Clash of the Trojans

  • By Tim Wallis, Day 110, 2022

In the 2019 CJBL season, junior big man Dorian Sylvester led the USC Trojans in minutes played, rebounds and blocked shots while finishing second in scoring to junior combo guard and best friend, Sam Mason. The Trojans compiled a 25-6 record and advanced to the final game of the CJBL tournament where they were defeated by Arkansas, 78-62. While there was much cause for optimism looking forward to 2020 with USC receiving assurances from a couple of top prospects in C Khalen Anthony and PG Matt Mueller that they would be suiting up for Southern California, the mood on the team bus after the championship game was sombre. Head Coach Stan Goldman, knowing how rare an opportunity had just been missed, had said little since late in the second half when the game was clearly lost, and his players sensed his mood, keeping their voices low as the bus rolled home toward LA. There were, however, two exceptions at the back of the bus. Sylvester and Mason were the team clowns and nothing as trivial as a basketball game could dampen their enthusiasm for a good-natured prank or light-hearted roasting.

According to former Trojan Ryan Kimbrough, a little used senior power forward on that team, a sudden outburst of laughter from Mason (presumably at the antics of Sylvester) triggered Goldman, who flew out of his seat and unleashed a tirade at the pair of jokesters. “He’d barely said ten words since the game ended, so those guys copped everything,” reveals Kimbrough. “It was brutal. By the end of it, you’d think those two had cost us the championship.”

Despite the ugly scene on the bus, the mood on campus was high. It had been a great run and with Anthony and Mueller set to join the 2019 starting five of Mason, Sylvester, Cortez Ellison, Eric Davidson and Amos Prahl, there was every reason to believe the Trojans could go one game better. Mueller and Mason would be a dangerous back court pairing that would allow Ellison to start at small forward, and with two pro prospects in Sylvester and Anthony at the big positions and Davidson, Prahl and another freshman prospect in Mike Johnson providing depth, USC was as good a chance as any team of taking out the national title.

Prahl recalls the morning of the team’s first pre-season practice. “There was a lot of positive energy amongst the group when we first got together,” he says. “I knew I was probably losing my starting spot, but like everyone else, I was genuinely excited for a new season and another chance to make some history.”

When Mason failed to show up for that first practice, it did little to subdue the good vibes of the group, at least not immediately. “Dorian had spoken to him the night before and seemed to think there was nothing to worry about,” recalls Prahl. “But by mid-afternoon it was all over campus. Sam had dropped out of school.”

While the loss of the previous season’s leading scorer would be a setback, the Trojans still had one of the strongest lineups in the country. Mueller and Ellison might even be a better combination of guards, with Prahl or Johnson able to start at small forward. The excitement over the arrival of the flamboyant Anthony seemed to overshadow the loss of yesterday’s hero and the Trojans looked ready for their next campaign.

While clearly upset that his closest friend on the team would not be playing, Sylvester seemed ready for the new season and intent on improving his draft stock further, hopefully up into the middle of the first round. Anthony was sure to take away a lot of his shots, but his excellence at the defensive end and on the boards would be more important than ever next to the freshman. Anthony’s talents on the offensive end could wow crowds, but he was not known as much of a rebounder or defender.

It must have come as a shock then when Coach Goldman told Sylvester that he’d be coming off the bench behind Anthony rather than pairing with him in the starting lineup. “It was about the bus thing,” claims Prahl. “Coach didn’t mention it and Dorian didn’t mention it, but that’s why that happened. All season it seemed like Coach didn’t think Dorian cared enough, or that maybe he’d give up like Sam did. It was a personality clash. Coach just didn’t get who Dorian is. He’s a joker but that doesn’t mean he’s not serious about the game. Coach just couldn’t see it for some reason.”

While the decision to start Davidson (who averaged 8.0ppg 8.5rpg 4.2apg and 2.0bpg) could possibly be defended, Sylvester could have at least been used to back up both power forward and centre, giving him similar minutes to the previous season. Instead, half of those potential minutes went to freshman center Jalen Miller. With neither Davidson nor Miller looking likely to play at JBL level, the decision to give them court time at the expense of Sylvester seems a poor one. After averaging 8.6ppg 4.9rpg and 1.3bpg in just 13.5 minutes in 2020, Sylvester was picked up with the 53rd pick in the JBL draft. Now in his second season, he has established himself as the starting power forward and averages 12.3ppg 9.3rpg and 3.1bpg (3rd in the league). On a team of hard workers, he’s the “first in, last out” player, and his teammates in Portland would laugh at suggestions that he lacks in effort.

USC ultimately failed to repeat their 2019 performance, falling by a point to New Mexico in the 2nd round of the tournament, but it was an injury to Mueller that caused him to miss both of the Trojans’ games which was most often referenced as an “excuse”. We’ll never know whether the personality clash between Coach Goldman and the two best players on his national finalists cost Southern California a championship, but it’s not unreasonable to think they could have pushed further into the tournament even without Mueller had Sylvester been given the minutes he deserved. Davidson was 1 of 8 from the field in that one point loss.

For Sylvester, the year long snub almost certainly cost him a first round rookie contract worth several millions of dollars, but he has shown no public signs of frustration or anger about the situation. However, the fact that the usually chatty New York native declined to speak on his relationship with Goldman or the events following the championship loss suggest he’s not entirely happy with how things played out. Perhaps some day he will let the cat out of the bag.