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If it was payback, and it was, what exactly was it payback for? Like many feuds, the rivalry between King and Westinghouse in boys basketball seems to go back beyond anyone’s clear memory. When King defeated previously unbeaten Westinghouse for the Public League title two Sundays ago at the Pavilion, was it revenge for the Jaguars’ overtime loss to the Warriors earlier in the season–or a long-overdue answer to 1992, the year a Kiwane Garris Westinghouse team upset a heavily favored Rashard Griffith King squad? Whatever, the game was a classic confrontation in a timeless rivalry, and if in the end it only proved the conventional wisdom “in the rematch, bet on Goliath,” it was nevertheless great sport.
For all its talent and grit, Westinghouse never really settled into its role as favorite this season. First-year varsity coach Chris Head did a remarkable job with a group of kids he had previously nurtured on the freshman-sophomore team. By the time he got to the Public League championship he was 31-0, and he had an overall winning streak of 100; most of the juniors, in fact, had never lost in high school. All this was accomplished with a starting lineup in which no player was taller than six-foot-two. Consider that for a moment; it’s an astounding detail. It explains why Westinghouse, for all its pride on the court, never shook a reputation for overachieving. Head’s stern, fatherly demeanor and foot-stomping ways on the sideline produced a team that played like brothers. Every Westinghouse player seemed capable of putting the ball on the floor and driving to the hoop, but after drawing the opponents’ attention that player almost inevitably passed outside to an open teammate for an easy jump shot. On defense, when the players weren’t settled into a fluid, amoebalike zone that sealed off passing lanes and prevented penetration, they were running a swarming full-court press that must have felt as if seven, eight, or nine Westinghouse players were on the floor. They were like a cloud of gnats. Yet one got the feeling that Head’s intensity and the team’s determination served to cover a little latent inferiority. At least King coach Landon “Sonny” Cox got that feeling, and after Westinghouse barely squeezed past Dunbar in the quarterfinals, Cox planted the seed in the papers that maybe the Warriors had peaked at midseason.
If that was supposed to sow self-doubt in Westinghouse, it only made the Warriors more determined in the semifinals. By the time I arrived at the game, fashionably late and in a festive mood after attending a bas mitzvah, Westinghouse led Julian 41-26 with four minutes left in the first half. The Warriors were on a 100-point pace, and their best players–guard David Bailey and forward Cedrick Banks–were putting on a clinic. Bailey did a little shimmy outside, then stopped and popped a three from the top of the key to make the lead 20 at 48-28. It was 55-32 at intermission, and all the Julian band could offer as a response was a brassy version of “That Old Time Religion.” In the second half, Bailey faked a three from the same spot on the floor and pulled the ball down straight into a between-the-legs dribble, driving past his frozen opponent for a lovely little lay-in kissed off the backboard. “Look at that shorty I was telling you about!” gushed a father sitting in front of me in the upper deck, there with his wife and their four kids. Only five-foot-eight, Bailey has an erect, proud carriage and a flashy dribbling style. By contrast, Banks, at six-foot-two, prowls relatively low to the ground with his head out front, surveying all with distrust. But he has tentaclelike arms and is a tenacious defender in the paint in spite of his height disadvantage. He and Bailey both ended the game with 27 points in a 90-64 final. Yet there was something distasteful in the Warriors’ take-no-prisoners style. Up 60-38 in the second half, Head was still calling on his team to press, and Bailey and Banks played into the final minutes. Was this wise, given that they’d be playing for the city title only 24 hours later? There was even a little of that attitude in the Westinghouse cheerleaders, who after a Julian player missed the first of two free throws would call out “Fool!” and then chant “Replay, replay!”
In marked contrast, King, the longtime evil empire of the Public League, came into the semis with little of its characteristic swagger. Though ballyhooed in preseason polls, the Jaguars had started their season late with a loss to DeMatha, Maryland, in the Hoops in the Loop Coaches Classic at Loyola, and they struggled early on. The flashy, talented junior guard Imari Sawyer clashed openly with Cox, at one point suggesting he would leave the team, and the dispute threw off the chemistry of the Jaguars, who with six-foot-ten senior center Leon Smith should have knocked over most opponents just by showing up. They turned their season around with a comeback victory over Rockford Boylan earlier this year, but they still seemed tentative at the start of the semis. Fortunately for the Jaguars, Simeon began almost as wobbly. More than two minutes went by before anybody made a shot, and reserve forward Stanley Thomas had to come off the King bench to hit the Jags’ first basket, making the score 6-2 with just under three minutes to play in the first quarter. When the Simeon lead grew to 10-2, Cox yanked Sawyer from the game, and the six-foot-two guard swatted away the hand of a teammate offering a high five as he came to the bench.
Yet when Sawyer was sent back in early in the second quarter with the score 14-8, King began to play more fluidly. Double-teamed in the post, Smith repeatedly found Thomas open across the lane, and displaying a deliberate, elbow-out, left-handed shooting style in which he seemed to line up each shot with a protractor, Thomas knocked down basket after basket with ease. Sawyer came down on a fast break and, seeming to toss an alley-oop pass to nobody, lofted a shot up and straight through the hoop, swish, to cut the Simeon lead to 18-16. That seemed to give King a shot of confidence, and the Jags took the lead 22-21 at the half. Just before the buzzer Sawyer dragged down a slightly overlong pass on a fast break near the baseline and, without turning, tossed a blind alley-oop pass over his shoulder to the trailing Demetrius Williams, who was so shocked he missed the layup. That kept the full-house crowd of about 8,000 buzzing well into the intermission.
Sawyer is a talented player, but for all that it’s amazing the way he’s alternately scolded and mollycoddled by Cox and his King teammates. He warmed up for the second half as the only person taking practice shots from the outside, with every other King player standing under the hoop and returning the ball to him. It was as if they knew he needed a little boost, especially as he was suffering from a sprained ankle that clearly limited his play to bursts. Not content just to rest his hopes on Sawyer, Cox opened the second half with a new wrinkle, getting the ball to the six-foot-eight Williams near the free-throw line, where he found it easy to make entry passes to Smith in the low post. Again Smith drew the double team and looked for Thomas across the lane, and Thomas just wasn’t missing. He ended with a game-high 22 points, and at one point the dad in front of me pumped his fist with admiration and said, “Oh yes, stroke it!” When King began to solve the Simeon defense the game opened up, and King’s edge in size and pure ability started to show. Sawyer came down on a fast break and cut under a leaping Simeon player for a scoop layup and a foul. He patted the Simeon player derisively on the ass and got a brief admonition from a ref before converting the foul shot to make it 44-35 King at the end of three quarters. Midway through the final quarter he led another fast break, Smith on one side of him and Thomas on the other. With everyone expecting the ball to go to Smith for a monster dunk, he passed behind his back to Thomas for an easy lay-in and a 54-39 lead. King won going away, 68-43.
Nobody cheers for Goliath and nobody cheers for King, except maybe its students, alumni, and their relations. Yet how could any Chicago hoops fan not feel admiration for the way King came in with something to prove and proved it in no uncertain terms against Westinghouse? Were those the King starters choosing solidarity over style by shaving their heads before the game? (If the shave made Smith look like Jack Johnson, it made the goggled Williams go from looking like David Ruffin of the Temptations to Batly of the kids’ TV show Eureeka’s Castle.) Was that King’s Smith shaking off a twisted ankle and waving away a substitute to courageously play on, limping up and down the floor throughout the game? Was that King playing tenacious defense? No King team has ever played tenacious defense, not even the state-title teams led by Griffith or Jamie Brandon. Yet the Jaguars contested every shot, and with the help of a little let-’em-play refereeing they stepped in front of the Westinghouse players to shut off their dribble penetration. (No basketball official is going to call blocking 20 feet from the basket in a Public League title game.) Two plays in particular seemed indicative: Bailey took a crosscourt pass for an open three-point shot early in the second quarter, but Williams ran at him from the free-throw lane and got there just in time to deflect the shot; minutes later, the Warriors’ Antoine Norfleet had an open layup at the end of a well-run fast break, but Thomas came streaking out of nowhere to deflect the shot off the backboard.
Westinghouse, meanwhile, looked snakebitten–whether by bad luck or weariness from the day before I can’t say. The Warriors kept the score close until it was 11-10 King, but then the Jaguars ran off 11 straight points and never looked back. The killer shot in that sequence was a buzzer beater by Sawyer at the end of the first quarter. On the dribble from right to left at the top of the key he suddenly jumped, leaned backward, and hurled in a three-pointer that looked as if it had been shot from the window of a passing bus. The run concluded with Bailey shooting a three that was literally down in the hoop, rattling off the inner front rim, the inner back rim, and then out, keying a King fast break the other way to make the score 22-10. At the end of the half, when Westinghouse was just trying to get the last shot and crawl into the locker room with perhaps a single-digit deficit, an inbounds pass went astray and led to another King fast break and a 32-18. Typical of the way Westinghouse’s day went was that at the end of the third quarter, after the buzzer had sounded, Martell Bailey hurled the ball the length of the court and it went in.
Cox countered the Westinghouse press by ordering Smith to stay in the backcourt and help out. The King players had no trouble inbounding the ball to that big target, and from there Smith passed to the guards as they cut across the half-court line. When Smith was double-teamed near the hoop he again found Thomas to pass to, and Thomas finished with a team-high 17 points. By the end of the third quarter King wasn’t even working that hard for its shots. David Bailey suffered through an awful day, making just 8 of 26 shots (2 of 16 from three-point range) for 20 points, and Banks was even worse. Westinghouse didn’t take it gracefully, either, indulging in a couple of hard frustration fouls in the fourth quarter.
Cox wasn’t a whole lot more sporting in the end, repeating his assertion that Westinghouse had peaked early and that “titles aren’t won in November or December” after King had claimed the Public League championship with a 59-39 victory. Of course it turned out that King also peaked early, leaving its best game in Chicago and losing big to eventual state champion St. Joseph in the semifinals in Peoria last Saturday. Still, for one 32-minute stretch of the season King had been seized by inspiration to play up to its ability against its archrival, while Westinghouse played its worst game of the year. There’s no arguing with the outcome, and all bragging rights are surrendered to King–until next year, anyway. Give Goliath his due; he earned this one.