A sleek forward named Demetrius Evans snares a pass from guard Temi Soyebo and dunks the ball to punctuate Von Steuben’s victory over south-side Catholic power Brother Rice. As the scoreboard clock counts down toward zero, Evans, Soyebo, and the other Von Steuben players celebrate at center court.
This March 14 win at the United Center advanced Von Steuben to the state quarterfinals of the Class AA, or large schools, championship in Peoria. It was a pretty startling accomplishment, given that the team opened the season by losing its first four games, failed to win its own conference, and lost in the second round of the Public League tournament in February. But more than that, what the Von Steuben Panthers did was historic. The last time Von Steuben had reached the Elite Eight was 1938. The last time any north-side public school got that far was Kelvyn Park in 1943.
Vince Carter, the 48-year-old coach in his fourth year running the school’s varsity program, looked at the press massed inside the media room. “I guess now none of you will be writing that north-side players can’t play basketball,” he said, smiling.
Located on Kimball south of Foster, Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center is a racially diverse magnet school, and despite the open enrollment policy for Chicago high schools, the vast majority of Von Steuben’s basketball players live on the north side. Attendance figures, dropout rates, and average ACT test scores place it among the top five Chicago public schools, according to an April 2002 Chicago magazine survey.
Since the emergence of DuSable, Marshall, and Carver more than five decades ago, the city’s top boys basketball programs have been located exclusively on the west and south sides. From 1986 to 1993, Martin Luther King High won three AA state championships. In the last ten years four graduates of Westinghouse, last year’s state champion, have played in the NBA. In 1995 Kevin Garnett played at Farragut Academy and then became the first player in nearly 20 years to enter the NBA directly out of high school.
“A lot of things go together,” Carter says. “I think it’s a fair assessment that basketball is a bigger point of emphasis on the south and west side. The demographics of the neighborhoods have also changed. You have more Asian and Hispanic kids at north-side schools, and culturally they don’t have the same connection to basketball that young black kids do. Different sports and different areas have taken advantage of the kids they draw. Clemente is a big power in baseball. A school like Lane Tech, they’re not a great basketball power, but they have won in a lot of other sports,” he says.
In 1972 the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) created a two-class basketball system. All Chicago public high schools, regardless of enrollment, were classified in the large schools division. As the playoffs began the Public League schools held their own tournament, and the winner moved on to the state quarterfinals. Under this format, no north-side team ever even reached the finals for the Public League city championship.
Vince Carter grew up on the south side and graduated from parochial power Leo in 1973. In his senior year, Leo beat Brother Rice to capture the Catholic League championship. Carter says the winners of the Catholic League and Public League would end the season by playing each other at the old International Amphitheatre. “Hirsch won the state title that year, and they refused to play the game. I think they were afraid of losing,” Carter says.
His coaching career began in 1980, when he formed a club team called the Chicago Demons. “We started out as a tumbling group,” he says. The boys ranged in age from 9 to 12, and many lived in Cabrini-Green or other housing projects. He was teaching then at Disney, a north-side magnet grammar school. “We used to go to the old Navy Pier gym and practice our tumbling. They had all of these basketball courts there, and there were a lot of other young coaches. We started playing some of the other kids down there in basketball, and the team developed out of that.”
Carter had begun teaching math at Von Steuben in 1977. He lost his job there in a staff reorganization, taught at several grammar schools, and returned in 1986. He coached girls track for two years, and continued to run the Demons program, which grew to include more than 100 boys and girls. In 1993 Carter became the sophomore boys basketball coach.
In 1999 Carter was named varsity coach. “Carter struggled early on,” says Soyebo, a freshman Carter’s first season, when Von Steuben wound up 12 and 12. “Then he got the right players for his system and they turned it on.”
With recruiting for athletic purposes technically illegal under IHSA bylaws, young basketball prospects are typically swayed by three factors: friends already at a school, the prominence of the program, and the relationship of the high school coaches to organizers of the feeder programs–grammar school teams and youth recreational and social service leagues.
Carter says he worked hard to keep separate his roles as a high school coach and with the Demons program. “A lot of those kids who played for the Demons actually went to Lincoln Park, and I didn’t try to talk any of those kids into coming to Von Steuben.” He says, “We don’t recruit kids here to come and play basketball. Most of our kids live on the north side. We tell them, ‘If you come to Von Steuben you’re going to get a very good education. You’re going to be in a clean, safe, and disciplined environment where people are not rampaging through the halls.’ Most of the time when you hear about recruiting, it’s really more about the parents, a guardian, or family member trying to control the situation and get something in return, like get assurances that their kid will start on the varsity as a freshman.”
The three key juniors on this year’s team–Evans, Ryne Hamblet, and Bryon Johnson–played on a Demons basketball team that won a 14-and-under national tournament in Minneapolis in the spring of 1999. That fall they entered Von Steuben. Hamblet and Johnson lived on the north side and were friends with Soyebo. Evans grew up in public housing on the west side. He attended a Catholic grammar school, and his neighborhood school was Manley, historically one of the city’s academically weakest high schools. Evans says his grammar school coach convinced him that Von Steuben’s more demanding academics would suit him better.
As freshmen, these three players were the mainstays of a Von Steuben sophomore team that reached the city finals. That same year, Carter’s second as varsity coach, the varsity made a significant leap, winning 20 games. Von Steuben played an aggressive, trapping defense and an offense that favored speed, quickness, and outside shooting.
The team’s rep as an emerging basketball power was cinched when Angel Santiago of Arai Middle School in Uptown enrolled at Von Steuben last year. Rated the top eighth-grade prospect in the city by several scouting services, Santiago resisted overtures from Crane, Farragut, and several other west-side programs. As it happened, his coach at Arai, David Taylor, was also Carter’s top assistant. As a freshman, Santiago started at point guard and led the Panthers to the 2002 Public League semifinals, the first time since 1988 a north-side school had qualified for the city’s final four.
Von Steuben entered this season as a team to watch, but the players didn’t meet expectations. The mercurial Santiago, Carter’s most talented player, sat out the first game for academic reasons. The team looked disorganized and played with little energy or excitement for the first month. “We played so well in the summer and fall, and we expected teams would be afraid of us. It didn’t happen like that, and I think we probably lost some of our confidence,” Hamblet says. “There was also too much individualism, and guys were not playing as hard as they could.”
The turnaround came during two Christmas tournaments. Its record a dismal 3 and 6 after losing to Farragut on a controversial call, Von Steuben regrouped on the bus, and in a game an hour later and 12 miles away beat a quality opponent, Proviso West. The Panthers won their next ten games before losing to Lane Tech by a point February 7, finishing second in the Red North conference. Then in the second game of the Public League tournament, Von Steuben lost to Lincoln Park 62-58 in overtime.
Last year Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan sold the IHSA board of governors on a change of procedure for state tournaments. Except in basketball, Public League schools had found it hard to compete with parochial, suburban, and downstate sports programs. So Duncan surrendered his system’s automatic berth in the state quarterfinals, and IHSA agreed to classify all Public League schools according to their enrollments. Duncan wanted his smaller schools and new scholastic academies to compete against schools their own size. Though the majority of the league’s nearly 100 schools remained Class AA, about 25 schools became eligible to compete in Class A basketball tournaments.
Under the old format, Von Steuben’s loss to Lincoln Park would have ended its season. But now the state tournament meant a fresh start for Chicago’s public schools, as it did for every other school in Illinois. Between the Lincoln Park loss and the start of the state tournament, Von Steuben went almost a month without a game. Most coaches would dread such a long layoff. Carter says it transformed his team. “I told them after we lost to Lincoln Park, ‘We are going to start over again. This is the start of the third season. This is the end of a bad season.’ We did not play to our capabilities in either the regular season or during the Public League tournament. That definitely turned us around. We approached [the layoff] as though it were a minicamp, and [the players] responded.”
Von Steuben’s last game, a 63-43 loss to the eventual state champs, Peoria Central, in the quarterfinals in Peoria, was much closer than the final score indicates. Von Steuben trailed by only four points with just under three minutes left. But playing from behind, they were forced to foul, and Peoria ended the game with an 18-2 run. Hamblet, who’d suffered a deep thigh bruise against Brother Rice, played through the pain but scored only four points. Santiago struggled with his shot and was 3 for 12 from the field. Evans led the team with 15 points and five rebounds as Von Steuben shot just 30 percent and converted only one of 14 three-point attempts.
Sitting in the stands watching the next quarterfinal game, Carter was disappointed but sanguine. “It didn’t really hit me until we got down here and the game started about how significant this all was,” he said. “You spend your whole life thinking about getting downstate, and you had to win the city championship–the whole focus for us was the city championship. With the new format, nobody will be able to say a north-side team could not get downstate.
“It was harder on the kids. They really felt they let all three million people in Chicago down. [But] even though they didn’t win, there were other Public League teams with bigger stars and better-known players who didn’t get here, and what we did shows what happens when kids come together and work hard.”
The day after his team’s quarterfinal loss, Demetrius Evans won the state tournament’s King of the Hill slam-dunk competition. Evans, Santiago, and Hamblet, Von Steuben’s three best players, all return next year, and so does a fourth starter, Johnson. Carter’s sophomore teams have played for the city championship the last three years and won it this year.
“I have a core group of kids that play year-round, and that is beneficial,” he says. Chicago high school basketball never really stops; there’s merely an interlude between the end of the official season and the beginning of off-season competition. This month the team competes in a tournament. Over the summer the Demons club team–which now includes all the top varsity players–will play in a series of regional and national tournaments, from Indiana to Florida. “I hope it will continue next year,” Carter says. “I told them, Now we’re a marked team. We got a lot of young kids and some very good kids at the lower levels, and we’ll be pretty good the next couple of years.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Kosman–www.websportschicago.com.