When the high school basketball season began in earnest in late November, James Ricci didn’t really know if he had a spot on the North Arlington High School boys’ varsity squad.
After all, the Vikings were a team in upheaval, having lost the top seven players from last year’s team to either graduation or transfer.
Ricci, a member of the Vikings’ junior varsity squad last season, thought he had a chance to crack the lineup, provided he worked hard in the offseason.
“I really expected to play a lot,” Ricci said. “We lost a lot of seniors, so I thought I had the chance to show what I could do.”
But disaster struck.
“I got hurt early in the season, suffering a concussion,” Ricci said. “When I came back, I came back a little nervous and a little rusty. I had to be able to find my groove again.”
Ricci entered last week’s game against Saddle Brook averaging a non-descript five points per game. He was the team’s point guard, given the responsibility to get the ball to others so that they could score. Ricci’s scoring was almost an afterthought.
“I felt in that game that we could win if I did something,” Ricci said. “I felt like I was open, so I just kept shooting.”
Lo and behold, Ricci ended the game with a career-best 31 points, leading the Vikings to a thrilling 69-68 victory.
“I was a little surprised, because I never scored like that before,” Ricci said. “But I wasn’t really thinking about the points. I was thinking about getting the win. That’s all I cared about.”
Acting North Arlington head coach Marcelo D’Andrea, who took over the program after former head coach Rich Corsetto abruptly resigned three weeks ago, always had faith in Ricci.
“I saw something in him,” D’Andrea said. “He’s lefty, so that gives him a basketball advantage. It gives the team a different dynamic. He has a great basketball IQ. He’s athletic around the basket. I knew that he eventually be a good player for us.”
Ricci’s offensive eruption was good enough for him to earn the Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
He was not shy to shoot against Lyndhurst¸ scoring 10 points and added seven against Hasbrouck Heights. But the 31 points outburst against Saddle Brook completely out of left field.
“I think it’s part of the maturation process,” D’Andrea said. “I think he’s been aggressive going to the hole. I don’t think he’s going to become a player like David Rivers, but we threw him into the fire and he’s been on point.”
D’Andrea likes Ricci’s playing style.
“He sees the court well,” D’Andrea said. “He can make plays. I knew it was going to be a matter of time before he broke through. It was also a matter of confidence. He’s also turned into a good free throw shooter. He had three 3’s (3-point baskets) in that game and I don’t think he had three all year. I just wish there was more of a season left for him.”
Needless to say, Ricci was a little taken back by his career best by 20 points.
“I was shocked,” Ricci said. “I was not used to the moment. But this helps my confidence a great deal. I know I’m not going to play much more basketball in my life, so this made me feel real good. It makes me relieved to know that I could do it. Before, I was just a playmaker. Now I turned into a scorer.”
Ricci was asked if he can handle the limelight, albeit as brief as it is.
“Yeah, I like it,” Ricci said. “Passing the ball is my bread and butter since I started playing seriously in eighth grade. I always dreamed of something like this.”
“It was good for him,” D’Andrea said. “He created a lasting memory. When he’s old and gray, he’s going to remember the night he put up 31 on Saddle Brook. He has that forever. He’s such a good kid that he makes it easy to root for him.”
D’Andrea was asked if he could have predicted Ricci’s night to remember.
“Did I see this coming?” D’Andrea repeated. “Absolutely not. He just got hot at the right time and it was refreshing to see it.”
Ricci said that he was glad he chose basketball in grammar school.
“I wanted to do something with my friends,” Ricci said. “I tried basketball and I liked it. I realized that basketball was my speed mentally and physically.”
Ricci knows that there are only two games left in his high school career, a regular season contest against St. Mary’s of Rutherford and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I playoff game against People’s Prep next week.
“I know we haven’t had the kind of season that we hoped we would have,” Ricci said. “But I feel like I have a lot of good basketball in front of me.”
But nothing will compare to that miraculous and stupendous night against Saddle Brook.
North Arlington senior guard James Ricci. Photo by Jim Hague