Cubs

Times are changing at Simeon

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Times are changing at Simeon

Bob Hambric was a very private and very disciplined person. Simeon's late basketball coach guarded his family's privacy and defended his policy of not allowing the media to talk to his players and not permitting college recruiters to contact them until after their senior season.

Hambric, who died in 2009, often was criticized for his rigid and uncompromising standards. But he was universally respected for never bending to pressure from administrators, parents or media. He did it his way and if you wanted to play for him or associate with him, you played by his rules.

One of the most controversial was his decision not to allow freshmen to play on the varsity. Any freshman. And that included future NBA star Derrick Rose, who later led Simeon to two state titles under Hambric's successor, Robert Smith, who had played and coached under Hambric.

It was hard to argue with his methods because he was one of the most successful coaches in state history. In 24 years at Simeon, he won over 80 percent (551) of his games. In the 1990s, he won 20 or more games for 10 years in a row. His 1984 team, led by the late Ben Wilson and Tim Bankston, won the Class AA state championship.

Hambric took pride in the number of players he sent to college, including Nick Anderson, Deon Thomas, Bryant Notree, Bobby Simmons, David Knight, Deon Butler, Cody Butler, Belefia Parks, Ervin Small, Mario Bailey, Kevin Turner and Calvin Brock.

When Smith was handpicked to succeed his mentor as Simeon's head coach in 2004, he advocated most, if not all of Hambric's philosophical and disciplinary standards. Players didn't talk to the media and college recruiters were kept on the outside looking in.

But times have changed. Smith has become even more successful than his predecessor. He has won 88 percent of his games and five state championships, including the last three in a row. He is seeking to become the first coach in state history to win four in a row.

Old-timers say Hambric wouldn't recognize his program today. Smith agrees. "Times change and we have changed with the times," he said.

All-Access Simeon? Daily stories in print and online in the Chicago Tribune? Comcast SportsNet Chicago hires a reporter to write two or three stories a week on Simeon? Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate and all of their teammates talking to the media? A cover story on Parker in Sports Illustrated?

What would Bob Hambric think of all of this?

"He probably wouldn't be very happy with what is going on," Smith said. "What would I say to him? Everyone has to change with the times. This is a big adjustment for me...television cameras, reporters around all the time. It is something I don't like. It doesn't fit my personality.

"But when you have players like Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, it is only fitting that everyone gets to know who they are besides being a basketball player. The CPS (Chicago Public Schools) get a lot of negative publicity. We thought it would be good to get positive publicity.

"Next year might be something different. But right now we have an opportunity that CPS never had before, to win four state championships in a row. It is fitting to tell the story all the way."

Smith grew up in the Hambric system. Discipline was No. 1, first and foremost. Not talking to the media was huge in his eyes. He felt the media would dominate one player and not give other players any exposure. He was always worried about producing bulletin board material for opponents and creating petty jealousies among his players.

The recruiting policy has changed, too. "I was against committing early but I felt some kids might have missed out on scholarships. I feel it is good for some kids. I don't know if Jaylon Tate would have gotten a scholarship from Illinois if he had waited," Smith said.

"Hambric didn't let kids talk to college coaches until after the season. With times changing, I thought waiting for certain people might mean you can't get the offer you want. Parents should be fully involved. I should give advice if they need it."

As he prepared for the 2012-13 season, Smith was perfectly content to run his program exactly the way he had run it since he succeeded Hambric. Before preseason practice began, however, he was approached by the Chicago Tribune, which proposed an All-Access feature that would publicize the program on a daily basis.

"I told them I would get back to them," Smith said. "Hambric and I would have a fatherson conversation if he saw this today. How did it all come about? The biggest thing is us trying to win four state titles in a row. That is big on my mind. I want the kids to be prepared.

"This is the kind of stuff that they will experience when they get to college...cameras, microphones, interviews. Four of our kids are going to high-level programs. Like being on the court, they need to practice for the questions and the cameras and the atmosphere.

"Jabari does a great job of it. Kendrick, too. It is time for them to step out. I had to step out of my comfort zone to do it. The parents trust my judgment. No parents have questioned what we have done. It took me a week to make a decision. I didn't talk to the kids. I made the decision about them and what they had going on by myself."

So Smith opened the door. He scheduled a media day a week after preseason practice began. The reporters and cameras were there. "You guys are lucky," Smith told them. "You wouldn't be in the building at all to talk to the kids if Hambric was still coaching."

"The first thing I thought about was how positive it would be," Smith said. "I didn't want it to be a situation where they were downing kids or just talking to Jabari. I wanted everyone to tell their stories. And I wanted to make sure we were emphasizing CPS, the good things that go on. I didn't want to just showcase basketball. I want them to know other things about our kids."

Like his predecessor, Smith keeps track of everything that is going on. His name is on the program, his reputation. He said he wakes up every morning and reads the newspaper to see what has been written. And Smith wants everyone to know that this isn't just a Tribune thing, that all media outlets have access to his program.

"We will step out of our box like the Tribune but I won't let the media dominate Jabari all the time. They have to talk to other players," he said. "We feel if it is positive for Simeon and CPS, we are willing to do it."

It didn't take Smith very long to squelch any fears that such a drastic change in policy and unprecedented exposure to his players would have a negative effect on the program, that it would jeopardize Simeon's attempt to write its own chapter in the history of high school basketball in Illinois.

"I noticed it in the second week of practice, how focused they were on detail," he said. "These kids are focused. They want to win the state title. They aren't concerned with the newspaper. This is nothing to them. I felt they were mature enough to handle it.

"This thing is positive when we are all doing good. It isn't about Smith or Jabari or Kendrick. It's about everyone on the Simeon basketball team. I have never been around a group of kids who understand where we are and were we want to go. The leaders are so good and unselfish. All they want to do is win. It is the most mature group I have coached. They think they can't lose. They don't want to be the team that didn't win (the state title)."

Smith said the final piece of the puzzle for this year's team was uncovered and put securely in place when he persuaded Jaylon Tate to become the vocal leader.

"We were missing that, a vocal leader. Last year, we had Jelani Neely and Steve Taylor," the coach said. "That is Jaylon's role. I told him that we didn't have it and we needed it. I was looking for a leader and he felt he was the one. The others don't have that kind of personality. They are more laid back. They show you on the court."

"Everyone understands that Jaylon is the vocal leader. They can't let him down. He is so focused that everything is being done right. Jabari, Kendrick and Kendall Pollard lead by example. But you have to have a locker room and court guy who is vocal and talks to the other kids, who knows what I am looking for, who tells the other kids what they have to do."

Yes, times have changed at Simeon. Smith, his friends and former teammates still sit back and talk of the way it was when their former coach and mentor was there.

"It was like a fraternity," Smith said. "If you played at Simeon, you knew what was going on. It all happened to us as players. We could recite stories and lines about Hambric. He never changed his routine. Had he changed a little bit, he might have won more state titles. But that wasn't his ultimate goal. He wanted to make young men into men."

But he wouldn't permit freshman to play on the varsity, even Derrick Rose. Today, Smith has two promising freshmen on his varsity roster, Ben Coupet, whose father played at Simeon, and Zack Norvell.

"We wouldn't have freshmen on the roster today if we didn't think they could handle it. Sometimes we put kids on the varsity to show them they aren't ready. But sometimes freshmen are capable of handling it," Smith said.

Yes, times have changed at Simeon.

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

It’s not Jake Arrieta getting greedy and the Cubs being cheap when he holds up another jersey in a different city this winter, smiling for the cameras while super-agent Scott Boras watches the press conference unfold, marketing an ace to a new audience.

Even Arrieta admits that if he had Theo Epstein’s job, he would do the exact same thing, letting it play out until a 30-something pitcher hits the free-agent market. And Epstein wouldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox and taken over baseball operations at Clark and Addison if he didn’t believe in the need for change, to get outside the comfort zone and test yourself.

It’s just business, but this still felt very personal on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Arrieta probably making his last start in a Cubs uniform while the defending World Series champs survived an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Three straight trips to the National League Championship Series might have spoiled Cubs fans to the point where standing-room-only Game 4 tickets were selling for $60 on StubHub less than an hour before the 8:01 p.m. first pitch.

By 10:13 p.m., the crowd of 42,195 started booing when manager Joe Maddon popped out of the dugout in the seventh inning to take the ball from Arrieta after 111 pitches. It turned into a standing ovation as Arrieta walked off the mound and tipped his cap, his shaved head set against a mountain-man beard.

“Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye,” Arrieta said after a dramatic 3-2 win, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It’s a thank you, obviously. I still intend to have another start in this ballpark.

“If that’s where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there. But we’ve won four in a row plenty of times this year. And there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

So many times, Arrieta has been worth the price of admission, must-see TV through two no-hitters and those two World Series games he won on the road last year against the Cleveland Indians. None of this would have been possible without the Cubs finding a winning lottery ticket in that Scott Feldman flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.

“I took a little bit of extra time in between pitches,” Arrieta said, “just to look around, foul pole to foul pole, behind home plate, just to relish it and take it in. You got the fans on their feet, pulling on the same side of the rope. It breeds some added energy.

“I had that mindset of I’m going to do everything in my power to get it to tomorrow.”

Arrieta’s pitches dart and dive in directions that even he can’t always control, but he has guts, swing-and-miss stuff (nine strikeouts) and the ability to work through traffic. He gave up five walks, hit Chase Utley with a pitch and watched as Cody Bellinger hammered a ball off the video-board ribbon in right field for a third-inning homer.

But lefty reliever Brian Duensing backed Arrieta up with two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning, forcing Bellinger to lift a flyball into shallow left field, keeping it a 3-1 game and setting the stage for a two-inning Wade Davis save.

“Jake was amazing,” Davis said. “He was throwing Wiffle balls, it looked like. Guys were just swinging at balls that started in on the zone and finished a foot off the plate. He’s just got some amazing stuff.”

For perspective on how far this franchise has come, just look at the lineup from Arrieta’s first spot start as a Cub, the second game of a July 30, 2013 doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field:

David DeJesus, CF
Junior Lake, LF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B
Starlin Castro, SS
Cody Ransom, 3B
Cole Gillespie, RF

The Cubs actually sent Arrieta back to Triple-A Iowa for two more starts that summer, part of a mental/mechanical reset and the service-time calculus that would delay his free-agency clock by a year.

By 2015, Arrieta’s raw talent and natural confidence converged with a young, inexperienced team that caught fire in the second half, his Cy Young Award campaign fueling 97 wins and the momentum for chairman Tom Ricketts to authorize a spending spree on free agents that almost totaled $290 million.

"That was pretty special,” Maddon said. “I've never witnessed on the field that kind of consistent performance from a pitcher. It was other-worldly, right down to the wild-card game.

“My God, you pretty much knew if you scored one or two runs, you're going to win that night somehow. I don't know how this is going to look moving forward. But I know one thing, man, that one year of watching him play was different. It was a throwback to the ‘60s kind of pitching (I watched) as a kid.

“He's special – his work ethic and who he is and how he goes about his business. He's a very special young man.”

But Arrieta really isn’t in the mood to wonder if this is the end scene to this chapter of his life.

“There’s a little thought of that, yeah, because you never know,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, now that the game’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The thought process for me now is to be ready if I’m needed.”

Cubs plotting their path for a comeback: 'We're not ready to go home'

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USA TODAY

Cubs plotting their path for a comeback: 'We're not ready to go home'

Their lofty goals include a weekend in sunny SoCal, but Anthony Rizzo thinks the only way to achieve them is for the Cubs to stay focused on the minor details. To realize the nearly impossible, the Cubs believe they can’t get too far ahead of themselves.

Frankly, that’s a good idea.

Even though the Cubs managed to stave off elimination on Wednesday night, they’re still in a very bad way. The Cubs’ chances of repeating as World Series champions are technically alive courtesy of a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. But it doesn’t change the fact that if the Cubs are to become only the second team in 36 tries to overcome a 3-0 series deficit, they’ll have to do it with a stagnant offense and a shaky bullpen.

“You can’t think about the big picture in these games,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got to go one pitch at a time. It doesn’t matter what you did that pitch before, you’ve gotta go to the next one and move on.

“We want to have a good weekend in LA. We want to go to LA this weekend and get out there and play some more baseball. We’re not ready to go home.”

The Cubs know they’re up against long odds. They’re aware that a number of teams have been in their position before and failed miserably. Only the Boston Red Sox have overcome a 3-0 deficit when they rallied to topple the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.

Still, the Cubs have managed to stay loose and focused despite their predicament.

“We're not putting pressure on ourselves,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “We're just going out there and we're worrying about playing our game. We're not panicked.”

Perhaps it’s because they’ve been here before. It could be their manager and his ability to keep things loose. Or maybe it’s just that this group has experienced it all together over the past two-plus seasons.

For whatever reason, the Cubs are comfortable.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of failure,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “We’ve dealt with our backs against the wall. It’s just about how you mentally prepare and I feel like with the bunch of guys we have, they’ve been on that run with us.

“I would say it’s a little bit more familiar to contain all the eagerness and anxiousness.”

[MORE CUBS-DODGERS: 'I might come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap']

There have been a ton of tribulations for this group to absorb.

Heading into Wednesday’s contest, the Cubs had the lowest batting average (.172) of any postseason team that had played eight games. Their .255 on-base percentage was the third-worst of those 145 teams and the 2.63 runs per game was fifth.

Javy Baez lifted the team’s spirits on Wednesday as he broke out of his postseason slumber with two solo home runs. Willson Contreras also delivered a bolt from the heavens with a 491-foot solo homer off the scoreboard.

“It’s just good energy,” Rizzo said.

Still, the Cubs couldn’t pull away, which left them in a position where they needed Herculean efforts from Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis. And it won’t get any easier on Thursday with Clayton Kershaw on the mound.

Then there’s the bullpen, which entered Game 4 with 23 walks issued, the most ever by any postseason team that had played eight games. Aside from Davis, who Joe Maddon ruled out for Game 5, Cubs relievers have been mostly shaky.

That’s not a good formula for a team that has constantly found itself in a number of close ballgames.

But those are the details the Cubs know they must avoid thinking about if they want to spend another weekend at Dodger Stadium. Instead of focusing on their flaws, they’re embracing the moment.

“I want there to be pressure,” Maddon said. “I want there to be a carrot at the end of the stick. I want all of that. I talk about never putting the pressure to exceed the pleasure, just meaning to handle the moment.

“We started this with a trip to Omaha, Nebraska (in spring) … and now we are here, coming on October 19th.

“It’s a lot of time in between. So, there’s a lot of different moments that occur Some are pressurized, and that’s good. Otherwise you’re home cooking steaks right now.”