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TAMPA — He stepped to the free-throw line Saturday with 18.1 seconds to play and his team leading Clearwater High by two. The first state tournament berth in Sickles boys basketball history was Rashawn Rembert’s to secure.
Only seconds before, with tension palpable and no one in the Gryphons’ raucous student section touching a bleacher with his or her backside, teammate Jordan Davis had approached Rembert and reiterated as much.
“He said, ‘If you make it we’ve got it in the bag,’ ” Rembert recalled a night later.
At that moment, who could blame a high school junior for not placing those two impending shots in any loftier context than its final four implications?
Who would dare chide Rembert for not at once realizing he also was shooting for a family in need of some unabridged joy? For a deceased dog named Skeeter? For a chance to get a precious moment on video or the memory card of a digital camera?
Capturing such moments had taken on greater significance for his family since the fire, even if that thought wasn’t swimming through Rembert’s 17-year-old mind at the time. Yet 24 hours later, after both free throws had fallen through the bottom of the net, and after dozens of congratulatory texts and voice mails, it dawned on him.
Rashawn Michael Rembert hadn’t merely preserved a critical victory, he had preserved a fresh memory for the scrapbooks and video library his family had to re-start from scratch 23 months earlier.
All other keepsakes before that? Gone, courtesy of what was believed to be some old electrical wiring in the family’s wooden, three-bedroom house that sat in a county park in Keystone.
“We lost all of them,” said Rashawn’s dad, Ray, the resource officer at Sickles. “He’s matured a lot since then as far as understanding the value of the little things we have.”
The little things, such as highlight footage of a Gryphons victory, have multiplied in the past three months. Rashawn, who lost every basketball-related possession in that fire save for a smoky AAU jersey, has spent his junior season re-stocking the Rembert memento bank.
A 6-foot-3, 185-pound forward, he heads to Lakeland as the Gryphons’ top scorer (22.2 ppg) and rebounder (6.9 rpg). In Sickles’ past two games, Rembert has gone 3-for-4 from the free-throw line in the final 18 seconds, both times giving his team a four-point lead.
A year ago, he was an inconspicuous starter on a senior-dominated club led by 6-foot-10 North Carolina signee John Henson.
“Last year, everyone on the team could score,” Rembert said. “Pretty much our first and second team, they could’ve started for any other school. This year, I had to come in and be a big part of the offense. That’s what Coach (Renaldo) Garcia told me.”
In other words, Rembert had to grow up in a hurry, which was nothing new.
For all intents, he entered the realm of adulthood the night of April 3, 2008. Rembert, his parents and three of his four siblings were headed to a pizzeria when a neighbor called to alert them of the fire.
Among the possessions lost: Skeeter, the family’s white poodle-terrier mix.
“(The house) was so beautiful inside, it was crazy,” Ray Rembert said. “The thing is, as a family, we sat down and said we’ll move forward from this point, start all over and we have each other. That’s what we did.”
An outpouring of local support ensued. A Hillsborough Sheriff’s deputy offered Ray, then a 12-year veteran of the department, temporary use of a fully-furnished apartment. The family’s church collected money and clothes. The support of Sickles’ student body still touches Garcia.
“I can remember soon after that, one of our administrators took up donations at lunch,” Garcia recalled. “The amount of kids that got up from the table to bring anything they had to help, it was such a heartwarming experience.”
Gradually, the Remberts moved forward, putting a mobile home on the same property their previous house existed. New sets of clothes were hung in new closets. A new dog, a peekapoo named Precious, was adopted. New images were filmed and photographed for posterity, including those of a jubilant kid whose free throws had just helped propel his team to unprecedented greatness.
“I just think they’re very good people and Rashawn’s a strong person,” Garcia said. “He was able to handle it extremely well, I thought, for a kid his age.”
All games at the Lakeland Center. Admission is $9 per session; parking is $7 per day.
5A: Sickles vs. Niceville, 4 p.m. Wednesday
2A: Tampa Prep vs. Port St. Joe, 11:30 a.m. Friday
On the Web: We’ll be live blogging from the games involving local teams, and we’ll have video highlights and photo galleries, at tampabay.com/hometeam
TV: Championship games will air on Sun Sports. Check FoxSportsFlorida.com for times.