Cubs

Henry's crossover sparks R-B surge

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Henry's crossover sparks R-B surge

A year ago, Riverside-Brookfield's basketball team was 23-6 but Damonta Henry wasn't a part of it. He suffered a broken finger while leaping to block a shot in practice and was forced to sit out until the regional tournament. All he could do was look forward to the 2011-12 season.

"It was pretty frustrating. I couldn't help my teammates. I knew I could help them but I couldn't shoot or dribble," Henry said. "I wanted to work hard in the off-season to get better and help my team go Downstate."

The 5-foot-11 junior point guard dreams of playing in the Big 10. But he said his ball-handling was "kind of shaky," the result of not handling the ball for an entire year. His cross-over dribble wasn't so sharp until he began to watch NBA stars Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook on YouTube.

"I looked at their moves, then went into the gym and practiced them," Henry said. "I see if I can perfect them and use them against people when they guard me. I work on the in-and-out cross-cover dribble that Rose uses. He breaks a lot of ankles. I practice it a lot.

"I fell in love with it when I first saw it and I practice it like crazy in the gym. I watched him against Tyreke Evans in an all-star game when he was a senior at Simeon. It froze the defense. It really caught my eye. I've been working on it and I do it pretty good."

Henry, who is averaging 17 points and four assists per game, has emerged as Riverside-Brookfield's floor leader. In last Tuesday's 72-44 rout of Elmwood Park, Henry scored 14 points for the Metro Suburban leader. The Bulldogs are 17-4 going into Tuesday's game against Timothy Christian. They will play at Glenbrook South on Friday.

"He is the guy who steers the ship," coach Tom McCloskey said. "We need him to have a great last month of the season. There is a lot of pressure on him but he is capable of handling it. He is very versatile. Potentially, he is a Division I point guard."

Henry takes his playmaking and leadership responsibilities very seriously. "I'm playing pretty good in my state of mind. When I'm off, I find my teammates. It isn't about statistics. It's all about winning and finding my open teammates instead of carrying the whole load," he said.

"Each player isn't afraid to take on a challenge. Even though mistakes might happen, they keep their heads high. Our mindset is to go get it and take no one lightly. If we keep it up, we can take it past the regional and go to state."

It will take more than confidence, of course, to punch a ticket to Peoria. R-B hasn't won a sectional title since the west suburban school opened in 1907. McCloskey has won two regionals in a row. He also won in 2002, the school's first title since 1974.

In his second tour of duty at R-B, McCloskey admits he has a better handle on what it takes to win at a school that traditionally has had to battle such traditional powers as Proviso East, Lyons and St. Joseph in its own neighborhood.

A 1972 graduate of R-B, he coached four losing teams at his alma mater from 1990 to 1994. His last two teams were 4-20. He went to Downers Grove North and Hinsdale Central, then was head coach at Montini for four years before returning to R-B in 2001.

His last three teams were 22-6, 24-3 and 23-6. Last year's team lost to Crane in the sectional final. Two years ago, R-B lost to Marshall in overtime in the sectional. This year's team, which has won 10 games in a row, figures to draw a high seed in the Class 3A sectional at Glenbard South, perhaps the most competitive in the state.

"I came in and had a talented group and had an amazing first year. We beat Lyons twice and they had finished fourth in the state tournament the year before," McCloskey said. "Most of these kids have chosen R-B rather than Fenwick or St. Joseph or Nazareth. Now we're attracting good kids."

R-B doesn't have a large area to draw from--Harlem to Kenman, Ogden to 22nd Street, a few miles wide, top to bottom. But McCloskey has persuaded his players to attend summer camps and participate in the Junior Bulldog program. More kids seem to want to be a part of the success. The school has won 10 conference titles in a row.

"We've put together a nice stretch but we are young," McCloskey said. "We're playing a lot of juniors and we have to work on consistency. We don't put teams away like we should when we get leads. We hope playing the regional at R-B will give us an advantage."

With no starters returning from last year's team -- Henry would have started as a sophomore if he hadn't been injured -- McCloskey wasn't sure what to look for in 2011-12. But after winning three of four games against good competition at the York Holiday Tournament and playing a tough early schedule that included Farragut and St. Ignatius, he saw confidence growing.

Now it all seems to be coming together with Henry, 6-foot-7 junior Miki Ljuboja (14.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg), 6-foot junior Eric Loury (4 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Luke Nortier (12.2 ppg) and 6-foot-4 senior Louis Marino (5 ppg). Top reserves are 6-foot-2 senior Andrew Hanley (5 ppg) and 6-foot-2 junior Liam Lesniak (4 ppg).

Ljuboja is a budding star who will become a real force when he gets stronger, McCloskey predicts. He is a future Division I prospect who is getting early interest from Loyola and Illinois-Chicago. He scored 12 points in the victory over Elmwood Park.

"Damonta's playmaking and Miki's inside play are the keys for us. And the others understand their roles," McCloskey said, summing up R-B's success story.

Henry also played football when he was young but he stopped playing football after his freshman year to concentrate on basketball. "I was a running back and quarterback. But I like being on the hardwood. It puts a smile on my face. Scoring and doing moves to get my teammates open or to help me get to the basket gives me a big thrill. Nothing in football was comparable," he said.

It finally dawned on Henry that he might have Division I potential when he was playing for the Illinois Hurricanes' AAU team last summer in tournaments at R-B and in Milwaukee.

"I was hitting tough shots and creating and getting through small holes. I knew I could play with the big boys," he said.

Like his coach, he realized his team also had big-time potential at the York tournament. "I didn't play that well. I had a terrible time with my shooting, only 5 of 15 threes. But my teammates picked me up. They knocked down shots when we needed them. They carried the load. I didn't need to. That told me that we are a good team," he said.

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Four takeaways: Blackhawks on wrong side of history in loss to Lightning

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AP

Four takeaways: Blackhawks on wrong side of history in loss to Lightning

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the United Center on Sunday:

1. Blackhawks on wrong side of history 

Earlier this year the Blackhawks made history by appearing in five straight overtime games to start the season, something no team in NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB history has ever done.

But Sunday they found themselves on the wrong side of it after allowing 33 shots on goal in the second period alone. It tied a franchise high for most given up in a single period — March 4, 1941 vs. Boston — and is the most an NHL team has allowed since 1997-98 when shots by period became an official stat.

"It's pretty rare to be seeing that much work in a period," said Cam Ward, who had a season-high 49 saves. "But oh man, I don't even know what to say to be honest. It's tough. We know that we need to be better especially in our home building, too. And play with some pride and passion. Unfortunately, it seemed like it was lacking at times tonight. The old cliche you lose as a team and overall as a team we weren't good enough tonight."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was a tough, tough period in all aspects. I don’t think we touched the puck at all and that was the part that was disturbing, against a good hockey team."

2. Alexandre Fortin is on the board

After thinking he scored his first career NHL goal in Columbus only to realize his shot went off Marcus Kruger's shin-pad, Fortin made up for it one night later and knows there wasn't any question about this one.

The 21-year-old undrafted forward, playing in his his fifth career game, sprung loose for a breakaway early in the first period and received a terrific stretch pass by Jan Rutta from his own goal line to Fortin, who slid it underneath Louis Domingue for his first in the big leagues. It's his second straight game appearing on the scoresheet after recording an assist against the Blue Jackets on Saturday.

"It's fun," Fortin said. "I think it would be a little bit more fun to get your first goal [while getting] two points for your team, but I think we ... just have to [turn the page to the] next chapter and just play and be ready for next game."

3. Brandon Saad's most noticeable game?

There weren't many positives to take away from this game, but Saad was certainly one of them. He had arguably his best game of the season, recording seven shot attempts (three on goal) with two of them hitting the post (one while the Blackhawks were shorthanded).

He was on the ice for 11 shot attempts for and five against at 5-on-5, which was by far the best on his team.

"He started OK and got way better," Quenneville said of Saad. "Had the puck way more, took it to the net a couple of times, shorthanded."

4. Special teams still a work in progress

The Blackhawks entered Sunday with the 29th-ranked power play and 25th-ranked penalty kill, and are still working to get out from the bottom of the league in both departments. In an effort to change up their fortunes with the man advantage, the Blackhawks split up their two units for more balance.

They had four power-play opportunities against Tampa Bay and cashed in on one of them, but it didn't matter as it was too little, too late in the third period — although they did become the first team to score a power-play goal against the Lightning this season (29 chances).

"Whether we're looking for balance or we're just looking for one to get hot, I think our power play has been ordinary so far," Quenneville said before the game. "We need it to be more of a threat."

Four more minor penalties were committed by the Blackhawks, giving them eight in the past two games. That's one way they can shore up the penalty kill, by cutting back on taking them.