Blackhawks

Du Sable recalls the good old days

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Du Sable recalls the good old days

Theo Williams remembers the way it was when Du Sable was one of the most successful basketball programs in the city. A graduate of 1998, he played point guard on a team that lost to Quentin Richardson and eventual state champion Whitney Young in the semifinals of the Public League playoff.

But Williams, 32, concedes that his players don't know very much about the history and tradition of a program that finished second in the state in 1954 and has produced such outstanding players as Sweetwater Clifton, Paxton Lumpkin, Sweet Charlie Brown, Shellie McMillon, Mike Lewis, Maurice Cheeks, Sam Gowers, Larry Cross and Stephfon Butler.

"The kids know very little," Williams said. "I knew it all. When we went to the Final Four in the city playoff in 1998, that's when it all came out, newspaper articles about how powerful the basketball program was in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

"These kids don't know about the tradition. Sweetwater Clifton (the first African-American to play in the NBA) and Maurice Cheeks (a former NBA coach and future Hall of Famer) graduated from Du Sable. But they don't know them. They see the 1954 trophy and know the history of what happened when that team went Downstate.

"Even when I played, there was no atmosphere like the 1970s. Not today, either. The gym used to be rocking. Now kids just sit and watch the game. We can't get them fired up. In fact, our team plays better on the road. But there is a buzz around the school about what we are doing. And alumni are coming back to watch the team."

Williams' players may not be aware of the history and tradition of Du Sable basketball but they are listening to their coach's daily sermons about defense. And Williams insists man-to-man defense is what has propelled the Panthers to within two victories of earning their first trip to the state finals in nearly 60 years.

Williams played for Larry Lewis, another former Du Sable player. After starting for four years at Du Sable, he attended Eastern Arizona and Minnesota StateMankato, then graduated from Robert Morris in Chicago. After college, he assisted coach Richard Morgan at Du Sable, then became head coach when Morgan became principal six years ago.

Last year's team finished 19-11, losing to Harper in the regional final. With three starters returning, Williams was optimistic about this season...if only his players would learn to play defense.

"The kids weren't ready to play defense for me. That's why we lost early in the season," Williams said. "I was a defensive stopper when I played. This team can't score that well so we have to play defense to generate offense. Defense and free throws will win for us. I told the kids: 'If we don't play defense, we can't compete.'

"Good teams will pick-and-roll and get any shot they want. If we don't make them uncomfortable, it will be a long night for us. We must force them to do what they don't want to do and force them outside so they can't run their offensive sets."

Now 15-9, Du Sable has won six games in a row after upsetting top-seeded St. Ignatius 51-44 on Tuesday night in a Class 3A sectional semifinal at St. Ignatius. The Panthers will meet Dunbar for the championship on Friday night.

Malik Williams, a 5-foot-7 junior guard, came off the bench to score 11 points in the second quarter 6-foot-5 junior Christopher Galbreath had 10 points, nine rebounds and two blocks as Du Sable pulled off one of the biggest surprises of the state tournament to date.

"We may look sluggish on offense," Williams said, "but we play hard on defense and as a team and rebound the ball. I never question our effort on defense. Our kids are now committed to defense."

The Panthers finally got their coach's message loud and clear after beating Crane 62-52 on Feb. 21, the team's Senior Night.

"Everybody thought we'd lose to Crane," Williams said. "But we forced them into a lot of turnovers. And those turnovers translated into easy offensive points. It make our kids realize that defense translates to easy baskets."

The converts are Malik Williams (8 ppg), Galbreath (10 ppg, 10 rpg), 6-foot-1 senior Evance Gayles (13 ppg, 4 assists), 6-foot-4 senior Andrew Richmond (5 ppg, 7 rpg), 6-foot-1 senior James Scott (6 ppg) and 6-foot-2 senior Jermayne Akons (9 ppg).

Williams likes to put the ball in Gayles' hands late in games because he is makes good decisions and is an effective finisher. He describes Richmond as "the heart of the team" because he takes two or three charges in each game and the team feeds off his energy. Akons, also a gifted football player, has offers to play quarterback in college.

But Williams still has issues. "I never know who will show up or won't show up. The problem is to get everybody on the same page all the time and be ready to play," he said.

Just like they did in the 1970s.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.