ST. PETERSBURG — The Gibbs gymnasium was full of color and sound last week as hundreds of fans dressed in blue and gold descended on the campus to cheer on the boys basketball team in its most meaningful game in two decades.
Playing in the Class 5A region final, the Gladiators were in perpetual fast forward, moving up and down the court to beat Chamberlain with an entertaining style that was a throwback to the school’s last watershed days. Every alley-oop dunk, every slick drive to the basket sent towel-waving fans into a frenzy.
Now Gibbs takes its high-wire act to the state final four for the first time since 1990.
Friday the Gladiators (23-7) play Lakes Wales in the Class 5A state semifinals at 8:30 at the Lakeland Center.
“There has been so much excitement built around this team,” said Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon, who graduated from the school in 1982 and played basketball for legendary coach Freddie Dyles. “It has kind of reminded us of the way Gibbs basketball used to be on top of the county.”
Gibbs had a long tradition of success in boys basketball, winning state titles in 1951 and ’66 in the Florida Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governed black high schools before integration.
The Gladiators were the first all-black school to join the Florida High School Athletic Association and won a state boys basketball title in ’67, its first season as an FHSAA member, and again in ’69.
More than winning titles, the basketball program became part of the school’s history and lore, a tie binding neighborhoods and families — from parents to children to grandchildren — who made it a ritual to sit together and share their experiences.
“The team played to sold-out crowds every night,” said Minson Rubin, who graduated from Gibbs in 1963 and is the president of the school’s alumni association. “We traveled really well, too.”
From 1989-91, the team had perhaps its greatest collection of talent with three players — Pat Lawrence (Miami), Dwight Brown (Seton Hall) and Bill Teal (Arkansas) — who had committed to major Division I-A schools by the time they were seniors.
That trio helped the Gladiators reach the state semifinals in 1989 and ’90. In 1991, the team had all the pieces to make a championship run.
But Gibbs, ranked No. 1 in the state all season, was upset in the region final by Naples.
“It was a very disappointing loss,” Lawrence said. “We had so much talent and we all just felt like we were going to win a state title. It was hard to get over. I was still heartbroken even when I was playing at Miami.”
Some took it harder than others.
Teal, the star of that team, began skipping school. Two months after that devastating loss, Teal was arrested in Palmetto, charged with kidnapping a woman at gunpoint and raping her. He spent three years in prison.
“Those were some dark days,” said Arian Odom, a starter on those teams in the early 1990s. “I still have some sleepless nights about that loss. It’s all fresh in our memories.”
It has been hard since then for the program to restore its luster. Gibbs has made the playoffs five times since its last state semifinal appearance and advanced to the region final just once.
This season has been different. The team is tall and fast. It can pile on points. And it has enough talent to stir the Gladiator faithful and bring back the glory of the past.
“That ’91 team is hard to emulate,” Odom said. “But this team is bringing the buzz back. They’re very similar, skill-wise, and they play the same kind of style.”
Gibbs has already ordered two buses for fans to go to Friday night’s game. But the outpouring of support has Gordon considering adding another. The school has sold T-shirts all week and the fans will again bring their blue and gold towels.
“We’re not quite back to where we were, but we’re close,” Rubin said. “This is what this community and school needed. There has been so much negativity with Gibbs the past few years. We finally have something positive to build around.”
Class 4A semifinal at a glance
Game is 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Lakeland Center. Admission is $9 per session; parking is $7 per day.
About Gibbs (23-7)
Coach: Larry Murphy (116-74 overall at Gibbs; this is his first year back since leaving in 2008)
Top players: Quincy Ford, F, Sr. (6-foot-7), averages 17.4 ppg and 10 rpg; Gary Simon, G, Jr. (6-1), averages 15.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg
Notable: Murphy played at Dixie Hollins and beat Gibbs in 1989 when the Gladiators made it to the state final four.
About Lake Wales (28-2)
Coach: Billy Dee Washington (69-45, four seasons)
Top players: Oshey Washington, G-F, Sr. (6-6), averages 15.0 ppg; Marcel White, G-F, Jr. (6-4), averages 12.5 ppg
Notable: Lake Wales, which won a state title in 2000, beat Gibbs 77-63 on Jan. 15.