by Scott Kindberg
Wofford’s Basketball Career Has Few Rivals
The sign reads, “Welcome to the James F. McElrath Gymnasium: Capacity — 2,000 individuals.”
But since the facility opened in 1986, Jamestown High School administrators haven’t had to worry too much about breaking any fire codes.
For in a school known for its tremendous football teams, basketball, while strong most of the last 12 years, has only rarely — and mostly at playoff time — quickened the pulse rates of JHS sports enthusiasts.
This season the Red Raiders have regularly played before big crowds, including the last two which have been of the standing-room-only variety.
“The last two games were the largest I’ve seen in Jamestown,” said athletic director Wally Huckno.
The “Mac” is now the place to be.
The fact that the Red Raiders are 14-2, owners of an 11-game winning streak and tied for first place in Division 1 of the Erie County Interscholastic Conference certainly helps put fannies in the seats. But it wouldn’t be a reach to suggest that the majority of people who have made a habit of following the team this season are doing so to see a special talent.
His name is Maceo Wofford.
“The last time there was this much excitement was with Tyrone Beaman,” Huckno said.
Beaman, also a point guard, was a member of Jamestown’s 1979-80 team, which was the last JHS squad to win a Section VI championship.
But Beaman, a transfer from Niagara Falls, was here just one year, graduated and never returned.
Wofford, the reigning Western New York Player of the Year, has become one of Jamestown’s true treasures, a kid who doesn’t take his God-given talents for granted.
“I take basketball seriously because it could be a future of mine, but now I just focus on school and if (a career in basketball) comes to me, it comes to me.”
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Jamestown coach Ben Drake is putting the Red Raiders through their paces during a recent practice.
To say it’s tedious would be an understatement.
Wofford is running around and through screens like a human pinball while being chased by teammate Justin Frederes who has the unenviable task of trying to guard him.
At times, Wofford receives the ball on the block, catches it and drives to the hoop. Other times he rubs off a screen on the baseline and puts up a jump shot. More often than not, the sound you hear is leather touching nylon.
Nothing but net.
For Wofford, it’s music to this ears, a symphony of sound that he’s been perfecting since he was a snot-nosed kid growing up in Meadville, Pa.
Even as an elementary school student, Wofford found himself in pickup games with players twice his age. He admittedly took his lumps, but not enough to deter him. Not enough to stop him from perfecting his game. Not enough to make him cut corners in his workouts. Not enough to stop him from fulfilling his dream.
By the time he moved to Jamestown in 1990, his basketball skills were already reaching legendary proportions. Middle-school games at Washington were no contest. Wofford, who was also a phenomenal running back on the school’s football team, was already “the man,” even though he hadn’t yet reached puberty.
By the time he was an eighth-grader he was the best player on Jamestown’s junior varsity team. And only his reluctance to leave his friends on the jayvees prevented him from playing on the varsity that season.
But it was apparent even then that the Red Raiders — the entire community, for that matter — were in for something special.
Fast forward four years, through two Post-Journal Player-of-the-Year awards, dozens of varsity games and countless AAU tournaments, basketball camps and individual workouts at the YMCA.
With four regular-season games remaining in his career, Wofford has already shattered the school’s all-time scoring record and stands at 2,004 points for his career, only the second player in Chautauqua County history and just the ninth from Western New York to score that many.
By the time he playoffs roll around later this month, Wofford, who hasn’t scored less than 20 points in a game since his sophomore year, will have passed Christian Laettner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Stephon Marbury on the all-time state scoring list, too.
“There’s a lot of guys around who have talent,” said Drake, a 1990 JHS graduate. “The difference is he’s doing something with that talent. … There’s not a lot of guys that have come through (JHS) that would spend hour after hour after hour working on their game. He takes such pride being the best basketball player he can be. That’s the reason why he’s as good as he is.”
At 5-foot-10, Wofford defies gravity with his highlight-reel dunks, shuts down the opponent’s best offensive threat, rebounds like a kid six inches taller and is unselfish to a fault. He’s averaging a shade over 29 points per game and he could probably have more if he took the number of shots a player of his caliber should.
Opposing coaches have taken notice.
Frontier coach Gary Domzalski after Jamestown posted a 64-62 road win: “He’s every bit as advertised. He’s a great player and a great leader. I don’t think people appreciate he’s more than a scorer. He directs traffic and he keeps his team’s confidence up.”
Hamburg coach Eric Karjel after Wofford scorched the Bulldogs for 34 points in Jamestown’s 76-55 victory: “He’s the best guard that’s come out of ECIC and one of the best that’s come out of Western New York in 20 years.”
Williamsville North coach Denny Seitz after being humiliated by Jamestown, 70-34: “We were afraid of Maceo.”
Through hard work, Wofford has begun to set himself up for life beyond high school. He has already make a verbal commitment to attend Iona in the fall on a basketball scholarship.
“It feels good to know that you have a free ride to school, because my family isn’t rich,” said Wofford, who is considering a career as a physical education teacher. “That’s a great accomplishment to get a four-year education to a big-time school in basketball. To have that out of the way is great, so now we can focus on the playoffs and, hopefully, states.”
Sometimes overlooked because of his considerable basketball talents, however, is a young man who is respectful and considerate of his peers, both on and off the court, and hard-working in the classroom.
“I use him as a measure,” Huckno said. “He’s a great role model. He does it by action rather than a loud voice.”
OK, so he does do a little trash-talking on the court now and again.
“One time a team was talking trash to me all game. I just let it go,” Wofford recalled. “But he just kept doing it and doing it. I told the guy: ‘Do you want to see an Iverson crossover (dribble)?’ He said he did, so I did it on him and I guess he fell down. You can only take so much.”
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Being the big man on campus at JHS, the county’s biggest school, can be a heady experience.
Fellow students and faculty know you.
Your name appears regularly in the newspaper, and is broadcast on the radio and on TV.
People you’ve never met greet you by your first name.
It’s easy to get caught up in that.
Priorities, like schoolwork, can often fall by the wayside.
Wofford knows better.
In fact, when a reporter stopped by practice last week for a pre-arranged interview, Wofford wondered if it could be rescheduled.
He had to work on a term paper.
The final draft wasn’t due for weeks.
Now that’s priorities.
Wofford and the reporter managed to squeeze in a 15-minute interview at the James Prendergast Library, but then it was back to work.
School, practice weight-lifting, homework, sleep. Throw in regular trips to the YMCA and that’s pretty much Wofford’s life these days.
“He also tries to be the best student and person he can be,” Drake said. “He’s the kind of kid you don’t have to worry about not getting his homework done. That’s why I think he’s going to be successful in college. He might not have a 4.0 (grade-point average), but I know he’s going to do the best that he can with what God gave him.”
Noted Lynn Chapel, Wofford’s guidance counselor: “You see the same kind of intensity from him in the classroom (that you see on the court).”
In fact, Wofford earned a place on the honor roll for the just-completed second marking period. He was on the merit roll following the first quarter.
“He would be a role model for any underclassmen here,” Chapel said.
So, if you’re looking for a story about his wild side, you’ll spend a long time searching.
In fact, after scoring 35 points, surpassing the 2,000-point barrier and leading the Red Raiders to a 78-61 victory over Frontier last Tuesday night, Wofford did, for him, the predictable.
He celebrated at home with his maternal grandmother, Hattie, who was unable to attend the game.
But, like a dutiful grandson, he brought home the video tape for her to watch.
Doug Berlin of Jamestown, thinking Wofford would be out celebrating his milestone game with his buddies, called Mrs. Wofford to relay the good news.
He was too late.
Maceo was home for the night.
“I came home, told her what happened and she gave me a kiss on the cheek and congratulated me,” Wofford recalled. “I had the tape of the game and we watched it. Mostly we watched the dunk over and over again.
Berlin, who along with his wife, Maureen, considers Wofford a member of his family, was still amazed at Maceo’s post-game “celebration.”
“How does somebody that good in a town this small not be the biggest jerk that ever lived?” Berlin asked.
It all comes down to choices. And, as brilliant as Wofford is at making those on the basketball court, he’s just as adept at making the right ones off it.
“My grandma said to go out and do your best and she’ll be proud of me,” he said.
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A lion’s share of the credit for shaping Wofford’s character belongs to Hattie, with whom he makes his home.
“Nobody can be more proud of him than me,” Mrs. Wofford said. “I’m happy with the way he carries himself. I always tell him respect is so important. If you respect other people, they’ll respect you.”
Berlin has seen first hand the important role that she plays in her grandson’s life.
“He respects and abides by the rules she sets down,” Berlin said. “He knows right from wrong. She’s instilled in him a sense of values.”
Added Maceo, who has an older brother and two younger sisters: “I was always raised to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If I was to change as a person my grandmother or mother (Carrie, who also lives in Jamestown) would tell me. I haven’t changed so far, so I guess I’m doing good.”
So although he has witnessed “lots of stuff” in his life — “I’ve seen lots of shooting and drugs back in Meadville — Wofford has stayed clear of the land mines that have claimed some people close to him.
“I’ve been through a lot, came through a lot and seen a lot,” he said. “Right now, I just know what I have to go out and do it. I need to worry about myself and keep all the trouble behind.”
“His humility is very apparent. He’s really a special young man,” Huckno said. “He’s so unassuming and he wears his success so neatly.”
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Growing up on Long Island in the late 1960s, Berlin had the privilege of watching some pretty fair athletes strut their stuff for Lawrence High School.
But he also saw that just because they “had game,” didn’t mean they had a life.
“A lot of them ended up junkies or dead,” said Berlin, who works for the U.S. Postal Service.
Others, like friend Arnold Stone, managed to stay in school. As a matter of fact, he was a 6-foot-5 guard on a highly successful Lawrence basketball team, one of the best on Long Island.
Yet Stone took his gifts and let them waste away on the streets. After high school, he hung around with his buddies instead of immediately going away to college. Finally, after years of being the big fish in a small pond, he landed a scholarship at Jacksonville University. Stone was impressive enough there that by the time his eligibility was up, he had attracted the interest of some NBA teams.
The New Orleans Jazz even gave him a tryout.
But back then teams weren’t willing to take a risk on a 25-year-old free agent. Arnold might as well have been 50.
His career was over before it started.
Another talent wasted.
Stone’s window of opportunity had passed him by, all for the pleasure of “hanging out.”
Three decades later, Berlin is seeing a similar talent, but with a totally different attitude.
“I don’t know how many games I’ve had tears in my eyes watching him play,” Berlin said of Wofford. “I dread it coming down to an end here, but I know it’s coming.
“When he scored 49 points (in a playoff win) last year, everybody was yelling and screaming and I was crying. I guess it’s pride, but it’s not just because of his (basketball) ability. He’s something special.”
“I want people to remember me as a nice, well-rounded individual who was respectful to others,” Wofford said. “If they remember me as a basketball player, remember me as working hard on the court.”
Hattie Wofford would like her grandson to remember one thing, too.
“I told him to thank God when he gets up in the morning because it’s because of God he’s able to do these things,” she said.