The Westinghouse basketball players wear warm-up T-shirts that say “Champions are not born. They are made!” The players bring that trite sentiment to life on the court with a selfless, pass-oriented offense, a swarming, helping defense, and a deep bench that finds players stripping off those T-shirts and heading into the game in waves. Only one or two shirts haven’t been shed by the final buzzer. The team ethic was instilled by former coach Chris Head and continued under his successor, Quitman Dillard. This year’s Warriors aren’t as talented as the Cedric Banks-Martell Bailey teams of the recent past, but they made themselves Public League champions for the third time in five years and the eighth time overall with a 60-48 victory over favored Simeon at the United Center Monday night. Star players usually dominate at the high school level, but Westinghouse defies that history–never more so than this year.
The kids and their friends and families, I’m sure, like the big floor and the big crowds of the UC in the finals, but I prefer the more intimate and almost feverish atmosphere of the semifinals, played this year at DePaul’s still relatively new Athletic Center. The semifinal between Westinghouse and Farragut, the second of the two games Saturday afternoon, was a classic confrontation between Farragut’s star power–gliding guard Emmanuel Little matched with power forward Ollie Bailey–and Westinghouse’s selfless approach. At the outset it didn’t seem there’d be much of a confrontation at all. Westinghouse had no answer for Bailey, a muscular 6-foot-7 senior with soft hands and remarkable agility. Posting up near the basket, where Little fed him a nice array of passes, from lobs to bounces, he played away from the hoop on defense, taking the point against Westinghouse’s gifted ball handlers. Bailey even made a nice interior wraparound pass to Johnny Logan, who began what was to be a dark afternoon for him by muffing it. Bailey was a workhorse, while Little–a 6-4 guard basketball aficionados might see as halfway between Sleepy Floyd and Charlie Scott–was all flash, right down to his yellow shoes, so bright they seemed to have been hand-painted with a highlighter. Bailey was running roughshod over the Warriors, even their Baby Huey-size big man, 6-8 junior DeAndre Thomas, and when Admirals guard Rodnell Harris added a couple of threes, Farragut was up 17-6 just before the end of the first quarter.
Yet with Dillard shuttling in players in the classic Westinghouse style while Farragut stayed mostly with its starters, the Warriors stormed back, closing the lead to 17-14 in the first minute of the second quarter. Farragut answered that run with six straight points, but it was all Westinghouse the rest of the half. The Warriors stretched their defense to full court to make Little work bringing the ball up and sent a series of defenders at him to keep him out of rhythm, a tactic epitomized by Quentin Crosby, a scrappy little bespectacled guard who wore a headband that widened for some reason over his right eye and looked more like a battlefield bandage. With Bailey out high on defense, the Warriors ran a set of nasty screens along the baseline, where they looked for guys cutting to the hoop. When Jamarcus Ellis, a senior holdover from Westinghouse’s last city championship team two years ago, drove the baseline for a basket, the Warriors went up 28-27, and they held a 30-29 lead at the half.
The intermission only heightened the tension between the two teams and their fans. The Farragut cheerleaders came out, did a routine for the fans behind the Admirals’ bench, then turned to face the Westinghouse faithful seated directly across. The Warriors fans razzed them mercilessly. The distinctive PA announcer Jimmy E. Smith Sr.–Mr. “In the Gym” himself–gave his trademark “Here we go, here we go, heeeere we go!” call to open the second half, and the battle was on.
Try as they might, the Admirals couldn’t turn the momentum. Farragut had used an impressive full-court defense and a half-court trap to swamp Morgan Park the week before in the playoffs, but the Westinghouse players broke the press easily and turned it into opportunities for quick baskets. They played a ferocious man-to-man defense and were unforgiving foul shooters, even big men Thomas and Shawn Smith, both of whom displayed a lovely soft touch at the line. As those two were doing all they could to curtail Bailey and the refs were calling a tight game, both had to sit with foul trouble midway through the third quarter. Dillard went to a small, harassing lineup. Little was fouled on the outside but somehow threw the ball up and in, completing the three-point play to make it 42-41 Westinghouse. But then Johnny Collier got open on one of those baseline plays, drove, made the basket and was fouled, and hit the foul shot. The Warriors led 45-41 after three quarters.
Farragut had its chances in the final quarter but could never tie the game. Logan missed a second free throw that would have knotted it at 45, then moments later missed two more. Westinghouse stretched its lead to 49-44, spread the floor on offense, and threatened to go into a stall. When Thomas fouled out Farragut went back to Bailey, and he drove for a basket that made it 50-47. Then came the critical play of the game. After running time off the clock, which was under two minutes, Westinghouse finally took a shot and missed. Little got the rebound, but a Farragut player called time-out–and the Admirals had already used their allotment. It meant a technical foul. Smith made both foul shots to put the Warriors up 52-47, and the ball was turned over to Westinghouse. But Farragut scrambled back. Bailey posted up and hit a shot, and then he and Little worked a lovely give-and-go, Little passing in and following the triple-team down the lane for the return pass, which he lofted into the basket to make it 52-51. An overzealous Farragut defense resulted in a foul that gave Westinghouse a 54-51 lead, but Little again passed in to Bailey, who drew Little’s man and passed back to Little. His game-tying three attempt missed, but sophomore Chris Singletary muscled the rebound away from two Westinghouse players and scored. Down at the other end, Westinghouse had a chance to ice the game with a pair of free throws, but Corey Caston missed them both and Little came away with the ball. Pinched and double-teamed on the sideline, and with no time-out available, he leaped and made a long cross-court pass. The ball was up a long time, and Ellis swept in from nowhere to pick it off and drive for a basket. After Farragut failed to score, Andrew Ready was fouled with 15 seconds to play. He missed the first shot but made the second to make it a two-possession game at 57-53, and that was the final score. “Look up at the scoreboard! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” chanted the Westinghouse rooters. There was ill feeling on the court as well. Westinghouse guard Marcus Rasberry drew his hand across his throat in front of the Farragut bench, and Singletary flipped off a couple of trash-talking Warriors. Yet they all got together for handshakes and hugs at the end–although Thomas seemed to slip in a few noogies when he got Singletary in a playful bear hug.
The earlier semifinal was nowhere near as hard fought, though it was almost as interesting. Simeon came in the slight favorite, with a height advantage across the front line. Julian’s Lorenzo Ecford was the tallest player on the floor at 6-8, but he was outmanned by Simeon’s long, lean Brandon Alexander and fellow forwards Calvin Brock and Anthony Newell–all 6-6. Julian coach Loren Jackson came out with a three-guard offense, which left 6-1 DeShawn Williams guarding Brock. Right away Newell hit a three and Brock converted an offensive rebound to make it 5-0. Julian scrambled back with a stiff man-to-man defense, while Simeon ran a full-court press but settled back into a zone in the half-court. Both teams seemed to suffer from nerves in the pell-mell pace Julian was forcing. Just before the halftime buzzer, Williams found the ball in his hands under the basket and threw it in for a 24-23 Julian lead.
Simeon’s longtime coach, Bob Hambric–dressed as ever in a blue sweatshirt and blue jeans, as if he’d stopped by the gym on his way to run a few household errands–must have said something to calm his team at halftime. The Wolverines came out much more composed in the third quarter, with guard Timothy Green suddenly driving and dishing, and their big front line wore the Jaguars down. Brock got started when he came in behind Green’s missed shot, leaped, saw the ball go over his head, yet reached back and brushed it forward with his fingertips and the ball went in, putting Simeon up 29-27. Brock came down shaking his head and his arms in triumph. Newell was just as joyful to watch, his high cheeks and broad smile reminiscent of Marcus Allen, and between them they were too much for Julian to handle. At one point, Julian’s James Watson faked Brock into the air, but Newell came in behind him to block his shot and Brock saved the ball from going out of bounds and started it the other way, finishing with a pass to Newell for a lovely hoop. It was 38-31 Simeon at the end of the third quarter. Julian shifted Ecford onto Brock to slow him down, but that allowed Alexander to get going, and he followed a Newell miss with a two-handed jam that put the game away at 46-35. Newell finished with 21, Brock and Alexander with 14 each, and Green with 12 as Simeon won going away, 65-52.
With its impressive front line, Simeon was favored in Monday’s final, which I watched from home on WTTW. Westinghouse had to hope to force the pace and wear the Wolverines down. Early on, the Warriors did, opening a 23-15 lead in the second quarter, but then Simeon composed itself. When the Wolverines weren’t committing turnovers that led to easy baskets their superior talent prevailed, and they cut the Westinghouse lead to 24-23 at the half.
In the third quarter Brock came to the fore. He popped a shot from the free-throw line that put Simeon in front, 26-25, then hit another, and, after Thomas made a gritty three-point play to tie the game at 28, a third basket to put Simeon back in the lead. Moments later, with Westinghouse overplaying the passing lanes, he faked his man out high to set up a back cut and a flying jam to make it 32-29. He landed shouting, fists clenched, arms straight, and it looked as if Brock would carry Simeon to the title.
Those were Brock’s last points of the game, as he finished with 21. As the Westinghouse players kept coming off the bench, Simeon’s starters looked wearier by the minute in the fourth quarter. Thomas returned fresh after sitting the entire second quarter and much of the third with fouls, and while his smaller teammates created havoc on defense he tipped the game. He missed an easy basket but got the ball back, and his tough turnaround jumper put Westinghouse up 40-36. He missed two free throws but atoned the next time down with a beautiful move on the slighter Alexander, finishing with a scoop layup for a 42-36 lead. With the Simeon players hanging back on defense, Smith hit a three off an inbounds pass to make it 45-38. Thomas somehow got out in front on a fast break but bounced the ball off the back rim trying to dunk, and Simeon ran it the other way, Alexander’s three-point play cutting the difference to four. But despite the potentially humiliating missed slam, Thomas kept coming. Fouled on consecutive possessions, he made two pairs of free throws and then scored on an offensive rebound, and Westinghouse led 51-41 halfway through the quarter. He fouled out at 2:32 with 15 points, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he won the game single-handedly. He simply emerged from the Westinghouse swarm just when Simeon’s stars were gassed. The Warriors spread the floor in the final minutes and ran down the clock.
It shouldn’t seem such a surprise by now. Almost every year Westinghouse seems overmatched, and three years out of five they’ve prevailed in the Public League on tactics, teamwork, and pure moxie. Each year I go out expecting to be awed by future NBA stars, and almost every year Westinghouse finds a way to thwart those more talented players. Look up at the scoreboard, shake your head, and smile in admiration at Westinghouse’s annual reminder that basketball is, first and foremost, a team game.