The atmosphere was not unlike how I imagine a heavyweight title fight to be–simply not as intense. There was aggressive hip-hop music on the PA system and electricity in the stands as Maryland’s DeMatha Catholic High School, the top boys’ basketball team in the nation according to USA Today, took the floor at Loyola’s Gentile Center to face Chicago’s King, ranked third. DeMatha, dressed in red-white-and-blue warm-ups and uniforms, circled the floor and fell right into layup drills, while King indulged in a little gamesmanship, only taking the floor with just over 11 minutes to tip-off. King, the Chicago Public League’s longtime hoops bully, looked as swashbuckling as ever, dressed in black-and-gold silks reminiscent of the Pittsburgh Pirates; but the full-house crowd of about 5,300 embraced the team in the unfamiliar roles of hometown heroes and underdogs. DeMatha’s squad met at center court after the introduction of its starting lineup and bounced up and down getting psyched; King did the same, in even more feverish fashion. Then the contest for the title of best high school team in the country began. The only thing lacking was a center-court stare down.
Our sense of anticipation, of not knowing what sweet shot or jaw-dropping move would come next, never subsided, though the noise level did, almost instantly. This was an aficionado’s crowd, quiet and watchful. There were partisan cheers now and then, but for the most part the fans studied the game and its players and applauded at the end of quarters as after an especially spirited scherzo at Symphony Center. The DeMatha-King contest was the headline event in a triple-header offered by the Hoops in the Loop Coaches Classic two Saturdays ago. I had arrived hours earlier, stepping out of the Loyola el station alongside an old man in a cap who asked if I knew where the gym was. I said I was looking for it too, so he tottered across the street beside me and we found the Gentile Center–easy enough, as it turned out; it was on the far side of the first little university courtyard. The stands were filled with fans like this old man, folks out simply to see an afternoon of top-flight high school hoops, scout talent, and discover new teams and players. The connoisseur qualities present in each of the three games abounded during DeMatha-King. That game put enough natural talent on the floor to stock a top-ranked college team.
King came out with all the early intensity and tried to run the visitors off the floor. Point guard Imari Sawyer got hot from outside, hitting a string of three-pointers–“On fire, baby!” said an aspiring Dick Vitale sitting behind me–while 6-foot-10 center Leon Smith pounded away inside with a nice leaning turnaround bank shot. King led 25-22 after the first quarter.
In going for the early knockout, King was following the lead of hometown host Westinghouse in the first game, when it ran a proficient but intimidated team from Bloomington, Indiana, right out of the gym. Bloomington South came out with a precision offense based on weaves and cuts, but Westinghouse took them out of their regular scheme with a full-court press and a high-pressure defense. Westinghouse, which was to seize the top ranking in the area after an impressive win the next day over south-suburban Homewood-Flossmoor, has a team reminiscent of the University of Illinois squads of recent years: it sends out five relatively small guys of about the same size and quickness–the tallest stands 6-foot-2–and they play like brothers. The Warriors took a 17-12 lead at the quarter, and though Bloomington tied the game at 17 Westinghouse was back in front 23-19 at the half. The full-court press took its toll in the second half, and Westinghouse won going away, 51-31. Most impressive was Cedrick Banks, a lithe off guard who shepherded the scrubs home down the stretch, at one point driving the lane with a nice shimmy move and lofting a shot up and in as with a Nerf ball in his bedroom. Banks, a 6-foot-2 junior, could be great if he grows a couple more inches.
Yet if King was expecting DeMatha to crack like some Indiana hicks, it had another think coming. DeMatha is coached by Morgan Wootten, a legend at the high school level to rival UCLA’s John Wooden in the college ranks. Wootten’s lifetime record coming into the season was 1,155-171 over 41 years. DeMatha has been named the best team in its region by the Washington Post 21 times in the last 38 seasons, with five “mythical” national championships along the way. Even when King seemed to be scoring at will early on, DeMatha looked composed, and in the second quarter Wootten made two critical defensive moves: he shifted 6-foot-5 Keith Bogans onto the 6-foot-2 Sawyer and brought 6-foot-11 Derek Ahern off the bench to guard Smith. Ahern’s bushy eyebrows and cereal-bowl haircut gave him the look of a young knight-errant–in fact, he bore quite a resemblance to a certain Renaissance painting in the Art Institute–and he jousted with Smith throughout. When he stuffed Smith on an attempted dunk in the second half, he elicited an appreciative “Ooooooh!” from the crowd. Bogans came in with a big rep–he is already signed to go to Kentucky next year–and played up to it. His shaved head gave his skull the elongated appearance of a carved idol, and he played a godlike game, scoring 20 points, pulling down 11 rebounds, and holding Sawyer to 23 points after he’d scored 14 in the first quarter alone. Ahern helped limit Smith to 16 points and 9 rebounds, and when those two players dried up so did the King offense.
DeMatha opened a 46-33 lead at the half, as Joe Forte scored 13 second-quarter points and established himself as just about the sweetest high school player I have ever seen. It wasn’t just what he did, though what he did was enough: he finished with 36 points on 16-of-22 shooting while playing heady defense. It was how he did it. He ran the fast break for the first slam dunk of the game–a soaring leap for a 6-foot-4 guard–and moments later hit a silky jump shot reminiscent of Keith Wilkes. When DeMatha was rallying early in the second quarter, he hit Bogans with a long pass for a breakaway jam, then followed with another smooth jumper for a 35-30 lead. He hit shots on the run floating through the lane, then used that move to set up stop-and-pop jumpers at short range. He drove the lane and threw up a shot off his hip–in, of course–to make it 61-46 in the second half, and later came down on a fast break, eluded a pursuing King player by swirling the ball up over his shoulders as the opponent sped past, and finger-rolled it in. He was a lovely player to watch, with cut biceps and an erect carriage, smooth and proficient in all areas in the manner of a Joe Dumars.
Think of how Dumars sets himself apart in the pro game, and then imagine a player like that among high school competition. Forte was crisp and elegant at all times, quite in contrast with others on the floor. The current style is not merely to wear one’s shorts long and baggy, a la Michael Jordan, but to wear them as low as possible, so that at times they seem to drag halfway down the ass. King’s Smith was forever hiking his shorts (a move that seemed to give him the opportunity to throw a few discreet elbows in the post), and even DeMatha’s Bogans wore his shorts low–seen from behind, his shirt untucked, he seemed to be one long back growing right out of his legs. Where style points were concerned, worth a mention was King’s Demetrius Williams, a rail-thin 6-foot-8 forward who affects goggles that make him look like David Ruffin of the Temptations.
The middle game of the three was very much a style game, but more so in matters of play and approach than in fashion. Tom Diener, coach of Milwaukee’s Vincent High School, put his team through warm-up exercises that looked like a martial-arts regimen–in unbroken movements the players swayed from side to side. The competing Gary, Indiana, Westside High team had the players with the bigger reps: 6-foot-4 shooting guard Kenneth Lowe and fierce-looking, goateed 6-foot-9 forward Vincent Hart, who speared the opening tip and clawed it to his chest in a way meant to make a statement. Yet Hart, for all his surface ferocity, had spindly legs, and he was outplayed throughout by the shorter but more solid and even more ferocious James Wright of Vincent. Lowe had a weakness of his own that soon manifested itself, a little movement to his left hand when shooting that made his jumper look almost like a two-handed heave; he’s almost sure to be an inconsistent shooter until he corrects it. Best player of the bunch was Vincent’s Marshall Williams, a soundly put together 6-foot-5 forward with a football player’s build (noting his low socks and long calves, I saw flashes of O.J. Simpson back in his USC days). Williams played basketball as a contact sport, thumping, bumping, and bouncing off other players on the dribble, but out of that colliding came a deceptively soft jump shot–all feathery touch. He’d drive into the lane, tumble against a couple players, jump, and then square his shoulders to the hoop and release the ball as if it were a balloon. He finished with 16 points to lead Vincent to a 54-41 victory. The single most telling play was when Wright came down with a beastly rebound in the second half and made an outlet pass to Williams, who dished it ahead to Terry Sanders, who muffed the layup. But Wright, hustling behind the play, cleaned up with a crashing rebound jam to put an exclamation point on his one-sided duel with the humbled Hart. Williams was the more impressive player from a scouting perspective, but it’s Wright who won the game for Vincent.
DeMatha had the finale going all its way, leading 57-38 in the third quarter, when King rallied. The Jaguars scored a couple of quick hoops, Sawyer fed Smith on a fast-break alley-oop–their second of the afternoon–to make it 57-44, and after another basket King got the ball back with the chance to cut the lead to single digits. The connoisseurs and aficionados at last got involved in the game, but despite the crowd’s stomping feet the DeMatha defense held. The Stags stopped the bleeding with a bucket, Forte added that nifty shot off the hip, and Bogans converted an offensive rebound at the buzzer to make the score 64-46 at the end of three quarters. DeMatha coasted home from there and won 84-66.
It was an impressive performance, and most impressive of all was Forte. Here was a player whose main talent was to do everything with precision and in a way that fit in with his teammates. He stood out by making sure nothing he did stood out except in the quality with which it was done. Kevin Garnett is the most impressive high school player I’ve ever seen, for his style and panache and amazing court sense, but Forte is probably the most finished product I’ve ever seen in high school, the most fundamentally sound, and he is already signed to attend North Carolina, that finishing school for basketball players. On this day, however, he seemed nothing less than the epitome of DeMatha, of its cool capability and composure. A single player like Forte says more about Morgan Wootten and his coaching methods than any number of wins or national championships. Remember the name Joe Forte. Basketball fans, aficionados and partisan rooters alike, will be hearing it frequently in the years to come.