Thornwood's Khapri Alston received same sage advice from his father, his uncle and his assistant coach. The 6-foot-3 senior absorbed all of it, like taking a big spoon of Castor Oil. All of a sudden, the "man in the mirror" began to resemble Superman on the basketball court.
According to coach Paul Slavich, Alston is "an unheralded, overlooked and undersized big man" who is "the glue that holds us together. If he was three or four inches taller, every Division I school would be after him. He is only 6-foot-3 but he plays like he is 6-foot-7."
Alston has been on fire in recent games. He had 26 points and 13 rebounds against Bradley, 23 points and 15 rebounds against Rich South and 17 points against Stagg. In Tuesday's 57-55 upset victory over Andrew, he scored 13 as Thornwood clinched at least a share of the SouthWest Suburban Red championship.
After being held scoreless in the first three quarters, Johnte Shannon popped in a three-point shot with 11.5 seconds to play as Thornwood claimed its first conference title since 2002. Darrell Combs led the Thunderbirds with 24 points. It was Andrew's second loss in 23 games and spoiled a bid for its first conference title.
Thornwood (19-6) can earn an undisputed crown by beating district rival Thornton on Friday night. After an 0-2 start, the Thunderbirds have come on strong against a very competitive schedule and are seeded No. 6 in the Lockport sectional with Bloom, Andrew, Homewood-Flossmoor and Crete-Monee.
"I like that we are jelling together and coming together as a team,"
said Alston, who likely will attend Northeast Community College in North Fork, Nebraska, to get his academics in order and prepare for a Division I college.
"I'm just playing my best for the team, just doing whatever I have to do for us to win. They are going to me more. If I don't have a shot, I kick it out. I get in position for rebounds. I know I have to play at a higher level because we are going into the playoff."
Alston, who is averaging 15 points and eight rebounds per game, traces his increased late-season production to "just being more aggressive."
"I knew I was playing lower, worse than I can," he said. "I know I can play better. I wasn't playing to the best of my ability. I wasn't doing everything I could. I wasn't being a leader. I had to step up for the team."
A few weeks ago, Alston's father told him that he should grab every rebound that comes off the rim. "I can do that," Khapri said.
His uncle said he was playing down to the competition, that he wasn't playing up to his potential.
And assistant coach Shawn Finnan told him to look in a mirror. "Ask yourself: Are you playing to the best of your ability? Are you looking at the man you want to be? Are you doing everything right?"
"I had a reality check," Alston said. "I started to play at a higher level. Even though most defenders are taller than me, I know I can play with anyone. I don't look at myself as being less than anyone else."
Alston is complemented by 6-foot-1 senior guard Darrell Combs (14 ppg), who has signed with Loyola, 5-foot-10 senior guard Johnte Shannon (12 ppg),
5-foot-8 senior point guard David Fuller (3 ppg, 4 assists) and 6-foot-7 senior center Ahmad Baine (4 ppg).
Coming off the bench are 5-foot-10 senior point guard Marcus Agee and 6-foot senior Justin Kennedy.
Slavich is in his second season at the South Holland school. Last year's team was 16-12 and lost to Plainfield Central by one point on a last-second shot in the regional semifinal.
But Slavich isn't a rookie. A 1986 graduate of Thornwood, he played for coach Al Holverson. He has taught and coached in the school system for 17 years. He assisted former Thornwood coaches Kevin Hayhurst and Bob Curran.
When people talk about Thornwood's tradition, he knows what they are talking about.
In 2001, Thornwood and Eddy Curry were favored to win the Class AA championship but lost to Schaumburg in the state final and finished 32-2. In 2003, Eric Gray and Maurice Montgomery led the Thunderbirds to a 27-6 record and second place. In 2006, Tre Blue and Reggie Hamilton led a 25-8 team to fourth place in the state tournament. In a period of four years, Thornwood won 25, 32, 27 and 27 games.
"We want to do what those teams did. We have the same type of team that they had. We can make a run like they did," Alston said. "What impressed me about those teams is they played together like a family. It wasn't just one player. Everybody on our team wants to accomplish what those teams did."
Slavich believes his team is good enough to win the sectional. "We have played tough competition. We had the lead at some point in every game we have lost. But it didn't work out for us. We're getting better. Our kids are coming around. They want to make a run like the old Thornwood teams. They have the tools to do it," he said.
"I've talked to them about the past, about the experience of going Downstate, what those teams did well, how they played with the lead, how they played smart, how they didn't go up and down the court like a gym class. We stress how important each possession is in playoff time. They can make a difference in winning a game. It is important to understand what the other team is trying to do."