Kevin Siudut wasn't around at the time, of course. But Taft coach Brett Nishibayashi constantly reminds his players of the good old days, when Taft dominated the Chicago Public League's Red-North, when coach Frank Hood's teams won 21 or more games for six years in a row, when Kenny Pratt was one of the best players in the state, when Pratt and Enoch Davis and the 1992 team went 28-2 and reached the Final Four in the city playoff.
"When you look at the trophies in the case by the gym, you see what Taft used to be," said Siudut, a 6-foot-6 senior. "You see that and you think we should be doing it, too. We know Taft used to have a history where it owned the Red-North and went deep into the city playoff. We want to add to that.
"We see this season as a special opportunity. We want to make this season our own. The coach gives us quotes to us in the morning and gets our minds in the right place for practice and games. He always talks to us about what Taft used to be, about Kenny Pratt."
Siudut has a scrapbook full of his coach's quotes, about 90 of them according to his latest count. Each morning, he hands a quote to each player. If someone fails to pick up his quote, it means an extra suicide drill in practice.
"Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard," is one of Siudut's favorite quotes.
He knows what hard work is all about, on the basketball floor and in the classroom. He is an International Baccalaureate student. He has an excessive workload of challenging curriculum, beyond the Advance Placement level. He has a 3.2 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 31 on his ACT. He is interested in several Division III schools and wants to study business or accounting or financing.
"I'm a math guy. That's my thing," he said. "The IB program is a very rigorous program that gets you ready for college. It involved a lot of projects. But I also want to play basketball in college."
Siudut got bit by the basketball bug while watching Michael Jordan in his last years in the NBA. "He gave me a love for basketball. I started to play in the Biddy League, as much as I could," he said.
"I also played football, soccer and baseball when I was growing up. But I always knew basketball was my favorite sport. In basketball, anything can happen. A team that isn't supposed to win can win."
But academics always have been important, too.
"I always felt I was smart, that if I focused in school I had a lot of potential to learn," Siudut said. "The IB program kicked me in the butt, but it taught me a lot. It was tough in the beginning to adjust because it was so tough, especially with three hours of basketball practice, then three hours of homework. Now I realize how good it was for me."
Basketball has been fun, too, bouncing back from last year's 14-16 finish. Taft is 16-7 after starting 0-4. The Eagles have lost only three times since Thanksgiving and have won their first Red-North title since going to the Elite Eight of the city playoff in 2001. Awarded the No. 3 seed in the Public League tournament, they will face Jones on Wednesday in the opening round.
"We find a way to win," Nishibayashi said. "When Taft became a neighborhood school, the demographics changed. We used to get kids from the west, more athletes. Now the athletes go to Loyola, Notre Dame, St. Patrick, Lane Tech or Whitney Young. They have a lot of options. We have become the last resort in a lot of respects.
"All I am doing is being honest. When I talk to parents, I'm upfront with them. If you want to be a part of something, rebuilding a program that once was competitive in the city, I tell them, come to Taft. We are changing the culture. Kids have bought into my program. I don't want us to be a good team. I want us to be a good program.
"We were close to getting over the hump the last couple of years. But we have to learn how to win games. It is getting contagious. Now the kids believe they are supposed to win these games. I'm a big believer in hard work. All the coaches I've played for were big on working hard. If you work hard, you will get the results that you desire."
Nishibayashi, 33, a Taft graduate of 1997, played for Frank Hood. He was a 5-foot-5 guard who understood that he lacked physical tools so he had to be cerebral to be effective. He also worked for Bosko Djurkovic at Carthage College. Now he works for his father, Nick Nishibayashi, the athletic director at Taft who coached the basketball program for eight years.
"I played and worked for people who influenced me and propelled me into coaching," said Nishibayashi, who is in his fourth season after succeeding his father.
"This isn't perfect but it is very persistent. The kids believe they can win and compete. They are all blue-collar kids. Character is a big part of why we are winning. These kids feel like they are supposed to win. They play hard, play smart and play together. They believe if you play the game in the right way, you'll win more times that you don't."
Siudut, who averages eight points and eight rebounds per game, is part of the success story. Other starters are 6-foot-5 sophomore John Joyce (15 ppg), whom the coach targets as the team's only potential Division I prospect, 6-foot-5 senior Tim Reamer (16 ppg), 6-foot-2 junior guard Josh Doss (11 ppg) and 5-foot-5 senior point guard Taylor Kuehn (2 ppg, 3 assists). The sixth man is 5-foot-10 senior Pierre Pozzi (3 ppg), a foreign
exchange student from Italy.
"This team is the first time in a while that all the kids work hard on both ends of the court," Siudut said. "We have a lot of fun. Winning is a lot of fun for us. We're a very close group of guys. We play for each other and have each other's back at all times. Playing for a team like this makes you want to hustle and dive for loose balls and stop the fast break. You know there are four other guys on the court and you want to do it for them."
He sensed this would be a special team since the end of last season, when Taft lost to a good Notre Dame squad without one starter. "It sent a message. We took a lot of momentum from last year. We had a good summer in a couple of leagues against quality teams like Oak Park," he said.
"Once the school year started, I knew it would be a special year because everyone was working hard. We even started conditioning a month before the season began."
"We don't shy away from good competition," Nishibayashi said. "Three of our first five games were against Zion-Benton, Notre Dame and Evanston. I wanted to change the culture with this group, make them understand what Taft used to be, that it wasn't a doormat, that it used to own the Red-North in the 1990s.
"Taft always won when I was growing up. I watched Kenny Pratt. He was as good a player as there was in the city. His All-America stuff is in the trophy case with the team picture of the Final Four team in 1992. We want to get back to the way it was."