Preps Talk

Starks plants his roots in West Aurora

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Starks plants his roots in West Aurora

Juwan Starks is writing his own page in the history of West Aurora basketball. The 6-3 senior is averaging 22 points per game and is within 316 points of surpassing Billy Taylor as the school's all-time leading scorer.

Remember, this is West Aurora, not Rinky Dink High. Starks' coach is Gordon Kerkman, who has won 717 games in his 36-year career. Only 11 coaches in state history have won more.

Remember, this is West Aurora. Starks not only is on the brink of moving ahead of Billy Taylor on the all-time scoring list but he already has passed Kenny Battle, Bill Small, John Biever, Jim Krelle, Matt and Ron Hicks, Jay and John Bryant, Dameon Mason, Shaun Pruitt and Larry Hatchett.

The truth is Starks used to be an East Sider. His family has its roots in East Aurora. But his family moved to West Aurora so Juwan could attend kindergarten and his mother decided to stay. At 5, he became a West Sider.

At the time, he didn't know the difference. Now he does.

"Some family members say I should be a Tomcat instead of a Blackhawk," he said. "When I was a sixth grader, I watched the EastWest games. My uncle, Aaron McGhee, played for East Aurora and Oklahoma. When I was growing up, I didn't care. To me, it was just a different side of town. I was on the West Side and all the others were on the East Side."

But Starks is highly motivated this season. He is a rarity at West Aurora, a four-year starter. But he hasn't experienced as much success as former stars such as Taylor or Battle or Small. His last two teams were 13-16 and 14-12, hardly the kind of numbers that Kerkman is used to putting up. He won a state championship in 2000, finished second in 1997 and third in 1980, 1984 and 2004.

"Last year, we lost in the regional opener. It was very disappointing, a down year. I couldn't wait to come back this year," Starks said. "I felt I could do more to help my team win. I'm very motivated this year. I'm motivated by trying to win my first regional and by becoming the all-time leading scorer at West Aurora. We want to go Downstate this year."

He also is motivated to find a college. He said he is talking to Jacksonville, Liberty, Eastern Kentucky and Indiana State. But he has no scholarship offers. He hopes his performance this season will attract interest from more Division I schools.

The Blackhawks are 7-1 after sweeping Glenbard North 66-52 and East Aurora 73-42 last week. The Blackhawks will meet York Friday, then compete in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. To win the prestigious three-day event for the first time since 1990, they likely will have to beat Danville, Curie, Warren and Simeon in succession.

"We have been too up and down this year. We lack consistency," Kerkman said. "But Pontiac should be a barometer for us. If we get to the Final Four, that means we will play good teams. You hope to play four games and play good teams. It helps to make you a better team.

"I look for overall team play. Traditionally, we haven't been a team that focuses on one player. We look for balanced scoring. At Pontiac, we usually find out which kids we can depend on for scoring or if other kids will round into form and break into the starting lineup."

Kerkman counts on Starks, 6-foot sophomore Jontrel Walker (14 ppg), 6-foot junior Jayquan Lee (8 ppg), 6-1 junior twins Chandler (7.4 ppg) and Spencer (7.2 ppg) Thomas. But 6-6 junior Josh McAuley is making a good case for a starting spot and 6-foot senior Brandon Gossett also provides spark off the bench.

Last week, McAuley had 16 points and eight rebounds in a breakout game against Glenbard North, then came back the next night to get 11 points and 11 rebounds against East Aurora.

Starks had 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists against Glenbard North and Walker contributed 15 points. But Starks got into early foul trouble against East Aurora and finished with only six points. McAuley and Lee, who also scored 11 points, picked up the slack.

Kerkman recently celebrated his 75th birthday. But he hasn't lost a step. "I have no thoughts about retiring. I still enjoy coaching. When I don't enjoy it, I'm gone. I have fun working with kids. When you can't get them to do what you'd like them to do, it isn't fun," he said.

Practices and games are most fun of all. And he enjoys the challenge of teaching. "Right now, we're having a problem with decision-making. Unfortunately, I don't know how to correct it. I'm trying all kinds of passing drills to indoctrinate them into decision-making," he said.

He relishes the opportunity to match wits and X's and O's against good teams and good coaches. He acknowledges that the game has changed, that players have more athleticism and teams apply more ball pressure than in past years. But he doesn't agree with the common assessment that kids have changed. Not his kids, he insists.

"Most people say the kids have changed...more distractions, like video games...but they haven't changed in terms of attitude," Kerkman said. "We do things differently, new drills. Practices are better than 20 years ago, more organized. I'd like to think I'm doing a better job of coaching."

Starks has observed Kerkman up close and personal for four years. He admits it is easy to get "star-struck" over his winning record and stories about what a great coach he is. "But once you get to know him, he is so passionate about the game. He will do what it takes to win. He motivates us a lot, gets us hyped up for games," he said.

He reminds that former West Aurora star Dameon Mason once told him: 'Coach can be mean. But he's really trying to help you succeed and motivate you to be a better player.' Starks and his teammates often mimic Kerkman, the way he talks, the way he yells, how he sometimes forgets a name or a play, how he gets bright red in the face when he tries to drive his message across.

"We look at him as a father figure," Starks said. "He is always going to be there for us. He never puts anyone down. He always picks us up. He is always consistent. He never changes. He has a great basketball IQ. He does the same things, the same drills, but he doesn't do what others do."

He still conducts three-hour practices, something he adopted from his mentor, John McDougal. And he doesn't pressure the ball as much as he did when Kenny Battle was playing. This team isn't as quick as the teams of the 1980s so he has slowed down the game a bit and relies more on solid defense.

"I don't think I have changed much," Kerkman concluded. "I don't get on referees as much as before. I used to worry more about officials' calls. But the more I officiated, the less I coached. I'm not as concerned about their decisions as I used to be."

Oh, one last thing. Practices are more tiring. Just as long but more tiring because his knee might get sore or pain in his lower back might force him to sit down. "I don't like to do that," he said. He still is having too much fun.

IHSA Football Playoff Pairings Show Roundup

IHSA Football Playoff Pairings Show Roundup

CLASS 1A

Revealing the Class 1A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 1A Bracket

CLASS 2A

Revealing the Class 2A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 2A Bracket

CLASS 3A

Revealing the Class 3A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 3A Bracket

CLASS 4A

Revealing the Class 4A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 4A Bracket

Predicting Class 1A-4A

CLASS 5A

Revealing the Class 5A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 5A Bracket

CLASS 6A

Revealing the Class 6A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 6A Bracket

CLASS 7A

Revealing the Class 7A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 7A Bracket

CLASS 8A

Revealing the Class 8A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 8A Bracket

Class 7A and Class 8A Predictions

 

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”