery's coach in advance of Bradley's junior season, 10 years after graduating from the school. The previous coach was fired after a loss in the state tournament semifinals, and Jeffs inherited a team with only two seniors.
"Maybe I was just too young and dumb, [but] I didn't feel pressure," Jeffs said.
Bradley would grow to 7-6 as a senior, before playing one season at BYU and 12 years in the NBA, averaging 8.1 points in 832 games for three teams. Remarkably athletic as a teenager amid those growth spurts, Bradley also played baseball, golf and even some football, despite his thin frame. Now, at 41, Bradley weighs 350 pounds, appearing trim and properly proportioned for the first time in his life.
Cuff was a basketball prodigy, growing up in Richfield as a son of the high school coach. His college basketball odyssey included stops at BYU (Cuff and Bradley never played together in Provo, due to the timing of their LDS Church missions), Arizona State and Weber State. Cuff followed his father's career path and now coaches at Dixie High School. As he spoke recently during a junior varsity game at Cedar City, Cuff watched his 7-year-old son, Tiger Luke Cuff, re-enact a scene from his own childhood, joining the Dixie players in the layup line.
Bob Cuff stepped down after Ryan's eighth-grade year, rather than be viewed as favoring his son or holding him back. Otherwise, Cuff probably wouldn't have started as a freshman, leading the Wildcats to two state championships with coach Dewain Peterson, after his father had won two titles.
Cuff "loved the moment," Peterson said. "Nothing bothered him."
Cuff and most of the other Wildcats had grown up together. The team also was bolstered by the transfer of center Todd Hermansen from Manti, because of Richfield's program for hearing impaired students. Another player quit the team just before the season for personal reasons, but Jim Sheets replaced him. Sheets arrived in town in time for basketball season, three years after his mother, Kathleen, had died in Holladay in one of the Mark Hofmann bombings.
Prior to overtime, Cuff could have given Richfield a third straight championship. After being fouled while making a tying jump shot, he missed a free throw the ball bounced three times on the rim, before trickling off with 15 seconds left.
Emery's last possession of regulation ended when Gordon fumbled the ball and Cuff grabbed it, only to lose control before he could launch a shot.
By this time, Bradley's mother, Teresa, no longer could bear to watch, fleeing into the hallway. "I'm not kidding," she said. "I still get anxious, just thinking about it."
In overtime, the teams were tied in the last minute after this sequence: Cuff's 3-pointer, Bradley's inside basket and another Cuff 3-pointer. Emery worked the clock, then the ball came inside to Bradley, just as a whistle blew.
"That's a cheap foul," Bradley thought, not realizing the call went against him.
Brown was awarded a one-and-one opportunity. He once made 172 free throws in a row after practice and was known for spending time in the gym, even having stayed at the Centrum following the previous night's semifinal victory to practice free throws. "It has to be muscle memory," Brown said, "because there's just too much pressure."
After repeating his manta "Bounce, bounce; nothin' but net" Brown drilled both free throws.
Between shots, Jeffs had called time out. "This is the huddle," Bradley said dramatically, pausing from his barbecue lunch and repeating Jeffs' instructions: "You know what to do."
Jeffs acknowledged he didn't formally draw a play, basically just telling the guards to get as close to the basket as possible and look to pass or shoot, as they had practiced.
After receiving the in-bounds pass, Gordon took five dribbles, including a behind-the back move. He suddenly stopped, just inside half-court on the left side the equivalent spot of Gordon Hayward's famous attempt for Butler vs. Duke in the 2010 NCAA championship game, taken from the right angle. Richfield guard Clint Henrie slightly overran Gordon and Sheets trailed him as Gordon set his feet and launched the ball - "the shot we wanted him to take," said Peterson, the Richfield coach.
On the videotape, Bradley can be seen near the free-throw line, raising his arm in anticipation of a pass. "Maybe Bradley was open, I don't know," Gordon said. "You just kind of react."
Gordon released the ball with about three seconds left, but he was comfortable from that range, having practiced "thousands" of half-court shots.
At a 20-year class reunion, Richfield's seniors received a DVD of the game. Sheets watches it regularly. "That shot goes in every time," he said, managing to chuckle.
The defeat "was tragic, of course," Sheets said, "but not as tragic as losing your mother."
Brown, who cites the game in LDS seminary lessons, and Cuff also have healthy outlooks. With a 25-year perspective, Cuff said, "Maybe [Emery] needed it more. Not that I acknowledged it as a teenager, but there's definitely reasons why certain things happen."
Emery County residents, known for being closely aligned with the high school, were dealing with effects of the Wilberg Mine fire in which 26 workers had died, five years earlier.
Cuff's Richfield team would lose to North Sevier in the 2A semifinals the following year. Emery moved to 3-A and won another title with Bradley, Gordon and other returning players.
Those titles remain Emery's only two boys basketball championships, although Gordon recently coached two Spartan girls teams to state titles and won another trophy in baseball last May.
He's also the school's assistant principal, and coaches an eighth-grade basketball team that includes his son, Easton. During a youth tournament in Springville in January, another coach recognized Gordon after nearly 25 years. It was Brown, who gave him a friendly shove.
Gordon's players love to launch half-court shots, just for fun. He wishes they would focus on more practical skills. But more than anyone, Gordon should recognize the potential value of such practice.
"Maybe," he said, "I'd better let them keep shooting."
Where are they now?
Participants in the 1989 Emery-Richfield 1989 state championship basketball game and what they are doing today:
Shawn Bradley, Emery center Lives in Murray; board president, West Ridge Academy; co-owner of ranch in Uinta Basin after playing one season at BYU and 12 years in the NBA.
Ryan Cuff, Richfield guard Lives in St. George; coaches basketball and teaches Spanish and health at Dixie High School after attending BYU, Arizona State and Weber State and playing professionally overseas.
Troy Brown, Richfield forward Lives in Pleasant Grove; LDS seminary teacher at Orem High School and real estate agent.
Steven Gordon, Emery guard Lives in Huntington; Emery assistant principal and baseball coach.
Todd Jeffs, Emery coach Lives in Castle Dale; just completed his 26th season as Emery's head basketball coach, following three years as an assistant.
Dewain Peterson, Richfield coach Lives in Richfield, retired from teaching; coached basketball six more years after 1988-89 season.
Jim Sheets, Richfield guard Lives in Holladay; LDS Hospital CEO.