Mentor magic: The story of an ultra short headline


Published: Wednesday, August 1, 2007 at 11:39 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

When Florida earned its second outright Southeastern Conference men's basketball title this past season, it made Clifford Lett smile.

It brought Lett back to thoughts of his senior year in 1989, when his move from off-guard to point guard sparked Florida to its first league title in school history.

"The key to that team is that we were all a family," Lett said. "The previous three years I played for teams that had more talent. But as a group, we were much closer."

Lett, 41, now works in parks and recreation, where he serves as coordinator of the Brevard County community center in Titusville.

In 1989, Lett also served as a mentor, brining along a young team that overcame early struggles due to injuries and inconsistency. Florida was 5-6 and 0-1 in the SEC when former coach Norm Sloan kicked freshman point guard Jose Ramos off the team after a verbal altercation in practice.

With Ramos out, Sloan moved Lett to the point. Lett had spent his first three seasons at Florida as a backup to guards Vernon Maxwell and Andrew Moten.

"I had played just about every other position on the court but point guard," Lett said.

Any anxiety wore off once Florida tipped off at Georgia. The 6-foot-3 Lett displayed natural instincts for the position, finishing with 15 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in the Gator win.

From there, Florida won 12 of its next 16 league games.

"After that Georgia game, everything seemed to click," Lett said. "Guys started digging deep. We knew we had no room for mistakes."

The most memorable game of the season for Lett was an overtime win at Vanderbilt that was forever known as the "tennis ball" game. Dwayne Schintzius, Florida's starting center, had been suspended for four games to begin the season after hitting a Florida student with a tennis racket. As a result, visiting SEC crowds took to serenading Schintzius with tennis balls.

It was that way at Memorial Gym, when Florida trailed Vanderbilt 72-70. The game appeared lost when the Gators lost the ball out of bounds with a second remaining. Vandy fans, however, thought the game was over and doused the court with tennis balls.

Head official John Clougherty signaled for a technical. Appropriately, Schintzius went to the line, sinking both free throws to send the game into overtime. Schintzius scored the first seven points of the extra session, lifting Florida to the 81-78 win.

Florida clinched the SEC title with a road win at LSU, and returned to a hero's welcome. About 5,000 showed up at the airport. Another 5,000 attended a ceremony at Florida Field, where they played Queen's "We Are The Champions" over the public address system.

"They drove us to the stadium with a police escort," Lett said. "There were quite a few people. It was a little surprising, but it showed how much the fans cared about us."

Florida couldn't carry the momentum into the postseason. The Gators reached the finals of the SEC Tournament, but lost to Alabama 72-60. A third straight invitation to the NCAA Tournament followed, in which Florida lost in the opening round to Colorado State 68-46 in Dallas.

"We were just worn down," Lett said. "Guys had to play so many minutes. We were relying on six or seven guys because of the injuries and other problems."

Lett said he still keeps in touch with former Florida teammates Renaldo Garcia and Dwayne Davis. After a brief NBA career that included a 10-day stint with the Chicago Bulls and month-long stay with the San Antonio Spurs, Lett landed in Brevard County. He's spent the last 10 years working there for the parks and recreation department.

"The biggest problem young people face today is respect," Lett said. "Respect for one another. Respect for themselves. That's what we try to teach, the value of respect."

<i>Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com.</i>

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