It felt like 1999 all over again. The superlatives flowed easily. The Sachem North gym was packed. And Sachem's Nicole Kaczmarski once again was the center of all that attention.
The varsity girls basketball teams at Sachem East and Sachem North warmed up in their Kaz Night tees in a heartwarming tribute to one of Long Island's greatest high school basketball players. It was 13 years later, but it sure felt like 1999 -- the year we said so long to a special player who changed the way we look at girls basketball forever.
Nicole Kaczmarski was all that in a fabulous five-year high school basketball career. She became a celebrity as news of her skill set spread across Long Island, drawing massive crowds.
She emerged as an eighth-grader on the varsity scene, lifting the Sachem girls basketball team to the Long Island championship. Her deft shooting ability, ballhandling skills and court sense drew sellout crowds.
She was known as Kaz, a four-time winner of the Charles H. Clark Award, presented to Suffolk's top player. She also was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year in her senior year.
In recognition of her accomplishments and contributions to the game, the Sachem School District honored Kaczmarski Saturday during a halftime ceremony by retiring her No. 23.
Sachem East's Jamie Doherty and Sachem North's Shayla Cosgrove proudly turned in their No. 23 jerseys and will wear different numbers for the remainder of the season. A No. 23 banner was hung in her honor alongside four other Sachem notables: Neal Heaton, John Elliott, Doug Shanahan and Jeff Ruland.
"It is our extreme pleasure that we recognize the impact that Nicole Kaczmarski had on the landscape of girls basketball," Sachem athletic director Pete Blieberg said. "She was a genuine icon. She was electric and left capacity crowds breathless, not just in her home gym but in opposing gyms across the Island."
The ceremony took place before a large crowd that included Kaczmarski's mother, Marianne; other family members, coaches and the Sachem administration.
"It's a tremendous honor and I'm flattered that the district retired my number," said Kaczmarski, who was offered numerous scholarships and chose UCLA, where she was a Pac-10 all-star as a freshman. "Basketball was my life. This hasn't sunk in yet but I'm sure as time goes by, I will cherish it even more. I'm very proud."
Kaczmarski's impact on Long Island girls basketball is legendary. While others have found great success in the post-Kaz era, no one has had the impact she did. She was unparalleled.
"She packed the gyms," said former Sachem coach Mike Atkinson, who flew in from Florida. "My wife and a thousand other fans couldn't get into the title game against Bellport. It was almost inconceivable that this one girl could have such an effect on a sport. But she did. People came from all over to watch Kaz play. Some were curious about her skills and some just loved watching her play."
She inspired little girls across Long Island "to play like Kaz." They swarmed her before and after games looking for an autograph or a photograph. There were times she'd spend an hour after a game signing for people of all ages. And last night, the always-accomodating Kaz was there signing autographs for everyone.
"She was a high school phenom," Atkinson said. "She was an entity unto herself. She was Kaz."
Kaczmarski scored 2,583 points in five years to become Long Island's all-time leading scorer. Of course, records are meant to be broken, and some of hers now belong to others. She averaged 25.4 points in the regular season and 31.7 in the playoffs.
The bigger the game, the bigger she played. Her signature game came against Bellport in the 1999 Suffolk Class A championship game, when she burned the previously unbeaten Clippers for 45 points, 18 rebounds and seven assists in a 64-49 win.
That title game was played at Longwood High School in Ridge, and no one envisioned the events leading up to the game. As Sachem and top-ranked Bellport went through pregame warm-ups, the crowd began to fill the arena. Despite freezing temperatures and a howling wind, the lines went out the double doors of the school and around the building.
The Kaz effect was in full force.
"My mother couldn't even get in," Kaczmarski said. "They were sold out."
A soaring interest level and a marquee matchup of Kaz and company against Bellport was too much for Longwood to handle. They closed the doors and more than 1,000 fans were forced to wait outside for game updates.
The decision to close the doors caused a near-riot outside the gymnasium. Meanwhile, Kaz went into spectacular mode, lifting her team to a second straight Class A title.
Her jump shot was the stuff of legend. She elevated like no player before her in the girls game, and all was on display one final time in Suffolk.
"The following week before the Long Island championship game, they were scalping tickets outside at Hofstra," said Michael Lardner, MSG Varsity's executive producer. "It was just unbelievable."
Kaczmarski currently works as a cardiology assistant in the heart center at Stony Brook University and will apply to a physician assistant school. She also works as a color analyst for Cablevision's MSG Varsity and for St. John's University as a color analyst and a reporter for the Red Storm report.
"I love the games and seeing all the players in the tri-state area," Kaczmarski said. "It's a great way to get back into the game. It's fun again."
It is fun again for a former superstar guard who left us breathless. And for one night, it felt like 1999 again.