It had been a while since I’d heard good-natured laughter aimed at players in a sporting event, but I heard some last week at the Holiday Classic, a high school basketball tournament in downstate Bloomington-Normal. Galesburg’s senior center Jermaine Fuller, one of the tallest players on the team at 6-foot-4, got the ball in the low post against Thornwood’s 6-11, 300-plus-pound Eddy Curry. Considered one of the top high school talents in the nation, Curry has promised to attend DePaul next year–that is, if he doesn’t try to leap straight to the NBA. Curry had already shown his credentials with a couple of beastly dunks, but he’d awed the crowd the moment he walked into Shirk Center, an elegant little gym with a capacity of about 3,000 on the Illinois Wesleyan University campus (it’s a building paid for, by the way, with a donation from the mogul of Beer Nuts, which are manufactured in the twin cities). My father–whom I was in the area visiting, thus the chance to take in what claims to be the nation’s biggest high school holiday hoops tournament–happened to be at the snack bar when Thornwood first entered the building, and he got enough of a glimpse of Curry to report, “He’s big enough to hunt bears without a switch.” Indeed, Curry soon sat down in the stands with his teammates to watch the game before theirs, and in his big black Thornwood jacket with the huge T on the chest he looked like a tent the team had set up to establish its base camp.

And so, when Jermaine Fuller got the ball with his back to the basket and Curry looming behind him, the crowd broke into laughter. Fuller turned and put the ball up–straight up. He avoided being blocked, sure enough, but he also avoided the basket by a considerable margin, which prompted more laughter as Thornwood raced off on another fast break. A few minutes later, 6-2 Galesburg sophomore Derek Blackwell got the ball on the baseline, and Curry, stationed under the basket, turned to face him. Blackwell hesitated, faked–Curry wasn’t buying it–and put up a shot that Curry swatted aside, cuing another fast break and more laughter.

Understand, this wasn’t the humiliating hooting of most sporting events. This was sympathetic; watching dwarfed opponents face the prospect of getting around Curry, there was nothing to do but laugh. Holiday high school hoops tournaments–especially ones that draw teams from out of town, as this one does–tend to attract aficionados, and the crowd at the Shirk Center the night we were there, to see the class AA quarterfinals, resembled a bunch of devoted college students studying in a quiet library during intersession. Sure, there were a few fans and family members who had accompanied the Galesburg players, or the team from Lincoln High School in the game before, but very few came all the way from suburban South Holland to cheer Thornwood or from Chicago to root for the Marshall High School Commandos. Those teams and players, the class of the tournament, weren’t cheered but studied. Galesburg received polite applause when its players first took the floor for warm-ups, but Thornwood entered to utter silence.

Curry, who brought up the rear, was impressive, make no mistake. Unlike, say, Leon Smith, King High School’s straight-to-the-pros prospect of a couple years ago, Curry was not merely a boy in a man’s body but in a big man’s body. He was not just tall but wide, muscular, and agile–along the lines of Shaquille O’Neal. His parents reported, in a story that ran in Bloomington’s Pantagraph, that his first love was gymnastics and that he can still do a flip without using his arms–something I find hard to believe and would pay to see. He displayed a nice, soft shooting touch on the turnaround jumper–a shot that took O’Neal years to develop–and he passed the ball well, both on the outlet after a rebound and out of the offense when double- or triple-teamed, which was frequently the case. At one point early on he passed out of a triple-team, and Thornwood fanned the ball around until it got to the wide-open Pierre Thomas on the opposite side, who sank a three-pointer. “They’ve got some stuff to go with him,” said an appreciative fan. Yet Curry, for all his size and ability, did not display the floor genius that distinguished Kevin Garnett at Farragut. Big as he is, he doesn’t have a developed upper body–his arms seem soft–and conditioning is apt to be an issue for any man that size. (Remember King’s earlier washout before Smith, Thomas Hamilton.) Personally, I’d recommend that Curry spend at least a couple of years at DePaul, which could be a legitimate national-championship contender as soon as next season. (Imagine him playing a high-low post with Stephen Hunter, with Imari Sawyer prowling the perimeter, and oh if only Quentin Richardson had stayed on through graduation.) Yet the NBA is drafting players earlier and earlier as projects, and word is that Jerry Krause came down to scout Curry the night after we were there.

In any case, Curry is dominating at the high school level, and Thornwood had plenty to go with him, beginning with 6-6 Melvin Buckley, a smooth forward who played Keith Wilkes to Curry’s Bill Walton. In fact, after Galesburg rallied in the third quarter–inspired by 6-2 Joe Wilson, who twice took on Curry with high, arcing hook shots right out of the 50s that prompted a fan in front of me to stand and salaam–it was Buckley who shepherded Thornwood back to a 20-point lead with Curry on the bench in the fourth quarter.

The loosey-goosey Marshall team missed Buckley’s heroics that night–by that time, the players were in the locker room getting ready for the night’s finale–and perhaps it cost them later. Already dressed in sweats, the Marshall players yukked it up behind one of the baskets during the first half of the Thornwood-Galesburg game, and at halftime, when the high school jazz combo providing the entertainment played “Be My Girl,” they all sang along and a couple even took the microphone when it was offered to them. Marshall was paired against Peoria’s Notre Dame High School on this evening, and while Notre Dame went about its warm-ups with religious zeal the Commandos turned their layup drill into an intramural slam-dunk contest. “They got a lot of mustard on this team,” said my dad. When the Irish went back to the locker room for some final advice from their coach, Marshall galloped through a full-court three-man drill with the fluid spontaneity of wild horses. Notre Dame stayed with Marshall early, thanks in large part to a 6-7 sophomore named Brian Randle, a remarkably graceful kid with a long, thin face reminiscent of Charlie Scott, who looked overawed except when he had the ball in his hands. But Marshall, led by spidery senior center Kelley Whitney and the seemingly spring-loaded leaper Justin Bowen, played up-tempo Chicago-style basketball–with coach Al Williams shuttling players in and out–and in the end ran Notre Dame off the court.

Thornwood and Marshall were destined to meet in the title game, but that’s not to slight the other impressive players we saw. In the first game of the night, Rockford Boylan and its sharpshooting guard Mike Britton held off Southeast High, from Springfield. (Marshall would prove too much for Boylan the following night, however.) And in the other quarterfinal, Lincoln put the clamps on Calvin Coolidge High School, which had come all the way from Washington, D.C. I was actually rooting for Coolidge, which has a 6-6 center with the historic name of Kip-Keno McCoy, but in the end I was impressed with Lincoln’s team discipline and with shooting guard Gregg Alexander, whom Bloomington-Normal fans are looking forward to having on the Illinois State team next year. Alexander is 6-4 and solidly built, with a square jaw obviously inherited from his old man, Neil Alexander, who coaches the team. Coolidge led at the first quarter and at the half, but then Lincoln pulled its zone defense in–sometimes with four guys standing in the paint–and forced Coolidge to shoot from outside. Alexander put Lincoln up 36-35 after three quarters on a lovely fast break that turned fluidly into a diagrammed play, with one player dribbling under the hoop and passing out to Alexander for an open three at the top of the free-throw circle. From there, Lincoln slowly dominated Coolidge, with guard Paris Williams breaking the full-court press, guard Chad Tungate running a series of back screens for easy layups, and forward Adam Schonauer rebounding and distributing. In the end Lincoln stalled the clock and ran an intricate weave. I stopped rooting for Coolidge when they kept fouling while down 17 points with under two minutes to play. Then they were just bums from out of town.

Lincoln actually gave Thornwood a good game in the semifinals, and led in the second half before quality prevailed. In the end, Lincoln had no answer for Curry, who scored 30 points in Thornwood’s 51-40 victory. (Buckley, apparently saving his resources, had but a single three-pointer.) Marshall, meanwhile, beat Boylan to advance to the finals. I wish I had seen that last game, but we decided to drive north between snowstorms Saturday afternoon and passed it up. It turned out to be a great battle. Curry scored all 17 Thornwood points in the third quarter to give his team a 44-38 lead, but then Marshall shut him down to take an eight-point lead into the final two minutes. The Commandos still led 64-60 with 16 seconds to play, but that was when Buckley came to the fore. He drove for a layup, was fouled, and purposely missed the free throw. Marshall’s Bowen grabbed the ball but stepped out of bounds before he could call a time-out. When Curry was covered the inbound play went to Buckley, and he calmly sank a three-point shot to give Thornwood a 65-64 victory.

But if it sounded like a great game, I wasn’t too disappointed to have missed it. No, it’s still too early in the basketball season to get worked up over a single contest; save that for March, when it’s likely Thornwood and Marshall will have a grudge match as members of the state’s Elite Eight. For now, I was content to recall the way things were when I left the Holiday Classic at almost 10:30 on a Thursday night, with most of the crowd of better than 2,000 having already gone home but a few silent fans still in the stands as Marshall closed out Peoria Notre Dame. The sneakers squeaked on the floor, the coaches yelled to the players as if it were practice, and the few spectators watched as if they were preparing a thesis due in the spring before graduation. Now that’s basketball.