Every so often they think about it and then just as quickly the flashback fades. They were both kids, and it’s been 17 years since it happened.
Today A.J. Hill and Larry Valles are grown men with a host of experiences since that day at the Erwin Center in Austin.
“Have you found him?” Hill asks of Valles.
“Whatever happened to him?” Valles asks of Hill.
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I still think about it all the time.
Wellington’s Larry Valles
In the final minute of the 1999 Class 2A boys state basketball championship game between Peaster and Wellington, these boys had a sequence that would enrich their lives and link them forever.
Peaster’s overtime win against Wellington in title game is regarded as one of the most exhilarating and painful games ever played in the history of the state tournament.
A.J. Hill from Peaster would become a local legend for his performance, while Larry Valles from Wellington would be praised for his grace.
Hill is 33 now and Valles is 34.
“I still think about it all the time,” Valles said.
Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley had already made a visit to the Erwin Center, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush had taken a courtside seat to watch the tournament.
Both missed the best game of the tournament, which featured Peaster, a town 10 miles north of Weatherford, and the Panhandle community of Wellington.
During the third quarter, 5-foot-9 guard Larry Valles hit three consecutive 3-pointers to give Wellington a seven-point lead.
“In all honesty I could hit it from anywhere, but that was not my role,” Valles said. “Everybody on that team had roles. I could hit a 3-pointer from anywhere, but if you could give me a layup on a fast break I would probably miss it.”
In the final minute of the game, Wellington was protecting a small lead and trying to break Peaster’s desperation full-court press. With 40 seconds remaining, Wellington broke the press, Valles caught a long pass and was by himself for the type of shot he missed — the uncontested fast-break layup.
Trailing by three points with less than 10 seconds remaining, Peaster could not get a clean look at a 3-pointer against Wellington’s trapping defense.
Peaster’s best player, Hill, had the ball beyond the 3-point arc and was hounded by Valles. Realizing he had no choice but to just shoot, the much taller Hill lunged his long-shot attempt over the shorter Valles.
Despite Valles’ best effort to stand straight up, the referee blew the whistle to indicate a foul. Hill would have three free-throw attempts to tie the game with 2.1 seconds remaining.
That was when I never thought I’d miss anything. But I was nervous as hell when I was at the line.
Peaster’s A.J. Hill, who made three free throws in the finals seconds to send the game into overtime.
Valles immediately bent over and buried his head in disbelief while the Peaster players and coaches — all of whom had died their hair blond for the tournament — nervously celebrated the chance.
Hill was the biggest and easily the best player on the floor. He was also the last guy an opposing coach would want on the foul line.
“That was when I never thought I’d miss anything,” Hill said. “But I was nervous as hell when I was at the line.”
Hill made all three free throws to send the game into overtime.
Wellington was unable to overcome the shock of that moment, and Peaster pulled away to win 66-62.
In the final moments, when it had become apparent Wellington would not win, coach Tim Webb took Valles out of the game. He was met with a standing ovation from the crowd.
At the buzzer, the man responsible for convincing Hill that he should play basketball —Peaster coach Danny Henderson — raced to midcourt with a giant smile and celebrated the shocking conclusion.
Shortly thereafter, Valles composed himself for a few interviews. He handled himself as well as any adult could in that situation.
Hill finished with 31 points and 15 rebounds and the tourney MVP award.
“What made that special was who I did it with — my friends,” Hill said.
Valles left with a broken heart in the last game of his basketball career.
“At first it was really hard to swallow,” Valles said. “But in the end it was gratifying.”
Peaster-Wellington was an example of the best and the most unfortunate aspects of high school sports: an abundance of vulnerable innocence that turns kids into adults.
The irony is that A.J. Hill did not much care for basketball. Had it not been for Henderson, Hill would never have been on the court that day.
What I found was that basketball is not nearly as fun without winning championships.
Peaster’s A.J. Hill, who went on to play at Austin College.
“Basketball was not my love — football was,” Hill said. “Football was my No. 1 thing, by far and away. But I was going to have to leave my friends in order to play.”
Peaster does not have football, and there was some thought or fear that Hill would enroll at nearby Weatherford to play football.
Henderson changed Hill’s mind, as did his friends as well as his mother’s willingness to drive him to the high school gym to let him practice. At all hours.
When the team returned from winning the state title, Hill was a local sports hero. The team returned to the state tournament the following season and rather than sport bleached blond hair, the players went with jet black. Peaster won the title again in Hill’s final game.
After high school, Hill attended Henderson’s alma mater, Austin College in Sherman.
“What I found was that basketball is not nearly as fun without winning championships,” he said.
Hill said he earned 130 credit hours but did not complete his degree.
“I went through a little bit of a dark period for a while, but I’m fine now,” he said.
He lives in north Fort Worth and works for one of the largest industrial-sized refrigerator companies in the world.
Hill makes it back to Peaster every now and then and will occasionally pick up a ball to shoot, or play in an open gym with a former teammate or two.
“Dear, God, no, I’m not any good,” he said. “Whenever I thought I’d never miss, now I never know if I am going to make it.”
When Valles and his teammates returned home, they were treated as if they were the state champions during a rally in the high school gymnasium.
“Everybody said I had nothing to be ashamed of and that made it worth it,” Valles said. “The school and the people around the school were all there and they were all so loud.”
Nothing was going to change what had happened in Austin, but in the moments after they returned home, Valles felt safe and that it was all OK.
By this point Valles had already experienced more than most teenagers. Two years before the game, Valles’ older brother, David, was convicted of murdering an 85-year-old woman. During the trial, Larry Valles pleaded to the court that he believed his brother was innocent.
David Valles was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. That experience, as well as the divorce of his parents, made Valles distrustful and distant. It was not until he was on this team with these people that he accepted and trusted others.
That is the biggest learning experience of my life. I learned how to trust people. That made it worth it.
Wellington’s Larry Valles
“I never expected to be in a courtroom having to make comments on my brother,” he said. “But when I saw that people didn’t blame me or use that against me — they helped me get through it. I don’t know how to explain it, but that team — they were my family.”
After he graduated, Valles attended Dodge City (Kan.) Community College and played baseball.
He returned to Wellington and has been married for 14 years to his wife, Teresa. They have three children.
Valles coaches youth sports, and it was during one of his son’s baseball tournaments that he pulled out a box holding the mementos from that ’99 runner-up team. He figured the timing was right.
He told him about his team and about that game against Peaster.
“This was my championship opportunity right here and we fell short,” he told his son. “Mistakes. Crucial mistakes at the end cost us.”
As he continued to talk he grew emotional.
“I look at that medal and I think ‘We could have won first,’ ” he said. “What I wanted him to understand is that he can’t win it by himself.”
Despite the hurt, he said for a long time after that game that it was still the best thing he ever did in his life.
Now he says the best thing he’s ever done is his family and the life he has built. The memory of that game doesn’t change, but now it doesn’t hurt.
Valles works as a lineman for the Greenbelt Electric Cooperative, and he recently hooked up with some of his old teammates for a pickup game.
As far as his brother? He remains in jail. Valles said he saw him four years ago and has made peace with all of it.
As far as that title game? Valles has watched it just once.
“You know the thing that I consider worth it is anything you can learn from. I learned so much from my teammates,” he said. “That is the biggest learning experience of my life. I learned how to trust people. That made it worth it.”
Big time calls
While Hill and Valles settled into conventional lives, Danny Henderson left Peaster and went on to become one of the state’s best coaches. He had successful runs at powerhouse Duncanville and Flower Mound Marcus before he became the top assistant coach at Boise State.
Since he joined coach Leon Rice’s staff, the Broncos are 45-21 with one NCAA Tournament appearance. It will not be a surprise when Henderson is named a Division I coach back in Texas in the next year or so.
By then there is a chance a movie about his old Peaster team could be out as well.
Filmmaker Jim Hanon is finishing a screenplay about that Peaster team and hopes to make it into a feature-length film.
He has produced a 20-minute documentary about the town itself. That project gave him the idea to make a movie about the title-winning basketball teams.
“This is something I want to direct in Texas and we won’t be just bringing a screenplay to a studio — we’re in a little bit stronger position than that,” Hanon said. “That team is more about a drive not to win but to not lose.”
Hanon is confident he has enough for a quality film.
The final minute of the ’99 state title game would be enough.
Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.