The Public League boys’ basketball championship game is now played on the big stage, at the United Center, but in almost every other way it’s been diminished in recent years. Winning the crown used to mean an automatic berth in the state quarterfinals, but city coaches and players complained–rightfully–that the limiting of Chicago to one elite-eight representative was a racist policy of the Illinois High School Association, an attempt to appease suburban and downstate schools by preventing city teams from dominating the state tournament. The policy was changed four years ago, and now city teams compete in regionals and sectionals that include the surrounding suburbs. The Public League could place three teams in next weekend’s final four in Peoria–but where the prestige of the city title is concerned, it’s been a case of “be careful what you wish for.” The Public League tournament was moved up to February, and though the winner can still claim bragging rights as the city’s best team, it’s a ceremonial title. The vanquished pooh-pooh their losses and focus on March madness, and the city champ begins at square one in the regionals with everyone else. Since the Public League lost the automatic downstate bid, no city champ has made it past the sectionals.

More than 10,000 fans turned out at the UC February 25 for the Public League final between the Simeon Wolverines and the Washington Minutemen. The players must have been thrilled to play on the Bulls’ home floor, an experience complete with lights-out, laser-enhanced introductions set to the familiar music of the Alan Parsons Project. But otherwise the atmosphere was low-key. Compare it to the old title games at the UIC Pavilion and, before that, at the International Amphitheatre. Back then the crowd was made up of partisan students and the city’s fiercest basketball aficionados, who’d hoot at every rejection and roar at each slam dunk, and the King High band would be blaring and thumping away in some corner while Landon “Sonny” Cox stomped his feet at every dubious call. The $10 UC ticket price seemed to dissuade students from attending last month’s game (along with its being on television), and the event looked like a night out for hoops-loving parents who’d dragged their kids along. One big family sat right in front of me, in the stands behind the west basket, and the mom wowed her kids by singing along with every word of J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic” during warm-ups.

The less rambunctious crowd didn’t put a damper on the play. We saw, without question, the city’s best team in Simeon, and quite possibly the state’s best player in Simeon junior Derrick Rose, proclaimed “the real deal” during introductions by the guys sitting behind me. Rose has the look of a bull terrier–chiseled features, muscular arms, and broad shoulders tapering to a thin waist. He plays with a maturity rare in such a young athlete, and in the opening moments he got his teammates going while waiting for the game to come to him. When the opportunity presented itself he put it away.

Washington, which had upset talented but sloppy Marshall in the semis with a disciplined team game, opened in a zone defense. But Simeon, well coached by Robert Smith, jumped out to a 9-2 lead as Randall Hampton hit a couple of key threes over the zone and Rose added another. Rose followed with a matter-of-fact slam dunk on a run-out, then started looking to get Simeon big man Tim Flowers involved. The Minutemen’s zone defense was making them tentative, and their offense suffered. Simeon led 17-5 at the quarter and 21-5 when Washington switched to a man-to-man. Then Rose blocked a shot on the perimeter, dribbled downcourt, and took the ball straight to the hoop, bouncing off a Washington player (no call) and banking it in. Moments later he tomahawked the ball into the net and it was 25-7.

Simeon led 28-13 at the intermission, and Rose wasted no time in the second half sinking the dagger. He drove for a nice banked layin, then speared a pass outside and took the ball straight in for a whirling windmill dunk. Right away he stole the ball back and took it in for another jam, a facial over Washington star Mario Little. It was 34-13, and the crowd was finally roaring. When Rose added a lovely floater in the lane to keep the score doubled at 44-22, PA announcer Jimmy E. Smith Sr. crooned, “Derrick Rose, Derrick Rose, Derrrrrrick Rose.” In the fourth quarter, as Washington scrambled to cut into the lead, Rose got back on defense to make a couple of flying blocks against the backboard. “Triple double? He could get a quadruple double!” gushed a kid behind me. For the record, Rose finished with a mere single double, on 25 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, and three blocks, as Simeon coasted to a 55-40 victory, but it was one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen in a Public League final. A scout for suburban Saint Joseph sitting just down the row apparently thought so too; he got up after the third quarter and walked out, having seen enough.

If both teams survived, Simeon would meet Saint Joseph in next week’s supersectionals, but the Wolverines were going to have to survive the Public League champ’s sectional bugaboo to get there. With high school hoops having shifted back to the neighborhoods for the regional finals, I went out to see my local game last Friday at Lane Tech’s self-proclaimed “Addison Square Garden,” where Lane was playing favored Von Steuben. Von Steuben was led by Jeremie Simmons, a lean, fluid player with a long, low jawline and a smooth, almost nonchalant style of play, and he was complemented by three tall, leaping forwards and three small, fleet guards who shuttled in and out. Despite the partisan student crowd in the cozy gym (tickets cost $4, making it a cheap date), Von Steuben ended Lane’s string of upsets 61-44 and advanced to meet suburban New Trier this week.

Simeon had beaten Von Steuben by 20 points in the Public League semis, deploying a crafty box-and-one zone defense to neutralize Simmons. As enjoyable as the Lane-Von Steuben game was in Lane’s raucous gym, it seemed strange to see these city teams still playing after the Wolverines had already proved they were the best in town.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Kosman/