The scene was reminiscent of the days when Nicole Kaczmarski was playing for Sachem High School. The gym was packed, there was a large media turnout, and little girls were asking for autographs Saturday night at Sachem North High School.
Kaczmarski, considered by many the greatest girls basketball player in Long Island history, was honored at halftime of Sachem East's 57-36 League I win over Sachem North. Her No. 23 jersey was retired as she became the first female athlete to have that honor in Sachem history.
Kaczmarski was given a standing ovation as she walked to center court. "When they were doing the national anthem and seeing all the people here, I had flashbacks of standing out there with my team feeling pumped for the game," she said. "It brought back a lot of great memories. It's really hitting me more as an adult more than when I was playing."
The players wore "Kaz Night" T-shirts in warm-ups with No. 23 on the back. Sachem East's Jamie Doherty and Sachem North's Shayla Cosgrove had the option to wear No. 23 for the rest of the season. Both decided not to, beginning Saturday night.
"I always looked up to her," Cosgrove said. "The things she did were amazing. I'm happy to give it up. She changed basketball."
Kaczmarski, who scored 2,583 points, was the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior and won Newsday's Charles H. Clark Award as Suffolk Player of the Year four times. She led Sachem to the state title as an eighth-grader.
In the Suffolk final in 1999 as a senior, she had 45 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and six steals in a win over previously undefeated Bellport. She was one of the most-sought-after recruits in the country and played one year at UCLA before plantar fasciitis cut her career short.
"I often said she's the one that lit the fuse for all the girls basketball players that came afterward," said current Sachem East coach Matt Brisson, who was an assistant coach when Kaczmarski played before the schools split. "She played at a level no one had ever seen before. We struggled with the boys coach because he desperately wanted her to play on his side. She was just so far ahead of everyone else and electric."
"In my 30 years, I have seen some really good players," said Northport coach Rich Castellano, who was happy to hold Kaczmarski to 39 points twice in her senior year. "There's never been anyone better. She put girls basketball on the map. She got people to come to games. When people always ask me who the best basketball player was, I always say Kaczmarski."
It was so packed when she played that people were turned away. Several times, her family members had to be secretly escorted into the gym so people wouldn't get angry.
"When you went to any game, the places were packed," Brisson said. "You literally couldn't get seats. I remember going to Longwood and someone told me the building sustained thousands of dollars of damage because people were breaking windows to get in. Parents came from far to bring their kids. Little girls had shirts that said 'Kazmaniacs.' She would go to the fountain and they would hustle down to get an autograph. It was like hanging out with a celebrity.
"The thing that was most impressive was how she conducted herself. She didn't feel she's worthy of that attention. It was embarrassing to her."
Even after Saturday night's game, she was asked for more autographs. "I was surprised because I'm so much older than that generation," said Kaczmarski, 30. "Just to have kids know who I am is surprising."
Doherty's 16 leads
North to victory
Meagan Doherty scored 16 points and Emily Carmel and Kathleen Everson 11 each in Sachem East's 21-point victory over Sachem North. Danielle Levine scored 14 points for North.