Meyers Leonard is the real deal.
Forget for a moment what a dramatic and exciting Class 2A championship game it was, underdog Robinson beating traditional state power Peoria Manual 76-68 in overtime.
Forget for a moment that Robinson ("Where is that school located?" you probably asked) beat the No. 1 and No. 2 rated teams in the state to win the title.
Forget for a moment that Robinson point guard Derek Hannahs, who has a scholarship to play baseball at Ball State, might have been the best and smartest and most productive player on the floor. He converted 18 of 20 free throws and handled Peoria Manual's vaunted pressure from tipoff to final buzzer.
In 50 years of observing high school basketball in Illinois, I haven't seen a more dominant and intimidating big man since the great Russell Cross of Manley in 1978-80.
Leonard, a 7-footer who likely will compete for a starting job in Illinois coach Bruce Weber's system next fall, had 16 points and 15 rebounds and six blocked shots in Robinson's victory. But the stat sheet doesn't begin to tell the story of Leonard's performance.
Oh, some people aren't as well acquainted with him as they should be. As late as last Wednesday, one Chicago sports talk show host was still wondering if he was Meyers Leonard or Leonard Meyers. Today, he probably knows which is which.
Leonard isn't a great offensive threat. He lacks offensive skills. He doesn't have a hook shot or a turnaround jumper, just a dunk. It already is being speculated that he won't start as a freshman at Illinois in 2010-11. He needs to gain 20-25 pounds of muscle to be able to bang on the boards in the Big 10.
But no one does what he does as well as he does it. He is athletic, fluid and quick for a big man. He blocks shots and alters shots. His mere presence in the paint gives his team a tremendous psychological edge. Every opponent who dares to drive to the basket acts as though he is trespassing on private property.
That's the way it was with Cross, a 6-10 giant with long arms and sweeping movement from side to side who led Manley to Public League titles in 1979 and 1980 and the state Class AA crown in 1980. In the state final, Cross outplayed another giant, Indiana-bound Uve Blab, limiting him to six shots and eight points and four rebounds.
Cross still believes his 1980 squad never received the accolades it deserved. He played at Purdue. He was the Big 10 rookie of the year as a freshman, then was a two-time All-Big 10 selection before declaring for the NBA draft after his junior year. He was the sixth pick (by Golden State) in the 1983 draft.
But his professional career never took off. He was hampered by a knee injury that he suffered during his senior year at Manley. He played in the CBA, played overseas for seven years, then retired in 1991.
There have been a lot of other outstanding big men in Illinois, including Thornwood's Eddy Curry, East St. Louis' Darius Miles, Quincy's Michael Payne, East St. Louis Lincoln's LaPhonso Ellis, Providence-St. Mel's Lowell Hamilton, Batavia's Dan Issel, St. Francis de Sales' Eric Anderson, Simeon's Deon Thomas, Springfield Lanphier's Ed Horton, Peoria Manual's Marcus Griffin, King's Rashard Griffith, Thornton's Melvin Ely and Farragut's Kevin Garnett.
Some of them played in the NBA. But nearly all of them were known for their skills on offense, not defense. That's what makes Leonard unique. He doesn't have to score a point to be a difference-maker in a game.
Illinois has never had a big man with his defensive credentials. Sure, Mike Tisdale is better offensively, with an effective shot from the perimeter, but Illinois doesn't need jump shooters as much as it desperately needs a big man in the pivot to rebound, block shots, intimidate opponents and key its interior defense.
Leonard looks like he is the man for the job.