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'Centercourt' continues to fill the void for Boys High School Hoops

Photo by Shawn Turri

Chad Andrews admits he didn’t like Gabe Michael at first. You see, Al Monaco had been an early supporter of Chad’s high school basketball website — The View From Centercourt. Andrews was a big fan of Monaco’s exciting Williamsville South teams in the era of Mark Coppola and Joe Licata.

So when Monaco was fired late in 2012, Andrews was inclined to be skeptical of his successor. When Michael took over at South, Chad kept his distance. He sat on the visitors’ side, rather than his usual spot near the South bench.

“I came in with a bias that I wasn’t going to like him,” Andrews recalled. “He wasn’t Al Monaco.”

Michael eventually reached out to Andrews. He saw him at games and admired the Centercourt site, a journalistic treasure in the local basketball community. Gabe knew another hoop lover when he saw one, a guy with a huge heart. He gave him advice, even asked him to address the Billies before seasons.

“Gabe was my best friend,” Andrews said. “I talked to him daily. Every time I got in the car and drove some place, I was calling Gabe. He’d answer, we’d talk for an hour sometimes. If I called him, he was calling me back.”

It was Michael who urged Andrews to host his own in-season event. Chad was an idea guy, a writer, but needed a nudge. Michael was a driver. Sometime in 2017, he told Chad it was time. Pick four games, Gabe said, and Williamsville South will be host for the first Centercourt Classic in the 2017-18 season.

The first Classic was one to remember. The headline game — six years ago to the day on Saturday — featured Will South and Health Sciences. It was a meeting of two Division-I bound stars, Greg Dolan of South and Davonte Gaines of Health Sciences. Dolan scored 36 points as South won by five.

“By the headline game, the place was just jam-packed, sold out, overflow crowd,” Andrews recalled. “And it was awesome, and the game was fantastic. Greg Dolan put on a performance and I thought everything went wonderful. Once I had one under my belt …now my juices are flowing, and off we go.”

He’s still going. This weekend, Andrews hosted the sixth annual Centercourt Classic at St. Joe’s Collegiate Institute (the event wasn’t held in the Covid-shortened 2021 season). Twelve teams competed in six games over two days.

Jamestown opened with a 66-59 win over St. Francis on Friday evening. Then host St. Joe’s knocked off Amherst, 56-48, in the nightcap.

There were four games on Saturday at St. Joe’s, starting at 12:30 p.m. with Randolph vs. Salamanca. Niagara Falls met Canisius at 2:15; then it was Health Sciences-Nichols at 5:45 and Bishop Timon-Victor in the finale at 7:30.

The only thing missing from the event was the man who inspired it. Gabe Michael, who had taken over as St. Joe’s head coach in 2018, died suddenly in mid-November, shortly before the start of the 2023-24 season.

Before the tipoff of the St. Joe’s-Amherst game, Andrews reminded the crowd how Michael had taken his hand when he devised the Centercourt Classic and been looking forward to hosting it in the gym on Kenmore Avenue.

“He was super excited about this event,” Andrews said, “and I’m sure he’s with us tonight.”Andrews then asked the crowd to shout Gabe’s signature, gleeful expression — “Woo!” — on the count of three.

It was a big loss for Chad when Michael died. The home game against Canisius when they honored Gabe was rough. But Gabe was a positive soul. Chad said he could hear his friend’s voice after the long funeral service, telling him how great it was that no one was crying, that it was uplifting.

Chad said that same positive spirit was in the air on Friday. A celebration of basketball, which Gabe would have wanted. It’s the love of the game that matters in the end, and that’s the ethic that continues to drive Chad.

Andrews didn’t see himself in this spot when he was going to Brockport, planning to be a Phys Ed teacher and coach. But writing about high school sports became his hobby and passion. As local media coverage of the game has diminished, the Centercourt website has continued to grow and thrive.

“He’s doing the best job he could possibly do filling in that void,” said Bill Russell, who has been coaching hoops in the city for nearly half a century. Early this season, the Riverside High gym was dedicated to ‘Russ’, the former Riverside coach and “father figure” to hundreds of kids.

“Chad does a phenomenal job,” Russell said. “I have a lot of respect for his all-star teams, his observations about players and teams. It’s really exciting to follow him. I do see him a lot. He goes to a hundred games a year, I believe.”

Andrews said he averages about six games a week, so Russ’ math is right. He doesn’t do it for money, but for love of the sport. He spoke on the phone last week while driving from his home in Wilson to Lancaster to stream a game for WNY Athletics. He puts a lot of miles on that car in the winter.

He says the website gives him purpose in life. His wife Kristen, a teacher in the Newfane schools, once reminded him he’s at a game every night and it’s not even his job. He’s a full-time bar manager at the Sunset Bar and Grill in Wilson, where he began working as a bartender back in the late 1990s.

Kristen has been told she should have a halo; she’s a saint for putting up with Chad’s basketball meanderings. It gives her pride to know how vital he is to the basketball community — and a devoted family man when he’s at home.

“I’m too invested,” he said. “I can’t not do this. I need something to get me out of the house and drive me and get my brain stimulated.”

The brain work shows. From November to March, Andrews chronicles the local high school basketball scene on his website and his podcasts. He writes previews, covers games, provides schedules of the top upcoming games, votes in the Buffalo News polls, picks Centercourt all-star teams after the season.

“The platform he puts up for the kids is incredible,” Amherst head coach Chris Kensy said after a tough loss Friday. “He treats them like college or professional athletes.

“I remember meeting Chad my last year coaching Maryvale at Buff State,” Kensy said. “He came up and introduced himself, ‘I’m Chad, from Centercourt’, and it’s just taken off. He’s the best who does it, and I’m just happy that we were part of it.”

Kensy agreed that Centercourt is a blessing for local high school basketball at a time when the sport is struggling for coverage in the community.

“Oh, my god, yes. Hundred percent,” He said. “I think we saw sunlight twice in the past month in this town. So when you can fill a gym and really perform, it’s awesome.”

The spotlight shone on high school hoops for two days at St. Joe’s this weekend. And Chad Andrews would tell you his old friend Gabe was smiling from above, shining the brightest light of all.

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