Dwight Rees was the Star’s boys basketball coach of the year in 1977, 1987, 1989 and 1993 and he did so without the benefit of open enrollment, the resources of a private school or a suburban setting flush with the economic power for year-round, travel-ball team development.
Except for a three-year period in the early 1980s when he was the head basketball coach at Pima College, Rees coached the Sunnyside Blue Devils to more than 300 victories.
One season the talent was so thin that Rees’ Blue Devils went 0-24. Another year, Sunnyside was perfect, 29-0, winning the 1993 Class 4A state championship.
“You took the kids from the neighborhood who walked through the door,’’ Rees told me. “Some years were obviously better than others. The challenge of coaching was to get the most out of your kids and make it a positive experience no matter how many games you won.’’
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No year was better than 1993. That was a year Jermaine Watts walked through the door.
Watts, a junior guard, averaged 25 points in the ’93 season. He would finish his Sunnyside career with 2,055 points, then fourth in Tucson history, before signing to play at DePaul.
“Jermaine is a step ahead of everybody,’’ Rees said after Sunnyside won its closest regular-season game of the year, 77-72, in overtime against Tucson High, with Watts scoring 34 points.
When Sunnyside routed Peoria 74-57 in the first round of the state playoffs, with Watts scoring 32, Peoria coach Lonnie Cavalier said “Watts is the best player I’ve ever seen at this level.’’
Watts had basketball genes like few in Tucson prep history. He is the nephew of Tucsonans Randall and Jeff Moore, key figures in Pueblo High’s to back-to-back state championships in 1977 and 1978.
But it wasn’t all about Watts. All-city forward Anthony Figueroa was a defensive stopper. William Sims averaged 14 points a game. Hector Montano, Quinton Guarzo, Jason Holmes and David Miller were productive pieces to what became a historic season, the last undefeated team in Tucson boys prep basketball.
Rees couldn’t have seen an undefeated season coming. The Blue Devils went 19-9 a year earlier but lost two of the team’s top three scorers, Gabe Moraga and Billy Felix. But Rees did sense the ’93 Blue Devils had a chance to be a very good.
In November of ’92, Reese wrote a letter to his 12 varsity players. “We have the potential to win 20 games,’’ he wrote. “We have the potential to challenge for the state championship.’’
Rees knew the landscape as much as he knew how to coach basketball.
He grew up in Long Island, New York, and played college basketball at Cortland State, enticed to move to Tucson when he watched the PGA Tour’s Tucson Open on TV one cold winter afternoon in New York.
He moved to Tucson, enrolled in graduate school at the UA and found work as a graduate assistant coach on Fred Snowden’s first McKale Center basketball team, which prepared him for his first head coaching job — at tiny Globe High School.
After two years at Globe, where he drove the team bus as well as coaching, not much intimidated Rees. He knew that Sunnyside had experienced 16 losing seasons in its first 18 years of boys basketball but accepted the Blue Devils job in 1977 and immediately went 23-5, reaching the Arizona big-schools state championship game that year, losing to Pueblo, 42-37.
At Sunnyside, Rees was blessed with three once-a-decade type players: Greg Cook, who would go on to play at Arizona; Deron Johnson, the state’s leading scorer, who also went on to play for Arizona; and Watts. Not bad for a 15-year period.
He also knew the hard times between Cook, Johnson and Watts. Sunnyside went 7-15 in 1986 and 4-19 in 1990 before the 1993 state championship came into view.
After the Blue Devils beat Sabino High 60-53 in overtime at America West Arena to complete its 29-0 season, Sunnyside was treated to a pizza party celebration in the same room where the NBA Phoenix Suns lodged.
“We thought we were celebrities,’’ said Montano.
And in 1993, they were just that.
Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or [email protected]. On Twitter: @ghansen711