Theo Williams remembers the way it was when Du Sable was one of the most successful basketball programs in the city. A graduate of 1998, he played point guard on a team that lost to Quentin Richardson and eventual state champion Whitney Young in the semifinals of the Public League playoff.
But Williams, 32, concedes that his players don't know very much about the history and tradition of a program that finished second in the state in 1954 and has produced such outstanding players as Sweetwater Clifton, Paxton Lumpkin, Sweet Charlie Brown, Shellie McMillon, Mike Lewis, Maurice Cheeks, Sam Gowers, Larry Cross and Stephfon Butler.
"The kids know very little," Williams said. "I knew it all. When we went to the Final Four in the city playoff in 1998, that's when it all came out, newspaper articles about how powerful the basketball program was in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
"These kids don't know about the tradition. Sweetwater Clifton (the first African-American to play in the NBA) and Maurice Cheeks (a former NBA coach and future Hall of Famer) graduated from Du Sable. But they don't know them. They see the 1954 trophy and know the history of what happened when that team went Downstate.
"Even when I played, there was no atmosphere like the 1970s. Not today, either. The gym used to be rocking. Now kids just sit and watch the game. We can't get them fired up. In fact, our team plays better on the road. But there is a buzz around the school about what we are doing. And alumni are coming back to watch the team."
Williams' players may not be aware of the history and tradition of Du Sable basketball but they are listening to their coach's daily sermons about defense. And Williams insists man-to-man defense is what has propelled the Panthers to within two victories of earning their first trip to the state finals in nearly 60 years.
Williams played for Larry Lewis, another former Du Sable player. After starting for four years at Du Sable, he attended Eastern Arizona and Minnesota StateMankato, then graduated from Robert Morris in Chicago. After college, he assisted coach Richard Morgan at Du Sable, then became head coach when Morgan became principal six years ago.
Last year's team finished 19-11, losing to Harper in the regional final. With three starters returning, Williams was optimistic about this season...if only his players would learn to play defense.
"The kids weren't ready to play defense for me. That's why we lost early in the season," Williams said. "I was a defensive stopper when I played. This team can't score that well so we have to play defense to generate offense. Defense and free throws will win for us. I told the kids: 'If we don't play defense, we can't compete.'
"Good teams will pick-and-roll and get any shot they want. If we don't make them uncomfortable, it will be a long night for us. We must force them to do what they don't want to do and force them outside so they can't run their offensive sets."
Now 15-9, Du Sable has won six games in a row after upsetting top-seeded St. Ignatius 51-44 on Tuesday night in a Class 3A sectional semifinal at St. Ignatius. The Panthers will meet Dunbar for the championship on Friday night.
Malik Williams, a 5-foot-7 junior guard, came off the bench to score 11 points in the second quarter 6-foot-5 junior Christopher Galbreath had 10 points, nine rebounds and two blocks as Du Sable pulled off one of the biggest surprises of the state tournament to date.
"We may look sluggish on offense," Williams said, "but we play hard on defense and as a team and rebound the ball. I never question our effort on defense. Our kids are now committed to defense."
The Panthers finally got their coach's message loud and clear after beating Crane 62-52 on Feb. 21, the team's Senior Night.
"Everybody thought we'd lose to Crane," Williams said. "But we forced them into a lot of turnovers. And those turnovers translated into easy offensive points. It make our kids realize that defense translates to easy baskets."
The converts are Malik Williams (8 ppg), Galbreath (10 ppg, 10 rpg), 6-foot-1 senior Evance Gayles (13 ppg, 4 assists), 6-foot-4 senior Andrew Richmond (5 ppg, 7 rpg), 6-foot-1 senior James Scott (6 ppg) and 6-foot-2 senior Jermayne Akons (9 ppg).
Williams likes to put the ball in Gayles' hands late in games because he is makes good decisions and is an effective finisher. He describes Richmond as "the heart of the team" because he takes two or three charges in each game and the team feeds off his energy. Akons, also a gifted football player, has offers to play quarterback in college.
But Williams still has issues. "I never know who will show up or won't show up. The problem is to get everybody on the same page all the time and be ready to play," he said.
Just like they did in the 1970s.