When former standout Wayne Hunter steps onto the basketball court tonight at Valley High School, he thinks he may get a little choked up.
For one, he’s excited to be honored along with fellow Valley alum Roburt Sallie and former Vikings coach Paul Casey as the school retires their jerseys.
And, well, it's a sentimental occasion.
“The feeling I have, I can’t even put into words,” said Hunter, who left Valley in 2004. “Once I walk through those doors and be in that gym, that’s when it’s going to hit me.”
Just in case Hunter’s emotion seems a little overdone, consider this: Tonight’s ceremony marks the first time Valley will retire basketball jerseys to honor past participants. The short ceremony will take place right before the Vikings host Laguna Creek, currently coached by none other than Casey.
Current Valley coach Mat Bradley thought it was the perfect time to honor his predecessor, who led the Vikings to consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section titles in 2003 and 2004 before leaving in 2006.
The school already had a banner bearing Casey’s name hanging inside the main gym, but Bradley thought an actual jersey would be more fitting for the longtime coach.
“I thought it would be a cool concept to do while he’s still coaching," Bradley said.
Casey, who has coached at Laguna Creek since 2007, was floored when he received the call.
“It’s very nice, very humbling,” he said. “I can probably off the top of my head think of 50 people who deserve it more than me.”
Besides paying tribute to Casey and the two players, Bradley also wanted to honor a high water mark in Valley’s sports history. In both 2003 and 2004, after reaching the CIF Northern California playoff finals, Valley fell one game short of the state championship game. That’s still the best finish the school’s basketball program has ever produced in the postseason.
Memories of adversity
For the two players, much has happened since those glory years. At Valley, Sallie and Hunter were the leading scorers, both averaging over 20 points per game. By their senior year, both players had their pick of college scholarship offers.
At the time, Casey thought Sallie and Hunter had NBA-level talent.
“They had an inner confidence from the minute they arrived on campus,” he said. “They knew they could play. They worked hard and they were extremely unselfish; there were no egos there.”
Hunter and Sallie both hoped to play for collegiate Division I programs—Hunter even committed to Creighton University. But the players didn’t qualify academically and both chose to spend a year at prep schools to boost their grades.
Things eventually worked out for Hunter, who received a scholarship to play at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. He graduated in 2010 with a degree in communications and would’ve played professional basketball overseas if he hadn’t torn his left ACL during his senior year.
Forced to start a new plan after college, Hunter stuck with basketball. He’s currently the JV boys coach at Oakland Technical High School, a Bay Area powerhouse.
And while tonight’s ceremony caused him to reflect on what might have been, he’s comfortable with the outcome.
“I look back now and I wish I would have done things differently, but I wouldn’t trade my experience [at St. Mary’s] for the world,” he said.
Sallie also walked a tough road after leaving Valley. The former All-Metro guard bounced around different schools, including two prep academies, before spending a season at City College of San Francisco.
The adversity toughened him as a player and eventually gave him a new take on life.
“It’s just made me a better man off the court,” he said. “It’s made me look at the game in a different perspective.”
Sallie eventually finished his collegiate career at the University of Memphis, where he set a team March Madness scoring record with 35 points in the first game of the 2009 NCAA tournament. He currently plays basketball overseas, where he’s on the roster for Spanish team CB Tarragona.
“He’s a picture of perseverance,” said Casey. “He’s going to land on his feet. Nothing has ever been handed to him.”
A Time to Remember
Sallie, speaking by phone from Spain, was disappointed that he couldn’t make the ceremony.
“I would pay any dollar right now to take any flight to be there with my buddy Wayne and be there with Coach Casey to accept this honor in the right fashion,” said Sallie.
Instead, Sallie’s father and girlfriend will be there tonight as his No. 34 jersey is honored.
“I never would’ve imagined my jersey getting retired,” said Sallie. “I know I had some great seasons at Valley, but I never thought this would happen.”
Now that seven years have passed, the two players understandably feel nostalgic about their high school career. Casey, like most coaches, insists he’s more focused on his current team than reliving old highlights.
But at least this evening, the three men have an opportunity to remember those short but hallowed years when Valley’s basketball team seemed destined for greatness.
Bradley is hoping the tribute to the Vikings’ past will inspire the current crop of Valley basketball players.
“It’s definitely something where the kids in our program and kids in our school can see that previous student athletes can be highly successful at a school like ours,” Bradley said.