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They held the first pep rally of the basketball season at McKinley High School on Monday – not to build up excitement, but to let it out.

In the school auditorium, sounds of “We Are the Champions” blaring over the loudspeakers were drowned out by the cheers and shouts of a student body celebrating its first state basketball championship. Ever.

“It makes us prouder,” said cheerleader Gabrielle Mills, a sophomore. “Proud of us as a team, proud of our school.”

The McKinley Macks are the 2012 Class A New York State champions, having defeated Burke Catholic of Orange County, 76-73, in overtime Sunday in Glens Falls. It has been almost 30 years since Buffalo’s last big basketball win, when Bennett High School won the state Class B championship in 1984. Until Sunday, it had been a dream for the Macks.

Mayor Byron W. Brown was on hand at Monday’s event to shake each player’s hand as the young men took the stage, and to declare, “in jubilant celebration,” that March 18, 2013, was McKinley Mack Day in the City of Buffalo. The students showed their thanks with even more cheers.

For some in the audience, and on the stage, it felt like a day of destiny.

McKinley’s school building on Elmwood Avenue only recently came through several years of rehabilitation and renovation – done while many of the students continued to attend classes there, Principal Crystal Boling-Barton said.

Basketball coach Zaire Dorsey – now the state coach of the year – took over four years ago when his predecessor resigned under a cloud unrelated to the team. According to Dorsey’s players, many of them freshman on his JV team at the time, one of the first things Dorsey told them was that they would be state champions before they were done.

Monday, they reminded him of that.

With cameras from news media, parents, fellow students and teachers lining the sides of the venue, McKinley’s champs ran down the aisles as their names were called.

They were joined by McKinley’s girls basketball team, which won the 2013 Canisius Cup this year, again.

Introducing the players, coach Dorsey – who also teaches plumbing in one of the vocational school’s shops – made it clear that he has been as inspired by his team, and all of McKinley’s students, as they are by him.

He noted that one player missed his mother’s wedding to go to the finals (with her permission). Another player kept a sprained ankle in a bucket of ice this weekend until he was called in for key shots in overtime. And of his player of the year, senior Marcus Morris, Dorsey had this praise, which had nothing to do with hoops: “He’s a role model for everyone,” the coach said. “This individual gets to class on time every day in the four minutes allotted.”

That comment summed up this coach/teacher pretty well, according to the students who greeted him with roaring cheers in a way rock stars could only dream of. A 1993 McKinley High School graduate and Buffalo resident, Dorsey has always been “one of them.”

“He changed the environment here,” said Nathan Burnett, a junior. “He makes you do your school work. He treats you with respect, and he makes you responsible. You can see how it pays off.”

Officer Juan Phillips, who works in public safety at the school and is also Dorsey’s assistant coach, agreed that the school’s winning spirit is reflected in the team and the coach.

“All the students relate to him,” Phillips said. “He wants the best for each and everyone of them.”

And he relates to them. After the students had filed out and the echoes of the cheers had faded, Dorsey shared the not-so-secret secret of his team’s success: “We try to treat all these kids with respect,” he said. And with expectations that must be met. “The schools are not the problem. The school never tells anyone not to go to class, or not to do their work. From the principal and administrators on down to all the teachers and staff, we all work to make them succeed.”

As for his players, they expressed gratitude to their teammates, their school and their coach, and are remaining focused on one more game. As New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class A winners, they will join the winners of the state’s Catholic and independent associations and New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League in the Federation Tournament of Champions in Albany on Friday.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com