Mention the name "Thornridge" and some pleasant memories immediately come to mind.
Thornridge's boys basketball team.
Coach Ron Ferguson.
Quinn Buckner, Boyd Batts, Mike Bonczyk, Greg Rose, Ernie Dunn.
The best team in the history of Illinois high school basketball.
Buckner was the National Player of the Year and Thornridge was ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation.
It doesn't get any better than that.
Thornridge, located in south suburban Dolton, may be closing. Beginning next year, it will be a freshmen-only academy. The upperclassmen will be dispersed to District 205's other two high shools, Thornton in Harvey or Thornwood in South Holland.
But the school will forever be linked to that basketball team, the best there ever was. In a 33-0 season, no opponent came within 14 points. The next best was La Grange's 1953 team, led by Ted Caiazza, which didn't allow an opponent to come within nine points in a 29-0 campaign. Thornridge's 104-69 victory over Quincy in the Class AA championship game remains the gold standard of state finals, like the Bears' 46-10 rout of the Patriots in the 1986 Super Bowl.
Thornridge will be added to a long and distinguished list of Illinois high schools that have closed, mostly for financial reasons or to consolidate with neighboring schools or to pave the way for a new school. Whatever the reason, it is difficult for people who spent time there--students, coaches, teachers, administrators--to accept the change.
Remember Arlington, a 62-year-old school that won 13 state championships before closing in 1984? Or Driscoll in Addison, a 43-year-old school that won 12 state titles, including eight in football, before closing in 2009?
How about New Trier West, Forest View, Maine North, Morton West, Irving Crown, Calumet, Englewood, St. Elizabeth, Mendel, Weber, Luther South, St. George, Niles East, Kankakee Westview, Kankakee Eastridge, Bloom Trail, Decatur, East St. Louis Lincoln, Ridgway, Peoria Spalding, Peoria Woodruff, Rockford West, Tamms and Toluca?
But I'll remember Thornridge most of all. I worked for the old Chicago Daily News at the time. It didn't publish a Sunday edition so I was free to attend every Saturday game that Thornridge played in 1971-72. Of the 33 games, I covered or attended about 20.
Outside of the dismantling of Quincy in the state championship game, the game I remember most was the closest one of all, a 74-60 victory over St. Patrick on a Saturday night in Dolton.
As I recall, UCLA coach John Wooden dispatched assistant Gary Cunningham to scout Buckner. Later, Cunningham told me that he didn't come to evalute Buckner's talent. "We already knew how good he was, that he could play for us," Cunningham said. "What I wanted to see was what he did during the timeouts, if he paid attention to thecoach or looked into the stands, if his mind was always on the game."
It was an interesting insight into Wooden's approach to the game.
And Cunningham saw what he came to see.
During a timeout, Buckner grabbed the happy-go-lucky Batts by his whiskers and shook him, telling him to get his head out of his behind and into the game.
Later, with only a couple of minutes to play and the victory assured, a St. Patrick player stole the ball from Buckner at mid-court. It figured that the player would dribble down the floor, convert a layup and Buckner would run out the clock. But Buckner ran down the player from behind and stole the ball out of his hand as he was about to step to the basket, leaving a "What happened?" expression on his face.
Afterward, St. Patrick coach Max Kurland reminded me of that single incident in his lockerrom. "That's why Buckner is the great player that he is. He never takes a play off. He never lets down," Kurland said.
Neither did Thornridge in 1972.