Bulls

Remembering Thornridge -- 40 years later

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Remembering Thornridge -- 40 years later

Simeon's 2011-12 basketball team has stirred up considerable excitement. Call it a generational version of Beatle-mania.

Coach Robert Smith's Wolverines, heavily favored to win their third state championship in a row and fifth in seven years, are being touted as the No. 1 team in the nation. And it features 6-8 junior Jabari Parker, whose youthful celebrity is comparable to LeBron James and Derrick Rose.

So author Scott Lynn thinks it is time to remind today's hip-hoppers and slam-jammers and crossover dribblers that, 40 years ago, Thornridge's 1971-72 team created every bit as much hoopla as Simeon. It is the Falcons' unprecedented record of achievement that Simeon is chasing this season.

Lynn's book, "Thornridge: The Perfect Season in Black and White," published by AuthorHouse, brings back memories for high school basketball fans throughout Illinois. Let the "old-school versus modern-times" debate rage on.

Could Thornridge make the transition to today's fast-paced style? Who would you choose to lead your team, Parker or Quinn Buckner? Could Simeon break Thornridge's suffocating 1-2-1-1 zone press that devastated every opponent? Will Simeon or any state champion ever measure up to Thornridge's gold-standard performance over Quincy (104-69) in the 1972 state final?

Simeon supporters argue, justifiably, that Thornridge didn't play the challenging national schedule that awaits the Wolverines. In the 1970s, Illinois schools were restricted by travel limitations. Thornridge's toughest opponents were south suburban rivals Bloom and Thornton and perennial Downstate power Peoria Manual.

In a 33-0 season, Thornridge never allowed an opponent to come within 14 points. Only four other teams came within 20 points. In the era prior to the three-point shot, the Falcons averaged 88 points per game. The closest any other state champion came was La Grange and Ted Caiazza in 1953, which went 29-0 without allowing any opponent to come within nine points.

In one national poll of the top 25 high school teams of all time, Thornridge 1972 was rated No. 4 behind Baltimore Dunbar 1983, New York City's Power Memorial 1964 and Hyattsville, Md., De Matha 1965.

Dunbar boasted three NBA first-round picks in the 1987 draft--Reggie Williams, Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Lewis. Another future NBA player, David Wingate, also was a starter.

Power Memorial was led by 7-2 junior Lewis Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who went on to become the highest scoring player in NBA history. The team had a 71-game winning streak.

De Matha, the team that snapped Power Memorial's 71-game winning streak was led by Bob Whitmore, Sid Catlett, Bernard Williams Mickie Wiles and Ernie Austin. It was the best team produced by legendary coach Morgan Wootten.

Interestingly, Thornridge 1972 ranked ahead of Oscar Robertson's 1955 Indianapolis Crispis Attucks team and Wilt Chamberlain's 1955 Philadelphia Overbrook team.

The author, Scott Lynn (real name: Scott Betzelberger), has an interesting background in Illinois high school basketball. He was captain of Lincoln's 1971-72 team that was rated behind Thornridge for much of the regular season. After playing basketball and graduating from Southern Illinois in 1976, he set out on a career in radioTV broadcasting. For the last 22 years, he has served as sports director of KEX Radio in Portland, Oregon.

Lynn is a colon cancer survivor who underwent life-saving emergency surgery in 2008. He wrote his book on Thornridge while undergoing chemotherapy during the summer of 2009.

"If ever a team was a worthy subject for a great book like this one, this is it--the greatest high school team I ever saw," said Mike Downey, former sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune who grew up in Chicago Heights and covered the Thornridge team for the Chicago Heights Star.

Though his Lincoln team never had an opportunity to play against Thornridge in 1971-72, Lynn was always fascinated by the aura of coach Ron Ferguson's team and its dominant players--Quinn Buckner, Boyd Batts, Mike Bonczyk, Greg Rose and Ernie Dunn.

Buckner was the national player of the year in 1972 and was recruited by John Wooden of UCLA and Bob Knight of Indiana. He is the only Chicago area athlete in history to be named Player of the Year in football and basketball. He played one year of football at Indiana before quitting to concentrate on basketball. He captained Indiana's unbeaten 1976 NCAA championship team, the 1976 U.S. Olympic team and one of the Boston Celtics' NBA championship teams.

"Quinn Buckner was the most mature high school athlete I ever saw, both physically and mentally. And that team was the same way. It was really a tough group. Their business was winning. And business was good," said former Chicago Bulls announcer Jim Durham.

But Thornridge was more than Buckner. For example, Lynn researched how the issue of racial integration was overcome when black students were enrolled at the previously all-white school. Buckner, whose mother was a teacher in the district and whose sister later became superintendent of the district, and Batts were among the first African-Americans to attend the Dolton school.

Lynn focuses on other fascinating human-interest stories that played out beyond the basketball court...how Ferguson was able to maintain discipline among his players, how Greg Rose had to work nights as a musician to support his family, Ferguson confessed that he rarely slept because he was worried that he would make a mistake that would cause his once-in-a-lifetime team to lose a game.

One incident tells you all you need to know about the Thornridge team: During a team meeting prior to the start of the season, Ferguson was listing his team's goals on a chalkboard. He wrote: "Win the conference. Win the regional. Get back to state. Win a second straight state title."

Buckner stood up and said to his coach and the other players: "If we win all of our games, we will accomplish all of our goals." The meeting was over. The mission was clear: 33-0. No Illinois team before or since has ever done it better.

That is the challenge that confronts Simeon this season.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.