The championship game of the Public League basketball season is one of the city’s great squandered resources. If its location were fixed from year to year–say at the UIC Pavilion or even the Stadium–and if it were televised to accommodate the people who can’t attend and to draw in those who might, it would probably become a major annual event, a showcase for the city’s best young basketball players. Of course it would also lose some of its charm, some of those qualities that despite its size and importance evoke memories for anyone who ever attended high school anywhere: the partisan fans sitting on opposite sides of the court; the way one side disses the other’s cheerleaders; the unique manner in which high school students greet one another (“Yo, Fuckface. Where you been?”). Every year we plan to see more high school basketball, and every year we wind up blowing it off, from week to week, until the only game left is the Public League championship. That game, however, has become an annual event for us, and if the great mass of the city’s sports fans don’t want to take an interest–too bad for them. A week ago last Tuesday they missed seeing one of the great high school basketball teams of all time.

This year’s title game had an atmosphere completely different from last year’s. For one thing, the semifinals and the championship were moved south, from the Pavilion to the International Amphitheatre, a strange old arena that has all the charm of a factory on the outside and an oversized barn on the inside. Its vaulted metal ceiling is scaly and acned, and the place is in such a general state of disuse that it’s hard to believe it was once home to major-league basketball and hockey teams–not to mention national political conventions–and that only a few years ago it was still a major concert venue. The public-address system is croaking and indecipherable, an echo within echoes, and the seats, while unobstructed (as they would be in any old barn with the stalls removed), are distant, especially in the balcony, where we were. The only advantage to the arena’s antiquity is the width of the wooden seats–a throwback to easier, more comfortable times.

There was another reason, too, for the difference in atmosphere between this year’s game and last–King High School was different. A year ago King was the rough and rowdy challenger to its then-unbeaten archrival Simeon. The King faithful came spoiling for a fight, and when their Jaguars delivered the upset they went wild–both the players and the fans. This year it was King that came into the championship game unbeaten, and the team carried an air of confidence and achievement, with little to prove except the simple fact that they were the best in the city. The fans also were more reserved. It wasn’t the all-around gala that last year’s title game was, but King was in and of itself even more impressive.

King was very much the same team this year as last, but the players had gained a year’s experience. The team was still led by Jamie Brandon, the all-state forward who justifiably wears Michael Jordan’s number 23, and his forward partner Johnny Selvie. Both were seniors, as were guards Ahmad Shareef and Fred Sculfield, who replaced last year’s Victor Snipes at the point after King lost the eligibility of a senior-transfer point guard at midseason. The only other change was the addition of 6’11” center Rashard Griffith, a freshman. The King team, in fact, was made up almost entirely of seniors and freshmen (after Griffith, they had freshmen sized 6’10”, 6’9″, and 6’6″), as coach Landon “Sonny” Cox (no relation) got an early start on next season’s rebuilding.

(Not to give anything away, but when King went downstate the Jaguars ran up a 20-point lead in the closing minutes of the quarterfinals against West Aurora, in a game we watched on the cable SportsChannel last Friday. Cox then sent in his entire freshman team against what was, at very least, the eighth-best team in the state. Aurora soon ran the lead down to eight, and Cox got the seniors up and sent them back in for the final minute. It wasn’t only the freshmen who learned something there.)

King’s opponent this year was not Simeon but Westinghouse, a small, scrappy team without a starter taller than 6’3″. When the two starting fives came to center court for the tip-off, the size difference was immediately noticeable, as if Westinghouse were sending out its sophomores. The Westinghouse Warriors were in traditional uniforms, green with gold trim, while King–ever on top of basketball’s latest trends–was in fashionable black trim on white, with thick black lines running down the sides of the jerseys, which were worn untucked over tight, bicycle-style stretch shorts –the sort Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen wear under their official Bulls shorts, but the King players wore no shorts on top. The positions of favorite and challenger were also immediately noticeable in the differing styles of play: King, on defense, fell into a “show me what you got” zone, while Westinghouse was scrapping, double-teaming the ball and using a full-court press on defense and trying to run on offense. The press never troubled King: the Jaguars routinely lobbed the ball in to the 6’11” freshman at the time line, and he dished to any one of several King players cutting up the court. And King can run too; Brandon constantly pushed the ball upcourt as the Westinghouse press fell back, and while there weren’t many easy baskets, Westinghouse always seemed to be on its heels.

The Warriors stayed in the game, though–up to a point. They were back only 20-17 after the first quarter, and they then pulled up to 24-23. But King never once gave off the feeling that the game was in doubt. And as the seconds ticked down toward halftime, Brandon took the ball on the dribble at center court, went one-on-one with his Westinghouse opponent, and then–with a flash-powder release–put up a jumper from the pro three-point distance at the buzzer. Bang, it went in, making the score at intermission 34-28. And it set off the man sitting behind us (we were sitting on the King side), who yelled, “Who dat! Who dat!” and laughed with joy.

That was a demonstration, in a nutshell, of which the better team was, and exactly how much better. King came out with the momentum in the second half and immediately took charge. Yet they didn’t do so with Brandon’s street-basketball talent; they did so with a pair of plays designed to ruin everything Westinghouse had been doing on defense. The Jaguars brought the ball down and passed in to Griffith, who was immediately triple-teamed, just as he had been in the first half. This time, however, when he put the ball up, Brandon had moved in for the rebound, and with three players on Griffith, Brandon had an uncontested basket. Then King beat the press on a play designed like football’s hook-and-ladder, in which a receiver catches a pass and then–while the defense closes in on him–dishes to a trailing teammate. Brandon dished to Shareef, who went in for the dunk, and like that King had a 10-point lead at 38-28. Westinghouse never recovered; soon it was 52-34 on the way to an 83-48 final.

King’s freshman center, Griffith, fouled out in the waning moments, but the four seniors never left the floor. It wasn’t that Cox was trying to run up the score; rather he wanted to remind his players that this year the Public League title would not, in itself, quite satisfy. A year ago King joined the state’s Elite Eight high school basketball teams in Champaign after beating Simeon, but the Jaguars were defeated in the semifinals by East Saint Louis Lincoln. This year King focused on payback time, and defeated Lincoln in a semifinal rematch on the way to claiming the state championship last weekend with a perfect record of 32-0. That feeling of having work left undone permeated the Amphitheatre as King won the city title–there was celebration, but it was noticeably toned down compared to last season–and it was also present in the King players, with Jamie Brandon’s hair being the most notable symbol. It was nappy and unkempt for the city title, as he waited until the team was going downstate to get his new ‘do. He came out against West Aurora in the quarterfinals last Friday with his hair sharp and chiseled, shaved close on the sides and piled high and tapering slightly on top. These games, he was saying, are what’s important this year.

Brandon is set to go back to Champaign to the University of Illinois next year, where he’ll join Deon Thomas if he clears Proposition 48 (the college rule that sets mandatory test scores for freshman participation in sports)– and, of course, if the Fighting Illini clear the NCAA investigation that began after they stole Thomas from Iowa in a heated recruitment battle a year ago. (There is talk that Brandon might transfer to Oklahoma if the Illini are put on probation or–perish the thought–if they’re given the “death penalty,” an extreme punishment that they are nonetheless eligible for.) Wherever Brandon ends up, we will remember this one last impression from his high school career: In the final minute, with a woman down the aisle from us yelling, “C’mon J.B.,” he took the ball in the backcourt and went one-on-one again. He came up on a scissors dribble, shaking and shimmying his shoulders and slipping the ball between his legs with each bounce. The Westinghouse defender was low and right on him, not willing to attempt a steal, but not willing to let Brandon by either. Left hand, right hand, between the legs and back again, step by step Brandon forced his opponent back and then fired up another powder-flash shot from the top of the key. Nothing but net.