Christmas In A Gym
Behind-the-scenes with one of Chicago’s flagship high school programs, Morgan Park.
by Gabriel Bump / @GabrielJBump
Thinly covered in snow and deserted, Morgan Park High School’s grounds look like they should on Christmas Day.
I sit in my car and listen to Christmas music, trying to think of something poetic and meaningful to write about a deserted school on the far south side of Chicago, thinly covered in snow on Christmas Day. I don’t particularly enjoy Christmas music.
Kids trickle past my idling car as 2 o’clock approaches, tall kids carrying Nike bags over winter coats.
Behind the gym door propped open with a trashcan, practice waits. Tomorrow, the historic Proviso West Holiday Tournament continues and Morgan Park, the defending champions, can’t take days off. Nick Irvin won’t allow it.
His team got lucky on Thanksgiving, when Nick cancelled practice at the last minute.
There’s Nick now, lounging on the bleachers. Last time I saw him, he wasn’t this relaxed. That was six days ago and he was strutting around a crowded basketball court with his arms raised above his head in triumph. That was after the Simeon game when five years’ work instantly came to fruition. Nick looks satisfied, content.
In the Chicago Public League, there are Red, Blue, Green and White divisions. Those divisions are broken into conferences: Central, West, North, South. Red division houses the best competition. Jabari Parker played Red South ball at Simeon. Chicago’s current premier talents, Cliff Alexander and Jahlil Okafor, play Red Central and Red West, respectively. Morgan Park is Red South.
Until this year, the Simeon-Morgan Park rivalry revolved around two nationally recruited stars: Jabari, current All-Everything freshman at Duke, and Wayne Blackshear, a junior starter for defending National Champion Louisville.
This year’s game, played at Simeon on December 19, showcased teams in transition.
But more on that later. Back to Wayne.
You may not know about Wayne, same as you may not know about Morgan Park, if you only follow Chicago basketball casually.
Heading into his senior year, Wayne was the man.
Wayne averaged 29.2 points and 14.2 rebounds his junior year. Wayne hit the game-winning shot in the City Championship. Wayne was a shoe-in for McDonalds All-American.
Wayne, Wayne, Wayne…
Wayne was nationally ranked in the top-20 by Scout.com. But who was this Davis kid? This charter school player out of the Blue division ranked number one, according to ESPN, Scout, and Rivals.
2010 was set-up for Wayne.
Then Antony Davis had a growth spurt.
Once a 6-foot freshman running point for Perspectives Charter, Anthony Davis, seemingly overnight, turned into a 6-10 center with guard skills.
He snuck up on everybody.
While Wayne was averaging 33 points, 15 rebounds, and six assists in the Red South, Anthony was out in the Blue West averaging 32, 22, and seven blocks.
Both players were chosen for the McDonalds All-American game, but Wayne had to sit out because of a shoulder injury. There was Wayne, in a sling, at his hometown United Center, watching Anthony play local hero.
There was Wayne, a freshman at Louisville, injured for most of the year, watching Anthony play hero. Again.
This time for in-state rival Kentucky, winning National Player of the Year, guiding them to a National Championship, winning Final Four Most Outstanding Player, getting drafted first overall.
Then Jabari took over.
Last year, when Morgan Park won their first-ever 3A State Championship, all eyes were on Simeon and Jabari, who took home their fourth-straight 4A title.
Last year, Morgan Park made it to the City Championship. Loosing in OT to then-Junior Jahlil and Whitney Young.
That’s Morgan Park.
But this year something feels different.
Something’s changing on the South Side.
Maybe that’s why Nick hasn’t screamed at his players yet, hasn’t stopped practice and sent them to the baseline for suicides, or sprints. Instead, he’s sitting in the bleachers and admiring, starters against subs.
Earlier in the season, he was always on his feet, stomping, sweating, pleading for perfection, yelling and shaking his head. Now, everything seems to be coming together. With such a young team, he was worried about leadership. He recalls the three seniors that won State. He wishes I could’ve come to those practices, heard how loud his leaders were. But those guys are gone.
Billy Garrett Jr. plays at DePaul, proving himself one of the best freshman in the Big East, maybe the country. Kyle Davis won team MVP, he’s down at the University of Dayton. Markee Williams’ playing junior college ball down in Florida.
One the eve of the Simeon game, I sat next to Nick in the bleachers, where he lounges now, and asked him about the difference leadership makes.
That team rallied, he said.
First, they rallied for Nick’s father.
If you didn’t know (again, because you are a causal high school basketball fan), the Irvin family is basketball royalty in Chicago. The patriarch, McGlother “Mac” Irvin, founded the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program, the premier travel team in Illinois and routinely one of the best in the country. On Christmas Eve two years ago, Mac lost a long a battle with diabetes. Morgan Park’s State championship was dedicated to the aptly nicknamed, “Godfather of Chicago Basketball.”
This year, Nick held the first annual Mac Irvin Diabetes Classic out in north suburban Elgin. All proceeds went to the American Diabetes Classic. Of course, Morgan Park started their season as the Classic’s main event. They faced-off against host school Larkin and won in overtime. Mac’s Classic took place the same day as the Chicago Elite Classic.
Organized by Whitney Young, Simeon and the City of Chicago, the two-year-old Elite Classic takes place at University of Illinois-Chicago. On the event’s webpage, under the “Hosts” tab are welcome letters from Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Under “Partners”: Nike, Coca Cola, Comcast…you get the picture. Eight teams from the Chicagoland-area were invited, along with six teams from across the country.
Mac’s Classic thanked Larkin’s Guidance Office, English Department and students, among others, for their generous donations.
Purposefully, Mac’s Classic only featured teams from Chicagoland. Teams that don’t get national attention. Teams like Proviso East and Bogan, a member of the Red South.
One can speculate why Morgan Park hasn’t been invited to the Chicago Elite Classic. Reasoning for the snub lies somewhere between disrespect and dislike and fear. Same logic Nick gives for why Whitney Young won’t schedule regular season games against Morgan Park (In all fairness to Whitney Young, this season all of their non-conference games were played outside Illinois, some on national T.V., as part of what I call the, “2013-14 Jahlil Xperience Tour”).
Morgan Park and Simeon’s rivalry could provide a simple explanation.
Nick and Rob Smith, Simeon’s head coach, have beef, as most rival coaches do.
Sitting next to me before the Simeon game, when we were talking about leadership and rallying, Nick admitted that he likes Rob, he just doesn’t like loosing to him.
Then we talked about Tyrone Lawson.
Starting in the Wayne-Jabari days, Morgan Park-Simeon moved their rivalry to Chicago State University, whose arena could fit more fans. January of last year was Jabari’s final game against his rival, the temporary end of the superstar chapter. Simeon won a close one, 53-51. After the game a fight broke out on the court, rivals getting heated, each side blaming the other in newspapers for instigating. The teams were separated.
Nick told me they were in the locker room when they heard someone got shot in the parking lot. When they found out it was Tyrone, they prayed. The seniors, the leaders, knew Tyrone, he was their age, in their grade. Consensus is that the shooting was unrelated to the scuffle. The two men charged were 29 and 32, not reckless teenagers often associated with violent crimes in Chicago.
Nick and Rob were suspended four games after the incident. Tyrone’s death made national news, no Chicago State this year.
What would you pray for? If you were a senior in high school facing a locker room filled with teammates that look to you for guidance? You had just lost to your arch-rival in heartbreaking fashion. You fought them when you were supposed to be shaking their hands and congratulating them for beating you. Then, when you’re seething in the locker room, you find out about Tyrone, a good kid, like you, that was fatally unlucky, a type of bad luck you are all too familiar with being black and growing up on the South Side.
Do you pray for world peace? For violence to end? For guns and cowards to never mix?
Do you pray for fantasies?
Do you rally again? Win the State Championship for Mac, Tyrone and Morgan Park?
Or do you hear Nick, sitting next to you in the bleachers less than 24 hours before the biggest game of the year, say that he wants to win for the community, how he wants to do something positive for the fans?
Yes, you do. And you believe every damn word of it.
Tomorrow. The Proviso West Holiday Tournament. But people are still talking about that Simeon game…
So, there were Nick Irvin and Rob Smith representing their communities, with ten seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Rob looks big-time, in a good way. He looks…stately; like he could coach at the University of Illinois, which was rumored as possibility after his third-straight 4A Championship in 2012.
Towels set them apart.
Rob, almost always sitting at the end of the bench, only rising in extreme circumstances, keeps his towel neatly folded over his seat back. He’ll pick the towel up, wipe, fold, and put it back in its place.
Nick never sits down. He runs up and down the bench, shouting, stomping, clapping, sweating, wiping. He keeps a sweaty towel clenched in his palm.
When he points to a spot on the court and yells a player’s name, the player glances over at the bench and follows his finger.
Nick calls timeouts after mistakes and walks onto the court, foaming at the mouth, to let the culprit have it, like he did the first game of the season, at the Mac Irvin Classic, when Sophomore Charlie Moore missed a defensive assignment: He met Charlie at the free throw line and put his growling face in his point guard’s ear. But then Nick showed how he gets his players to respond. He backed away from Charlie, allowed his star sophomore to walk past and then put his sweaty palms on Charlie’s shoulders, leaned in, and whispered encouragement. Morgan Park won by two in overtime.
Against Simeon, Charlie couldn’t play, bad thigh bruise. Sophomore Bigman Alonzo Chatman, out with a foot injury. Senior Forward Lamont Walker, out with an ankle.
All three potential starters.
When you’re deep like Morgan Park, three key players down with injuries won’t destroy you, it just makes things interesting.
Besides, Senior Josh Cunningham looked like the best player on the court, finishing with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
On the season, Josh is one of three players in the Red division to rank in the top five in scoring and rebounding. The others: Cliff and Jahlil. Nick told the Chicago Sun-Times after the game that Josh is “the player of the year.”
Nick loves his players. And he loves this team. But he knew that without last year’s leadership, he’d have to coach in overdrive.
Without three key players against his bitter rival, Nick coached with a sweaty towel clenched in his palm, acting so wild at times that one fan asked another, “Isn’t there a coach’s box?”
If there is a coach’s box, Nick breaks it through it constantly with exaggerated high-kicks and triumphant fist pumps straight out of gladiator movies.
So there’s Simeon Sophomore Zack Norvell rising up from long-distance, down by two, under ten seconds left. Miss. Josh rebound. Simeon Junior Ed Morrow, intentional foul. Words exchanged. Chests bumped. It looks like it’s happening again, what the suit-wearing Simeon administrators holding walkie-talkies feared. Not another brawl.
Before the game, the announcer warned the crowd to stay in their seats. Bathroom users, or fans craving nachos from the concession stand, would not be allowed re-entry until the end of the quarter, or a time-out.
Josh and Ed tangled under the basket. Security steadied for a stampede from the stands. Assistant coaches in front of their benches, arms outstretched, created a wall between the players and the court. The announcer pleaded with the fans and players, “It’s just a game! It’s just a game!”
And then it was over. No punches. No melee. Two Chicago Police officers sauntered off the court, chests puffed out. Josh made the first free throw. Missed the second. 58-55. Morgan Park. For the first time since 2010, Simeon lost at home. Nick’s first win at Simeon.
So there’s Nick, fists raised, strutting to the locker room, but who’s that next to him? Jumping in the air, hugging him? That’s Jarrin Randall.
There goes Jarrin now. He cuts to the basket and throws an alley-oop to Josh. Bam! Jarrin Randall has come a long way since Black Friday. Maybe that’s why Nick Irvin can sit in the bleachers and rest his arms on the row behind, looking like he’s enjoying Christmas.
There goes Jarrin again, finding Josh Cunningham for another alley-oop.
Attrition has dominated Morgan Park’s season. Jarrin wasn’t supposed to scrimmage with the starters, but here he is because Charlie Moore is out. Markus Johnson isn’t supposed to be out there either, but Lamont Walker is on the bleachers nursing a hurt ankle. Jarrin and Charlie, both sophomores. Markus and Lamont, seniors.
Spare parts a plenty.
With his seniors, Nick, for the most part, knows what he’s getting: Two solid players, who have put in work and proven themselves. Lamont the better of the two, clearly a starter. But Markus makes enough positive plays on the court to help the team win.
Jarrin is a different story…or was.
Before the season started, Jarrin looked timid. Three-pointers are his specialty, but early on he either shot too much, or too little.
Same with dribbling, passing, driving. All things he does well.
Unlike Charlie, who, as a freshman, played a key role in Morgan Park winning State last year, Jarrin still needed to get acclimated to varsity ball.
This season is important for Jarrin, if he wants to prove himself one of the best young players in the city. If he doesn’t seem ready for the Red South, if it looks like he might need another year, Jarrin could spend his career at Morgan Park looking up at Charlie. A lot of “ifs.” Such is the nature of examining sixteen-year-olds under a microscope.
Charlie went down, Jarrin got his shot.
Morgan Park hosted Red South foe Bogan before heading to Simeon. They lost a close one, missing free throw after free throw. But Jarrin scored 13, hit three from behind the arch and earned special attention in the Chicago Tribune.
Jarrin didn’t start against Bogan, Nick decided to go with a bigger line-up.
But the practice before Simeon, a starting spot looked guaranteed.
If there was one person in the gym that practice that wanted to beat Simeon more than Nick, it was Jarrin.
Last season, Jarrin played at Simeon. He helped the sophomore team go undefeated and win the city championship. Bogan was his first loss in high school.
He went to middle school at Morgan Park, wanted to transfer back, so he did.
Jarrin’s teammates at Simeon, Ben Coupet and Zack Norvell, start for varsity now and are considered in Charlie’s elite skill class. Last year, Jarrin was a role player. Ben and Zack, the stars.
Now they were all starters again. Ben and Zack starters all season. Jarrin, getting his shot out of necessity.
Attrition forced progress.
Heading into the fourth quarter, only two sophomores remained on the court: Zack and Jarrin.
Ben started out well, dishing out three assists early. An ineffective stretch in the third landed him on the bench for the final quarter. Zack wasn’t playing much better, but Simeon needed a point guard. While Zack looks more comfortable at shooting guard, Simeon’s one weak spot is at the point.
Imagine how Rob felt, watching Jarrin. The point guard he saw walk away scored his rival’s first points of the game, hitting a three. Later in the quarter, another. Another in the second. Nine points in the half. Morgan Park up by six.
Zack hit a three with under five minutes left in the fourth, bringing Simeon within two. But Morgan Park kept pulling away.
So at the buzzer, there was Nick with his fists raised above his head. Jarrin jumped next to him. Both looking like they had proven themselves. They disappeared into the locker room before anybody else.
And here they are now, on Christmas, relaxed and confident. Charlie isn’t due back for a few more games, so Jarrin is looking at a few more starting opportunities at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. Nick looks comfortable with his sophomore, point guard dilemma. They both seem ready for the next challenge.