The Public League boys basketball semifinals were seemingly designed for the aficionado, almost to the exclusion of everyone else. The last few years they’ve taken place at DePaul’s Athletic Center, where the Fullerton el stop around the corner fails to make up for the tight parking, which discourages less avid fans. And this year the semis were scheduled for a Friday night, which seemed to drag down student attendance. It was just as well, because there’s no spare seating in the gym–just matching banks of bleachers on both sides of the court–and the place was filled by the end of Friday’s first game. The vast majority of the crowd was adults: parents of players, sure, but mostly people from across the city who love basketball and appreciate seeing it played with skill and passion.

The first game pitted the Marshall Commandos against the younger, untested Simeon Wolverines. Simeon had challenged for the city championship last year with a team made up largely of seniors. But the Wolverines replenished on the fly with sophomores Tim Flowers, a wide-bodied center, and Derrick Rose, already considered one of the top guards in the league. Broad-shouldered yet lithe, the 6-foot-3 Rose cut like a halfback on the dribble, and he displayed innate court sense. He was composed at all times, keen and intent, and he routinely drove into traffic, drew the defense, and found an open teammate to pass to. Simeon showed their youth in their sartorial style, wearing their shorts well below their knees. The guy sitting next to me said they looked like pirates and that he half expected to see Johnny Depp on the sideline coaching them.

Marshall–older, more experienced, and more classically uniformed–was also more easily rattled. The Commandos had advanced to the quarterfinals the previous Saturday with a sloppy win over Crane, prevailing on the strength of senior guard Jerwin Callaway, who hit six three-pointers in the first quarter alone. Callaway was slow to get started against Simeon, but his running mates, guards Patrick Beverley and Demetrius Davis, took up the slack. Davis typically handled the ball, with Callaway and Beverley acting as double-barreled shooters. Beverley was more shake-and-bake, Callaway more spot-up. When he rose with his chin pointed toward the top of the backboard, it usually meant the shot was going in, no matter where he was taking it from.

The game was a back-and-forth tussle. Marshall tried a full-court press, but Rose routinely broke it, sometimes with the help of guard Tim Green, the lone senior among the starters and clearly the Wolverines’ mother hen, his expression permanently pained. The father sitting right behind me was schooling his grade-school daughter in the fine points of the game, pointing out the need to look to the wings on the fast break, and how it was best to be able to dribble with either hand–“I can do that,” she informed him–and he was brutal about Marshall’s failure to get back on D in the third quarter, when Flowers of all people beat the defense downcourt to score a couple of easy hoops and put Simeon in front.

Yet Callaway began hitting shots long and short with that chin held high, and when he drove for a basket and was fouled he not only put Marshall up 62-59 but removed Flowers with five fouls.

Simeon, however, had one last weapon. With 1:40 to play, little left-handed senior Tristin Moore broke free on the left wing and hit a three to tie the game at 62. Simeon got the ball right back, and Moore ran to the same spot and hit another three to put his team in front for good. The last 90 seconds were a madcap scramble, with steals at both ends, but Rose came up with most of them. Simeon claimed a 69-64 victory and a return to the finals–but it was the first time for Rose and Flowers.

The father behind me wasn’t won over. “They’re finished when they meet the ‘House,” he said, referring to city power Westinghouse. “The ‘House is going to kill them.”

Keep in mind, Westinghouse, the defending city champions, had yet to play the second semifinal, against upstart Von Steuben. But his comments proved prophetic. Westinghouse’s Warriors were led by senior center DeAndre Thomas, a huge presence at 6-8 and 270 pounds, and no team had an answer to him. For all his bulk, Thomas was also quick and agile–almost elfin in sneakers with black sides, white tops, and a tip of black at the toe that gave them a turned-up appearance–with soft hands and a smooth shot. It wasn’t a one-man show either. He was complemented by a matched set of guards in Joseph Ballard and Kris Harris–also seniors. Thomas scored the first two baskets–“all day,” declared the dad behind me–then Ballard dribbled end to end for another and added a three from outside as Westinghouse raced to a 13-3 lead. Ballard and Harris could each dice up an opponent in the open court, but when Westinghouse needed a basket to quash a Von Steuben rally they went to Thomas. Late in the game he got the ball at half-court, and finding no one to pass to he put it on the floor, dribbling through two opponents, throwing in a pirouette for style, and finishing with a layin that sealed the win at 61-48. The guy sitting in front of me with his two young sons turned and said, “You can’t argue with that.”

Simeon couldn’t argue with it during Saturday’s finals at the United Center. The Wolverines started in a zone defense, so Ballard and Harris bombed in threes right away, sandwiching a basket by Thomas, to open an 8-2 lead. With Ballard and Harris patrolling the defensive perimeter like wolves, Westinghouse held Simeon without a three-pointer, while a 20-5 spurt in the second quarter opened a 37-19 lead. Simeon tried to create a little chaos down the stretch, but when Westinghouse needed a basket the Warriors calmly tossed it in to Thomas. He finished with a game-high 29 points on top of 28 the night before.

Green, the Simeon senior, looked increasingly pained as the game went on, but the Wolverines were unashamed. Rose isn’t yet a deadeye shooter who can take over a game, but that skill is the easiest to attain with practice, and otherwise he was everything one could want in a sophomore basketball player. Westinghouse looked likely to go on to win the state crown too–no team can match its inside-outside game with Thomas, Ballard, and Harris. But after those guys graduate, Simeon figures to be the team to beat in the city the next two years. Or so says this aficionado.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.