Gabe Patterson remembers it like it was yesterday.
The day was Dec. 16, 2011. Patterson, Free State High’s senior forward, was warming up for his first City Showdown. Patterson had worked his way up through the program ranks — playing on the sophomore team, then the junior varsity — and finally was about to get his chance on the varsity stage to face the Firebirds’ rival, Lawrence High.
He had been experiencing soreness in his right hip, but nothing like that was going to keep him out of this game.
Then the unthinkable happened as Patterson and his teammates were going through their pregame routines.
“It just tore, and I knew I wasn’t going to play,” Patterson recalled. “I felt terrible.”
The news of the big man’s unavailability hit his teammates hard, too. They were all fired up for their home game against the Lions when they found out minutes before tipoff that their 6-foot-3 post player was scratched from the lineup.
Said senior point guard Shawn Knighton: “It was a real shocker. All of us seniors … it’s a big game for us.”
FSHS coach Chuck Law suddenly had a wrench thrown in his game plan. Patterson was the only Firebird remotely close in stature to Lawrence’s 6-foot-7 sophomore center, Bryce Montes de Oca.
“Obviously, we had big designs for him,” Law said. “That was a blow.”
Still, the coach knew sitting on the bench was more of a burden on Patterson than it was for anybody else, and he credited the rest of the team — especially seniors Brett Frantz, Cameron Dabney, Tyler Self and Knighton — for helping Free State go to overtime in the rivalry game before falling, 75-68.
“They weren’t going to not come out and play,” Law said, “in part out of respect for the fact that (Patterson) couldn’t play.”
Relegated to a frustrated spectator, Patterson admired what he saw in that game from his teammates.
“They played amazing. Brett (24 points, seven rebounds) and Cameron (23 points, four rebounds), they showed out,” Patterson said. “I think if (Free State) would’ve offensive-rebounded more and kept (LHS) off the glass, they would’ve won the game.”
Of course, there was another big if for the Firebirds (7-12) regarding that game.
“I knew I would’ve made a difference,” Patterson said, “if I got to play.”
As a strong inside presence for FSHS, Patterson certainly has made an impact on the court since returning to the floor (he missed just two games, then steadily worked his way back into a starting role). Patterson averages nine points and seven boards on the season, but has picked up his play in the last seven games, averaging 12 points and eight boards. The Firebirds are 4-3 in that stretch, with two losses coming against top-10 teams (Leavenworth and Olathe South) on the road and the other coming in overtime on Tuesday at Shawnee Mission East.
Said Law: “There’s no doubt that we’re a much better team when he plays.”
With Patterson’s length, rebounding and ability to pass out of the post against man or zone defenses, Law said the senior gives FSHS a dimension it didn’t have the last time the Firebirds faced Lawrence.
Knighton said having Patterson patrolling the paint makes Free State better on both ends of the floor.
“He intimidates the other guys coming in there,” Knighton said.
With the City Showdown rematch set for 7 p.m. Friday at LHS (12-7), Knighton knows Free State’s primary big wants to prove his worth against the Lions.
“He’s been talking about it a lot, how he’s excited about playing that game,” Knighton said.
As if missing the first game against Lawrence wasn’t motivating enough, Patterson has special interest in the game for another reason. He went to Central Junior High, where he was teammates with current Lions seniors Logan Henrichs, KJ Pritchard and Anthony Buffalomeat and junior Tyrone Jenkins.
“I think it’s gonna be pretty fun to play against somebody I used to play with,” Patterson said.
He’s hoping this City Showdown will be memorable for entirely different reasons.
“I just can’t wait for it,” Patterson said. “I’m ready. My hip’s fine. We’ve just got to work together as a team and get this done.”