PITTSFIELD — His former high school basketball coach sat in a folding chair near the baseline. His former teammates from Nokomis Regional High School sat in a group in the bleachers behind the scorer’s table. Behind them, five girls wore homemade T-shirts that spelled out his first name when they stood in unison, and in the correct order.

This Saturday afternoon basketball game at Maine Central Institute was a road game for Phillips Exeter, but for Chris Braley, one of the Big Red’s best players, it was a home game. The loud cheers that drowned out his pregame introduction was proof of that.

“I’m not surprised he had this crowd here, and it has less to do with the type of basketball player he is and more to do with the person he is,” Phillips Exeter coach Jay Tilton said. “That’s a tremendous show of respect for him.”

Braley grew up in Newport, just a few miles and one exit north on I-95 from MCI. A year ago, he was leading the Nokomis boys basketball team to its best season in eight years. After leading the Warriors to the Eastern Maine Class B quarterfinals, scoring 43 points in a 76-73 overtime loss to Ellsworth, Braley had a tough decision to make.

Return to Nokomis for his senior year, and help the Warriors try to make a deeper run in the tournament? Or go to Phillips Exeter, where he’d face greater challenges not just on the basketball court, but in the classroom?

Braley made his choice, and was pleased when the Nokomis community offered its support.

Seeing him in a new uniform was still a little weird for Braley’s closest friends.

“This is the first year I haven’t laced it up with him since about fifth grade. It’s definitely different,” Nokomis senior Ethan Pearl said. “Chris is one of my best friends, so I just want the best for him.”

Against MCI, Braley scored 10 points, grabbed four rebounds, had one assist and one steal. He played the entire first half, but left in the second half with just under 12 minutes to play and did not return.

“I cramped up at the end and didn’t get to play all that much, but it was nice to get all the support,” Braley said. “Wish we could have come out with a win.”

MCI won the game, 82-70. Braley was an uncharacteristic 0 for 4 at the free-throw line, but he said it wasn’t nerves. It was just one of those, not-gonna-shoot-well kind of days.

“My shot wasn’t right. It kept coming off my hand a little weird. Not a good shooting day,” Braley said.

Braley hasn’t had many of those. As a junior last season, he averaged 25.6 points per game. He pulled off the rare feat of scoring his 1,000th career point as a junior. He can score. It’s the other aspects of his game that have improved. It’s those other things that had people who haven’t seen Braley play basketball since last winter shake their heads in wonder.

“He has put in countless hours, which I don’t think will be a surprise to anyone here. He has really transformed his body. He’s much quicker than he was. He’s really ready to start doing things at the next level,” Tilton said.

Braley is jumping higher when he rebounds. His first step is quicker when he cuts to the basket. Defensively, Braley is better. Midway through the first half, the 6-foot-4 Braley stepped in front of MCI’s 6-9 James Farr and took a hard charge, earning the same loud cheers that came when he hit a layup a minute later.

“I need to keep working on defense, because that’s what a lot of people where saying I couldn’t do when I went to prep school. It’s improved so far, I need to just keep working,” Braley said.

He’d already heard from schools in the Ivy League, America East and Patriot League when he was at Nokomis. Now at Phillips Exeter, Braley can add some Atlantic-10 schools to his list of suitors. Davidson has looked at him, as has Gonzaga, he said.

“He’s a D-I deal now. He’s the real deal,” Pearl said.

Nokomis fans had to sense that. The disappointment that came when he left Nokomis was easily tempered by the knowledge that the move to Phillips Exeter wasn’t just the right one for his basketball future, but Braley’s future, period.

“It’s so much more rigorous than it was at Nokomis, but I got pretty good grades first term,” Braley said.

After the game, Braley shook hands and talked with fans. He even posed for photographs with the girls in the T-shirts that spelled “CHRIS.”

“They were good about my leaving, and they’re good, obviously, about coming back,” Braley said. “I’m still loyal to them.”

From the crowd that turned out to watch Braley play Saturday afternoon, it’s obvious that loyalty goes both ways.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]


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