by Gabriel Bump / @GabrielJBump
Shoot westward out of Chicago on I-290 and you’ll hit Hillside in under 30 minutes.
After the expressway, it’s only a short drive to Mount Carmel Cemetery. Al Capone’s buried there, so is Dean O’Banion. Two of Chicago’s most-feared criminals now rest next to a gas station, Wendy’s and McDonald’s up the road, a high school across the street.
Everyone knows Al Capone. Fewer know his North Side rival O’Banion. Fewer, still, would recognize other names scattered throughout the grass and tombstones. Tough names, enforcer names, like Vincent Drucci, “Machine Gun” McGurn, Frank Nitti, Frank Rio. Guys who struck fear in weasels, rats and innocents during prohibition; recognized now by nostalgic crime buffs that think the seedy underbelly has gotten too soft.
But I didn’t drive to Hillside in search of ghosts.
After all, this story isn’t about the Chicago Outfit and bloodshed.
It’s about the high school across the street.
It’s about Proviso West’s Holiday Tournament and how fifty years were condensed into 61 games over seven days in late December.
Three years ago, the Holiday Tournament celebrated its 50th anniversary.
The 50-Year All Tournament Team: includes, among others: Clippers head coach Doc Rivers (Proviso East), Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas (St. Joe’s), Future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett (Farragut), Fab Five member Juwan Howard (Chicago Vocational), 2010 second overall pick Evan Turner (St. Joe’s).
According to the tournament’s website, around 300 Holiday Tournament players have gone on to play Division I. Some everybody knows. A lot that only nostalgic buffs recall.
Capones, O’Banions, Nittis.
My third Holiday Tournament and I couldn’t sleep. I stopped by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way, ordered a large coffee and left it cooling in my cup holder, too distracted by memories to drink.
My first press section.
Aggrey Sam was there, writing for SLAM, told me to call him Sam. Sam’s now the Chicago Bulls Insider for Comcast Sports Net. He was the only other writer of color.
First time I realized high school basketball is a white man’s beat.
There was even a white Sam.
Sam Smith stopped by for a few games. Smith started writing about the Bulls in 1987. His book about the 90-91 championship season, The Jordan Rules, was a New York Times bestseller. He also won a lifetime achievement award from the Pro Basketball Writers Association.
So White Sam’s a legend.
But I looked up to Black Sam, would nod and wave goodbye in the parking.
I was writing features for a website that is now “temporarily unavailable.”
I mainly hung out and watched basketball; occasionally I’d pull out my laptop and try to look busy.
Whitney Young won that year, beat Foreman by 15 for the ‘ship.
Alex Dragicevich won MVP that year, despite his Glenbrook North team finishing fourth.
Against Young in the semifinals, the only game where he didn’t put up 30, Glenbrook North scored 33 points. He had 21.
Alex went to Notre Dame, transferred to Boston College last year and hasn’t scored 30 points since high school.
2010, Alex was the youngest player named to the 50th anniversary team. That year I went to one game, I can’t even remember who played. By that time I was writing less, barely anything at all. I didn’t even stop by the press section, just hung around courtside. The website I wrote for took a hiatus. I didn’t have an outlet.
Six months later, I left the University of Missouri. Call it unhappiness, or youthful apathy. I had to change speeds.
A few months after returning home, I was working in a nightclub, unsure if I’d go back to school, or write about basketball again.
When you love to do something and stop cold turkey, withdrawal can happen without you even noticing. I didn’t get the shakes, didn’t wake up drenched in cold sweats. But once I started up again, particularly with this series, the high was overpowering.
Still, I haven’t covered tournaments since 2009 and back then I was mostly pretending, staring wide-eyed at my surroundings.
There’s Capone across the street in 1978, when Isiah Thomas and Doc Rivers went for the championship.
O’Banion in the stands when Senior Kevin Garnett won MVP and the championship in 1994 alongside his Farragut teammate, Junior Ronnie Fields. Ronnie scored a tournament-record 51 points a year later, after Kevin graduated and went straight to the NBA. Ronnie also won MVP, signed with DePaul, a First-Team All-American.
Kevin, 15-time All-Star. Ronnie ruled academically ineligible, charged with misdemeanor sexual abuse, never played in the League.
Kevin, NBA Champion. Ronnie, cautionary tale.
2005. Glenbrook North senior Jon Scheyer scored 21 points in 75 seconds, finished with 52, broke Ronnie’s record. Mike Krzyzewski in the crowd, those 75 seconds immortalized on YouTube. Jon won a Championship at Duke, got poked in the eye during the NBA Summer League, never played in the League.
Hillside immortalizes, keeps legends fresh even after they fade.
I got off 290, ready to relive 2009.
Morgan Park won last year and I was there to cover their repeat bid. Day 3, the last day of the opening round and Morgan Park didn’t play until 7 p.m., the second to last game.
I parked at 8:45, tossed back lukewarm coffee, wondered if I could make it 12 hours without falling asleep.
Out in the cold, the addiction hit, or the caffeine kicked in, or exhaustion turned into delirium.
Either way, I entered the gym and stepped into half a century melted together and thinly spread between two baskets (OK, I hadn’t eaten breakfast).
This time, I skipped the press section, reclined across four rows of hard bleachers, opened my notebook and felt like Capone staring at a warehouse filled with prohibited cases of Canadian Club.
After a day filled with blowouts, you feel like you’re being tested.
Do you love the game as much as you think?
You understand how first rounds work, how the match-ups are lopsided, so that eases your anxiety and fear.
Besides, Morgan Park plays next, against Thornton Fractional South from south suburban Lansing, IL. Morgan Park won the tournament last year and looks primed to repeat. You expect another blowout, but that doesn’t bother you. Your back is starting to hurt and you wonder if you have the stamina to last the entire tournament.
You think about when you first started writing about basketball, right out of high school.
Your back didn’t hurt as much then. Neither did your knees, which click now, as you stand and stretch before tip-off. You decide to take better care of yourself, which you say more as years pass.
Watching hours of high school basketball makes you miss invincibility. Or at least you miss acting reckless and not worrying. When your back hurt in high school, you thought it sucked. That’s all. You wanted to play sports, but your back hurt too bad, so it sucked.
When you went to the doctor and found out you had been running around with tiny cracks in your spine for about a year, you thought it really sucked. But you never thought about how those tiny cracks would make sitting on hard bleachers a form of torture, or how you would need to take more breaks than your dad while shoveling the driveway.
Your dad is forty years older than you and has to take medication for his heart.
You realize your 22 and feel old. You wonder what 30 will feel like. Or 25.
This is what a day filled with blowouts does to the brain. Your thoughts wander. Zoning-out turns into ruminating.
And then you look down and see Morgan Park.
Only four schools in the tournament’s 50-plus years have repeated as champions. It would be good for you if they pull it off, because it would make the story your writing more interesting. You could write about witnessing history.
You’ve seen them progress all season and you think they could be the best team in the state.
You also want them to win because you are from the South Side.
The Holiday Tournament pulls teams from all over Chicagoland. You crave situations where you can prove your Side is better than any other Side, or Suburb.
No matter how small the occasion. So when Barack won the presidency, South Side won. Derrick Rose didn’t win MVP for the Chicago Bulls, he won it for the South Side. If Morgan Park repeats, the Holiday crown stays on the South Side for another year.
That’s how you think.
You see Morgan Park’s head coach Nick Irvin is relaxed. You’ve seen him during practice, yelling and screaming. But when you went to practice yesterday, he was calm. You take calmness as a sign that everything is clicking. Nick even joins the shoot-around, stepping up to take threes and laugh with his team.
What you notice first, once the game starts, is that TF South is small. Their tallest player is 6-5. Morgan Park has four players above that, including senior Josh Cunningham. Josh needs a great performance this tournament. He hasn’t decided where he’s going to play ball next year. He’s the best undeclared senior in Illinois and every great performance adds to his value. You’ve seen Josh dominate in practice. He’s made your jaw drop in practice, made you blurt out “DAAAMN!” In games, he’s good, often the best player on the court, but you want to see him devastate an opponent. Against a small team like TF South, you think Josh can do something special.
After the first half, Morgan Park is up by eight and Josh has 10 points.
No blowout, no domination. Instead, a good team beating a less-good team by a comfortable margin. Again, Josh looks like the best player on the court. But this is the Holiday Tournament and you want more. And you want Josh to want more.
So when the points start coming, you’re happy. You don’t notice it at first; you just see that he’s dominating.
Then you look at the scoreboard to your right and see “31” next to Josh’s number “21.”
When you look back again, Josh grabs a defensive rebound, doesn’t pass, puts the ball on the floor, races up court and slams. It looks like one movement and you think that’s what greatness is supposed to look like. On his way back on defense, Josh hi-fives Nick. You’ve learned that Nick only hi-fives during a game when he’s too giddy to wait for a stoppage in play.
Here’s the thing about great players: they rarely disappoint. When the stage is set for a big performance, great players exceed your expectations and keep you coming back for more.
Josh finishes with a career-high 37 points. He adds 19 rebounds and 7 blocks.
Morgan Park wins by 30 points.
Josh gets a signature performance.
You get another blowout.
You head out into the cold and are ready to be tested again tomorrow morning.
You figure out the tournament eight minutes into game 26, the second game of day four.
You now know the two teams that will play in the championship.
You saw Josh Cunningham and Morgan Park dominate Thornton Fractional South last night.
Stevenson High School is putting on a show against New Trier. Heading into the second quarter, New Trier hasn’t scored. 20-0.
This is the first time you’ve seen junior Jalen Brunson play. The point guard looks as good as advertised. Last year, he took a usually nondescript Stevenson squad down state, where they lost to Jabari Parker and Simeon in the 4A State Finals. This year, Stevenson is one of the best teams in Illinois. In terms of completeness, their team is neck and neck with Morgan Park.
You’re already salivating at the potential matchup.
With 3:20 left in the half, New Trier makes a free throw and the crowd cheers louder than you’ve heard all tournament.
36-10 at halftime.
With three minutes left in the third and his team up by an impossible margin, Jalen gets pulled and the crowd cheers like crowds cheer when stars exit and take a final bow.
Morgan Park plays at night. You spend the rest of the day thinking about Morgan Park-Stevenson like it’s guaranteed. Morgan Park beat them last year in the semifinals. But Morgan Park was different then, powered by senior leadership. Now, Morgan Park is younger. Stevenson’s stars have matured. You try to work through the potential matchup, weigh strengths against weaknesses. You don’t get anywhere. You think Jalen gives Stevenson the edge in the backcourt. But Josh Cunningham wins the frontcourt.
You wait, watch the other games play out, and hope for Morgan Park to present an x-factor in their game against Maine South. You want something to tip the advantage away from the north suburbs. And then you remember you’re a journalist. Or at least trying very hard to act like one.
When Maine South leads 22-25 at halftime, you don’t panic because you’re a South Sider. You panic because your story is in trouble. Maine South can’t miss. They’re well coached, run smooth plays with first, second and third options. Most importantly, they’re handling Josh.
Then the x-factor shows up and saves your story.
Junior Kain Harris takes over. For the second day in a row, you see domination. This time it’s from behind the arch.
Kain hits a three to tie it up at 25.
Then another to extend the lead.
Then Maine South responds.
Kain gives them the lead again, with another three.
You’ve seen Kain play all season, but you never imagined him capable of something like this.
He hits six threes in the third quarter, gives Morgan Park the lead and they don’t let go.
Final score: 60-56.
Kain finishes with 33 points and nine threes, one shy of tying the tournament record. Josh racks up a respectable 18, but Kain couldn’t be stopped.
So there’s your story, alive and breathing.
You wait outside the Morgan Park locker room after the game. You wait an hour for Nick Irvin to shower and come out, the team already on the bus. You know he loves Kain, you’ve seen it in practice. The way he demands a little extra from him. You’ve seen it in the press. When he referred to him as “Baby Kobe” to the Chicago Sun-Times. Once Josh graduates, this is going to be Kain’s team. But you still didn’t think Kain was capable of producing history.
You walk with Nick through the now deserted building, down a dark hallway and ask him what he said to his mini-Kobe before the game.
“I told him to be Mamba.”
You get to your car and don’t realize your back hurts until you reach the highway.
New Year’s Eve, the final day, sneaks up on you.
Everything is going as planned.
Stevenson and Morgan Park in the ‘ship.
Both teams cruised through the quarter- and semi-finals.
Jalen Brunson did much of the heavy lifting for Stevenson. But Morgan Park didn’t act as you expected. You wanted Josh, or Kain, to act like Jalen.
After the Maine South game, something interesting happened to Morgan Park: they finally got healthy. For the first time all season, Nick Irvin had his entire team suited up and ready to play. The two games leading up to the championship felt like chess matches.
Nick moved his pieces around, tried to find the perfect combination. His tinkering produced convincing wins, but no more 30-plus point performances, which might have been too much to ask for.
So now you’re mouthing along to the national anthem and thinking about Jalen vs Morgan Park, instead of Jalen vs Josh, or Jalen vs Kain.
Something sentimental flies through your head about America and togetherness and the purity of sport.
When a veteran walks out to present the game ball, Nick tells his players to stand up and applaud. Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose tells his kids to do the same.
Something sentimental flies through your head about sports turning boys into men. You’re happy when the game starts. No time for sentiments.
Both teams come out physical, trying to prove a point.
Stevenson wants to prove that a North Suburban team can exchange blows with a South Side team.
Morgan Park wants to prove that they are always the toughest team on the court.
They exchange baskets for most of the half.
Morgan Park jumps out to a 16-10 lead in the second quarter. But Stevenson responds with an 8-0 run.
Morgan Park leads by 2 at halftime, 25-23.
Morgan Park is a second-half team. You expect either Kain, or Josh, to take over and put the championship away. You expect Morgan Park to become the fifth school to repeat at the Holiday Tournament.
Then Josh fouls Jalen in the paint and Jalen converts the and-one.
Josh’s third foul.
Seconds later, Josh picks up his fourth.
Nick pulls him.
It’s up to Kain, but Kain’s having an off day. Against Maine South, he could hit with his eyes closed. He’s cooled off and the game remains tight as the third quarter draws to a close.
It happens fast.
With less than 10 seconds left, you see a Stevenson player get tangled up with a Morgan Park player after a free throw.
You recognize both. Matt Johnson from Stevenson has ten points and is a big reason why this game is so close. Torry Johnson from Morgan Park is a senior starter.
They remain tangled, awkwardly jogging to the other end of the court.
Nick’s pleading with the refs, as he has been doing for most of the game.
You don’t know what happens first.
All you know is that Matt and Torry are on the hardwood floor.
And Nick is about to lose it.
The ref tells Nick to sit down.
Nick never sits down. There isn’t even an open chair available for him.
He never sits down.
The ref tells him to sit down.
The ref ejects Matt and Torry.
The ref gives Nick a technical.
Nick never sits down.
The ref makes him sit down.
Someone finds a chair and Nick has to sit down.
You’ve never seen Nick sit during a game, because Nick never sits down.
When the dust settles, Jalen steps up to take his two technical shots. Makes them both. 41-40. Stevenson ball with seconds left.
Jalen hits a three at the buzzer. A dagger.
44-40 heading into the fourth and Stevenson doesn’t look back. With Josh in foul trouble, Kain not feeling it and Nick resigned to sitting like a child in timeout, Morgan Park couldn’t pull it off.
No history for Morgan Park.
Instead Stevenson won their first tournament in school history and Jalen won Tournament MVP.
You leave the gym and walk into a blizzard.
You pass Capone’s graveyard and leave the ghosts behind.
O’Banion, Nitti, Alex Dragicevich, Ronnie Fields, Jon Scheyer. You leave all of them in the parking lot and head back to the city.
Tomorrow you’ll read in the Sun-Times how “a dust-up” changed the game. You’ll read about Jalen and his 23 points. Josh and Kain with their 11.
You’ll read about the game and think about Nick sitting.
Your back hurts.