VINE GROVE — Last spring, Cameron Irvin was like the proverbial broken record.
From the day when North Hardin lost a double-overtime thriller to Adair County in the 2009 5th Region finals, the Trojans point guard had one and only one goal for his junior year:
To wear his No. 3 jersey in Rupp Arena in the 2010 Sweet Sixteen.
"It was all he talked about," says North Hardin guard Jermaine Ruttley. "He was like 'We're going to get there next year. We're going to get to Rupp next year.'"
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When North Hardin faces 10th Region champion Mason County Thursday in the first round of the 93rd Kentucky boys basketball state tournament, Irvin's No. 3 will be in Rupp.
His dad, former Taylor County and Campbellsville University guard Derieco Irvin, will be on the North Hardin bench to see his son's team play on Kentucky high school basketball's biggest stage.
If only Cameron could be there to share in it.
It is always jarring how quickly a young life's destiny can be altered forever.
One moment, it is a lazy August Saturday evening and you are a carefree 16-year-old riding bicycles with family members along one of the main streets in Radcliff.
Then comes the squeal of car tires.
North Hardin forward James Berry was in Lexington visiting a cousin when he got a phone call from teammate Nigel Phelps.
"He just said 'Cameron is dead,'" Berry recalls. "I was like 'why did you call me and tell me something like that. It's just stupid.'"
It was true.
When word of the accident came to North Hardin big man Roosevelt Emerson via text message, he had his dad rush him to the scene. Ruttley got a phone call with the same news; all he could think to do was call the veteran North Hardin coach, Ron Bevars.
Even after Berry knew for sure, Irvin's death didn't seem real until he arrived at the high school for a community-wide wake.
"When I saw Cameron in that casket, that's when it hit everybody," Berry said. "Everybody had tears in their eyes. What we were shocked about became reality, he was really gone."
No one even tried making sense out of the loss.
"He was just riding his bike, it was a freak accident," Derieco Irvin said of his son's death. "The guy that hit him, in the police report, it just said he was not paying attention to what was going on."
Having been head coach at North Hardin since Gerald Ford lived in the White House, Bevars has pretty much seen it all. Yet even he had little to draw on for how to deal with the death of one of his players.
"It's so hard, you just don't know what to do," the coach said Saturday, after his team had practiced at Vine Grove's James T. Alton Middle School.
Eventually, Bevars decided the team would honor its point guard this season through its warmups. So when the Trojans have taken the floor this winter, every player has had No. 3 and the name "Irvin" on their back.
The warmups also have a phrase suggested by Irvin's family: Impossible is nothing. Believing is everything.
Irvin's teammates had their own honor in mind for the guard: They would fulfill his aspiration by getting to Rupp Arena for this year's state tournament.
"We totally dedicated our season to him," says Emerson, a 6-5 senior.
It hasn't been easy. Playing under that kind of self-imposed pressure is difficult.
Maybe it has something to do with the anger often associated with grieving, and maybe it doesn't, but Bevars says the current Trojans have set the school record for technical fouls.
When things have seemed too much, the North Hardin players say they cope by telling stories about their departed teammate.
Berry shares how Irvin, an avid jokester, was always busting him for looking like Tim Duncan.
Emerson remembers a summer hoops camp at Transylvania where Irvin, so competitive he was nicknamed Killa, refused to give an inch when the two were playing together on a team that was getting waxed.
"We were getting killed, and he just kept smiling and playing," Emerson says.
Amid the grieving, there was also a basketball dimension to the tragedy. After averaging 7.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists as a sophomore, Irvin was to be the lead guard this winter as North Hardin sought to return to the state tournament for the first time since 2003.
Instead that responsibility fell on Ruttley. In a sense, Irvin trained his replacement. He had spent much of last summer working with the sophomore.
"He was teaching me how to be a high school guard," Ruttley said. "What you've got to go through, the mental toughness, how to be prepared to play."
With all they've been through, the Trojans made it back to the 5th Region finals this season. Yet with the Sweet Sixteen goal they so wanted so close, they were in deep trouble. At halftime, they were trailing Campbellsville High by nine points.
Says Emerson: "Jermaine (Ruttley) came in the locker room and was like 'Remember who we are doing this for. This is for Cameron. He wouldn't quit. We can't quit.'"
North Hardin rallied to win by — you betcha — three.
Derieco Irvin describes this March as "very much bittersweet."
In each of the past three seasons, he took his son to see the Kentucky state championship game.
"He loved the electricity of it," said the elder Irvin, an assistant principal at Fairdale High School. "He wanted to be a part of it."
Cameron Irvin's dream was to play in the state tournament in Rupp Arena.
Thursday night, with his teammates warming up in No. 3 and with his dad sitting on the North Hardin bench, a whole team will live it for him.