January 19, 2014 01:00AM
By Bryant Carpenter
MERIDEN — A prize lay at the bottom of each cereal box. Roosevelt Shider would blow past it as if it were a defender he’d grow up to burn on the basketball court.
For him, the prize was the box itself.
Once emptied, a cereal box could be put to a higher calling. Nearly seven feet up, the height of a door frame. When you’re 2-3 years old, that’s plenty high.
Into these boxes and through the cut-out bottoms, the boy would shoot whatever was handy: balled up pieces of paper, aluminum foil, socks.
He quickly learned that tape was an insufficient anchor. The future manufacturing student at Wilcox Tech moved on to nailing the boxes to the door frame, then screwing them in.
The screws worked best.
His mom, Lisa Shider Pennyman, patched so many holes in door frames at 23 Catlin Street, where the family still lives, that she joked the other night, “There’s more putty in this house than anything.”
She helped mix the cement, too, after her son dug a hole to set up a new hoop in the backyard to replace the one that used to be attached to the garage (a hoop that absorbed so many shots from Roosevelt, his grandmother contends it contributed to the garage’s early demise).
By then, Roosevelt was a teenager, in his early years at Wilcox, on his way to becoming the highest scorer in Meriden boys basketball history.
Shider achieved the pinnacle on Monday night, passing John Frasco’s record of 1,628 points — a record that had stood for 52 years — just under five minutes into Wilcox’s game at home against Vinal Tech.
Shider didn’t have time to relish the feat when the record-breaking basket — a floater in transition — fell through. He was too concerned about getting back on defense because he knew his opponents would inbound quickly (which they did).
Even when the game was stopped and Frasco came out of the crowd to join Shider on court for the official acknowledgment of the record, it was impossible to dwell on it. After all, there was still a game to be played and won (which the Indians did).
It wasn’t until later, back home on Catlin Street, where he’d honed his skills at the foot of door frames, a garage and a freestanding hoop he’d dug by hand, that Shider sized up the accomplishment.
“It sank in that night,” Shider said. “When I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep for a little while, thinking about.”
* * *
Roosevelt Shider is as homegrown a talent as you can hope to find in the modern era of travel teams and AAU, private coaches and sports academies.
Shider has played AAU, but didn’t discover travel ball until he got to Wilcox, and even then he always played on local teams.
“Anything he’s done, it’s always been here,” Randy Farkas, his coach at Wilcox, noted. “It’s never been on a big scale, going on an elite team and going to huge tournaments in Vegas or California. Everything’s been local for him.”
Shider played at the Meriden Boys & Girls Club. He played at the Meriden YMCA, riding his bike down East Main Street at 6 a.m. on summer mornings, the first one in the gym.
Mostly, he played on Catlin Street, inside on his door-frame hoops and outside on the backyard court that was once dirt and is now hard-packed gravel.
He played with family, with his older brother John, nine years his senior, who would become more than just a big brother to Roosevelt when their father, John Sr., passed away in 2005 from pancreatic cancer. He played with older cousins who lived with his grandmother on the other side of the Shider’s multifamily house.
They’d play all day, hosing down the dirt in summer to keep the dust down and knotting frayed and torn nylon to extend the life of the net. Roosevelt would keep going at night, shooting by the light on the garage and, nowadays, by the light that spills over from the Meriden Public Library on the other side of stockade fence.
“He would play basketball nonstop,” said Lisa. “He would come in from outside playing and start shooting behind the door or in his makeshift hoop.”
Wherever he played, Roosevelt was always the youngest and smallest kid out there. The older kids would not go easy on him. Nor would John. For one thing, there was a lesson to be taught. For another, Roosevelt was good enough not to need kid-glove treatment.
“He would go up and every once in a while I had to foul him to let him know it was going to happen at the next level,” John recalled the night his brother broke the record. “But he would still score. He would still find out ways to do a crossover and step-back and shoot a jump shot. He would surprise me. Even at the age of 12-years old in middle school, he always surprised me.”
Roosevelt learned by closely observing everyone he played against or watched on TV. He still does it to this day, with the inexhaustible veins of the Internet also to mine.
He doesn’t have a favorite team or player. He’s simply a student of the game.
“It wasn’t really anyone I watched; I just love to watch,” he says. “I’ll just take moves from everybody. Just practicing, even if I went to a park and there were kids from Meriden.”
The sign of an artist: Watch, absorb, emulate, practice, practice, practice, forge a style.
“Offensively, he’s just gifted,” Farkas said of his 5-foot-9 senior guard. “I’ve never seen somebody his size, the way he attacks the hoop, finish left-handed, finish right-handed. It’s very impressive to watch him.
“The way he shoots the basketball: His form is pure,” Farkas added. “Ever since he was a freshman he shot a jump shot. He was shooting 3-point jump shots at 14-years old. And everything is beautiful. His form is just perfect and he can shoot from anywhere.”
The jump shot that is such a staple of the Shider’s repertoire is a relatively recent development. When he played at Washington Middle School as a seventh- and eighth-grader, Shider said, he couldn’t shoot a lick.
“I wasn’t consistent at all. Hit or miss.”
The breakthrough — the form, the rhythm, the muscle memory — came as Shider entered Wilcox. With his ability to shoot, Shider didn’t merely play for a team he had hoped to just make, he led it in scoring.
“My goal was to just get on varsity,” Shider said. “I didn’t expect I’d have that much of an impact on varsity.”
Shider actually had an impact on three Wilcox teams that rookie year: freshman, JV and varsity. On some nights, he’d see action in all three games.
He finished with 363 varsity points that first year and 496 the next as a sophomore. The 549 Shider scored last year as a junior were the third most ever on Meriden’s single-season chart.
But that was only the beginning. With 1,408 career points already to his name and the all-time city records well within his sights, Shider returned for his final season this year as more than just a scorer. His ball-handling skills had improved. He had no problem handling pressure, wanted the ball in his hands.
Already quick, he had further honed his defensive skills, which made him even more of a scoring menace going the other way.
“Just the growth from junior year to senior year, it’s been a big step,” Farkas said. “He could always score. This year, he’s doing everything. It’s been a fun process watching him grow.”
And it is fun watching Shider play. The scoring is really just the tip of the iceberg. Physical skills aside, he’s got that innate feel for the game. He’s patient, lets the game come to him. By not forcing matters, he rarely makes mistakes.
Though, when he does, Shider is his harshest critic. “I get mad at myself for everything. If I miss a shot, I get mad. If I lose my man, I get mad.”
Roosevelt reviews his success and failures in detail with his brother in their post-game conversations or next-day phone calls. Despite living in Shrewsbury, Mass., John drives down to see as many of Roosevelt’s games.
“I’m his No. 1 fan,” said John. “If I’m not at a game, I’m calling him the next day to figure out what he did, what he did wrong, what he did right and try to give him encouragement and motivation if he felt like he could have done better.”
There isn’t much lacking in Roosevelt’s game. He sees the floor well, has a sound sense of spacing, knows how to move without the ball, plays blistering defense. Combine those elements with the ability to shoot and slash and, well, you’ve got the scoring machine that Shider is.
Skeptics might note that Shider has piled up his points playing in the Constitution State Conference, which is comprised of mostly tech and magnet schools. This line of thought holds the CSC inferior to the CCC and SCC, conferences in which the area’s public schools compete.
Shider knows this perception exists. Does it bother him?
“No, not really, because I know playing in AAU I’ve played against some of the top competition.”
And it’s not as if the CSC is a total pushover in basketball. The game does not require the sort of roster depth tech and magnet schools typically lack in order to be competitive with the public schools in other sports. The CSC’s Capital Prep and Classical Magnet, in particular, have become legitimate state contenders in hoop.
As for college recruiting, some have told Shider he could have garnered more exposure if he’d played at a prep or Catholic school or an elite AAU team.
“I don’t think it matters where you play. It’s just how you play,” Farkas counters. “If you can play, coaches are going to find you.”
Which brings us to the irony of the story and why arguments about the validity of Shider’s record and the proper stage for his skills are moot. The city’s new all-time leading scorer does not see basketball as an end, but a means. He’s good enough to play in college, wants to play in college, but only as an adjunct to his education.
Shider wants to go into nursing. He was garnering basketball interest from Division II New Hampshire, but is not following it further. The school lacks a nursing program.
On Wednesday night, in a game in Redding against Joel Barlow, Shider was scouted by veteran Western Connecticut State University coach Bob Campbell. That could be a good fit. Nursing is a West Conn calling card.
Rhode Island College and Eastern Connecticut State are also on Shider’s radar. Like Western, they are D-III Little East Conference schools with nursing programs.
“He hopes to play in college, but in the same sense he’s leaning more toward education than actually looking at basketball as a career,” said John Shider. “He wants to use basketball as a way to get him through college.”
In the meantime, there are two more records to take down on the basketball courts of Meriden. Damika Martinez, the Platt star who is now tearing it up at Iona College (see related story), holds the city’s overall career scoring record at 1,857 points. With 1,695, Shider is within 162 of the girl who so impressed him in pick-up games at the Boys and Girls Club.
“She’s good; she’s really good,” Shider said. “Just as tough as the boys, if not tougher.”
And with 287 points on the season, with at least 12 games to play assuming Wilcox reaches both the CSC and state tournaments, Shider is within range of Rich Pasinski’s single-season mark of 619, which has stood since 1968. That same year, Pasinski set the city single-game scoring record with 50. Shider has twice hit for 43, his career high to date.
Pasinski, like Frasco, is a Wilcox guy. He’s also a substitute teacher at the school, so he’s watching (and cheering) Shider’s run to Meriden hoop immortality first hand.
“I told him he needs 29 a game, for 20 games,” Pasinski said. “I think he definitely has the potential because every time I come into sub I see how he’s doing in the paper and I say, ‘You’re right on schedule; just stay healthy.’
“I love his game; I love his quickness. It’s a very nice thing to see, especially at your old school, to see kids that have that capability. He puts in the time and effort. I see him in the offseason. I’m happy for the kid.”
Indeed, it’s hard to find detractors. Shider is so quiet he seems devoid of ego, or at least one for a player who is so good. Sure, he wants the records. He likes the magical sound of 2,000 for a career. But when he talks about basketball, he talks first about winning games, not scoring points.
“He wants our team to get better; he wants us to win,” said Farkas. “He doesn’t want to be a huge scorer if we never won any games, never made it to conference tournament, never won a state tournament game. He doesn’t want that. He is more about the team than himself.
“You get guys that are that good, they sometimes look down on their teammates and don’t want to give them the ball or do drills with them,” Farkas added. “He’s not like that. He’s the friendliest player on the team.”
Shider’s family takes pride in his good grades and good manners, in the respect he shows his elders and teammates, in the modest star he has become.
In turn Shider, in that low, reticent voice of his, speaks highest of his brother John, his sister Rozina and his mother Lisa. Family is his foundation and maybe, Farkas speculates, that’s why he’ll wind up going to college close to home.
Putty in door frames, cement to anchor the hoop, twine knotted under the rim: It would seem Shider knows plenty about bonds.