By Joe Henricksen
The number of college greats and NBA players the Illinois Warriors, Larry Butler's club team, have churned out are endless. There is no program that has produced more pro talent the past two decades. The last few years, however, Butler has been coaching lower-profile prospects and getting many of the same results.
So while other AAU programs have college coaches swooning over their players, Butler's Warriors are doing just fine. Last year, with very little fanfare, the Warriors piled up arguably more tournament success than any other team by winning the Howard Pulley Tournament and the Price Chopper Tournament in Kansas City, while losing in the title game of both the Real Deal on the Hill and the Super Showcase in Orlando. Now this year the Warriors are fresh off winning the Real Deal on the Hill Tournament in Arkansas two weeks ago and captured the Nike Spring Showcase last weekend in Merrillville. The Nike Spring Showcase featured virtually every AAU power in Illinois with the exception of the Rising Stars Gold 17-and-under team.
"It's not a one-man-show," Butler says of the key to his team's success last year and again this season. "It's been team oriented. They are playing together with no ego. Just like last year, this team has bought into that mindset."
Butler also gives credit to the high school programs his players have come from. He notes the majority of his players are coming from high school teams that have experienced a ton of success. Ahmad Starks and Anthony Johnson both won state titles while playing for Whitney Young. Dwayne Evans of Neuqua Valley was on a 30-win team that reached the supersectional. Fabyon Harris of Hyde Park reached the Chicago Public League title game, a Class 4A supersectional and beat Simeon's Brandon Spearman, another Warrior, in the sectional championship.
Still, the Warriors have just one player on its roster -- Anthony Johnson -- currently ranked in the majority of top 10 player rankings in the Class of 2010.
There was a day when Butler's Warriors produced the best talent pool in AAU basketball. While last year's team was led by D.J. Richardson, the talented Peoria native and Illinois recruit, it boasted emerging, under-the-radar players, like Naperville Central's Drew Crawford and Rockton-Hononegah's David Brown. Butler, though, likes it this way.
He's enjoying the group of kids he's working with now even if they don't have the biggest names or come with the most hype. The loaded rosters featuring a handful of high-major players from those past teams are a thing of the past. Butler has turned to hungry, committed players who want to make a name for themselves. Butler says three things have factored into the change in the type of teams he now puts together.
"First, it really got frustrating seeing many of those big-named players I had go and have college success and then move on to the pros and see them forget all about us," says Butler. "All the work and time that went into their development, and there just wasn't any sign of appreciation. That gets old. It's been so much better being with family, being with people who appreciate. Give me a Jon Scheyer, a Luke Fabrizius, a Drew Crawford, a Dwyane Evans any day."
Butler says the second biggest factor has been the proliferation of club teams in the state. Instead of a few big AAU operations a decade ago, the number of teams in the state has exploded. The talent pool is slimmer to pick from and the wealth is spread out.
But it's the one rare exception to the aforementioned factor (the spreading out of the high school talent) that is reason No. 3, which is as Butler puts it, "the self-hyped Fire team."
"The Irvins have lured all the so-called elite talent and big-named players who are way overrated," says Butler of the Mac Irvin Fire team. "We've seen this picture before. At the end of the day they will be decent college players, but they aren't what they make them all out to be. How many great college players and pros have they turned out?"
Butler claims that earlier this week the Fire tried to talk one of his own players into changing teams and joining the Fire.
"They went to one of my players and told him if he came to play with the Fire he would be a top 100 player nationally," says Butler. "It's nothing but hype with them. They market them. They don't develop them as players. They like to walk around with these so-called hyped players, but how much better are they getting? I don't want those kind of players. I want kids that want to be coached."
IRVIN, FIRE HAVE THEIR SAY
Mike Irvin, who has taken over for his father, the legendary Mac Irvin, says his program is not about stealing players and denies any wrongdoing.
"Our team is set," says Mike Irvin. "We don't steal players. That's not what we are about. We have respect for LB [Larry Butler]. He's a disciple of my father and our program, a friend of the family."
Irvin says the program is -- and always has been -- about getting kids to college.
"Our background speaks for itself," says Irvin. "It's not about hyping. It's about telling college coaches about our players. That goes way back to my father calling UTEP to tell them about Tim Hardaway, calling Duke about Sean Dockery, telling Maryland that Steve Goins is the best available big man, getting Terry Johnson and Zeke Upshaw to Illinois State and on and on. Almost all of our kids are inner-city kids who we encourage to use basketball as a vehicle. It's about getting kids to college and getting degrees."
As far as some of the early struggles the loaded Mac Irvin Fire 17s have had, Irvin says the pieces are still coming together and it's not always easy getting all the talent on board as one.
"In defense of all the other teams out there, I don't think there has ever been this much talent together on one team," says Irvin of a team that boasts arguably the three top prospects in the Class of 2010 in Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head, along with two of the best juniors in Wayne Blackshear and Mike Shaw. "It's a matter of gelling together. That is going to take some time. But as far as over-hype, why are all these high-major schools recruiting our guys up and down our program?"
In the early part of the AAU club basketball season, two teams have clearly stood out -- the Rising Stars Gold and Butler's Illinois Warriors. There really is no chance the two would meet until the final week in July in Orlando. The Warriors, though, could get the Mac Irvin Fire this weekend at the Spiece Run 'N Slam Tournament in Fort Wayne in what would be an entertaining matchup.
City/Suburban Hoops Report's All-Illinois Warriors Alumni Team
Quentin Richardson, Whitney Young (New York Knicks)
Corey Maggette, Fenwick (Los Angeles Clippers)
Andre Igoudala, Springfield Lanphier (Philadelphia 76ers)
Dwyane Wade, Richards (Miami Heat)
Julian Wright, Homewood-Flossmoor (New Orleans Hornets)