NEW BRITAIN - As winter turned to spring, Tahmeen Dupree was in search of a new team to continue his basketball season. After helping the New Britain boys basketball team to its first state final appearance since 2002, just one week stood between the end of his high school season and the beginning of the AAU season.
Motivated after coming one game short of history, Dupree knew he wanted to keep playing through his junior year. He just wasn’t sure where.
That was until his longtime friend and Newington High School forward Mason Romano approached him with an opportunity to play for the New Haven Heat-North, an AAU team based out of Hartford.
“It caught me by surprise,” Dupree said. “I didn't know who I was going to play with at the time. Then Mason came up to me and I said 'OK, let's see how this goes,' and it seemed like a good team so I stuck with them.”
Dupree also caught New Haven Heat head coach Dwayne Bray by surprise, who welcomed Dupree to the team’s initial practices and found an instant contributor.
“[Romano] told me 'I have a friend named Tahmeen Dupree who wants to play with us,'” Bray said. “I didn't know Tahmeen, but he came to one of our practices early on and he became a starter instantly.”
Dupree remained in the Heat’s starting lineup throughout the team’s magical season, which culminated in the 12th grade AAU national championship in Orlando, Florida last week. Dupree and the Heat took down Puerto Rico in the championship game to finish a perfect 7-0 in the tournament before playing in the Supers Showcase, where they won another seven straight before falling 68-67 in triple overtime.
“I would have been happy if we went down there and went 6-4 and went deep into the tournament,” Bray said. “But it was like Groundhog Day. We just kept winning. At one point we were 14-0, won a national championship and were competing for another championship in the Super Showcase…It was absolutely unbelievable.”
It was an unbelievable experience for Dupree, who averaged 15 points and three steals per game through the Heat’s two tournament runs. Dupree, who watched with heartbreak as Waterford celebrated on the court at Mohegan Sun Arena back in March, had become a key piece on a championship team that he didn’t know existed until Romano approached him after the high school season ended.
“It meant a lot,” Dupree said. “I didn't want to have it happen again where we were so close and didn't get it. In high school, during the whole state tournament, I was hurt. I was down, because I couldn't play to my full potential because my ankle was messed up.”
Fully healthy and determined to used the Hurricanes’ championship defeat as motivation, Dupree started all 15 games for Bray down in Florida, leading the team in minutes while blowing away the coaching staff with his suffocating defense.
“He guarded the other team's best guard every game,” Bray said. “We put Tahmeen on the other team's best shooter or scorer in the backcourt, but if our team said another kid was lighting us up, the assistant coaches come right up to me and say 'We need to put Tahmeen on that kid.' He really, really takes defense with a lot of pride. He is the best on-ball high school defender I have ever seen.”
Bray’s praise is the type that would make New Britain high school head coach Kurt Reis proud. The defensive-minded leader helped mold Dupree into an elite defender, which he carried over into the summer, and eventually Orlando.
“Before coach Reis, I was just an offensive player,” Dupree said. “But having him coach me, I became a two-way player. Now I love playing defense, and I was able to translate that from high school to AAU.”
He was also able to translate New Britain’s winning ways, leading the Heat to a final record of 42-12, with a national championship and another championship at the prestigious New England Recruiting Report, which helped catapult the Heat to the a ranking of second overall in all of New England. Now, the team’s success has led to more opportunities, which will include a trip to Brooklyn this weekend to take on the Gersh Park All-Star High School Team.
“Our season is supposed to be over,” Bray said. “But now we're getting so much publicity and buzz around the team, they pretty much won't let us stop playing…That's a big honor for a high school team in Connecticut. When you win a national championship, you start getting calls from teams that want to play you. We're getting those types of invitations.”
Dupree is enjoying every second of the ride that has taken him around the country and a chance to win a championship. For Dupree, the Heat’s success is even sweeter when he reflects on his journey to the team, and how it almost never materialized.
“It was great,” Dupree said. “Now that I think about it, if I didn't decide to play with them, I wouldn't have been a part of all the fun things we were able to experience in Florida. I got lucky, I guess. It feels really good.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or email@example.com