Point Guard Central
Why Chicago is arguably the nation’s top PG hotbed.
by Peter A. Coclanis
Although several cities can make more or less plausible claims for being the point guard capital of the universe—New York, Baltimore-DC, Oakland and L.A. come immediately to mind—the case for Chicago seems pretty iron-clad, especially over the past 40 years or so. I’m not the only one feels this way either: In recent years sports writers ranging from Michael Cunningham to Mark Potash have argued similarly. Every year, it seems, a new cadre of points guards (and quasi point guards) haling from Chicagoland places well on the NBA Draft boards–this year we have Evan Turner, Sherron Collins, Jerome Randall and John Scheyer–and NBA rosters are sprinkled with playmakers from the Second City. This current list starts with Derrick Rose, of course, but also includes Will Bynum, Jannero Pargo and Shannon Brown. Then there is a guy down in Miami named Dwyane Wade, who also plays the point at times.
And the above list is only a start. Since the ‘70s some of the greatest point guards in the game have haled from the Chicago metro area. Think about it for a minute. There’s the pantheon of Chi guys: In temporal order, Mo Cheeks, Isiah Thomas and Tim Hardaway. But there’s a second level of quality PGs from the Windy City, too, ballers such as Quinn Buckner, Rickey Green—good enough to keep John Stockton on the bench at Utah for a couple of years–Doc Rivers and Kevin Porter, the last of whom, many forget, led the NBA in assists in ‘74-75, ‘77-78, ‘78-79 and ‘80-81.
To be sure, over the course of the same period, New York has produced some fine points as well, most notably, Nate Archibald, Mark Jackson, Kenny Smith (whom I once taught in a history class), Kenny Anderson, Rod Strickland and Stephon Marbury. That said, most knowledgeable students of basketball would agree that the top five or six PGs from Chicago—for the sake of argument, let’s say Isiah, Mo Cheeks, Tim Hardaway, Derrick Rose, Buckner and Porter—trump the group from Gotham. Easily. And New York’s reputation as a producer of top-flight point guards is sullied by overhyped busts such as Pearl Washington, Omar Cook and (likely) Sebastian Telfair.
DC has produced its share of points over the years—Dave Bing (now Mayor of Detroit), Johnny Dawkins, Sherman Douglas and Moochie Norris–and Baltimore has had its premium home boys, too: Muggsy Bogues, Sam Cassell, Juan Dixon (kind of) and, if we stretch Baltimore a bit to include Tacoma Park, Stevie Francis. Oakland has produced two terrific points—Gary Payton and Jason Kidd—and in recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of the extended L.A. region as a progenitor of PGs: Baron Davis, Russell Westbrook (Long Beach) and, assuming a definition of L.A. broad enough to include Rancho Cucamonga, Darren Collison. At the end of the day, though, no matter how you cut it, Chicago rules.
But why? A number of analysts have suggested that it’s because PGs are by definition tough, and there is no place–and I mean no place—tougher than Chi-Town. I wrote this piece over the weekend of June 19-20 and the Chicago Tribune reported on June 21 that 38 Chicagoans had been shot that weekend. OK, gruesome enough, but there may be something else at work here, too. Chicago has always been a hierarchical, semi-authoritarian kind of place, a place where neither the factories that dominated the city’s economy for a century nor the Machine that ruled its political system for a similar period nor the mega-gangs that controlled the streets in much of the city brooked any criticism, much less disobedience. A place in other words where foremen, gangbangers, ward bosses and at times even precinct captains called the shots. Do as I say, in other words. Semi-authoritarian social orders such as this are tailor-made for leaders –or at least controllers–including those of the point-guard variety. Can anyone think of a better leader in college b-ball than Quinn Buckner? Better point guards, yes, but not a better leader. If you don’t believe me, ask the winningest coach in college- basketball history, Bob Knight, aka, The General. Indeed, as much as I like Derrick Rose—an amazing hoopster who has been my favorite player in the world since he was a sophomore at Simeon—I wish that he’d show a little more “Chicago” in his leadership style. Both the Bulls and the NBA would be the better for it.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He started at point guard at North Park Academy in Chicago in ’68-69, perhaps the principal reason the school ceased operations at the end of that academic year.