Who is the best athlete you ever played against?

Sam Cassell
Sam Cassell gets a hand from a teammate after a second half bucket. –Jim Davis/Globe Staff

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Who was the best athlete you ever played against?

This one doesn’t come from a reader. It just crossed my mind while watching the NCAA Tournament Thursday night, and I thought it would be fun.

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For me, it’s probably a dude named Dave Johnson. He was a shooting guard at Syracuse in the early ’90s. Good player, was a first-round draft pick by the Trail Blazers, but washed out pretty quickly. (Apparently, he was a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot — he made 36.5 percent of his shots in two seasons).

I played against him my senior year of high school while he was prepping at Maine Central Institute. He was highly touted, and we were all pretty intimidated to face a player of that magnitude. It proved a wise instinct when he caught the ball in the corner on one possession, looked at one of my teammates and said, “You think you can guard me, white boy?” then blew past him baseline for a dunk. I think we all cheered on the inside.

A couple of my teammates remember playing against Sam Cassell, who also went to MCI, but I don’t. And I think I’d remember that face.

MCI also had a kid named Karlton Hines who was better than all of them. He was also supposed to go to Syracuse, but ended up having academic troubles. He was shot to death a few years later.

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An honorable mention goes to Justin Strzelczyk, who played offensive tackle for the Steelers for a bunch of years. I used to play intramural basketball against him at UMaine. He was the most graceful 300-pounder you ever saw on the basketball court. And one of the scariest people I ever met. It’s terrible to say, but his awful demise was not a complete surprise to those who knew him then.

I want to hear your stories of brushes with early greatness (or even professional athletic mediocrity). Who was the best athlete you ever competed against? I’ll hear you in the comments.

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