“Well, you can’t get any bigger than No. 1, can you?”
Landon “Sonny” Cox is right.
Even in today’s age of YouTube and ESPN broadcasting prep games regularly, the legacy of one Chicago high school’s basketball program continues to loom large, more than a decade after Martin Luther King HS (now called King College Prep, it’s become one of the city’s selective-enrollment magnet schools) was last relevant in the hoops landscape.
It all started with the flamboyant Cox, who was named King’s coach in 1981, embarking on a 20-year career that included a national championship, three Illinois state titles, more than 500 wins, several of the best players ever produced in the Chi, a litany of controversy, but above all, one of the name-brand national powerhouses in high school ball during the ’80s and ’90s. When Cox, who relocated to Chicago as part of his simultaneous career as a jazz musician—he’s an acclaimed saxophonist who recorded a solo album and was a member of The Three Souls—arrived at King, the cupboard wasn’t barren, as athletic center Efrem Winters, who would go on to be a McDonald’s All-American and play at Illinois, was already in the building, giving him an indication of what was to come.
“I knew from the very beginning that we were going to be pretty good,” recounts Cox, a Cincinnati native who graduated from Kentucky State University on a baseball scholarship. “I never thought about my style. I just thought if I could get them to do the best that they could, that would be good enough. I did the best I could with what I had.”
What he had was an abundance of talent, as Cox would scour the city’s vast grade-school talent pool for top young players, such as high-flying forward Levertis Robinson, who would go on to Cincinnati, and point guard Tracy Dildy, who is still regarded as one of the better pure floor generals Chicago has produced.
“Efrem and those guys, they set a precedent with the school, like, ‘Hey man, King is the best,’ and Cox instilled that in us. It was one of those things where it was us against the world. We had a swagger that Cox basically demanded,” recalls Dildy, now the head coach at Chicago State. “We did know it was something different when—this is high school—all our practices, we’ve got news cameras and everywhere we go, we’ve got a big following. We set records. My first Proviso West Tournament game was at 8 a.m. and we set an attendance record. We knew they weren’t doing that at the other high schools.”
Whether it was the team winning or the coach’s aggressive recruiting, players from all over Chicago started to trickle through the doors at 44th and Drexel on the South Side. The confident Cox understood that besides winning and college exposure, teenage ballplayers also wanted the trappings of success and in the ’80s, that meant fly team sweatsuits, free sneakers and trips to tournaments all over the country. “I think we started all of that stuff. We started traveling by plane and going to other cities and stuff,” asserts Cox, referencing what’s now considered common practice among elite prep programs. “We were doing that a long time ago.”
Marcus Liberty, a 6-8 swingman with point-guard skills, high-level athleticism and a silky-smooth game, was one of the players who took notice of King, transferring in after making a splash at Crane on the West Side his freshman year.
“I went to Crane and made a name for myself, then everybody started recruiting me, trying to get me to transfer; my brother was already at King, so I decided to go there,” recalls the former Illinois star and NBA player, now a coach himself at Out of Door Academy in Sarasota, FL. “You hear about Efrem Winters and Teddy Grubbs playing at King, and read about Tracy Dildy and all these guys in the newspapers. You see how sweet the uniforms are. I remember how flashy they were. It was like a show when you walked in the gym. You see them dunking the ball in the layup lines and doing a lot of things that you didn’t see other teams doing. The different-colored sweatsuits when they ran out to the floor. It was something that you would love to be a part of one day, and I also wanted to make a name for myself. I remember talking to Cox, and he basically sat me down and said, ‘You’re going to be the No. 1 player in the country,’ and this was when I was a sophomore.
“It was a great experience to be a part of a legacy in high school like that and a lot of people don’t remember because of Simeon just taking over the city now, but we were there, man, back in the early ’80s and ’90s,” the 1990 Denver Nuggets Draft pick continues.
Liberty was Cox’s first true national superstar and led King to its first city and state title, both in ’86, before being named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball as a senior in ’87. But he was far from the only one, as scoring guard Jamie Brandon, who later played at LSU with Shaq, was a top-ranked player in the class of 1990, the year the Jaguars won their second state title, finishing 32-0 and winning the mythical national championship. A freshman on that squad was 7-footer Rashard Griffith, who also led King to an identical undefeated mark and Illinois crown in 1993, pairing with 7-2 Thomas Hamilton in a formidable twin-towers lineup before a college stint at Wisconsin and a long career overseas.
Cox would go “Downstate” (the final rounds of the state tournament) a total of six times, win the Public League’s competitive Red-Central division 17 times and finish his career with a 503-89 record. It wasn’t all peaches and cream, however, as the wave of transfers coming in sparked controversy—in ’93, rival coaches threatened to boycott playing King, though, in all honesty, Chicago has always been a city in which top players bounce from school to school, even now; Cox just happened to be the best at it—and he was perceived to be getting something under the table from colleges for the recruitment of his players, although those allegations were never proven.
“Oh, I don’t think about what other people think. I just do the best I can and if that’s enough, that’s all I can give. Give all I can give,” says Cox. “I know if I do the right thing, something good will probably come from it.”
Current Simeon coach Robert Smith played for his alma mater during King’s heyday and while Simeon had one of the better teams in the city under the late Bob Hambric, more often than not in the late ’80s, they came out on the wrong end of the South Side rivary. “Coach Cox didn’t get enough credit because everybody was saying that they won because they had all the talent, but you still had to get those guys to buy in and sacrifice to win. I think he did a great job of that and it was the premier program. It was where everybody wanted to be,” explains Smith. “You’re playing against the best and you’ve got to bring your A-game if you’re even going to be able to compete. It was high-level, elite basketball, so you had to be prepared.”
The Jaguars’ roster was seemingly always loaded with a roster consisting of size inside, incredible athletes, knockdown shooters and jet-quick ballhandlers, but even more than the talent, it was the aura of King that struck fear into the hearts of opponents. “We won more games like that than we actually had to put in all the work. Our reputation and our swagger, it did intimidate a lot of people that we would play, and we would go into games and we would know, Hey, against this team, we’re already up 20 when the game started,” remembers Dildy. “That’s what Cox was the best at. He created this mentality of us against the world.”
Aside from being accused of poaching transfers, taking payoffs from colleges and just letting his kids play, Cox was also criticized for some of his stars not achieving the careers they were predicted to have. The likes of Leon Smith (a 1999 prep-to-pros phenom and Cox’s only first-round pick, though he never played in the NBA due to off-court issues), Imari Sawyer (a PG compared to Isiah Thomas with a Puma endorsement in 10th grade, but who had just a mediocre career at DePaul) and Michael Hermon (an athletic scoring guard whose well-traveled college career began at Indiana, under Bobby Knight) are regarded as some of the more disappointing sagas in Chicago basketball and that’s without including the aforementioned Hamilton, Griffith and others who underachieved.
Getting King players academically qualified for college was also a frequent issue and a firestorm was raised when forward Johnny Selvie was forced to play games his senior year with an ankle monitor after facing drug charges. Contrary to the occasionally negative perception of the coach from outsiders, ex-players like Dildy see Cox in a different, much more positive light than what has been widely portrayed.
“He had that demeanor of a father figure because he was stern if you weren’t focused or weren’t doing the right things on the court or in the classroom. He was stern and you would feel his wrath, trust me. This was before they came down [on coaches physically disciplining players in Chicago], but Coach would give you a punch in the chest or give you that paddle,” chuckles Dildy. “People’s perception is he’s arrogant and he doesn’t care about anybody, he just cares about basketball, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth. What he did more than anything was be a father to us. He disciplined us when our parents couldn’t discipline us. For the most part, most of us were from single-parent homes, so he took care of us. One time, he was basically the man who made Christmas for me and my siblings. Those are the stories you don’t hear about.
“If it’s not for Coach Cox, I’m not where I’m at and a lot of my teammates, who are now principals and doing other things, they wouldn’t be where they are,” continues Dildy, the coach of the most successful DI team in Illinois last season. “A lot of my coaching was influenced by Coach, mainly knowing that, hey, first of all, you’ve got to have players. So that has been instilled in me, since my days as an assistant coach. That’s the first thing Coach would tell you: ‘You’ve got to have some horses. You can’t go to the Derby with some jackasses. You’ve got to have some thoroughbreds.’”
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