Back in 2000 or thereabouts, I went to cover an Ithaca High boys’ basketball game, and I enjoyed watching a kid named Lester McNair. Lester played hard, he hustled on both ends of the court, and he was not shy about pulling up from long range and launching threes. I said to the person sitting with me, “There goes another McNair Prayer,” and Lester made his share.
What I remember most was that the kid played with a lot of fire, and I was very pleased to learn after he graduated in 2001 that he had worked hard in the classroom as well as in the gym and that he would be enrolling at Buffalo State and playing ball there. I followed Lester over his time there (he graduated with a degree in Health and Wellness), and when I saw him over the summers and school breaks, he was always very polite and grateful for the coverage and support. I loved the fact that he saw basketball as but one piece of the puzzle, and that he knew that keeping his grades up was the best way to assure that he could keep playing the game he clearly loved.
McNair took his degree and started his career as a youth worker at GIAC and as a substitute teacher, and when he told me he was playing semi-pro basketball for the Elmira Bulldogs I made the trip a few times to watch the team and cover the continuing story of a local guy who kept stoking the fires. He played three seasons for the Bulldogs (2007-09), did a stint with the Elmira Red Riders (another semi-pro team) and worked hard enough to make the roster for Pearl Washington’s Elite Travel Team. Looking back on that experience, Lester said, “We were a hand-picked team and we traveled to tune up other semi-pro and college teams.” He laughed and added, “We were almost like what the Washington Generals were to the Harlem Globetrotters, except we went in and kicked some butt.”
McNair has stayed in the game as a coach, and when this season began, he was an assistant at his alma mater. An unexpected shake-up resulted in his elevation (good hoop metaphor) to the Interim Head Coach, and in Lester’s words, “When the coaching situation didn’t work out, they asked Kevin Cartmill and myself to step in.”
McNair is very grateful for the opportunity, and for Cartmill’s presence.
“We’re both Ithaca High alums, both All-Conference guys, we know the program, the kids and the conference,” Lester offered. “Kevin’s son, Nick, is on the team and I have been coaching most of these players since they were in elementary school. We have both watched them grow up.” He calls Cartmill “a father figure,” and he added, “Kevin is a Section IV Hall of Famer, and while we represent two different eras of Ithaca basketball, we both love the Little Red and we are getting to know each other.”
The coaching change was, as is to be expected, somewhat disruptive, but in McNair’s words, “The kids are sticking with it, and we have won three in a row to push our record to 8-6.” (The team was going for four in a row as we went to press). He called Ja’lyn Griffin “an all-around catalyst,” and added that 6’7” Keif Timmins’ play is drawing some looks from college coaches. He said “Mo Radcliffe is playing really well,” and that Geoff Clark and Karije Henderson are stepping up as well.
Lester said, “We get a lot of leadership from not only the players on the court, but the bench as well. We hold everyone accountable. These kids are working really hard, and with our last win we have qualified for the Sectionals.”
Having fought back from a sub-.500 record to being a sectional qualifier makes the interim coach proud, but he knows this is the wrong time of the year for a team to step back and congratulate itself. “As we all know,” Lester said, “it’s one game at a time.”