ITALY — It's almost like Friday's thunderous booms and silver-quick lighting strikes from the stormy skies over George Scott Coliseum — the house we are legends were built — were premonitions of the clash of styles and sweat spilled in the hours that followed.

And the back-and-forth battle that raged until a 59-56 finish.

"We've been building this up for a while now. I, my brother and Jordan been talking so much noise to my nephew and little cousin that we had to bring it," said DeJuan Davis, a do-it-all guard for the state champion Italy High School boys' basketball team and brother of Keith Davis, Sr. and uncle to Keith Davis, Jr. "In the end, we had to do everything we had to do everything possible to try and pull it out. They pushed us to the max. We knew if we lost, we'd never hear the end of it. Getting the 'W' is all that mattered in the end. So we had to make it tough and chippy, but it was all in good fun. We look up there and see that and we can't lose."

He motioned to a large orange and white basketball painted on the north wall of George Scott Coliseum, one with the digits 27-4 overall and 10-0 district etched in black in the center of the sphere.

In 1997, Italy High Schools Gladiators reigned supreme over high school basketball, using their mid-90s New York Knicks' brand of physicality to outwork, outhustle and out punish their opponents for 32 minutes.

"It was the same team as I remember 20 years ago. They may be a little slower, but it was them all right. I even saw some of that '40 Minutes of Hell come out," said current Italy Head Coach David Ervin.

Seventeen consecutive teams — en route to the first basketball title in city history — faced the brunt of a similar version of suffocating defense that senior guards Davis Jr. and Kevin Johnson and senior forward Kenneth Norwood saw on Friday.

Ervin knows that style of play well, too. He faced it twice in 1997 as a part of the Itasca High School Wampus Cats and one of four teams to fell the Gladiators in battle that year.

The 1997 state champions imposed their will on 20 district opponents, dictating pace and outcome with play as brutal as their moniker would indicate. It was the style of the times in an era where teams like the Arkansas Razorbacks, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks made it a personal goal to strike fear in every single team that faced them.

Twenty years later another Gladiators' team used a style of play similar to Mike D'Antonio's system with flickers of Golden State shine to nearly accomplish the same feat as Davis, Sr. and the rest of their elders did two decades earlier.

In a game that pitted "Old School vs. New School," physicality's trump of speed, flash and gash could have answered the generational conundrum.

"I don't think it settled it because they're still going to go at it in the open gym," Ervin continued, chuckling as he watched old Gladiator shake hands with the new breed. "[The 1997 team] has to give them their props, though. We played them hard. They were the more physical team and the more physical team usually wins the ball game."

While Davis, Jr., Johnson and junior Kendrick Norwood streaked up and down the court in head-first, full fast break mode and outpacing their older and slower counterparts, Davis, Sr. Dejuan Davis and David Weaver bullied and controlled the paint like an oversized bodyguard at the city's most exclusive nightclub.

Each team traded their own particular brand of blows, but only one saw their streak reach 18 games – despite the final victory coming more than 7,304 days after the late 90s state title game.

"Man, that was a game we could have won. Close, so close," Davis, Jr. said, pulling the straps of his backpack tight against his broad shoulders.

And age, agility and weathering of time notwithstanding, the distance between a win and a loss may have shown how close the new school Gladiators may have been to state championship gold.

"It showed that we were right there this year and that we could have gotten it done. It also shows that we underestimated them a little and that they've still got it and can still hang," Davis, Jr. said. "We've done this since I could walk. My dad and I have always competed and gone at each other so to do in a real, live environment is fun and something I'll never forget. I hope somebody recorded this because I'd love to watch this some years after this. It was definitely one to remember."

Kendrick, Davis, Jr. and Johnson sunk floater after floater and Tylan Wallace tested the limits of the halfcourt press defense will with well-timed sniper shots from the 3-point line. Kenneth, Christion Washington and Christian Lightfoot took the battle inside scrapping with the likes of DeJuan Davis, Randy "Big Dog" Johnson or Edwin Wallace, the father of 2017 junior guard Tylan.

The young opportunists even managed to jaw back at the elders and push them to their limit.

"I talked so much mess all week before the game but they came out played us physically and showed some heart," Edwin mused to Ervin about his son and the future of Gladiator basketball. "If they play the way they did against us, they're going to be really dangerous next season."

And while the game began in the "evolved" run-and-and-gun, spread-the-court style of millennial basketball, it quickly devolved into the instinctive brand made famous before the turn of the century. Grunts were commonplace as boy jostled for position against the stronger, heavier man or a man crashed to the hardwood for a ball the more agile and quicker boy leaped to first.

A game that featured all-or-nothing dives by 40-year-old men, trash talk by princes attempting to usurp kings and state championship, late-game dramatics was decided in the final 90 seconds of a 16-minute war of attrition.

For some, though, the finish was less exciting than the journey back to a gym that made history come alive — at least one more time — for men like Don Clingenpeel and Don Rineheart.

"It brought back a lot of good ol' memories," Clingenpeel said. "They're just like my kids and I watched them grow up through junior high all the way through high school and it was just fun to be back on the court with them. There's a lot of good memories in this place, this gym."

Clingenpeel was the head coach that led his group of overachievers to both the state title in 1997 and their 18th straight victory on Friday against Ervin and his group. He now is the superintendent of schools at Milford ISD.

Rineheart, a former Italy principal, coached the state championship when they were seventh graders.

"Even then I knew they could get after it," Rineheart said. "I agreed to coach them in seventh grade because I knew how special that group was and I wanted to see it for myself. I wasn't disappointed."

More than 20 years after Rineheart departed the shores of Italy to accept the position of principal at Itasca, neither was Italy alumnus Clint "Mr. Maypearl" Holley. Nor were any of the almost hundred fans, family members that traded Friday night plans for a game for the ages and a chance to raise funds for what could be the next in a Gladiator basketball dynasty.

The debate may be settled on which team — a state champion from a bygone era and another that fell three victories short of duplicating history — holds sway in the "Biggest Little Town in Texas."

Or maybe not.

"Class of 97 or 2017, either one of y'all can get it," said Jasenio Anderson via Twitter less than an hour after the game. "Who want us?

Anderson belonged to both Aidan Callahan's 2010-2011 team that went 24-6 overall and 13-1 in District 15-2A and five rounds deep in the UIL playoffs and Kyle Holley's 2009-2010 District 1-1A champions that reached the regional semifinal round.


Marcus S. Marion, @MarcusMarionWNI

(469) 517-1456