by Gabriel Bump / @GabrielJBump
First, get the two best high school basketball players in the country. Make sure they’re both huge. Literally, huge. Preferably around 6-10. Just get Curie’s Cliff Alexander and Whitney Young’s Jahlil Okafor.
Put them in the Chicago Public Schools Championship. Whitney Young looks to repeat as City Champions. Curie seeks their first title in school history.
Find a gym big enough to fit the demand. Chicago State’s gym, down on 95th street, is ideal. Once everybody is in the gym, take a second and soak it in. This isn’t going to feel like a high school game.
Look for a seat on the first level. Find out from a security guard that there aren’t any. Walk upstairs to the second level, choose a spot across from the team benches and wait for the second level to fill up.
Don’t worry when the Curie band sits one section over. The noise will be worth it.
Listen to the anthem and the player introductions. Feel the place vibrate.
Before tip-off, find Nina Hike. She’s Chairperson of Curie’s Science Department and has taught at the school for 15 years. She’ll point out that almost the entire section is Curie teachers. She knew Cliff when he was a freshman. She doesn’t follow basketball too closely, but she loves her school and kicks her feet when things go Curie’s way.
Put everything together, watch it mix into something unforgettable.
Curie led 20-12 after the first, 22-28 at halftime.
Whitney Young senior Miles Reynolds hit a three at the beginning of the second half. Miles scored 26 in the quarterfinals against Morgan Park. The St. Louis University signee was quiet in the first half. But last year, he sent the game into overtime with a three. Against Curie, Whitney Young needed Miles to make plays.
Especially after Cliff grabbed an offensive rebound, put it back and drew a foul from Jahlil.
Cliff missed his and one opportunity and Miles grabbed the rebound, raced up the court for a lay-up. Maybe the spark he needed.
Instead, Curie hurried back on defense and Miles missed the contested lay-up. Jahlil went for the rebound and got called for another foul.
Whitney Young head coach Tyrone Slaughter pulled Jahlil.
With Miles unable to get going and Jahlil on the bench, Curie had an opportunity to put the game away. The teachers in Curie’s section looked hopeful. Mrs. Hike may not have known who Jahlil was, but she knew that he was big and that Curie had a good chance to win if he was off the court.
Mrs. Pike couldn’t believe Whitney Young had another player that was almost as big as Jahlil and Cliff.
She didn’t know about Paul White.
Like Miles, Paul was quiet for much of the game. Headed to Georgetown next year, Paul rounds out Whitney Young’s DI trifecta. Paul is 6-8 and fought through a groin injury for most of the CPS playoffs. He showed up when his team needed him most, controlling Whitney Young’s offense when his counterparts sputtered.
With seconds remaining in the third, Paul tied it up at 38.
He also scored the first basket of the fourth quarter, giving his team the lead.
On the other end of the court, Cliff proved too much to handle. Paul fouled him, Cliff hit both free throws.
Paul missed the rim on a three-point attempt.
Jahlil checked back in.
Tied 43-43, Jahlil backed Cliff down into the post, finessed a basket, gave Whitney Young the lead. 45-43.
The next possession was why the parking lots were full.
Everybody wanted to see who would be the last bigman standing.
Cliff took Jahlil into the post, put up a shot.
It took a moment for the Curie fans to figure it out, a little longer for the teachers to put it together. Mrs. Hike still needed an explanation when the Curie crowd went into a frenzy and the Whitney Young supporters looked dumbfounded.
The Curie band played Lil’ Wayne’s “No Worries”, and the Curie fans continued to cheer.
Cliff outlasted Jahlil.
Cliff hit both his free throws.
The championship looked guaranteed.
Tie game. 2:13 left.
Under two minutes, Cliff forced a Whitney Young turnover.
Fast break Curie.
Whitney Young timeout.
Fans started leaving with under a minute left. Cliff ran the floor on fast break and flushed home the apparent dagger. 53-47. All Curie had to do was hit free throws.
No matter what Whitney Young did, all Curie had to do was hit free throws.
Even Mrs. Hike knew that.
Three-pointer Whitney Young. No worries.
Curie misses the first.
53-50. Whitney Young timeout.
Mrs. Hike wondered if it were possible, could they really lose? Were ten seconds enough time to get a good shot off?
While the heavily contested shot Miles put up from the corner might not have been “good,” it still went in and the Whitney Young crowd erupted.
Miles did it, again.
Last year, the score was 51-51 at the end of regulation.
This year, 53-53.
Last year, Miles hit from the left corner.
This year, left corner.
An argument could be made that high school basketball’s biggest flaw is the absence of a shot clock.
Supporters of that argument could use Friday night’s game as exhibit A.
In the first overtime, there were only five combined possessions in four minutes. Mrs. Hike couldn’t believe it.
Miles drove at Cliff and missed the game-winner.
More stalling in the second overtime.
But with Curie up 60-58 with 4.7 seconds left, it looked like the strategy might have worked.
Not in this game.
Whitney Young broke the press; Cliff tried to take a charge in the paint and was called for a blocking foul. Cliff stayed on the court laid out on his stomach.
Whitney Young made the free throws.
More stalling. Curie settled for a contested three after exchanging baskets.
Mrs. Hike didn’t think she had a fifth one in her. In the second overtime, she was practically begging for the championship.
“You guys win all the time. Let us have one!”
Paul fouled out.
Cliff towered over everybody.
Currie stalled for the last shot.
So who do you think took it?
Cliff was exhausted and contained in the overtimes.
When it happened, no one except diehard Curie supporters knew.
In reality, it didn’t matter who.
It didn’t matter that it was senior Kamar Marshall.
Or that it was Kamar’s first shot of the night.
All that mattered was that it went in.
A three from the corner.
Listening to dozens of teachers scream at the top of their lungs might sound nightmarish. It isn’t.
Throw in the band and you got yourself a Friday night to remember.