Lamon Dawkins used to play football. He was a running back and wide receiver on his father's youth team, the Little Eagles, who played at Hamlin Park. He still plays football from time to time. He wishes St. Benedict had a football program. If it did, he'd be suiting up in helmet and pads.
But it doesn't. Dawkins enrolled at St. Benedict to play basketball and get a good education. In his view, it was the "obvious choice."
"I like football but I like basketball more," Dawkins said. "I get more excited with basketball. I like running down the court, dunking on people and shooting. And it's even more fun this year because we're running all the time, run-and-gun."
Dawkins is a 6-foot-1 junior guard who is averaging 21.5 points per game for a St. Benedict team that is 17-5 and seeded No. 2 behind highly rated Hope Academy in the Class 1A sectional at Hope.
Last week, St. Benedict defeated Gordon Tech 59-53 as Dawkins scored 32 points and 6-foot-3 senior Henry Mireku contributed 21 points and 13 rebounds.
The Bengals meet Roycemore on Wednesday and Providence-St. Mel on Friday. With an enrollment of 230 students, the school has slipped to Class 1A. St. Benedict hasn't won a regional title since 1992. But coach Tom Horn thinks his current squad is primed to make history.
"This is my best team," Horn said. "This team is averaging 80.5 points per game, most in school history. It is a high risk, high reward team. We play a 1-3-1 trap and 2-2-1 defense. If you score, we try to outscore you. Our goal is to get the ball up quickly and take the best shot."
Horn has known success at St. Benedict. A 1977 graduate, he was a sophomore on a 24-3 team that was ranked No. 8 in the Chicago area. Indiana coach Bob Knight came to scout two of Horn's teammates, Steve Scales (who went to TCU) and Bob Middleton (who went to Texas A&M).
Horn attended Wright Junior College for one year, then transferred to Northeastern Illinois and walked onto the basketball team. He has been teaching in the Chicago public schools for 29 years. After stops at Schurz, Lane Tech and Northside Prep, he landed at St. Benedict four years ago.
Last year's team was 17-8 and lost to Hope Academy in the regional. Afterward, he decided it was time to make a change in his philosophy.
"We have a lot of talented kids," Horn said. "Later in your career, after you reach a point where you have won 230 games...well, I talked to my staff and we felt we had to change to a run-and-gun offense because I wanted to see these kids go to college and I wanted them to put up big numbers.
"Early in your career, you think about your ego. But now it's all about the kids. They want to run. They run all summer with AAU. So I changed my philosophy. At Northside Prep, we won 23 games one year, beat Notre Dame and lost to Marshall in the city playoff. But this team has more talent."
But can they beat Hope Academy?
Three weeks ago, St. Benedict had a 10-point lead over Hope Academy in the third quarter but lost 75-70 for the conference championship.
"To beat Hope, we must guard them," Horn said. "They had too many easy baskets. We can score with anyone. We lost 92-87 in double overtime to Jones. We aren't afraid to match basket for basket. But we can't give up easy baskets. We can play with them."
Dawkins, who has a 36-inch vertical jump and is described as a Division I prospect by his coach, and Mireku, who averages 16.5 points and 12 rebounds per game, are the key contributors. Very athletic, Mireku plays in the paint for the Bengals but likely will be a two-guard in college.
Other starters are 5-foot-9 senior point guard Ray Busch (five points, nine assists per game), 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior Earl Briggs (eight points, five rebounds per game) and 6-foot-3 senior Leon Brown (seven points, five rebounds, four blocks and three assists per game).
"Briggs clears the boards. If the other team beats our press, he is back there to defend," Horn said. "Brown is long-armed and guards the best player on the other team."
Coming off the bench are 5-foot-2 freshman point guard Marshawn Williams and 6-foot senior guard Jacques Lewis.
Dawkins accepts his role as the go-to guy. "I'm supposed to lead the charge down the floor," he said.
He recalls St. Benedict's opening game against St. Gregory. The Bengals were trailing by two points in the second quarter when Horn decided it was time to start the track meet.
"In practice, (Horn) told us we would run and gun. He wanted to see us run with the ball. We were surprised. Sometimes we get tired but we were excited to run, run and gun," Dawkins said.
"Then against St. Gregory, in the second quarter, he said to run and gun and we took off. We ran away from them. We liked (running) more. What is run and gun? Every rebound we grab, we go, we attack the basket, we don't wait, the whole team goes to the basket."
Dawkins hopes to play basketball in college. His dream schools are Memphis and Butler. To earn a scholarship to one of those schools, he acknowledges that he must continue to improve, as he has since last season when he averaged 15 points per game.
"I worked hard all summer," he said, recalling trips to Illinois' camp and frequent sessions at the Carter Club at 2919 N. Leavitt. "I woke up every day and played basketball. I went one-on-one with family members all the time, people I didn't know, kids at the boys club, anyone. I just wanted to get better at everything I did."