Reaching the Heights | Sports | Chicago Reader

Reaching the Heights 

Simeon's Wolverines may be one of the best teams Illinois has ever produced.

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Last year's Public League boys championship game was all about Simeon's Derrick Rose proving himself a great basketball player. This year's was about Simeon, in Rose's senior season, proving itself a great team.

It was a rematch of the 2006 title game, but this time the details seemed to favor Washington, the underdog, which last year looked intimidated playing on the Bulls' home floor at the United Center. A crowded events schedule at the UC pushed this year's title game back to the UIC Pavilion, where it had flourished for much of the 80s and 90s, and Washington's Minutemen seemed much more comfortable in the humbler setting last Saturday night, especially with attendance held down by the threat of a winter storm and by the televising of the game on Channel 26. Washington came in a hot team, having won 14 straight to go to 21-4. Simeon was 24-2, but the referees weren't blinded by the Wolverines' star quality. They hit forward Tim Flowers with a foul on the game's first possession, though from my seat in the second row I clearly heard him slap all ball as he blocked a shot. Then they hit Rose with two fouls in the first quarter. He stayed in the game, but another foul in the second quarter sent him to the bench, and an offensive foul midway through the third quarter sent him back again. By then, however, the game was all but over. Simeon's senior starters took their curtain calls in the fourth quarter, and at the end Rose was back on the floor with the ball in his hand, dropping it as time ran out with the dispatch of a workman putting down his tools at the stroke of five on a Friday.

Simeon simply stomped Washington in every facet of the game. They did it by playing fine team basketball, and also with pure talent. Of the Washington players, only DeAndre Liggins, the lean six-foot-six junior who did such a good job at both ends on Rose throughout the game, could have cracked the Simeon starting lineup. Rose and Flowers have been Simeon's stars since ascending to the varsity as sophomores and the focus was on them as Washington took the early lead. Rose fed Flowers a no-look pass so slick the normally soft-handed forward wasn't ready for it, so a few possessions later Rose fired a bullet pass down the lane he dared Flowers to drop, and Flowers converted it into an easy layup. Rose then hit a three to put Simeon in front 10-8, and the Wolverines never looked back.

It was how they did it that impressed. Even after Rose drew his third foul, he calmly dribbled up the court, stopped, and drilled a three to put Simeon ahead 32-23 before he and Flowers sat down for the final two minutes of the first half. Washington tried to rally, but center Kevin Johnson, who at six-six has height Flowers lacks, hit a lovely turnaround jumper in the low post, then cleaned up a missed layin on a fast break to put Simeon up 37-29 at intermission. When play resumed Simeon went into a zone defense to put pressure on Washington, and the Minutemen responded by going to a running game. Yet that only played to Simeon's talent advantage. Cruising the floor, Rose dished the ball out to start a textbook three-man break that Bryant Orange finished with an easy layup. On defense the Wolverines kept getting back, filling the passing lanes, and getting their hands on the ball. Simeon scored the first 13 points of the second half to go up 50-29, and even after Rose sat with four fouls there was nothing Washington could do.

Orange came to the fore--he would lead the team with 21 points--and having established his jumper tossed up an apparently bad shot that turned out to be a perfect alley-oop pass to Johnson flying down the base-line for a slam. "Oooooh!" went the crowd. Johnson returned the favor, dealing a lovely pass off the hip to Orange for a fast-break layin, and Orange soon added a three to make it 61-35. Having stormed down the lane for a crushing dunk, Johnson then hit a couple nice midrange jumpers and it was 67-41. He'd finish with 19 points and 9 assists. Rose returned with 5:45 left to shepherd the win home and add a little French pastry--something Washington, to save face, meant to deny him. Liggins fouled Rose on an apparent breakaway. "That's like, 'No show time,'" said a fan sitting in the front row. Then Rose drove the lane windmilling the ball but couldn't finish. But backup senior guard Deon Butler put Simeon ahead 87-57 by hitting a three, as if to de-clare "no prisoners," and Rose added the exclamation point. He passed to Butler on a give-and-go, Butler lofted a perfect alley-oop, and Rose's dunk made the final score 89-57.

Simeon broke out the preprinted championship T-shirts at center court as the players celebrated. They would actually be a step down in wardrobe for Rose, who arrived wearing a sweatshirt that said lottery pick across his chest, a reference to the NBA draft. What separates great players from the merely very skilled is that great players tend to make those around them better. Rose lifted not just Flowers this season but also Johnson and Orange, who credits Rose with raising his confidence and urging him to look for his shot.

The only games Simeon lost during the regular season were to Farragut in a holiday tournament and to Rice out of Harlem in New York City, and the Wolverines avenged both after a fashion, beating Farragut and defeating vaunted Oak Hill Academy of Virginia in a nationally televised game. They look to be odds-on favorites to repeat as state champs, which would establish them as not just Derrick Rose and his supporting cast but a great all-around basketball team, one of the best in Illinois history.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Kosman.

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