White Sox

Collinsville's Fletcher was a basketball visionary

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Collinsville's Fletcher was a basketball visionary

When I was researching my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press, I deliberately arranged my first interview with Vergil Fletcher, Collinsville's legendary coach.

To me, no one knew more about the game or could talk about it more eloquently or analytically than Fletcher. While working for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and living in Collinsville from 1966 to 1968, I spent many afternoons in his office listening to one fascinating story after another.

In 2002, I visited him at his home in Collinsville. It was an experience I'll never forget. He invited me to his basement, which turned out to be a museum filled with every kind of imaginable memorabilia...pictures, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, books, manuscripts, trophies, awards and, most interesting of all, dozens of handwritten and typewritten copies of lectures that he had given at clinics and symposiums throughout his career.

I asked him if he had any material on his ball-press defense, the 3-2 or 1-2-2 zone press that he had invented in the early 1950s, the one that helped John Wooden build a dynasty at UCLA, the one that other Illinois high school coaches such as Neil Alexander, Jerry Leggett, Loren Wallace and Ron Ferguson used to help build their successful programs.

Imagine my surprise when Fletcher dug into an old dusty drawer and produced 20 pages of typewritten material titled "Full-Court Zone Press" that included diagrams with handwritten notes in the margins. "Here, take it with you. You might find it interesting," he said.

Interesting? This is the kind of stuff that basketball historians kill for. It's like Ted Williams writing on how to hit a baseball, Mariano Rivera on how to throw a cutter, Johnny Miller on how to shoot 63 in the final round of the U.S. Open, Secretariat on how to win the Belmont by 32 lengths and Don Larsen on how to throw a perfect game in the World Series.

The 20-page package also included a copy of Rudyard Kipling's poem "If," a list of Fletcher's defensive fundamentals, his manifesto on "So You Want To Be An Athlete" at Collinsville and what it takes to be one, his guide on "So You Want To Be A Basketball Player" at Collinsville complete with do's and dont's and training rules and, finally, a binding contract requiring each player to agree to abide by Fletcher's rules.

"I wouldn't change today. I'd just get players who want to play," he told me.

One of his star players, Kevin Stallings, now head coach at Vanderbilt, had an older brother who wanted Fletcher to change his offense to suit his brother. "There's the door," Fletcher told him.

"You've got to be the boss," Fletcher said. "You can't let the players or their parents decide what is best for them or the program."

The father of former player Tracy Wilhoit, a minister, wrote to Fletcher arguing that he shouldn't conduct practice on Thanksgiving. Fletcher told him that he would run the basketball program and the minister should run his church.

Fletcher's definition of a great coach? "Anyone can win with talent. But a great coach is someone who can win when he doesn't have talent," he said.

"The difference between good and great is a little extra effort."

If you're too young to remember Vergil Fletcher...well, you missed a great era in the history of high school basketball in Illinois. He wasn't the most popular coach. Neither was Evanston's Murney Lazier, who was to football what Fletcher was to basketball. They won more than anyone else. And they did it in a fashion that left their peers in awe.

When Fletcher showed up on Friday night in his usual suit and tie, you got the feeling you were sitting in a large classroom and the professor was getting ready to deliver a two-hour lecture on how the game should be played. He ran a triangle offense for the last 20 years of his career, long before Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls made it famous.

In introducing his lecture on the ball-press defense, Fletcher said: "The element of surprise can spell the difference in basketball. Pulled at the right time, an unanticipated move can turn a game around. Especially devastating in this respect are full-court pressure in general and the full-court zone press in particular. A good full-court zone press is particularly valuable to the coach. Since its execution is similar to the regular zone, it can be easily learned and thus save valuable practice time. In addition, it capitalizes on two other regular zone advantages, namely, pass interceptions and the anticipation of play development."

Bert Weber, who served as Fletcher's assistant from 1956 to 1963, recalled when his old boss went to a file cabinet in 1958 and removed an old copy of papers that had "Ball Press" written on it. "He started to look at it and then said: 'Let's try this. Let's put this in tonight.' It was the 1-2-2 zone press. He called it the ball press," Weber said.

"The trick was to anticipate where the ball was going, then intercept it. It was all about pressuring the ball. The positioning on the floor was determined by where the ball was. He had a drill almost every night with a 1-2-2 setup. As soon as he drew his arm back, the two back men would fly back to intercept a pass when the other team tried to beat the defense."

It was never more evident than in 1964-65 when Collinsville won the state championship with a team that wasn't supposed to be there. The Kahoks lacked size and featured only one Division I player, Dennis Pace, who later played at Illinois. In December, they lost to Decatur MacArthur in a game that Fletcher said was the worst performance in school history. But they regrouped. No team executed the ball press better. The Kahoks set a school record for steals.

"Once you understand what possible passes can occur in relation to where the ball is being pressure, then positioning for a pass interception becomes much easier," Fletcher said. "Keeping the ball on the side of the court and away form the middle also reduces the possibility of indecision as to which flanker should double-team."

In 1971-72, Thornridge unveiled its version of the zone press. The element of surprise was as fundamental to its success and it was devastating. Opponents knew it was coming but didn't know when. They played in fear, always looking over their shoulder, wondering when Quinn Buckner & Co. would spring the trap. It was never more suffocating than in the state final when the Falcons outscored Quincy 32-11 in the second quarter en route to a 104-69 victory, still the gold standard of all state championships.

Fletcher retired in 1979. He wanted to give up teaching and the athletic director's job and just coach. But the school board voted 5-2 against him. The only votes in his favor were his wife Violet and school superintendent Fred Riddle Sr., father of Fred Riddle, one of the stars of Fletcher's unbeaten 1961 state championship team. He wanted 100 percent suppoort and didn't get it. So he quit. He was 62.

In 36 years, he won 794 games and lost 216, a winning percentage of .814. His only regret was that he wasn't able to coach long enough to surpass the then state record of 809 victories set by Arthur Trout at Centralia. He always felt that, if allowed to coach one more season, he had enough talent to surpass Trout's mark.

His all-time team? Terry Bethel, Rodger Bohnenstiehl and Bogie Redmon on the front line with Charlie Kraack in reserve. Tom Parker at shooting guard and Marc Fletcher at point guard with Chuck Knarr in reserve.

Fletcher died in 2009. He was 93.

"He was literally one of a kind," Stallings said. "I can't begin to express the greatness that existed in him, how effortlessly it came out and how graciously he molded young men's lives. I'm just one of hundreds and hundreds."

With Astros eliminated, let's rank their free agents by possibility of coming to White Sox

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USA TODAY

With Astros eliminated, let's rank their free agents by possibility of coming to White Sox

The Houston Astros will not win back-to-back world championships this October.

Eliminated by the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the recently concluded ALCS, the rebuilt Astros still remain the model for rebuilding teams like the White Sox. But with their first post-championship season ending without another ring on the fingers of homegrown stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, among others, the most pertinent topic involving the Astros when it comes to the White Sox is Astros players now hitting the free-agent market.

There's a number of them, and some are very, very good. The White Sox figure to be more active this winter then they were last offseason, with Rick Hahn already saying the team will be making pitching additions, a no-brainer with Michael Kopech slated to miss the entire 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. And Hahn has said the White Sox will be "opportunistic" when it comes to other types of additions, as well.

So could any of these soon-to-be former Astros land on the South Side? Maybe. Here they are, ranked by such a possibility.

1. Charlie Morton

The White Sox need starting pitchers. Kopech's out until 2020, and James Shields, should the team opt not to bring him back on a new contract, will be a free-agent departure. That's two holes that need filling, and Morton could fill one of them. I know what you're thinking, "Dallas Keuchel is also a free agent, why isn't he No. 1 on this list, you fool?" More on him in a bit. Right now, we're talking about Charlie Morton.

Morton is hardly the most rebuild-friendly pitching option out there at 35 years old. But Morton's been very good for the Astros over the past two seasons, making 55 starts, striking out 364 guys and posting a 3.36 ERA. His fastball velocity is as high as it's been in his 11-year big league career and he's coming off two straight playoff runs, so maybe he could teach these young White Sox a thing or two about playing winning baseball — he did close out Game 7 of the World Series last fall.

The biggest problem might be that he's not too far removed from different results when he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when his numbers weren't nearly as good as they got when he went to Houston. Would another change of scenery mean a different kind of performance?

What kind of contract Morton will get on the market remains to be seen, obviously, but it's kind of a mystery at this point, as he's coming off a couple great years but is getting up there in age when it comes to multi-year deals. He could be a fit for the White Sox should they want just a one- or two-year option while they wait for Kopech to return to full strength and for Dylan Cease to make his way to the major leagues. But should this recent success continue, he could be a valuable option on a White Sox team making the transition from rebuilding to contending, too.

2. Marwin Gonzalez

The White Sox have a bit of a quandary in that they are still waiting to find out what they've got in a lot of their young players. With so many prospects and even young players at the major league level yet to fully finish their development, it's tough to say where the holes on future White Sox teams will be. And that's made all the more difficult by the rash of injuries sustained by White Sox prospects in 2018.

A good way to plan for future unknowns is to have a guy you can plug in just about anywhere, and that's what Gonzalez is. During the 2018 regular season, Gonzalez played everywhere on the field besides pitcher and catcher: 73 games in left field, 39 games at shortstop, 32 games at second base, 24 games at first base, three games at third base, two games in center field and one game in right field. He played one game at designated hitter, too, in case you were wondering. He appeared at six different positions in 2017, when he finished in the top 20 in AL MVP voting. That versatility should make him a hot commodity this offseason.

The question marks come from Gonzalez's bat, which was excellent in 2017 but not nearly as good in 2018. After slashing .303/.377/.530 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs for the world-champion Astros in 2017, he got more playing time in 2018 and his numbers dropped to a .247/.324/.409 slash line, 16 homers and 68 RBIs for the AL runners up. So which batch of results would you get if you signed Gonzalez? That's the question facing teams this offseason. (To help assuage fears, however, Gonzalez just wrapped a solid postseason in which he batted .333 with a pair of homers, a pair of doubles and nine RBIs, not to mention a .389 on-base percentage.)

But for a team with as much unwritten future as the White Sox have, wouldn't it be nice to have a plan for every eventuality — and to have it all in the form of one guy? While Manny Machado and Bryce Harper grab all the free-agent headlines this winter, perhaps the White Sox could slip in and convince Gonzalez to help another transition from rebuilding to contending. He was a part of two 100-loss teams in 2012 and 2013 and along for the ride to the top of baseball's mountain. That's some good experience to have.

3. Dallas Keuchel

Now we arrive at Keuchel. Would the soon-to-be 31-year-old former Cy Young winner be a good fit for the rebuilding White Sox? Absolutely he would. Signing him to a long-term deal would not only solve a pitching problem in 2019 but it would provide a safety net should Kopech, Cease or whoever go through the to-be-expected growing pains that young players go through in their first tastes of the major leagues. He would be an anchor of future rotations with plenty of young arms around him.

Signing Keuchel — who has a combined 3.39 ERA and 278 strikeouts over the last two seasons — would be similar to the Cubs' signing of Jon Lester, a proven veteran climbing aboard a team heading toward a bright future, and his experience and talent could help them reach that future faster. Like Gonzalez, he experienced back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2012 and 2013 and also got a World Series ring as the Astros completed their journey from the bottom to the top.

But being a good fit is only half the battle for the White Sox. A lot of other teams, including good ones capable of pitching a win-now roster, are going to be vying for Keuchel's services this winter. And while he might not be the No. 1 starting pitcher on the free-agent market — that's expected to be Clayton Kershaw, if he opts out of his current contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers — he's going to be no lower than the No. 3 starting pitcher on the free-agent market. Most of the contending clubs in the game are likely to have starting pitching on their shopping list, teams that can pitch present-day success and the ability to win a championship in 2019 against the White Sox promise of planned success down the road. And then there's the financials on top of that. Hahn has said the White Sox will have the financial flexibility to do what they need to do, but will it be enough to outbid baseball's biggest spenders?

Keuchel would obviously be a good fit for the White Sox. But the competition is going to be really stiff.

4. Tony Sipp

Sipp, a 35-year-old reliever who White Sox fans might remember from his days as a Cleveland Indian, was excellent for the Astros this season, posting a 1.86 ERA and striking out 42 guys in 38.2 innings during the regular season.

But while the White Sox could use bullpen help — their 4.49 relief ERA ranked 23rd out of 30 major league teams — that performance kind of elevates Sipp from the level of sign-and-flip guys they've acquired in recent seasons. Sipp might not be under the radar enough for the White Sox to take a flier, get a good few months and trade him away for a prospect.

Spending the kind of money Sipp might command on a 35-year-old reliever in a season where you're not expected to compete might not make for a good match.

5. Brian McCann

Yeah, the White Sox don't need Brian McCann.

Adam Schefter: Bears plan on Khalil Mack playing vs. Patriots

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USA TODAY

Adam Schefter: Bears plan on Khalil Mack playing vs. Patriots

Khalil Mack has yet to miss a game in his NFL career. He doesn’t plan on breaking that streak on Sunday.

ESPN insider Adam Schefter told the “Kirk and Callahan show” on WEEI in Boston that the Bears expect their star pass rusher to play this week against the New England Patriots.

Mack missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday with the ankle injury he suffered last week against the Miami Dolphins.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio indicated this week that the outside linebacker could potentially play even if he doesn’t practice due to the injury.

Assuming Mack does take the field on Sunday, he won’t be 100 percent, and it’s unclear how much of an impact he’ll be able to have.

Last week was his least productive game of the season, and he earned a career-low grade from Pro Football Focus, with two missed tackles and only one pressure generated on 33 pass-rushing snaps.

The Bears are going to need more from Mack to slow down Tom Brady and the Patriots offense that’s averaging nearly 40 points per game over the last three weeks.