Winning Is A Habit
The past, present, and future of Simeon basketball.
by Bryan Crawford / @from_the_chi
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of his passing, this past November before the start of their ’09-’10 basketball campaign, Simeon Career Academy (formerly known as Simeon Vocational High School) and the basketball program permanently retired Ben “Benji” Wilson’s No. 25 jersey. Four months later and a little over a week ago, the Wolverines defeated the defending state champion Whitney Young Dolphins for the 2010 4A state championship and finished the season with a record of 25-9. Kind of ironic isn’t it?
It’s funny the way things happen sometimes.
Google Ben Wilson and Simeon basketball and you won’t have any problem finding the story of his life. He’s the player who put the program and the school on the map not only for what he achieved on the court, but for what happened to him off it. Gunned down in a senseless act of street violence, the player people called “Magic Johnson with a jumpshot” never got to see his enormous potential manifest and his death left a dark cloud over this city for many, many years.
Benji led Simeon to a state title his junior year (the school’s first) and was on a mission to repeat the feat as a senior had he not been killed. Five years after his death, Bob Hambric who was Wilson’s coach, began the long-standing tradition of awarding Benji’s No. 25 jersey to the best player on the Simeon basketball team. Although many good players have worn his jersey since 1989, it took 15 years before another great player would come along who would finally be able to fill Benji’s enormous shoes and accomplish all of the things he would’ve accomplished as a product of Simeon basketball.
That player was Derrick Rose.
Derrick did all of the things most people felt Benji would’ve done had he lived. He led the Wolverines to back-to-back state championships his junior and senior seasons making Simeon the first school from the Chicago Public League ever to do so. He also went on to become a college basketball star and the eventual top pick in the NBA draft. Derrick’s life was a mirror image of Benji’s and as a result, he became “The One”. The proverbial “Rose” that grew from the concrete where Benji’s blood spilled who came to fulfill Wilson’s life and legacy and finally lift that dark cloud hanging over the city since the time of his death.
Derrick Rose was present at the retirement ceremony held at the school in November, officially and fittingly making him the last player at Simeon to ever wear Wilson’s No. 25.
For all of the things that Derrick has accomplished in his life and career to this point, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Benji would’ve been proud.
There probably weren’t very many people outside of the Simeon family who even thought this team would have a chance to win it all this season. Most speculated the 4A crown would come down to either defending champion Whitney Young or the Waukegan Bulldogs led by University of Illinois commit Jereme Richmond. But it seems as if destiny was on the side of the Wolverines all year.
I don’t want to paint the picture that this is some scrub team who somehow lucked up on a championship or a team who got hot at the right time while riding a wave of emotion from the memory of a fallen hero. None of the kids on this squad were even born when Benji died.
But make no mistake, these boys at Simeon can ball for real. Led by Head Coach Robert Smith who was also an assistant under the late Bob Hambric, he not only knows a thing or two about coaching and winning, but he also knows something about coaching winners too. After all, he was Derrick Rose’s coach when he played at Simeon. The pride and tradition at Simeon not only calls for the development of good basketball players, but also the positive development of young men as well. The fact that they can do both and still win is just the icing on the cake.
“A guy told me once that Simeon is the Mecca of basketball in Illinois,” said Coach Smith (pictured below right) who in six years as coach of the Wolverines has coached in four title games and won three of them. “[Simeon] has always been on top…losing is not an option over here.”
This year, the Wolverines season started off well but like most teams, as the season progressed they hit some bumps in the road and found themselves on the losing end of several contests. “A couple of kid’s egos got in the way and it cost us some games,” said Coach Smith reflecting on his team’s season. “But once we got to the end [of the season] guys started working together and we became a team and that’s how we won state.”
The turning point for the Wolverine’s came in a locally televised contest against De La Salle High School in February. Simeon lost that game by 18 points. Said Coach Smith on the loss, “[De La Salle] embarrassed us and we actually embarrassed ourselves as well. There was no team nothing, it was just all individual play. Guys went out there for themselves and said forget the team. It’s one of the largest losses I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Senior swingman and University of Dayton commit Brandon Spearman (pictured at left) took it upon himself to make sure his teammates rebounded from that loss to De La Salle and got the team refocused for the stretch run. “As a leader, I had to tell my team that we needed to turn our season around. We can’t be losing like this. We’re at Simeon. We hold ourselves to a higher standard. We don’t lose like that.”
After that loss, the Wolverines went on a seven game winning streak that started with a tough game against Benet Academy in the playoffs to determine who would go downstate, a double-overtime thriller against O’Fallon HS in Peoria where the state championship tournament is held, and triumphantly ended their season with a 15 point drubbing of Whitney Young in the title game, avenging a loss to the Dolphins earlier in the season.
And before they embarked on their run in Peoria, they got a surprise pep talk from Derrick Rose who showed up at the school just before the team headed downstate and who also popped up unexpectedly the day I visited.
“I told them that they needed to come together and don’t go out there and play for the school, but go out there and play for themselves and play hard,” said Rose on his conversation with the team. “I told them that it was going to be hard down there. It’s a different environment and they don’t have anyone [to depend on] but themselves while they’re out on the court. I told them don’t worry about the refs, don’t worry about the crowd or anything. Just believe in themselves and they should be fine.”
According to Spearman, that pep talk went a long way in motivating the team to bring the title home. “It motivated everybody. Everybody was just so surprised that he came to talk to us and it made us even more excited. Everybody was so pumped up and then on the road [to Peoria] we was watching the LeBron movie (More Than a Game) and everybody was hyped. So after all that, we felt like was gonna do this.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
For Coach Rob–as he’s commonly referred to by his players–the cupboard is far from bare after this season and he has a bevy of young, up-and-coming players who will definitely help maintain the schools winning tradition. Leading the way is versatile freshman swingman Jabari Parker (pictured at left) who’s father Sonny played in the NBA and who most likely will be the next big thing to come out of the Simeon program. Traditionally at Simeon freshman don’t play varsity. Derrick Rose didn’t even play on the varsity as a freshman. But over time things change and when you have a player like Parker with his size (he stands 6-6) and unbelievable basketball skills, it made the “no freshman on varisty” rule a bit easier to break.
“The decision we made by putting Jabari on varsity was strictly based on his ability,” said Coach Smith. “We thought that by putting him down on the sophomore team he probably wouldn’t work as hard. We knew on varsity playing against those guys that were quicker and a little bit stronger, he had to come and work every day.”
While his numbers weren’t jaw dropping, he was a key contributor in Simeon’s championship run and he learned a lot about himself and the game of basketball in the process.
“It was a good experience for me going down in history as the first freshman to start and be on the varsity team at Simeon,” said Parker. “It got me better experience as a basketball player just adjusting to the speed and strength factor of the game. [High school] basketball is way different from Grammar school.” For Parker, being so young with a name that’s already ringing bells presents its own unique share of challenges, even on his own team.
Sophomore guard Jaleni Neely (pictured at right) is another one of the Wolverine’s core group of guys who like Parker, played his first year of varsity basketball this season. He too was a key contributor in their state title run and he’s a player who will also be a big part of Simeon’s future going forward. He witnessed first hand some of the “in-house” challenges Parker faced during his first year of big-time high school basketball.
“As the season went on, people started to see that he was one of the top names on our team and some players got a little jealous of that,” said Neely. “He was getting a lot of minutes coming in as a freshman and some players who had been here already, didn’t play as much. But it ended up working out because we all talked and he let us know that he wasn’t different from anybody else on the team and he grew from the beginning of the season to the end. He didn’t bring anybody down and he kept everybody’s head up and it helped us a lot.” He adds, ”At the end of the day, we won state and those guys who were mad really don’t have a whole lot to say now.”
Parker, along with Neely and junior PG Tywon Pinkney have the Simeon program in good hands for the foreseeable future. And while Coach Smith can sleep comfortably at night knowing he has the talent to compete and make another state title run next season, he also knows the task of repeating won’t be an easy one. “It’s going to be tough because everybody is going to want to beat us. Now they’re going to be the hunted so they’re going to have to really come with it every game. They’re already in a program where everybody wants to beat Simeon every time they play them anyway, but now you’re the state champs and people are going to really come after you.”
History and tradition says that the Simeon Wolverines will undoubtedly be up for the challenge facing them come next season.
Congratulations to Coach Smith and the Simeon Wolverine basketball team on their 2010 Illinois State Championship.