Simeon Wolverines Road to the Regionals

THIS IS PART THREE OF A SIX-PART SERIES ON HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL AND THE SIMEON WOLVERINES

The day after winning the Chicago Public League Championship, the Simeon Wolverines competed in the McDonald’s City-Suburban Showcase at Proviso West High School.  Dave Kaplan, who I knew well from my days at the Sun-Times, produced this tournament with his Integrity Group partner Bob Rylko. Having moved away from Chicago for 15 years, I had come back often enough to know Dave had become a media star in town, but I didn’t realize he still kept his hand in the basketball arena.  I’m glad he did, because the gym at Proviso West was packed and all of the teams in the tournament were very good. If you are a basketball fan and wanted to see some of the best high school teams in Illinois, you were at Proviso West that Saturday evening.

We watched a very fast and talented Proviso East squad beat those seemingly seven-foot tall court-monsters from Warren, who we saw for the first time down Pontiac.  This contest was like watching two college teams go at it, hard. It’s the first time, I saw Sterling Brown, brother of Phoenix Suns guard Shannon Brown.  He got my attention and I’m sure he drew the attention of the college coaches in attendance as well. Remember his name.  You will see him playing for some major college someday soon. But besides Brown, if size, speed and talent had anything to do with it, there were a number of players those coaches were watching.

After Proviso East defeated Warren 73-66, I walked out into the hall and witnessed the Simeon team filing in the doorway.  It looked like one of the video shots on ESPN before a pro or college game, a line of really tall players in sweatshirts, some hoods up, some down, each with headphones as they made their way to the locker room listening to their favorite music, probably Perry Como's Greatest Hits or The Best of Lawrence Welk, I'm pretty sure. Ten minutes later, they took the court, beginning with their now very-familiar warm-up routine.  I loved seeing that routine. It never changes. Looking at the faces of family members in the stands as they watched their boys take the court, a look of great pride filled their eyes, accompanied by happy grins and smiles.  It’s always the same drills, always the same number of repetitions.  It keeps the kids in a routine, keeps them focused and takes them into the game the same way every time.  I know most coaches have the same approach and I think it’s smart, especially for Simeon whose routine includes winning every game. So, no need to change anything. Do the drills, hear the horn, come back to bench to high-five teammates lined up with right hand held high, Star Spangled Banner, introductions, huddle up for final motivation, take the floor, jump-ball, win the game.  Works pretty well for one of the best teams in the country.

By this time, I had gained a full perspective on most of the players on the team.  It wasn’t just Jabari Parker and Steve Taylor who created high school highlights to remember forever.  The left-handed 6-2 shooting guard, Kendrick Nunn, really stood out, shooting from the outside with nice, soft jump-shots that floated through the white net so smoothly, so perfectly, that the ball sometimes barely disturbed the white twine as it passed through for three points.  Nunn not only has a beautiful shot, but he can jump through the roof, dunk like LeBron and defend with the best of them.  He’s another special player on a roster full of special players. Kendall Pollard, is a 6-5 forward who has to pick and choose his time to shine. His main role seems to be defending and rebounding, but there have been points in games where Simeon needed a basket and Pollard drove, stepped inside the defender and laid it in for two. He is also one of the slam-dunk specialists on the team. I can’t name another high school team with the luxury of having a player as talented as Pollard, working as a role player to complement two ridiculously talented big men, Parker and Taylor.

Simeon has three point-guards who coach Smith rotates into games. And they’re all good! The starting point-guard, senior Jaleni Neeley is a very good athlete, but what makes him great is his composure and ability to run an offense. This is a smart guard who makes good decisions, good passes, plays excellent defense and can shoot from the outside when needed. Another senior, Reggie Norris is a very fast guard who is a good enough outside shooter to make it deep into the IHSA three-point shooting contest. He really reminds me of a kid I had playing for me on my AAU team back in Georgia, named Jamal Paige, the fastest kid that ever played for me. (He’s currently a wing back on Georgia Tech’s football team and runs a 4.39 in the 40).  Then there is junior De La Salle transfer Jaylon Tate, who will usually come in for Nunn.  Tate’s the whole package: fast, smart, good shooter, good passer, really good defender and extremely competitive. Watching him play this year, I felt like he was holding his talent back a bit. He is new on the team and working to fit into the offense. But this kid can go. I think he will have a really big year next year, and in a few years, become a standout college player.

Those are the eight players coach Smith plays regularly.  Now what is really amazing is when he puts the second unit out on the court. To say this group is talented is a great understatement. My first reaction was complete disbelief.  They beat up on some of the other team’s first units.  These kids would be stars at many other high schools across Illinois. But they are on one of the best teams in the country and that means playing time is usually limited to blowouts and junk time at the end of games. Some of their patience sitting the bench has to come from the knowledge that they are part of a legacy of great Simeon basketball players led by Derrick Rose, Nick Anderson, Bobby Simmons, Deon Thomas and the great Ben Wilson.  The junior group includes guards Brandon Clemens, Lawrence Brigg and Myles Harrison; forwards Tyre Washington, Rickey Norris and John Gardner; and center Quron Davis. Their greatest hope is getting a bigger crack at court time in their senior year. But during this championship run, when their number was called, they stepped onto the court knowing they were playing for the best team in Illinois and major college coaches were in the stands.  On this evening, several important coaches were in attendance including Louisville’s Rick Pitino and then-Illinois’ head coach, now Kansas State's, Bruce Weber.

Coming off a very tough, exhausting, physical battle with Curie the night before, probably the last thing in the world the Wolverines needed see was the De La Salle Meteors. They were a very fast, athletic team and perhaps the most aggressive group Simeon faced all year.

The Wolverines started off well, going up six points before Parker electrified the sellout crowd with a rebound and slam dunk.  About 40 seconds later, Kendrick Nunn did the same. The fun was starting. This was why we made the trip to Proviso. But De La Salle wasn’t enjoying it and it seemed every time a Wolverine held the ball for just a few seconds, a Meteor guard would come up behind them, grab and sprint down the court for an easy two points. Or if Simeon made a lazy cross-court pass, a streak of blue would jump in front of it, steal it, easy two. Anything less than a full effort under the basket by Simeon meant one of a De La Salle’s big men would pull the ball down, make a quick outlet pass, down the court, easy two.  These Meteors generated their own ooohs and aaahs from the stands. This game would be no cakewalk for Simeon, leading up to the playoffs. It was play full out, or lose their last game, heading into the playoffs.

That was not an option for Robert Smith.  Beginning with the Curie game, it became very noticeable that the Simeon team that took the floor in the second half was very different from the first half. Whatever coach Smith was saying to those kids in the locker room worked, and worked very well.

In the second half, Simeon came out and played hard, but De La Salle matched them every step of the way.  Meteors guard Marcus White hit two big three-point shots late in the fourth quarter to keep the game close, 50-46. But the Wolverines found themselves on the free-throw line, making their shots in pressure situations to win the game, 59-51.

I had read coach Smith’s quote in the Tribune after the Bogan game, saying his team needed to have a “killer instinct” in the second-half of games and just put it out of reach, just as young Mr. Rose’s group did a few years earlier. I knew he was right. But I also knew that it is human nature to relax physically and mentally when you are up by a great deal in a game, or know your team has more talent and can win. It’s why most teams with big leads usually let the opposition back into games, and then have to work really hard in the final minutes to win. No matter how hard you try as an athlete to convince yourself to play like your down 20, instead of up 20, you are basically trying to fool yourself and it rarely seems to work. That is a double-edged sword, which can cost a team a win or even a championship. Coach Smith knows that all too well, which is why for the remainder of the season, his main job was to keep his team motivated, making it clear each game that they could not afford a letdown in the playoffs. One loss and they were out!

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