Joe Davidson

Years after tragedy, player’s legacy alive in Jesuit basketball and its premier event

The 44th Father Barry Christmas Classic at Jesuit, one of the state’s premier events, runs Thursday through Saturday.
The 44th Father Barry Christmas Classic at Jesuit, one of the state’s premier events, runs Thursday through Saturday. Sacramento Bee file

Ryan Hamilton’s No. 3 is retired, resting on the wall of the Jesuit High School gymnasium, looking down on practices and games that were a big part of his life.

Hamilton died along with two fellow Cal students on Sept. 8, 1990, as they scrambled to find the exits, finally succumbing to the smoke. Their Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity house was destroyed by fire in the middle of the night. Hamilton was 19 years old, a life unfulfilled.

The blaze started when a visitor’s lighter sparked flames in an old couch earlier in the evening. Hours later, it ignited after smoldering, and the wooden house was soon engulfed. Brian Hilton that same month pleaded no contest to three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of carelessly starting a fire.

Hamilton was a point guard on Jesuit’s first Sac-Joaquin Section championship team in 1988. The Marauders have won a regional record nine titles.

Greg Harcos was Hamilton’s teammate at Jesuit and also attended Cal. They grew up playing ball, plowing through their studies, dreaming big and vowing to conquer life.

The tragedy inspired Harcos to do well, to honor his friend. Jesuit’s scholar-athlete of the year in 1988-89, Harcos graduated from Cal and came full circle. He has been a fixture at Jesuit since 1998. He has taught honors chemistry, been the science department chair, won section titles as the varsity basketball coach and is now the school’s athletic director.

“We were really good friends, very close, and it was brutal to go through that,” Harcos said of losing Hamilton. “We were all together the night before Ryan died. One of our buddies woke me up at 4 in the morning – ‘You gotta get up!’ From there, it was surreal.”

Sometimes it still is. Harcos thinks of Hamilton often, especially this time of year. The 44th Father Barry Christmas Classic at Jesuit, one of the state’s premier events, runs Thursday through Saturday. The tournament director the last 25 years has been Dick Hamilton, Ryan’s father. This is Dick’s final year ensuring things run smoothly as seven other teams converge on campus.

“Someone’s got to figure out what I do because it’s time for me to step away,” Dick Hamilton said with a laugh. “I’m ready for the emeritus title.”

Hamilton spoke glowingly about the son he lost.

“It’s very tragic,” he said softly. “Ryan was undeclared as a major but I can tell you he had a bright future. Every time I’m in the Jesuit gym, every single time, I cannot go in without looking at Ryan’s jersey. It means a lot to me.”

Student-athletes from Brophy of Phoenix, Cathedral Catholic of San Diego, Saint Francis of Mountain View, St. Joseph of Alameda, St. Mary’s of Stockton, Immanuel of Reedley and St. Paul of Winnipeg are housed by Jesuit community members. Players will attend classes at Jesuit. The teams will attend mass on Saturday, have brunch with host families and then get after it on the basketball court.

Ryan Hamilton’s older brother, Garrett, graduated from Jesuit in 1986. He is a district attorney in Yolo County, taking after his father, a retired attorney. Hamilton’s mother, Norma, was a longtime librarian at Jesuit.

“Dick got into this to give back to the program,” Harcos said. “When Ryan and I played here, Dick would drive us up to Oregon for basketball camps. It’s a great tournament. You don’t see many eight-team tournaments that are this strong, and the host families can’t wait to host the next year.

“It’s neat to see the similar experiences we had as players here in this tournament, so many memories, and we’re seeing kids today enjoy it. We talk about how generations change. Some things don’t change.”

Jesuit basketball coach Jon Rotz in the early 1990s competed for coach Hank Meyer in the Father Barry Classic, named after Father Joseph Barry, a priest and teacher from early days of Jesuit, which opened in 1963. The gym was dedicated in his name in 1985, and the basketball tournament bore his name starting in 1988.

Jesuit won its first Father Barry in 1977, then won it in succession from 1990-93 and again in 1996 and 1999. The Marauders have won it five more times since 2000.

Jesuit has the making of a title team again. Ranked third by The Bee, Jesuit has guard play, inside pieces, depth and experience. Isaiah Rutherford, Jake Virga and Dominic Wall have impressed in practice, as has Branden Rutherford, the freshman brother of Isaiah, a national football recruit and this week named the Delta League MVP.

Other key cogs include Nick Miller, Isa Silva, Darin Similai and Chris Simpson. Soon to make an impact will be senior 6-foot-9 wing Elias King, a transfer from Christian Brothers who must sit the season’s first 30 days due to CIF transfer policy.

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD