As Anchorage third graders, they were adversaries. As freshmen on varsity, they were mostly relegated to the bench. As seniors, they are looking to make history.
“It’s really a brotherhood among us five seniors,” Damarion Delaney said. “We came from the last players on the roster to where we are now. It’s just taking it all together and building our bonds even stronger.”
The Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School boys basketball team is on the brink of setting a state record for most consecutive wins against Alaska opponents and is in pursuit of a second straight state championship.
“We realize what we’re doing but we don’t at the same time,” said Daion “Darael” Doughty. “We’re making history, but we’re just going to practice day by day, doing what we do just to win and getting better every day.”
The five seniors have spearheaded the uncommon success that the football and basketball programs have enjoyed over the last four years.
During their tenure, they have been part of a staggering three state championship teams between the two sports. The Thunderbirds were the favorites to win it all in spring 2020 as well — before COVID-19 forced the cancellation of basketball postseason play around the state.
“It’s crazy to think about, that we could win four (state titles) in the span of a year and a half,” said Kyler Johnson, who was named the 2021-22 Gatorade Alaska Football Player of the Year. “That’s our goal and what we want to do and what we push for in practice.”
Joining Delaney, Doughty and Johnson in the Thunderbirds’ starting lineup are fellow seniors Elijah Reed and Deuce Zimmerman, both of whom were all-state football players in 2021. All five were on last year’s championship-winning team and have been on varsity since they were freshmen.
“This team is these five seniors,” East coach Chuck Martin said. “They’ve been a part of all of our success the last three years and certainly in the football program. We get leadership out of all five of those guys because this is their team. They know it and all the responsibilities that come with it, and they embrace it and love playing together.”
A bond like brothers
In sports, lasting bonds are sometimes forged in the crucible of a long, grueling season that features peaks and valleys. In this case, the bond between these five starters was formed nearly a decade ago and has been fortified through nearly constant competition together.
While they started playing basketball together in middle school as members of the AK Elite youth basketball team, their relationships were first fostered in elementary school during their pee-wee years. For Delaney and Zimmerman, who are cousins, they’ve been playing together since they were in diapers.
“It’s been fun ever since the first day,” Reed said. “I’ve played with Deuce and Damarion since third grade. For me, Rel and Kyler, it’s been since eighth grade. Our bond is tight just like brothers, on and off the field or court.”
[Editor’s note: Reporter Josh Reed is a second cousin of East’s Elijah Reed.]
The group recently gathered to celebrate Delaney’s 18th birthday party Tuesday, and they hang out regularly at his house. East assistant coach Dominic Delaney said the household has been a hub of activity for the crew in recent years.
Johnson played football throughout his childhood and didn’t start playing basketball until the sixth grade. But during grade-school years, Doughty played against Reed, Delaney and Zimmerman in their youth league.
“They tried to recruit me but I stayed loyal to my team and was going at it with them — but their team was stacked,” Doughty said.
This journey has been especially meaningful for the two members of their brotherhood who are actually blood relatives. Delaney and Zimmerman are two of the most dynamic athletes in the state for football and basketball. They both have been named to all-conference and all-state teams in both sports and have dominated in those arenas, playing side by side the whole way.
“We’re two of the best athletes in the state for football and basketball,” Zimmerman said. “I’m arguably the best football player and he is arguably the best basketball player. Two of the best athletes in the same household is crazy to even think about.”
While Zimmerman wasn’t able to pass the ball to his cousin on the football field, he does his best to set him up for scoring opportunities on the basketball team. Zimmerman feeds him the ball and bypasses chances to take his own shots.
“I want to see him shine,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t shoot the ball because I want him to shoot the ball.”
Delaney credits their family for their development and is amazed by how much they have both grown as players and young men.
“It just comes from the blood in our family,” Delaney said. “The fact that we’ve been playing both of these sports together since the second grade, and it’s crazy to see how long we’ve been doing this together and how far we’ve come.”
The only member of the unit who didn’t star or even play football altogether was Doughty. He cited injury concerns and a focus on basketball for the reasons he didn’t play both sports but regrets not playing for at least his senior year. East won the 4A state football championship for the first time since their freshman year this past fall and a city football championship during the pandemic year in 2020.
“Right now, I’m thinking I should’ve played, but at the time I wasn’t really committed to it,” Doughty said.
Hitting the reset button
Doughty has been heating up for the Thunderbirds down the stretch of the season and has been especially hot from behind the arc. He sank seven 3-pointers against West in a road game and finished with a game-high 27 points in the team’s 79-44 rout of their cross-town rivals.
“I used to be on the bench and now I’m out here doing my thing,” Doughty said. “They would always tell me that you’ll get your chance, so I just kept my head down and built the confidence to do what I’m doing.”
The Thunderbirds went the entire 2020-21 season without a loss, finishing a perfect 17-0 in last year’s title-winning season. Their only defeat of the season and in over two calendar years came against the St. Joseph Knights of Santa Maria, California, in the championship game of the Alaska Airlines Classic tournament on Jan. 22 of this year.
East led for the majority of the game heading into the fourth quarter before St. Joseph clawed all the way back and pulled away to secure a 46-36 victory. While the defeat snapped the 35-game winning streak, Johnson said that it allowed them to hit the “reset button” on their season. His teammates agreed with that assessment.
“It was really like a little rewash in everybody’s brains,” Delaney said. “Now we understand that we’re able to lose a game, so it’s time to pick it up and go even harder in practice and go ever the details and fundamentals.”
The last time East suffered a loss against Alaska competition came against the Colony Knights on Feb. 8, 2020, in a narrow 45-41 defeat. Since then, they have rattled off 48 consecutive victories against in-state opponents and are on the verge of setting a state record.
If they run the table at CIC regionals next week and win at least two games at the state tournament the following week, they’d best the streak that West Anchorage carried from 2004 to 2007. Despite being in the midst of a historic run and standing on the precipice of rewriting record books, the Thunderbirds have managed to stay cool, calm and collected.
“We’ve just been cruising along,” Martin said. “We really haven’t thought too much about the record, the winning streak or anything. We’re trying to just literally get better every day and figure out who we’re going to be later in the season and that’s really all it boils down to.”
Keeping a group grounded when they’re accustomed to enjoying tremendous success can be a difficult task. Keeping the pressure of high standards and expected excellence from becoming overwhelming can be just as daunting.
Martin and his staff have been able to accomplish that with their players by placing emphasis on enjoying the ride while it lasts and not dwelling on past achievements.
“We try to keep it fun, No. 1, and we try not to focus on the things that we don’t have control over,” Martin said. “What they have accomplished over the last three years is tremendous, and I think everybody is aware of that, but we really try to act like that is in the past.”
“Last year’s state championship is last year’s state championship, and the football championship is gone and past,” he added. “We enjoy those memories and we certainly enjoy the relationships that have come out of that, but these guys are competitors and want to keep getting better and look forward to the challenges that are ahead of us.”
Heading into CIC regionals next week and the state tournament after that, this band of brothers is singularly focused on one goal.
“I want to win my fourth one,” said Zimmerman. “I want to have four rings on four of my fingers. Working hard every day in practice in pursuit of that fourth.”