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Fabolous atmosphere at CK/Rice showdown

The Super Bowl’s got nothing on Christ the King.

Father John Savage Gymnasium in Middle Village was the site of the high school basketball event of the year, a Nike-sponsored CHSAA showdown between Christ the King and Rice.

The annual game is always one of the most anticipated of the year, but Sunday’s clash was taken to an even larger level. A few hours before the scheduled tip between arguably the best two teams in the city, the wooden bleachers on both sides of the court were packed to capacity with 1,800 fans, many of whom were CK students.

The parking lots were full almost two hours before the game and the gate on top of the hill was closed before the tip. Some unlucky late-arriving fans were turned away at the door.

For some, like assistant Coach Nick Sanchez, it reminded them of the good old days of the 1980s when the Middle Village gym was regularly packed every Friday night, especially when Kenny Anderson and Archbishop Molloy arrived.

As for Christ the King head Coach Joe Arbitello, it was a first.

“I’ve never seen it like this before in my life,” he said. “It was amazing, absolutely amazing.”

Nike, which has contracts with both programs, pumped thousands of dollars into the game, bringing in special lighting and smoke machines, hiring Knicks PA announcer Mike Walczewski and Clyde Frazier to share the duties and having the LeBron and Kobe puppets broadcast a special pre-game message on an overhead projector.

The Knicks City Dancers performed twice, which was especially a treat for the players, while the rest of the fans, including a few hundred screeching teenage girls, were treated to a performance by rapper Fabolous and the DJ stylings of Funkmaster Flex.

In fact, one cheerleader nearly fainted when Fabolous touched her hand during his halftime performance.

“It was reckless,” Christ the King senior Roland Brown said of the atmosphere. “Today was a good day for us to show up and we did what we had to do.”

Courtside was Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, Florida’s Billy Donovan and New York Knicks forward David Lee, who was mobbed by autograph seekers.

Yeah, it wasn’t exactly your average Sunday afternoon CHSAA ‘AA’ league game.

“It was great. I really felt like it was the next level,” CK forward Dominykas Milka said. “This game was amazing, all the lights, the dancers, the fans. You see all these people get pumped up for the game you just want to play.”

As more and more details emerged about Nike’s plans for the day, the more concerned Arbitello became that the festivities would become a distraction.

But his team responded positively. Brown said the Royals’ previous experience at the Bass Pro Shops Tournament of Champions in Springfield, Mo., last month helped.

“We kept our composure,” he said. “We went to Missouri and played in front of 10,000 people and here it’s not even half that. We still played and did what we had to do.”

Rice, on the other hand, did not. At least not until the fourth quarter.

“Both teams had to endure the festivities,” Rice Coach Mo Hicks said. “It was fun and enjoyable for them. They were more focused than us, more hungry and the team that wanted it the most won tonight.”

The game itself didn’t live up to the surrounding hype. The Royals raced out to a 22-8 lead and never trailed, leading by as much as 27 points early in the fourth quarter until the Raiders rallied late.

Christ the King was presented with a silver cup the size of North Dakota for winning the game, one all who attended hopes becomes an annual event.

But both teams know the hardware that really matters isn’t awarded until next month.

“It means a lot, but we can’t overthink it,” Maurice Barrow said. “We still have the playoffs to go.”

Reach Dylan Butler at

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