Ka'Darryl Bell, Gabe Levin and Alex Nesnidal have been playing basketball together since seventh grade. In fact, Bell preferred playing football and quarterback until his friends coaxed him into realizing that basketball and point guard were better choices.
"I was always athletic and I liked the aggressiveness in football," Bell said. "But I twisted my knee in the state final in the Pop Warner League and was out for four or five months. That shied me away from football. I began to concentrate on basketball.
"When I was a freshman, everybody wanted me to try out for football but I didn't want to. I love the competitiveness in football. But it requires more skill to play basketball, more than quickness. I've always been a point guard. You have to know the players on the floor."
Bell, a 6-foot-1 senior who is committed to Bradley, and Levin, a 6-foot-7 senior who likely will attend a prep school before moving on to a Division I program, are the reasons why Oak Park is in first place in the West Suburban Conference's Silver Division.
The Huskies are 14-5 going into this weekend's conference games against Proviso West and Lyons. They'll meet fast-finishing York next Tuesday. In his fourth season, coach Matt Maloney is seeking the school's first regional title since 2008 and first trip to the state finals since 1976.
"Bell and Levin are our two best players, the two best players in the conference," Maloney said. "Our other players are able to accept and embrace and willing to buy into their minor supporting roles. We have good kids with high academic ability and good leadership on and off the court. We have no off-the-court issues."
Best of all, the Huskies are healthy. Bell (13 ppg, 4 assists, 3 steals) suffered torn ligaments in his wrist and missed most of December. Now he claims he is back to 100 percent efficiency.
In his absence, Levin (20 ppg, 10 rpg, 3 assists, 3 steals) carried the team, which went 9-1 during one stretch. In recent games, he had 23 points and 11 rebounds against Evanston, 20 points and nine rebounds against Glenbard West and 32 points and 11 rebounds in last Friday's 63-62 overtime loss to Hinsdale Central.
"The coach didn't tell me to step up but my teammates told me to step up. It brought more confidence to my game. I'm just staying more aggressive," Levin said. "As a team, we are so passive, anyone can have a great game. It's just how I started to play, getting on the boards all the time and not taking any plays off."
But the loss to Hinsdale Central, even though it didn't affect their conference standing and likely won't damage their sectional seeding behind unbeaten and second-ranked Proviso East, served as a wake-up.
Afterward, 5-foot-8 junior guard Jakari Cammon was the first to get everybody's attention. "This can't happen again if we want to be great," he told his teammates.
Then Bell chimed in: "We have to take responsibility for our own actions. It wasn't one person who messed up, it was the whole team."
"I was speechless," Levin admitted. "I couldn't believe we had lost at the buzzer. By the time we got back on the bus, we were all on the same page. We learned we have to be ready to play from the tip-off."
Maloney reminded his players that they must play four consistent quarters. "There have been few games when we play consistently from start to finish. We could be dangerous if we play hard from the tip-off rather than in the second or third quarter," he said.
"We can't come out and beat Glenbard West by 27 points and then lose to Hinsdale Central," Bell said. "We never play all four quarters as a team. We can control it. We must come out and play hard from the beginning.
"Last year's teams was all over the place. They didn't know their roles. Everybody wanted to be the man and score 20 points per game. We know our roles. Everybody plays their roles. Statistics don't matter. There are no egos, no jealousy. These guys are willing to give up something to benefit the team."
There is a sign in Oak Park's locker room that motivates Bell, Levin and the other players. "How do you want to be remembered?" it says. "We want to be remembered as one of the great teams ever to come out of Oak Park. We want to go deep into the playoff," Levin said.
"The loss to Hinsdale Central will be beneficial down the road. If we have another let-up, it will be a surprise to me. We know we can't let that happen again if we want to have a great team. When our defense is on, it's hard for a team to run its plays against us."
Levin, who just turned 17, is an honor roll student and has offers from Loyola and Colgate. But he probably will attend St. Thomas More preparatory school in Oakdale, Connecticut, "because I will get another year of experience, my body will fill out and I will be more prepared to play right away at Division I."
Bell and Levin are complemented by Cammon (6 ppg), 6-foot-4 junior Alex Gustafson (5 ppg) and 6-foot-3 senior Alex Nesnidal (10 ppg). Gustafson is a defensive specialist who limited York star David Cohn to 10 points, none in the second half. Nesnidal is one of the conference's most prolific three-point shooters.
The bench features 6-foot-8 juniors Thomas Ross and Virgil Allen and 6-foot-7 junior T.K. Mattox. Maloney rotates them in an out of the lineup whenever he wants to get bigger on the floor.
Bell is anxious to make an impact at Bradley. He chose Bradley because the coaching staff has a reputation for developing players and he believes they will prepare him to play point guard in the NBA.
"And I can help rebuild the program," he said. "I want to be part of a team that brings the program back to where it once was, when it was one of the best in the country."
At the moment, however, his mindset centers around his high school team. "I have Gabe and Alex and Jakari who can score. My job is to get people open, make plays for other people. I know when I need to score. My job is to make the right decisions. If I'm open, I take the shot. But if someone else is open, I give the ball to them," he said.
Bell, Levin and Nesnidal have shared that mindset since they played at Roosevelt Middle School.
"Everybody tried out for the basketball and got really close," Levin said. "We just click. We have the same interests...basketball, video games. Everyone is on the same page."
Maloney, 36, a 1993 graduate of Oak Park, played for Al Allen, who won 391 games in 22 years but only four regional titles, the last in 2008. Maloney played on two of Allen's best teams, 25-4 in 1992 and 23-4 in 1993. Along the way, he learned some valuable lessons.
"What (Allen) did so well was put academics and citizenship above victories," Maloney said. "He taught us about being a man first. I admired his integrity and how he stuck by his principles no matter what. He'd be proud of how these kids act on and off the floor."
He enrolled at Millikin University but was injured and transferred to Dominican. At Dominican, he coached Oak Park's freshman B squad. That's when he got bit by the coaching bug.
"My original plan was to go to law school. But once I was injured in college, I realized how passionate I was about the game. When the freshman B coach resigned, I applied for the job," Maloney recalled.
He worked his way up the coaching ladder, serving three years at freshman B coach, then 10 as sophomore coach, then the varsity. His first team was 13-13. His second team was 22-6 and lost to Proviso West in the regional final. Last year's team was 10-13.
Oak Park has a glorious tradition in high school athletics dating to the early 1900s and Bob Zuppke, Glenn Thistlewaite, Glenn Holmes, George Trafton and Charlie Hoag. But that's all about football. What happened to basketball?
Harry Kinert, who coached Freeport to a state championship in 1951, came to Oak Park and guided the Huskies to fourth place in the 1954 state tournament. In 1976, Tom Meyer produced a 28-5 team that finished third in the Class AA tournament. Since then, no team has advanced beyond the sectional.
It won't be easy for Maloney to improve on that record this season. He is aware of the history.
"We have played in the toughest sectionals for the last 20 years. We've never been blessed with an easy route to state," he said. "I recall my junior year. We beat St. Joseph but lost to Proviso East by six in the sectional and they went on to win the state title. As a sophomore, we lost to Nazareth and Sean Pearson in the sectional final.
"We had some good teams that made some noise. But the sectional became so tough. Two years ago, we were 19-4 going into the sectional seeding and we got a No. 5 seed. We opened with Fenwick, an above .500 team. How's that for a first-round opponent? If we're going to be successful, Bell and Levin must play as they are capable of playing."