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Collinsville's Fletcher was a basketball visionary

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Collinsville's Fletcher was a basketball visionary

When I was researching my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press, I deliberately arranged my first interview with Vergil Fletcher, Collinsville's legendary coach.

To me, no one knew more about the game or could talk about it more eloquently or analytically than Fletcher. While working for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and living in Collinsville from 1966 to 1968, I spent many afternoons in his office listening to one fascinating story after another.

In 2002, I visited him at his home in Collinsville. It was an experience I'll never forget. He invited me to his basement, which turned out to be a museum filled with every kind of imaginable memorabilia...pictures, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, books, manuscripts, trophies, awards and, most interesting of all, dozens of handwritten and typewritten copies of lectures that he had given at clinics and symposiums throughout his career.

I asked him if he had any material on his ball-press defense, the 3-2 or 1-2-2 zone press that he had invented in the early 1950s, the one that helped John Wooden build a dynasty at UCLA, the one that other Illinois high school coaches such as Neil Alexander, Jerry Leggett, Loren Wallace and Ron Ferguson used to help build their successful programs.

Imagine my surprise when Fletcher dug into an old dusty drawer and produced 20 pages of typewritten material titled "Full-Court Zone Press" that included diagrams with handwritten notes in the margins. "Here, take it with you. You might find it interesting," he said.

Interesting? This is the kind of stuff that basketball historians kill for. It's like Ted Williams writing on how to hit a baseball, Mariano Rivera on how to throw a cutter, Johnny Miller on how to shoot 63 in the final round of the U.S. Open, Secretariat on how to win the Belmont by 32 lengths and Don Larsen on how to throw a perfect game in the World Series.

The 20-page package also included a copy of Rudyard Kipling's poem "If," a list of Fletcher's defensive fundamentals, his manifesto on "So You Want To Be An Athlete" at Collinsville and what it takes to be one, his guide on "So You Want To Be A Basketball Player" at Collinsville complete with do's and dont's and training rules and, finally, a binding contract requiring each player to agree to abide by Fletcher's rules.

"I wouldn't change today. I'd just get players who want to play," he told me.

One of his star players, Kevin Stallings, now head coach at Vanderbilt, had an older brother who wanted Fletcher to change his offense to suit his brother. "There's the door," Fletcher told him.

"You've got to be the boss," Fletcher said. "You can't let the players or their parents decide what is best for them or the program."

The father of former player Tracy Wilhoit, a minister, wrote to Fletcher arguing that he shouldn't conduct practice on Thanksgiving. Fletcher told him that he would run the basketball program and the minister should run his church.

Fletcher's definition of a great coach? "Anyone can win with talent. But a great coach is someone who can win when he doesn't have talent," he said.

"The difference between good and great is a little extra effort."

If you're too young to remember Vergil Fletcher...well, you missed a great era in the history of high school basketball in Illinois. He wasn't the most popular coach. Neither was Evanston's Murney Lazier, who was to football what Fletcher was to basketball. They won more than anyone else. And they did it in a fashion that left their peers in awe.

When Fletcher showed up on Friday night in his usual suit and tie, you got the feeling you were sitting in a large classroom and the professor was getting ready to deliver a two-hour lecture on how the game should be played. He ran a triangle offense for the last 20 years of his career, long before Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls made it famous.

In introducing his lecture on the ball-press defense, Fletcher said: "The element of surprise can spell the difference in basketball. Pulled at the right time, an unanticipated move can turn a game around. Especially devastating in this respect are full-court pressure in general and the full-court zone press in particular. A good full-court zone press is particularly valuable to the coach. Since its execution is similar to the regular zone, it can be easily learned and thus save valuable practice time. In addition, it capitalizes on two other regular zone advantages, namely, pass interceptions and the anticipation of play development."

Bert Weber, who served as Fletcher's assistant from 1956 to 1963, recalled when his old boss went to a file cabinet in 1958 and removed an old copy of papers that had "Ball Press" written on it. "He started to look at it and then said: 'Let's try this. Let's put this in tonight.' It was the 1-2-2 zone press. He called it the ball press," Weber said.

"The trick was to anticipate where the ball was going, then intercept it. It was all about pressuring the ball. The positioning on the floor was determined by where the ball was. He had a drill almost every night with a 1-2-2 setup. As soon as he drew his arm back, the two back men would fly back to intercept a pass when the other team tried to beat the defense."

It was never more evident than in 1964-65 when Collinsville won the state championship with a team that wasn't supposed to be there. The Kahoks lacked size and featured only one Division I player, Dennis Pace, who later played at Illinois. In December, they lost to Decatur MacArthur in a game that Fletcher said was the worst performance in school history. But they regrouped. No team executed the ball press better. The Kahoks set a school record for steals.

"Once you understand what possible passes can occur in relation to where the ball is being pressure, then positioning for a pass interception becomes much easier," Fletcher said. "Keeping the ball on the side of the court and away form the middle also reduces the possibility of indecision as to which flanker should double-team."

In 1971-72, Thornridge unveiled its version of the zone press. The element of surprise was as fundamental to its success and it was devastating. Opponents knew it was coming but didn't know when. They played in fear, always looking over their shoulder, wondering when Quinn Buckner & Co. would spring the trap. It was never more suffocating than in the state final when the Falcons outscored Quincy 32-11 in the second quarter en route to a 104-69 victory, still the gold standard of all state championships.

Fletcher retired in 1979. He wanted to give up teaching and the athletic director's job and just coach. But the school board voted 5-2 against him. The only votes in his favor were his wife Violet and school superintendent Fred Riddle Sr., father of Fred Riddle, one of the stars of Fletcher's unbeaten 1961 state championship team. He wanted 100 percent suppoort and didn't get it. So he quit. He was 62.

In 36 years, he won 794 games and lost 216, a winning percentage of .814. His only regret was that he wasn't able to coach long enough to surpass the then state record of 809 victories set by Arthur Trout at Centralia. He always felt that, if allowed to coach one more season, he had enough talent to surpass Trout's mark.

His all-time team? Terry Bethel, Rodger Bohnenstiehl and Bogie Redmon on the front line with Charlie Kraack in reserve. Tom Parker at shooting guard and Marc Fletcher at point guard with Chuck Knarr in reserve.

Fletcher died in 2009. He was 93.

"He was literally one of a kind," Stallings said. "I can't begin to express the greatness that existed in him, how effortlessly it came out and how graciously he molded young men's lives. I'm just one of hundreds and hundreds."

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

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USA TODAY

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

“Sometimes, you got to lay your marbles out there,” Jon Lester said Sunday night inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, before the Cubs flew home from Los Angeles down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series. “And you get beat.”

It will be extremely difficult for the Cubs to win four of the next five games against the Dodgers, starting Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs had the, uh, marbles to win last year’s World Series and have developed the muscle memory from winning six playoff rounds and playing in 33 postseason games since October 2015.

There is a cross section left of the 2015 team that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and silenced PNC Park’s blackout crowd in a sudden-death wild-card game. While 2016 is seen in hindsight as a year of destiny, those Cubs still had to kill the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Dodgers and win Games 5, 6, 7 against the Cleveland Indians under enormous stress.

There is at least a baseline of experience to draw from and the sense that the Cubs won’t panic and beat themselves, the way the Washington Nationals broke down in the NL Division Series.

· Remember the Cubs pointed to how their rotation set up as soon as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series: Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks would each give them a chance to win that night. The Dodgers will now have to deal with last year’s major-league ERA leader (Hendricks) in Game 3 and a Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta) on Wednesday night in Game 4.

“Obviously, we know we need to get wins at this point,” Hendricks said. “But approaching it as a must-win is a little extreme. We've just got to go out there and play our brand of baseball.

“Since we accomplished that, we know we just have to take it game by game. Even being down 3-1 (in the World Series), we worry about the next game. In that situation, we didn’t think we had to win three in a row or anything like that. We just came to the ballpark the next day and worried about what we had to do that day.”

· The history lessons only go so far when the Dodgers can line up Yu Darvish as their Game 3 starter instead of, say, Josh Tomlin. There is also a huge difference between facing a worn-down Cleveland staff in late October/early November and a rested Dodger team that clinched a division title on Sept. 22 and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round. Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez aren’t walking through that bullpen door, either.

“We’ve done it before. We’ve been there before,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But this year’s a new year. That’s a different ballclub. We’re definitely going to have to bring it.”

· Outside of Kenley Jansen, can you name anyone else in the Los Angeles bullpen off the top of your head? No doubt, the Dodger relievers have been awesome in Games 1 and 2 combined: Eight scoreless innings, zero hits, zero walks and Anthony Rizzo the only one out of 25 batters to reach base when Jansen hit him with a 93.7-mph pitch.

But the Dodgers are going to make mistakes, and the Cubs will have to capitalize. Unless this is the same kind of synthesis from the 2015 NLCS, when the New York Mets used exhaustive scouting reports, power pitching and pinpoint execution to sweep a Cubs team that had already hit the wall.

“Their bullpen is a lot stronger than it was last year,” Kris Bryant said. “They’re really good at throwing high fastballs in the zone. A lot of other teams try to, and they might hit it one out of every four. But this team, it seems like they really can hammer the top of the zone. And they have guys that throw in the upper 90s, so when you mix those two, it’s tough to catch up.”

· Bryant is not having a good October (5-for-28 with 13 strikeouts) and both Lester and Jose Quintana have more hits (one each) than Javier Baez (0-for-19 with eight strikeouts) during the playoffs. But we are still talking about the reigning NL MVP and last year’s NLCS co-MVP.

Ben Zobrist is clearly diminished and no longer the switch-hitting force who became last year’s World Series MVP. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t have the same intimidation factor or playoff aura right now. But one well-timed bunt from Zobrist or a “Schwarbomb” onto the video board could change the entire direction of this series and put the pressure on a Dodger team that knows this year is World Series or bust.

“We need to hit a couple balls hard consecutively,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we’re able to do that, we’ll gain our offensive mojo back. That's all that’s going on.

“I inherited something from my dad, and that was patience. So you’ve got to be patient right now. You’ve got to keep putting the boys back out there. You keep believing in them, and eventually it comes back to you.”

· Maddon is a 63-year-old man who opened Monday’s stadium club press conference at Wrigley Field by talking about dry-humping, clearly annoyed by all the second-guessers on Twitter and know-it-all sports writers who couldn’t believe All-Star closer Wade Davis got stranded in the bullpen, watching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 1-1 game turn into a 4-1 walk-off loss.

By the time a potential save situation develops on Tuesday night, roughly 120 hours will have passed since Davis threw his 44th and final pitch at Nationals Park, striking out Bryce Harper to end an instant classic. Just guessing that Maddon will be in the mood to unleash Davis.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

Adam Jahns (Chicago Sun-Times), Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Cornette (The U/ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel. Justin Turner hits a walk-off 3-run HR off of John Lackey to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the NLCS. So why was Lackey even in the game? How much blame should Joe Maddon get for the loss?

The Bears run the ball over and over and over again to beat the Ravens in overtime, but should they have let Mitch Trubisky throw the ball more?