By Joe Henricksen
There really wasn't anything quite like the Chicago Public League playoffs when it meant everything. We're talking city bragging rights for 365 days and, more importantly, a trip to the Elite Eight in Champaign and Peoria for the winner. This was the ultimate competition in a city that cherishes its prep basketball and relishes the history.
In the late 1970s it was the Manley-Westinghouse matchups that grabbed everyone's attention. The two powers met in both the 1978 and 1979 city title games. Behind Mark Aguirre and Skip Dillard, Westinghouse edged Manley 71-68 in 1978. Manley turned the tables the following year as junior star Russell Cross led Manley to the first of two straight Public League championships, beating Westinghouse 88-83 in double overtime.
King. Simeon. 1980s. That's all that needs to be said. These were the glory days of the Chicago Public League playoffs. Whether you were affiliated with those programs or just a fan of prep basketball, everyone sided with one or the other. You were either a "King guy" or a "Simeon guy."
The two met in a 1986 classic. Simeon was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state. King came in with one loss and ranked No. 3 in the state. King featured a frontline of 6-8 Kevin Williams, 6-8 junior Marcus Liberty and 6-6 Levertis Robinson. Simeon countered with 6-5 Nelison "Nick" Anderson, 6-6 Ervin Small and floor leader Deon Butler. King won 49-46 and went on to capture coach Sonny Cox's first state championship. King and Simeon faced one another again in 1988 and 1989, with the two splitting those games.
In the 1990s there was the memorable Westinghouse upset over mighty King in 1994. King, led by guard Michael Hermon, came in unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state. Unheralded Westinghouse, with Mark Miller and Damion Dantzler, stunned King 59-58 to advance to the Elite Eight.
In 1995 it was supposed to be a Farragut repeat. After winning their first city title in 1994 with Kevin Garnett and junior Ronnie Fields, the Admirals were the favorites again in '95. Fields, however, broke his neck just prior to the city playoffs. Still, the Admirals made a run to the city title game and Sweet 16 without Fields, falling to the Jimmy Sanders-led Westinghouse team.
Decade after decade had its memorable moments. But it all changed in 2002. The 2002-2003 season was the first in which city schools were placed within regionals with schools from throughout the suburbs, which allowed more than one Chicago Public League school to advance in state tournament play. The stakes were forever changed, but the Public League playoffs live on.
"It's a city thing," says Vocational coach Chris Pickett. "The kids take a lot of pride in winning the city. The difference now is that since it changed in 2002, the sky doesn't fall if you lose. There is still the state tournament."
Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter can certainly attest to that. A year ago the Dolphins fell to North Lawndale in the city semifinals. No one at Whitney Young, though, would trade in its state championship of a year ago for the city title it lost in February.
"It clearly doesn't have the importance that is used to have," says Slaughter. "It's still a win-or-go-home tournament, but you don't have to stay home. The state tournament starts up soon after."
This week marks the beginning of the city playoffs. And though it's certainly lost some of its luster, the players, coaches and fans still get a charge out of seeing those brackets and a desire and passion to advance through it. The intensity still rises over the regular season and the pride remains.
With seven city teams in the current City/Suburban Hoops Report Top 25 -- and several others just on the outside looking in -- the Public League playoffs will be entertaining as always.
Ahmad Starks. Anthony Johnson. Sam Thompson. Tommy Hamilton. You get the idea. The Dolphins are loaded with talent and, aside from a misstep against Crane, have been impressive all season. The Dolphins took care of Foreman in the championship game at Proviso West back in December. Sam Thompson scored 26 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, while Anthony Johnson added 21 points in the 79-64 Young win. There is a very realistic chance the two could meet again in the city championship game as Foreman and Young are the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively.
The Bengals made their presence felt this season in the state's toughest conference -- the Public League's Red-South. Maybe we should have taken more stock in the fact Bogan played Class 3A power Peoria Richwoods to a one-point game (52-51 loss) and beat both Rock Island and West Aurora in the opening week of the season. And that was before point guard Rico Richardson, Bogan's top player, became a part of the mix. Bogan is in a favorable bracket as wins over Prosser and Uplift should put the Bengals in the quarterfinals against either Marshall, Julian or Vocational.
Bracket to watch
Whitney Young is staring at an interesting second-round matchup with Morgan Park and Wayne Blackshear in what will be a very hyped early-round tournament game. In addition to Young and Morgan Park, Simeon and freshman Jabari Parker also joins them in the bracket, along with feisty and stubborn Von Steuben. Those four will battle it out just to get to the semifinals.
The Red-South Watch
There is no question the Public League's and state's best conference this year is the Red-South. How good was the Red-South? Talented Brooks is not even among the 32 teams in the city playoffs as a result of the licks it took in the rugged Red-South. "We're either going to be really prepared or too tired from having beaten each other up," says Vocational coach Chris Pickett, whose team finished 5-4 in the Red-South after winning it last season.
Five players to watch
• Mike McCall, Foreman ... The senior combo guard is all about substance. McCall, along with the Foreman program, appear to be on a mission this season and playing with a chip on their shoulder in pursuit of respect. The Saint Louis recruit has played his best in big moments, and with a big tournament and a special moment or two over the next two weeks, he may catapult himself to the top of the player of the year conversation.
• Rico Richardson, Bogan ... All this kid did prior to his move to Chicago was win three straight state championships at Highland Park High School in Topeka. That winning attitude remains and has become contagious, even with a new address. He imposes his will on his team, getting after it defensively and playing composed on the offensive end. He will have a lot of eyes on him as he tries to improve his recruiting stock.
• Fabyon Harris, Hyde Park ... This mighty mite is the rare player who the Hoops Report can look past the physical dimensions (he's all of 5-8 -- maybe) due to the special attributes he brings to the floor each time out. He's a Hoops Report favorite, now ranking among the top 15 prospects in the senior class, and a player who was vastly overlooked too long by college programs. That has changed. Now he's a coveted, unsigned prospect who would be a great catch for someone this spring.
• Mycheal Henry, Orr ... The Hoops Report doesn't think there is a junior who has raised his game to a higher level over the past three months than this 6-5 athletic wing. Henry's stock has skyrocketed. He is shooting it with range and consistency, while also using his length and athleticism more and more. A potential Hyde Park-Orr second-round showdown, featuring two players (Henry and Harris) on this list of five to watch, should be a good one.
• Tommy Hamilton, Whitney Young ... This team belongs to seniors Ahmad Starks and Anthony Johnson, and junior Sam Thompson is a difference-making player on the wing with jaw-dropping talent. However, when the 6-8 freshman Hamilton's presence is felt, the Dolphins are a different team and one that is awfully tough to match up against.
Best first-round matchups
Crane vs. North Lawndale ... This will be the third matchup between these two Red-West rivals, with North Lawndale winning the first two by the scores of 67-66 and 64-57. Crane has showed how dangerous it can be with an upset win over Whitney Young last month.
Vocational vs. Julian ... The two met in late January, with Julian winning 64-61. Now Vocational, led by guard Hollis Hill, comes in as one heck of a No. 21 seed and looking for a little payback in the opening round. If Vocational can figure out how to win on the road, coach Chris Pickett's club could surprise.
Five best potential matchups
1. Foreman vs. Whitney Young ... We would have to wait until the title game (tentatively scheduled for Friday, Feb. 19) to see the two most talented teams in the city meet again.
2. Morgan Park vs. Whitney Young ... As long as Wayne Blackshear is on the floor for Morgan Park, which is expected, this one will be interesting with the two premier juniors in the state facing off in Blackshear and Young's Sam Thompson.
3. Orr vs. Hyde Park ... This potential second-round matchup will pit Fabyon Harris up against the young, talented Orr team featuring Mycheal Henry and C.J. Jones.
4. Simeon vs. Whitney Young ... Simeon certainly has to get things turned around and a trip to the city semis, where they would potentially meet Whitney Young, would do just that. Anytime the two premier programs in the city meet it's going to be special.
5. Foreman vs. Bogan ... Upstart Bogan and Rico Richardson would get a shot at the mighty backcourt of Foreman in a potential semifinal battle.
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