By Nate Beutel
Legendary hoops coach Al “Doc” Massotti always had a philosophy that freshmen shouldn’t be on the varsity, let alone play on the varsity.
But after watching a short, scrawny ninth-grader named a few years back, the late Niagara Falls High School assistant, could do nothing but shake his head and say: “He’s that damn good.”
Jonny Flynn totaled just 96 points as a freshman in 2003-04, but sewed the seeds for a marvelous career that culminates before our eyes this winter.
The days with the Js
As a sixth grader at Gaskill Middle School, Flynn longed to have the chance to play modified ball with his cousins Eric Flynn and James Starks. But that wasn’t going to happen because only seventh and eighth graders were allowed on the modified teams.
So what did Flynn do?
He bypassed modified a year later as a seventh grader and moved right up to the junior varsity.
“I was begging to be on the modified in sixth grade with Eric, James, (Greg) Gamble and all them, but they wouldn’t let me,” Flynn said. “After I saw the competition they played, I didn’t think it would do me any good to play modified, so I played JV.”
That’s something that Flynn has always done, according to NFHS assistant coach Sal Constantino.
“One thing that he always wanted to do from day one was to play up,” Constantino said. “He always liked the challenges of playing the older kids.”
But even in Flynn’s mind, the seventh grade season was to be a learning year, where he’d gain invaluable knowledge sitting on the bench and watching players like Gamble, Starks and Tyrell Lynch.
“I was thinking that I was just going to be learning things at practice and not seeing a whole lot of playing time,” he said.
Even with those high profile teammates, though, Flynn saw plenty of action and had a solid year, which led into his eighth grade season, when Flynn made his “big boom.”
“That when I really started to get athletic and started jumping really high,” he said. “We had Anthony Marshall, Kendall Davis, Tyrell Lynch and Tyrell Douglas. I started running the point for that team and we went 18-0. We were the only JV team to ever go undefeated.”
That year also happened to be the first time that former Niagara Falls varsity basketball coach Dan Bazzani had the opportunity to watch Flynn.
“I saw him play on the JV as an eighth grader and I knew he was good,” Bazzani said. “I didn’t realize how good he was going to be, though.”
Varsity or not as a freshman
Flynn’s talents, his father’s blessing and Bazzani’s wavering thoughts left for an extremely tough decision during Flynn’s freshman year — should he or shouldn’t he move up to the varsity?
For Flynn, he didn’t think it was going to be that much of an issue.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal to try out for varsity in ninth grade,” he said. “I had just played two years of JV and did really good. Why play JV a third year?”
Flynn’s father, William, agreed with his son.
“With Jonny playing on the JV for two years, you can get bored,” he said. “Dan was hemming and hawing and said ‘I’ve never had a ninth grader,’ but I told him ‘Dan, give him a shot.’ ”
Finally, Bazzani relented — under the condition that Flynn would probably not see the floor much in games, but would learn a great deal competing with the likes of Robert Garrison, Paul Harris and Robert Harris.
“If you’re a young player (on varsity), you have to accept that (you won’t play as much) and understand that you’ll get better in practice,” Bazzani said.
Flynn did that early on, but as the season wore on, he began to see more playing time and show some of the potential he truly possessed.
“Playing against bigger, stronger and better players accelerated his progress,” Bazzani said. “He developed into a valuable contributor that year. He was a good fit for us.”
Flynn and the Wolverines made their first of three consecutive trips to Glens Falls that season, ultimately falling to Mount Vernon in the Class AA state championship game.
A year to remember
With the graduation of Robert Harris, a spot opened in the starting lineup and Flynn wasn’t going to let anything get between him and that spot.
“The only thing that was on my mind after my ninth grade year was starting,” Flynn said. “I told myself, ‘OK, Jonny, there’s a starting spot, you can really make a name for yourself and blow up if you start as a 10th grader.’ I really busted my behind that summer knowing that I had a chance to start.”
Flynn got his chance and took off running. He not only gave them an extra outside weapon, but also became a proficient passer with recipients such as Garrison, Paul Harris and Miguel Respress.
That crew, along with Gamble, Lynch and Starks led the Wolverines to a 28-1 record, a state title, a federation title and a No. 1 ranking in a pair of national polls.
“That was the best year of high school basketball in Niagara Falls history,” Flynn said. “Nobody can take that away and it was just so much fun.”
“That team put us on the map,” he said. “If you look back at it, we had seven D-1 players in some capacity. It was a great year.”
But even in Flynn’s eyes, there was still a lot to prove.
“That was another humbling experience, having to hold back for the good of the team,” Flynn said. “I could’ve went out there and been selfish and tried to score 20 points a game, but that’s not what our team needed that season.”
The year after a title
What was going to happen now?
The Wolverines lost Gamble, Garrison and Starks to graduation. Paul Harris was out of high school eligibility and Respress died during an AAU tournament over the summer.
“I felt so much pressure for me to be good last year,” Flynn said. “Before the year, everybody was hearing that I had gotten really good in the summer with AAU and that I had signed with Syracuse. So I felt like I gotta have a great season or people are going to say, ‘How is he going to Syracuse?’ or, ‘How is he ranked so high?’ ”
And NFHS struggled at times, uncharacteristically losing to St. Joe’s and Henninger (Section V) early in the year. At that point, Constantino took Flynn aside and gave him a simple message.
“Everyone puts the world on him, so I told him, ‘You’ll be a huge reason we win, but it’ll never be your sole fault if we lose.’ ”
Flynn said that Constantino’s reminders throughout the year were helpful.
“He brought me back down and told me that ‘We’re always going to be there for you if you score 10 points or 100 points,’ ” Flynn said. “It’s not always your fault. Last year, I caught a lot like that. The games we lost, I’d come in the locker room and say ‘I’m sorry and tell the guys I let them down.’ ”
But as the Wolverines approached the playoffs, Flynn sure as heck didn’t let them down.
After struggling through an opening round game with Kenmore West, NFHS came into Williamsville North and dismantled the Spartans as Flynn scored 38 points, including a number of ridiculous step-back, NBA-range 3s.
“He really picked up the scoring load,” Bazzani said. “I was a little reluctant to hand over the reigns to him, but everyone saw that Will North game. He’s the best shooter I’ve ever coached.”
The Wolverines carried Flynn’s hot hand all the way to Glens Falls for the third straight season, but just like two years before, they fell to Mount Vernon in the Class AA state title game.
This year’s going to be better
That loss still stings for Flynn, who claims NFHS is prepared for another run at the championship this season.
He says despite the fact the Wolverines lost some of their key players from a year ago, their replacements may be even better.
“They see we lost Lynch, Kendall Davis and Anthony Marshall, but look at what other teams lost,” Flynn said. “ People are going to see how good Rahshon Tabb really is. Last year he showed a little bit of it, but over the summer he got way better. Mike Crumpton is coming along, Kelvin Agee is going to be a great player. And they’re only sophomores.”
With all that talent, Flynn is baffled at some prognosticators and their thoughts that the Falls may not make it past Buffalo State this season. To that extent, he believes this team has a great chance at not only making the state tournament, but winning it, just as they did in 2005.
“I don’t see how people can say we aren’t going to make it out Section VI,” he said. “I see that as a slap in our face. To be honest, I think we should make it to states very easily this year.”
And while Flynn still plans on scoring nearly 30 points per game, he’s even more focused on helping his teammates develop into better players.
“This is my full role (to be the team leader) this year,“ he said. “I’m the only one from this team that won a state championship and I know what it takes to get back.
“I want to teach the young guys, get them better, get them scholarships to college. We want to win states and when you win, that’s when you get recognized. We have to keep winning so everyone can get noticed and we can all be successful.”
Accomplishments yet to achieve
While Flynn’s No. 1 goal for this upcoming season, which begins at 7 p.m. Friday at Lewiston-Porter, is to return to Glens Falls, there’s a number of other things he’d like to achieve.
“I told my Dad five goals when I was in ninth grade,” Flynn said. “Mr. New York State Basketball, McDonald’s All-American, make all-state team (accomplished in 2006), win states (accomplished in 2005) and get ranked in the top 20 in the nation (Rivals.com has him at No. 21).”
The first goal, being named Mr. New York State Basketball, is very much in reach, according to Bazzani.
“He very easily could’ve been Mr. New York State Basketball last year and he would be one of the leading candidates for the award this year,” Bazzai said.
Bazzani went one step further at Flynn’s signing with Syracuse University last month when he said he expected the point guard to win the award.
McDonald’s All-American, which is something that Paul Harris didn’t achieve, is an accomplishment that Flynn perhaps would cherish the most.
“McDonald’s is the thing that every player wants,” Flynn said. “That’s real big.”
And according to Constantino, who knows a number of voters for the McDonald’s game, there’s not a one that said they wouldn’t vote for Flynn.
If that doesn’t show the kind of respect that Flynn gets nationally, then who knows what will.
Contact Nate Beutel at email@example.com