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FAMILY TIES, BIG PRIZE

Dee and Tish Feazell drove themselves to the edge of exhaustion. Most nights they were on the backyard basketball court, shooting hundreds of jumpers.

Their mother, Gwen, would yell out the window, "It's 10 o' clock! Stop bouncing the ball!"

Bounce, bounce, bounce.

Gwen would shut off the floodlight, leaving the court in darkness.

"Just a few more minutes. Please!"

Every spare moment Dee and Tish used to practice, to compete.

"We would even have free-throw contests to see who would get to eat first on Thanksgiving," Dee said. "We always worked at becoming better."

The payoff comes today.

Dee, 22, a former star at Largo High from 1999 to 2001, is a first-year head coach at her alma mater after two seasons as an assistant. Her sister Tish, 17, is the team's point guard. Together, they have helped the Packers reach the state girls basketball tournament for the first time.

Largo will play Naples Barron Collier in the Class 5A semifinals tonight at 8:30 at the Lakeland Center.

"Words can't even describe how big this is," Tish said. "The state tournament is what we've been waiting for."

The sisters know they will have plenty of support from their family.

Their father James, who spent his life and career striving to influence future generations of black children in Ridgecrest, will be there. So will their older sister Yolanda, 34, and their older brother, James, 39

Gwen, 57, is debating whether to attend.

"My nerves can't take close games," she said. "I get pretty frazzled. But I am proud of them. It is a big moment for them and for the family."

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James Feazell, 59, has always been involved in athletics. He played baseball, basketball and football at black-only Pinellas High.

He continued to stay active once his playing days were over. In 1968, he built a basketball court in his back yard so the community would have a place to play. Four years later, he started a baseball league to provide more activities for blacks in the neighborhood he grew up.

His biggest impact, though, came in the classroom.

For 23 years, Feazell was a social studies teacher at Largo High School who opened his home and his heart to students. For 10 years after he left the classroom, Feazell recruited minority teachers for the Pinellas County School District.

His accomplishments were recognized last summer, when he traveled to Los Angeles to accept the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award given by the National Education Association. He was the first Floridian so honored.

"I've always tried to lift others around me," Feazell said.

The biggest lesson Feazell taught his children was that basketball was a game, nothing more. Life's challenge was not whether you can make a jump shot, it's what you can do when your basketball days are over - whether they end at high school graduation or after a pro career.

His children always remembered that and made sure the student in student-athlete came first. James and Yolanda both got their degrees. Dee, a student at the University of South Florida, is on her way. Tish will go to college next year.

"I like that they've been able to play sports," Feazell said. "I love that they're all getting their degrees or are on track to do so."

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Dee distinguished herself as a player the only way she could: Take more shots, run more, play more pickup basketball games. The work helped her became a star at Largo. Her number - 3 - is now retired.

After graduating from high school, Dee thought she was done with the game. She went to USF as a student but found she missed basketball a lot. She couldn't stay away. She used her spare time to conduct clinic and camps.

Dee was an assistant at her alma mater for two seasons before being offered the head coaching job this season.

She had to think long and hard before accepting. After all, she is not much older than her players and she would be coaching her younger sister.

"I knew there would be questions about that," Dee said. "People doubting whether I could do the job at such a young age. Others wondering if I would favor my sister and stuff like that. That just made me work harder for the seven girls I have on my team. Tish is part of that, and she gets no special treatment."

Dee decided to approach the game as a coach by keeping her own personality. She's friendly with the players off the court, demanding on it. The results have been solid. Largo is 26-1.

"I don't think I could've asked for a better way to end my senior year," Tish said. "I'm playing in the state tournament with my sister as the coach and my family is all here supporting us every game."

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