The high school football season is over. I can't think of a better way to tip off the high school basketball season than to launch a debate on the best players ever to compete in Illinois. Who are the five best players you have seen? Does Derrick Rose belong in a class with Cazzie Russell and Isiah Thomas? How many of you saw George Wilson?
With that in mind, I have asked some veteran observers--media and analysts--to offer their opinions. Loren Tate of the Champaign News-Gazette and former coach and Bloomington-based analyst Bill "Flash" Flanagan have more than 40 years of experience. Van Coleman of Hoopmasters.com has been evaluating players for 30 years. Roy and Harv Schmidt have 25 years of experience, Joe Henricksen of City/Suburban Hoops Report about 20. Each has some interesting views on the subject.
I'll open the debate with some views of my own.
I watched my first high school basketball game in 1952, when Hebron beat Quincy in the first televised state championship game. I guess I got bit by the bug because I haven't missed one since, on television or in person.
My first visit to Huff Gym was the 1959 final between Springfield and West Aurora, when I was a freshman at Illinois and working for the Daily Illini. And I was working for the Champaign-Urbana Courier when the first state final was played in the Assembly Hall in 1963, the unforgettable Carver/Centralia classic featuring Anthony Smedley.
For years, my list of the five top players I had seen included Marshall's George Wilson, Carver's Cazzie Russell, St. Joseph's Isiah Thomas, Thornridge's Quinn Buckner and Westinghouse's Mark Aguirre.
But when Farragut's Kevin Garnett came along in 1995, I had to make room for him. So I dropped Aguirre. Many critics don't consider Garnett for the "best ever" list because he only played his senior year in Illinois. But I'm not one of them. In my view, Garnett made his national reputation here. It is at Farragut where he became an NBA lottery pick. He might be the best of all.
Then along came Simeon's Derrick Rose. I wasn't convinced by his performance as a junior. But he sold me as a senior. So I had to make another change. With deep regret, I moved Buckner off the top tier. It wasn't easy. Buckner has always been my personal favorite, the greatest leader among all the athletes I have covered in 50 years. But Rose deserved a spot.
Some observers rate Simeon's Ben Wilson among the top five. If he had played as a senior, he probably would have earned that rating. Unfortunately, he didn't. His performance as a junior wasn't enough, in my view, to supplant any of the others on my first team.
Two other favorites of mine were Parker's Tommy Hawkins and Collinsville's Tom Parker. I saw Hawkins, then playing for a team from Altgeld Gardens, in an AAU tournament game at the Wabash YMCA when I was 13 years old. He was the first great black player I had ever seen. And he left a lasting impression with me.
I got to know Parker and legendary Collinsville coach Vergil Fletcher while living in Collinsville in 1966-68 and working for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. I saw him score 50 points in the final of the Carbondale Holiday Tournament, a record that still stands. He was the best perimeter shooter of any 6-7 player I ever saw.
Those are my choices. You'll learn about the picks of the other veteran observers in upcoming blogs. So what are your selections?