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"We ain't got football, so basketball is everything'

Like any legendary sports team, the Malone basketball program comes equipped with championships, traditions and myths.

The story that people around the rural panhandle town like to tell about their beloved Tigers dates to the 1940s. Coach Roy B. Beall (the school's cracker box gym is named after him) mistakenly scheduled two road games for Malone on the same night. So he simply divided the team in half and ended up winning both games.

"I don't know if it's true, but that's what they say happened," said Malone principal Marvin Lassiter, who has played for and coached the Tigers. "There's all kind of stories about different games."

Bayshore Christian, which lost to the Tigers in a 1991 state semifinal, again challenges legendary Malone in the Class B state championship today in Tallahassee. While the Faith Warriors are aiming for their first state championship, the Tigers enter the game with eight state titles and a reputation as Florida's version of Hoosiers.

Beall started building the reputation during the '40s. Jim Pavy guided the Tigers to three consecutive titles in the 1950s and Homer Buell earned a fourth during his tenure in 1964. After a down period, Lassiter returned the glory days with championship years in 1977, 1981 and 1983.

"If I had been a good coach, I would have won four or five more," said Lassiter, who resigned in 1986 to go into school administration.

Wayne Ellerbee, who actually played for Malone rival Marianna, is the current architect. A victory today would give Ellerbee his second title. With eight basketball championships, the Tigers are second only to Miami High, which has 15.

"We take the tradition and try to use it as a motivational tool for the players," Ellerbee said.

The players take the tool and hammer opponents with a stifling full-court defense and a healthy dose of fast-break baskets and three-point goals.

"Our rule is if you're open, you have the green light to shoot," Ellerbee said. "Our philosophy is free the mind and turn the body loose. We don't try to create any doubt mentally about shooting the basketball."

In Wednesday's semifinal against West Palm Beach Gold Coast Corporate, the Tigers converted 18 turnovers into 28 points in building a 58-23 halftime lead. They also were 7-of-11 from three-point range.

"They run up and down, jack it up from anywhere and play great defense," Bayshore coach Herman Valdes said. "To stay in the game, we better try to alter what they do. They try to get you in a frenzy, get you in that piranha tank and cause four or five turnovers in a row."

Yet Malone does more than just eat up Class B and Class A teams. This season the Tigers defeated Class 5A Miami and South Miami and won three of four games at the Kingdom of the Sun Tournament in Ocala. Malone also recorded two victories against Class 4A semifinalist Springfield Rutherford, which lost 64-63 to St. Petersburg Boca Ciega Wednesday.

The success has created a love affair between the basketball team and the town of 765. Because the Malone gym frequently fills beyond capacity, some games are moved to nearby Chipola Junior College where it's not unusual to have 3,000 fans at a Malone game.

"We ain't got football, so basketball is everything," sophomore cheerleader Heather Brown said. "Our gym is very small and it's packed. Everybody is there."

Well, almost everybody. The school has its own radio broadcasting team so shut-ins and those who don't like the deafening roar common to Beall Gym still can enjoy the game.

The love affair extends to the Malone youth, and that's probably the reason why the Tigers' success continues. Like Wednesday's semifinal, today's broadcast will be heard in the classrooms on the Malone campus, which houses kindergarten through 12th grade. Call it special education.

"We had an assembly the other day with the players talking to the younger kids about setting goals, doing well in school," Lassiter said. "The young kids wanted their autographs.

"The young kids start dribbling the basketball and identifying with the players. They say, "One day, I'm going to get there and do this and do that.' Having everyone on one campus makes a difference."

Dreams of playing for the Tigers started just that way for senior captain Rodney Jackson. As a third-grader, he watched his brother Bruce lead Malone to the 1983 championship and vowed that day to duplicate that success.

Jackson, whose semifinal effort included 17 points, 10 steals and seven rebounds in only 19 minutes, played on the 1991 championship but considers this game the opportunity to realize his dream.

"We work hard every year to keep the tradition alive," Jackson said. "We know the tradition is very high at Malone, and we want to bring it back to Malone."

Malone's Magic

Malone High School has won eight state basketball championships and has been runner-up twice. The Tigers' record in state title games:

1952: Class B _ Malone 71, Tampa Our Lady of Perpetual Help 36

1953: Class B _ Malone 72, Pompano Beach 59

1954: Class B _ Malone 47, Ponce de Leon 46

1961: Class B _ Malone 66, Inverness Citrus 32

1976: Class A _ Tallahassee FAMU 85, Malone 72

1977: Class A _ Malone 87, St. Aug. St. Joseph 63

1981: Class A _ Malone 71, Moore Haven 46

1983: Class A _ Malone 62, Hastings 59

1991: Class A _ Malone 87, Eatonville Wymore 83

1993: Class A _ Hollywood Christian 88, Malone 75

At a glance

Who: Bayshore Christian (32-5) vs. Malone (35-2)

What: Class B state championship

Where: Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center

When: 3:30 p.m.

Radio: WLVU (1470 AM).

Summary: With wins against 5A and 4A powers such as Miami High, South Miami and Springfield Rutherford, Malone is a heavy favorite. Bayshore will have to counter the Tigers' pressure defense/three-point attack with its height advantage. Malone's tallest player is 6-4, while the Faith Warriors have 6-9 Tavares White, 6-5 Jonathan Fielder and 6-6 Johnathan Johnson, who is averaging 30 points a game.