Tom Lizotte looked at the name of the sender of an email sitting in his in-box. Larry Lowe. Did he know a Larry Lowe?
Lizotte’s eyes flicked back to the subject line: Been looking to thank you for 26 years.
Was this spam or scam? Lizotte has been director of marketing for Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft for 14 years. How did this email slip through the filters?
“Good afternoon Mr. Lizotte. I hope you can grant me a few minutes of your time to say thank you for something you did for me and my team a long time ago I was a member of the Oak Grove-Coburn basketball team who played for the Maine Class D Basketball Championship in Winter 1985.”
A closed door flew open. In 1985, Lizotte was the young sports editor of the Central Maine Morning Sentinel in Waterville and Oak Grove-Coburn in neighboring Vassalboro was one of the more exciting high school teams to watch. Derek Counts, who was voted onto state all-star teams that included Jon Stovall of Cheverus and Matt Rossignol of Van Buren, was Oak Grove-Coburn’s face. Counts was a great shooter.
Lowe was a teammate. So was Rich Dunston. The three were at private Oak Grove-Coburn on academic scholarships from the Boys Club of New York. Lowe grew up in a public housing project in East Harlem. Counts and Dunston were from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood that was home to waves of immigrants in run-down tenements. The three stepped into another world when they came to Maine in the early 1980s.
“It was so different. My exposure to white people was very limited,” said Lowe during a phone call. “The food, clothing, music — everything was different.” His mother worried about the unknowns. Lowe reassured her he would be safe.
Reverse the situation and imagine sending your child to school in Harlem for the first time. The absence of diversity in Maine and some New York City neighborhoods can feed the same fears.
In 1985, Lowe’s senior year, Oak Grove-Coburn faced Jonesport-Beals, the legendary powerhouse from Eastern Maine.
“Jonesport-Beals was a great opponent and one we had legitimately lost to in the state championship my sophomore year. Unfortunately, during that final game in ’85, we were not only playing against Jonesport-Beals, but also the Eastern (Maine) referee who just happened to be retiring after the game as well as a Western (Maine) referee with a past history of fouling out several of our minority players over the previous three years.”
That night in the Bangor Auditorium, Counts and Dunston were among those who fouled out. Oak Grove-Coburn lost 87-83 in overtime. Lowe remembers that Counts flinched when the fifth foul was called. “Then he walked over to the bunch, took a towel and wiped his face. He was the coolest cat on the floor.
“We felt isolated and defensive toward most everyone — and life in general that night. Reality had come to remind us about who we were, where we were we were only teenagers and that night we questioned all the good things, good people, and good times that had come before.”
From the press table, Lizotte remembers he was furious. “I was stunned by the bias,” he said last week after forwarding an exchange of emails to me. “I still can’t get over the terrible feeling that three black kids from New York City were not going to win the Gold Ball because of who they were.”
Oak Grove-Coburn, whose coach led them in prayer before games, swallowed their feelings and watched the celebration quietly, respectfully. Lowe was conscious they were representing a school that had done much for him and his teammates.
Lizotte’s outrage came through in his story.
“The next day we read your article covering the game I remember taking a special note of your name and burned it into my brain. You validated our thoughts, our effort and in a lot of ways, our sense of who we were in spite of what the scoreboard read at the end of the game For that, I wanted to thank you.
Lowe graduated from Union College and works in advertising in New York City. Now 43, he has a wife and two young children and lives in a New Jersey suburb. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in his office in Manhattan when the planes flew into the World Trade Center. One childhood friend escaped from the 83rd floor just before that tower crumbled. Another was outside, across from the towers at One Liberty Plaza when the second plane hit. He turned and ran.
The three got together to write about their lives before and after that day. It’s a screenplay. During the writing, Lowe remembered the basketball game and Tom Lizotte, and began his search to deliver his thank you.
Oak Grove-Coburn closed in the late 1980s and is now the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Lowe plans to return to Maine for the first time since his graduation for an all-class reunion in the summer of 2012.
He’ll come back with a lighter heart.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: