The South Portland boys’ basketball state champions from 1992. File photos

The storied 1992 South Portland boys’ basketball team finally has some championship company.

And it couldn’t be happier.

For the better part of three decades, when the Red Riots rehashed their unforgettable 81-79 five-overtime win over Bangor in the Class A state final, in a game that went on and on into the night and eventually into legend, they were well aware that they remained the most recent champion in the annals of one of the state’s most decorated programs.

But on the evening of March 5, they finally welcomed a fellow Gold Ball winner, as the 2021-22 squad, led by 6-foot-11 junior big man JP Estrella, stellar junior point guard Jaelen Jackson and do-everything senior Owen Maloney, beat Oxford Hills, 58-44, in the title tilt of the Class AA state tournament.

No overtime was necessary.

And the stars of 30 years ago paid notice.


And paid tribute.

“I’ve tried to make other state games in the past, especially the 20th and 25th anniversary games. Considering the impact it had on my life, I always felt it was where I belonged that given night,” said John Wassenbergh, the leading scorer in the 1992 state game with 43 points, who now resides on Long Island, New York. “Knowing it was the 30th anniversary this year and South Portland was playing, I was not going to miss it. For me, the win was the cherry on top.”

Wassenbergh and Bert Rich, the unlikely hero of the 1992 state game, who came off the bench after star point guard Chris Keene fouled out to drain a couple clutch 3-pointers to rally the Red Riots from a 12-point deficit with under three minutes to go to force overtime, were well known to this year’s squad.

And vice versa.

“‘Wass’ and Bert Rich did separate Zoom calls with the team during the pandemic,” said current South Portland coach Kevin Millington, who was a senior captain on the 1990-91 team, the year before the title. “I heard from Wass and Bert and Chris regularly during the season.”

“I went to YouTube to check out (JP’s highlights),” said Rich, who now lives near Tampa, Florida. “This year’s team looked solid.”


Keene, who now has a son in the South Portland program, like what he saw all season.

“I was really excited for this year’s team,” Keene said. “They faced some high expectations all year just like we did in ’92. I saw a lot of us in them, especially with the younger kids. That (1992) game is a common topic in our household. Having coached (my son’s) youth teams throughout the years, that game has come up in team meetings before.”

The 2022 South Portland champions relished their opportunity to show off the Gold Ball.

As was the case in 1991-92, this year’s Red Riots team wore the bull’s eye and wore it well, losing just once during the regular season before rolling through the Class AA South region.

And heading into the championship game, Millington didn’t lack for encouragement.

“It felt like those (1992) guys wanted it, too,” Millington said. “I’d get texts like, ‘You’ve got this!’ and ‘It’s been too long!’ They were words of inspiration and it meant a lot to have their support.”

After South Portland beat Oxford Hills to end the drought, Maloney, the latest in a litany of players who grew up dreaming of leading the hometown Red Riots to a championship, elaborated how the number 1992 resonated with the current group.


“It’s a dream come true,” Maloney said. “Tears of joy to finally do this. Living in SoPo my whole life and being around South Portland basketball, it’s great to finally bring it home after 30 years. We wanted to end the drought and we finally did it.”

“Owen was on a mission,” Millington said. “All he wanted this year was to experience the joy of winning a state championship. These guys just wanted to be part of the South Portland basketball legacy.”

Even though Millington wasn’t on the roster for the 1992 title, he’s the most obvious link between the champions then and now and his former teammates were thrilled that a Red Riot through and through was the one coaching the team back to the pinnacle.

“Kevin Millington was kind of a big brother to me and my brother growing up when we played sports,” Rich said. “He lived 200, 300 yards behind me. To have him coach this year’s team was just perfect.”

“I’m so happy for the boys and their families,” Keene said. “Happy for Coach ‘Milli,’ who I played with, and happy for the South Portland community who had to wait 30 years, but never stopped rooting for their favorite team. We have the best fan support around.”

Wassenbergh, who came to South Portland as a senior, was immediately welcomed into the fray, then became the team’s leading scorer before starring at St. Joseph’s College and playing professionally, said that his connection with the current team included Millington, but went even deeper.


“I know Coach Millington well and I know how important it was for him to bring a championship back to South Portland,” Wassenbergh said. “He did a great job and the team should be proud. John Maloney (Owen Maloney’s father) and I both played at St. Joe’s, so I had the pleasure of speaking with Owen over the years. It was satisfying to see his dedication rewarded and I know it was important for him to have played as well as he did. It’s not easy to win a Gold Ball and I’m sure it is something he will cherish. I wish him the best in his college career.”

Tony DiBiase, the coach of the 1992 team, who, at 68, still works at South Portland High School and coaches freshman boys’ basketball at Cheverus, added to the sentiment.

“Kevin was my first captain when I came to South Portland, then he was my freshman coach, so we’ve been close for a long time,” DiBiase said. “I was happy to see (the team) do well this year.”

With Estrella and Jackson returning next winter and basketball fever running hot in the city, it’s likely the program won’t have to wait decades for the next champion.

But there will never be another team like 2022.

Just like there’s never been a group like the heroes of 1992.

“I take great pride in what we were able to accomplish in 1992 and the rich basketball tradition at South Portland,” Wassenbergh said. “We beat a lot of good teams from all over New England and New York that year. Going undefeated and winning in five overtimes vs. Bangor will always be special.

“However, I couldn’t be happier for this year’s team and to be connected on the 30th anniversary is a bond we will always have. This year is about them and their accomplishments, but it’s nice 30 years later to still be in the mix.”

Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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