During a break in the first half of last Sunday's Public League championship basketball game, the public-address announcer read a list of the five previous champions. "Nineteen-eighty-four Public League champion--Simeon Vocational," he said. Screams, hoots, and applause came from various sections of the crowd. "Nineteen-eighty-five champion--Simeon." Same response, a little bit louder. "Nineteen-eighty-six Public League champion--Martin Luther King High School." All the previously quiet areas of the Pavilion at the University of Illinois at Chicago--which is where the game took place--suddenly came alive. The response was not as loud as that for Simeon, but it was more intense. Boos came from the Simeon areas. It was like hearing the separate small skirmishes on a large battlefield. "Nineteen-eighty-seven champions--King." Same responses, only louder. "And 1988 champions, defending champions of the Chicago Public League--Simeon." And now everyone was screaming in one way or another, hooting or booing, clapping or razzing, in that shrill, high-pitched tone familiar to us all from high school assemblies.
Then the players from King and Simeon high schools broke from their huddles, took the court, and resumed the 1989 Public League championship game.
The rivalry between King and Simeon has become one of the richest in the city. By that I mean not one of the richest in Public League basketball, nor even one of the richest in citywide high school sports, but simply one of the richest, most interesting clashes the city has to offer--right up there with the Cubs fans versus the White Sox fans, Lincoln Park versus Hyde Park, Carson Pirie Scott versus Marshall Field's, and black Democrats versus white. As is the case with all these other conflicts, the clash between Simeon and King is a clash not merely of personalities but of styles and techniques. It is amazing how well the battle is played out, right down to the smallest details.
Undefeated Simeon took the court first for its warm-up session. Dressed in white-and-gold sweat suits, the players split into two groups, ran down the sidelines to the far end of the court, high-fived one another as they formed concentric circles, then swung back to the other side of the court--the two groups running figure-eight patterns--where they repeated the high-five procedure. Then the King players came out, dressed in darker, black-and-gold sweats, a figure of their mascot jaguar on the back, and the two teams formed two tangent circles almost automatically and slapped one another's hands as they passed. Simeon's rooters obviously outnumbered those from King, but the King fans were a sturdy lot, loud and proud, and they were backed up by a band, which punctuated the events in a very partisan manner throughout the early evening.
King's fans, its players, and its coach all adopt the attitude of the outnumbered outsider. Simeon, meanwhile, has the confident elegance of a basketball-court boulevardier. King, coached by the irritable, brazen Sonny Cox, had bypassed the usual early-season showdown between the two teams when it declined to play in the Mayor's Tournament this season, accepting an invitation to another holiday meet. Simeon had, as a result, rolled through the mayor's tourney and through the rest of the season. King, meanwhile, had slipped once, making them underdogs in Sunday's title game. Now, not only had the two teams won the last five Public League championships, but twice during that stretch they had met in the title game, with King winning in 1986 and Simeon last year.
While the Simeon Wolverines appeared in their home whites, with the now-classic broad blue, gold, and white stripes down the sides (echoed in the piping around the shoulders), King appeared in villainous black, the dappled spots of its jaguar mascot suggested by a stylized gold-and-white pattern down the sides (which actually suggested nothing so much as sunlight shining through a thin stained-glass window). The King players left the bench with their shirttails out, while most of the Simeon players started with theirs in. The one piece of the uniform common to all players: the Patrick Ewing T-shirt beneath the jersey.
The two teams' star players were, likewise, of divergent styles. Simeon's tall, thin senior center, Deon Thomas, dictates a half-court game stressing set plays and getting the ball inside. He had been unstoppable during the regular season. King's Jamie Brandon, meanwhile, is a junior forward of medium height (six foot four and, we assume, growing), who excels in an open court. His style of play is best depicted simply by pointing out his number, 23, famous for being worn by another popular Chicagoan.
(Michael Jordan, by the way, made the scene, acting as color man for the television broadcast on WGN. His appearance in a dapper double-breasted suit during the national anthem gave the song a manic intensity that would, no doubt, have cheered the vets in front of the Art Institute had they been there to see it.)
Thomas and Brandon, however, were different players at different positions. Even on the same court, they rarely met one another face-to-face; their confrontation was the sort created by newspapers and television commentators. For anyone watching last Sunday's championship game, the pivotal battle took place at the guard position, where Simeon's Jackie Crawford matched up against King's Victor Snipes.
Crawford is a short, muscular, scrappy guard, the sort who--in his every aspect on the court--reflects an attitude of deprivation and transcendence. In short, he sets out to make each opponent pay for the gods' neglect in not granting him an extra six inches of height. Listed at five foot nine, he may be more than three inches shorter than that, but he is--nevertheless--a fine player. He displayed his character in the first quarter, when he drove the lane, stopped, took the open shot, popped, and then guarded Snipes, chest to chest, all the way back up the court, jawing at him, talking dirt, and giving him a bit of verbal in-your-face the whole long trip. He's a tenacious defender, a real fyce dog--hiking up his shorts, pursing out his lips, getting low to the ground, and yapping all the time--and at the end of the first half he found himself guarding Brandon after a switch-off and hounded him into a bad shot to end the period, holding King to a 30-24 lead. The mustache he was working to grow was only slightly darker than his closely cropped scalp.
In style and temperament, Snipes could hardly have been more different. At six foot two and thin, he has an elegant carriage. He is relaxed and efficient as a ball handler, reminiscent, in some ways, of Sleepy Floyd, the former Georgetown star now with the Houston Rockets. His facial expressions bring to mind Spike Lee's Mars Blackman: bewildered, faintly anxious, but belying an inner calm. Crawford and the other Simeon guard, Cody Butler, came in with reputations as ball hawks, but Snipes denied them, drove the lane, hit the open shot, and dished out a total of ten assists (a fine day's work in a 32-minute, 67-point game). It wasn't the sort of performance that draws attention to itself, but take it from us: he dominated.
The confrontation between the two was most clear when someone else was shooting free throws. They'd be standing out at midcourt, away from everyone, but Crawford would be pressed against Snipes, head butting up against chin. Crawford was trying to be fierce, talk a tough game, intimidate, but Snipes had all the composure of a big dog silently watching a butcher cut chops while a smaller dog yelps at his heels. The matchup was a near draw in the first half, but in the second half Snipes's composure won out; he didn't humiliate Crawford so much as force him into a place where Crawford humiliated himself. Toward the end of the game, Crawford completed a frustrated series of thrown elbows and nasty fouls with an incident in which he fell to the floor, losing the dribble and the ball, and then--from his prone position--tried to trip a passing King player. Demonstrating once again that there is a thin line between the intense player and the bush-leaguer.
Snipes was our unanimous most valuable player, because his play reflected the play of the team. While he was quietly, efficiently denying Crawford, King was quietly, efficiently denying Thomas and, in effect, Simeon. King came out in a box-and-one zone defense, in which four guys remain stationed pretty much at the corners of the free throw lane, and one guy roams free, covering Thomas wherever he goes. Damian Porter acted as Thomas's shadow, and he did his job well. On the rare occasions when Thomas did get the ball inside, the box collapsed and three men were clawing at him. They allowed him only four shots from the field and 11 points for the game. King also jangled Simeon's rhythm by throwing in an occasional full-court trap defense and then falling back into the dependable box-and-one for the half-court game. Simeon went down remarkably meekly. They didn't play poorly; they just got beat.
If Simeon had hit any of the many 15- and 18-foot jump shots they had open, if they had played with more aggressiveness and a swifter trigger finger, they might have gone downstate as undefeated Public League champions. As it was, King made the open shots--both Snipes and his off-guard sidekick, Ahmad Shareef, hit their opportunities, with Shareef displaying a cool, gunslinger's hand-and-finger gesture whenever he scored--and King then opened the game up offensively, so that by the fourth quarter they had set up Brandon for show time and he went wild, ending with 30 points on the way to an easy 67-57 victory.
We were sitting in the first row of the balcony, at center court, and the main King cheering sections were across the floor, one near each hoop--the band at one end, the pep-club-type kids at the other. As the clock ticked down, they grew increasingly ebullient. The band threw in bursts of everything from Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" to Kool Moe Dee's "Wild Wild West," and the pepsters answered back with the various rhythmic chants common to high school sports, finishing with "We're going downstate!" My companion for the day--an old political/media pal I've known since the days earlier in the decade when we were both, for a time, court reporters--was no more familiar with the scene than I was. In fact, neither of us had been to a high school game since, well, since we had been there ourselves. It all came back, though--at once familiar and, now, quite distant--the easy emotionalism, the intense self-involvement, the feeling of being part of something larger (even if it is only your damn high school). The game ended, the Simeon players slouched on their bench as the King players gloried at center court. Crawford broke into sobs, we're sorry to point out, but was consoled with a brief embrace by Snipes. Only a couple of minutes later, though, there he was, dancing at center court as the team lined up to accept its trophy. Snipes stood out in front of them, between the team and the presenter, and he grooved to the brassy band music. He kicked one leg, then the other; he threw an arm over his head and straightened it out, then the other; and then he tipped forward and fell into the arms of his teammates.