By Zachary Braziller
The roar reached a deafening decibel level as soon as two words were announced over the Long Island University public address system.
Teammates smiled and playfully shoulder bumped the senior forward as he slyly slinked by them to collect his Queens borough championship trophy.
The boisterous Forest Hills fans, standing behind the bench, grew louder, chanting his name.
It was a moment that Hall obsessively imagined in his head. But it was one that was quite improbable.
He was suspended for almost all of a December, from Dec. 3 to Jan. 5, missing six games, for breaking team rules. It was a stupid mistake, Hall said, an uncharacteristic error in judgment, the first time he got in trouble. Still, he said, refusing to reveal the act, which he labeled an “in-house, personal” issue, he didn’t necessarily deserve a second chance.
“Honestly, I really shouldn’t be here,” Hall said.
He came off the bench since returning in early January, never quite finding his rhythm and scoring touch. Sunday, that all changed.
Consider him the unlikely hero for the even unlikelier Queens champions.
The 6-foot-4 Hall scored 16 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, leading No. 3 Forest Hills (19-8) past No. 1 Cardozo, 55-49, and to its first ever borough title, at the Wellness Center in downtown Brooklyn.
Hall was in the middle of it all. He broke the Judges’ press, shot over smaller defenders, contributed nine rebounds and four assists and got to the free throw line.
“He’s a senior; he’s clutch,” senior guard Andre Armstrong said.
He was the impact scorer coach Ben Chobhaphand envisioned. So much of this year, the Rangers have depended on two primary weapons – Armstrong and sophomore forward Maurice Harkless. Hall was an afterthought after returning from his suspension – until recently.
He gave much of the credit to Armstrong, his loyal friend and trustworthy teammate. Armstrong had battled his own personal demons last year, missing three games after a reported shoplifting incident at Queens Center Mall when he was arrested, but not charged.
After assistant principal and athletic director Eileen Domnitz barred Hall from all team functions for the month of December, Hall was depressed, not knowing what to do.
But his phone never ceased to ring. It was Armstrong on the other end, offering advice and encouragement. The shooting guard was sure the Rangers would make it to the Queens final and win, with Hall a vital contributor.
He told his teammate to use the time away as a positive, make sure it was in the past when he returned. The two would often meet up off of school grounds to work out, pushing one another on local playgrounds.
“I was telling him to stay focused,” Armstrong said. “Not to let it get in his head.”
“I was disappointed in Alex, but these are kids,” said Chobhaphand, the fifth-year coach. “I judged him on how he bounced back.”
Hall returned, Chobhaphand said, a more mature person and player; he became “a man.”
Hall didn’t complain about coming off the bench, despite his role as the second-leading scorer a season ago. He happily contributed however he could – whether it was defending the best player on the opposition or helping Harkless under the glass.
“When I came back, they told me to forget it,” he said of the incident. “I took up the spot as the third scorer.”
Sunday, after watching the Rangers slosh to a 22-16 halftime deficit, when seemingly nobody could hit a shot, his role changed. Cardozo was double-teaming Armstrong and Harkless, leaving Hall open.
He hit his first two jumpers of the fourth quarter, a pair of pull-ups from each elbow. Then, came one 3-pointer from the right wing, and another from the top of the key.
He was feeling it.
In overtime, he scored seven of Forest Hills’ 15 points. That included the clinching 3-point play when he went coast-to-coast down the left sideline, drew contact from Cardozo forward Dwayne Brunson and flipped the ball in anyway with his left hand. He left just 29.5 seconds on the clock and increasing a three-point lead to six, 53-47.
The chants started then.
“Alex Hall,” the Rangers faithful roared. “Alex Hall.”
The dream afternoon wasn’t quite finished. He was in the middle of a wild celebration soon thereafter, three years in the making, players and fans and cheerleaders reveling in the shocking upset. And above all else, Hall was the reason.
“I cried every day I was away from the team,” said Hall, who has raised his average to an 80 and is on pace to graduate this spring. “Basketball means the world to me.”
“I still,” he added, shaking his head in disbelief minutes later, “can’t believe it.”