A documentarian came to see me the other day. He is doing a study on high school basketball in Chicago, specifically the heated competition between the West Side and the South Side, and he wanted to get my impressions dating back to the 1950s and 1960s.
The subject raises several questions about how the game was played and who played it, how the game has changed in the city over the last 60 years, before the demographics changed, before blacks began to immigrate from the south to Chicago in the 1950s.
Prior to 1953, when Al Willis, then the executive secretary of the Illinois High School Association, desegregated the state basketball tournament, the Chicago Public League was rarely represented. Most of the star players in the city were white. There was one significant exception, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton of Du Sable.
In fact, there were so few opportunities for blacks in the 1920s and 1930s that some of the elite players opted to compete on semipro or traveling teams. One of them eventually evolved into the Harlem Globetrotters.
Until Willis forever changed the complexion of the state's signature event, the all-black schools in southern Illinois had formed their own conference and conducted their own state tournament. The championship game was played between the IHSA's semifinals and finals on Saturday afternoon in Huff Gym. Hardly anyone noticed.
But all of that changed in 1953. The 1950s were a breakout decade for city schools. Du Sable finished second in the 1954 state tournament with three All-Stater players, Sweet Charlie Brown, Paxton Lumpkin and Shellie McMillon. The Public League also produced Abe Booker, Tommy Hawkins, Art Day, Mel Davis, Frank Burks and Bernie Mills. And Marshall, led by sophomore George Wilson, became the first all-black team to win the state title in
CraneMarshall was the most exciting rivalry on the West Side. On the South Side, it was DunbarDu Sable. Carver, which was a state runner-up in 1962 with Cazzie Russell and won a state title in 1963, also emerged as a power.
In later years, Westinghouse, Collins, Farragut, Whitney Young and Manley emerged as powers on the West Side. Westinghouse featured Mark Aguirre and Eddie Johnson. Manley, led by 6-foot-10 Russell Cross, won a state title in 1980. Whitney Young, behind Quentin Richardson, won a state title in 1998.
On the South Side, Hirsch, Phillips and Morgan Park won state titles in the 1970s. Harlan won three city titles. CVS also was a factor. SimeonKing dominated the 1980s and King extended its mastery into the 1990s while Simeon has been the state's premier program over the last 10 years.
There were great players, to be sure, but they were molded by great coaches who were able to blend talent and egos and create winning teams. Tony Maffia, Eddie O'Farrell and Bill Postl got the ball rolling in the 1940s. Jim Brown and Spin Salario followed in the 1950s.
Larry Hawkins came along in the 1960s and Herb Brown, Lee Umbles, Wardell Vaughn, Harvey Hartenstein, Charles Stimpson, Willie Little, Jim Foreman, Frank Lollino and Bill Warden made their mark in the 1970s.
The 1980s were dominated by Bob Hambric and Landon Cox, who turned the SimeonKing rivalry on the South Side into a high school version of LakersCeltics. Roy Condotti and Luther Bedford did the same for WestinghouseMarshall on the West Side.
Today, Simeon's Robert Smith, who played and coached under Hambric, has turned the Public League into his own private fiefdom. The Wolverines, with Derrick Rose and now Jabari Parker, have won four state championships in the last six years and are heavily favored to win again this season.
What happened to King? It was converted into one of eight selective enrollment schools in the CPS, which means its 900 students must apply for acceptance based on academic achievement and test scores. It no longer is a basketball power.
The same thing happened to Westinghouse, which was converted into a selective college preparatory school with a college to careers program. Like King, it no longer is a basketball power.
On the West Side, Whitney Young has emerged as the pre-eminent program under former coaches George Stanton and Lamont Bryant and current coach Tyrone Slaughter. Stanton produced a state champion in 1998, Slaughter in 2009.
Young is a highly selective public school that opened in 1975 as the city's first public magnet high school. Admission is based on an entrance exam and elementary school grades and is open to all residents of Chicago. Each year, 10,000 apply for 450 freshman openings.
Marshall and Crane, two of the oldest and most storied programs in the city, are seeking to restore their old glory under coaches Henry Cotton and Chris Head, who won a state title at Westinghouse in 2002.
In fact, until Simeon's recent domination, Westinghouse enjoyed the most success of any Public League program until its reconstitution. From 1992 to 2005, Westinghouse won seven city titles.
While Simeon and Whitney Young have emerged as the city's strongest programs in recent years, they haven't become a rivalry a la MarshallCrane and SimeonKing or even KingWestinghouse.
From 1984 to 1990, King won four city titles, Simeon three. From 1955 to 1982, Marshall won four city titles, Crane three. In the 1980s, King beat Simeon twice and lost once. In the 1990s, King beat Westinghouse twice and lost once.
It isn't like it was for many reasons. In the old days, kids shoveled snow off the playgrounds to play at Gladstone, Murray Park, Davis Park, Meyerling, Beasley, LeClaire, South Park, Garfield Park and Altgeld Gardens. Today, they play on AAU teams that travel from coast to coast and are subsidized and sponsored by shoe companies.
"Teams in Illinois aren't half as good as they used to be...not the players, either," said veteran girls coach Derril Kipp of Maine West, who has won more than 600 games and a state championship in 1988.
"There isn't as much interest in basketball as before. There are too many other things for kids to do. For many of them, it is too much hard work. Schools aren't pushing basketball as they once did. There aren't as many good players or teams as before. It isn't as competitive."