The Public League championship game went big time this year--taking up a position not just at the United Center but in TV land as well. The city's most important high school basketball game drew about 15,000 fans to its biggest indoor arena, even as the game claimed two hours on public television's WTTW--during pledge month, no less. So, thinking vive la difference, I watched the game at home late last Sunday afternoon instead of seeing it in person, my usual practice.
I missed the pageantry unique to Public League basketball--the cheerleaders and the bands and the way true high school hoops aficionados go Ooooohhh with pleasure after a sweet move or an impressive block--all the small details that need to be seen with one's own eyes, not the eyes of some camera crew or a producer-director intent on focusing on the game at the expense of all else. Yet I had to admit that TV might be good for the Public League. The championship had outgrown the UIC Pavilion, and while the TV coverage made the game less exclusive--seeing Kevin Garnett fly around the court as Farragut won the city title several years ago is something that I not only can still boast about to friends but also that my daughter will probably be able to impress boys with when she goes off to college--it had to have widened the game's reach to less devoted fans. I also missed the down-home announcer who used to do the PA duties at the Pavilion. But I was willing to allow the players the kick of the full Bulls lights-out introduction, complete with Ray Clay and the Alan Parsons Project. Of course it helped in the end that the game was worthy of one's undivided attention.
The championship pitted two west-side rivals: Westinghouse, a city powerhouse since the golden age of Mark Aguirre in the 70s, against Farragut, a more up-and-down program that hadn't claimed a Public League title since Garnett's one-year visit. It also pitted two familiar tactical approaches: Westinghouse's brotherly swarm of more or less equal talents against Farragut's one-man wrecking crew, Elliott Poole, a 6-foot-6-inch center with a dour, stone-faced expression, a soft, wristy shooting touch, and an insouciant manner at the free-throw line, where he turns his head a little as if to sight across the top of the ball with his right eye, then tosses it up as if daring it not to go in. Team versus star (or stars) is a common Public League conflict, and for every example of one side coming out on top--say, Kiwane Garris's scrappy Westinghouse crew topping King's twin towers of Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton several years ago--one can think of a contest that went the other way, such as King's Leon Smith and Imari Sawyer redeeming themselves after an uneven season by beating Westinghouse's undefeated Bailey brothers and Cedrick Banks a few years ago.
This time the team approach seemed dominant--at least at first. Coach Chris Head sent his Warriors out to play a swarming full-court defense with a nasty little half-court trap. They put the Farragut players back on their heels, forced turnovers--Westinghouse point guard Jamaal Brown turned a series of steals into easy baskets--and generally kept the ball out of Poole's hands. When the Admirals did succeed in breaking the press, Westinghouse fell back into a loose 1-3-1 zone, with three of those five players forming a triangle around Poole at any given moment. On the other end, Westinghouse forward Darius Glover maintained the initiative by taking the ball right at Poole.
Westinghouse's aggressiveness paid dividends, and it just seemed to be the Warriors' night. At one point Glover lost the handle on the ball spinning into the lane, and it bounced off the bottom of the backboard and right back into his hands. He had the ball back up and into the hoop before the other players could figure out where it had gone. Westinghouse opened a commanding 20-5 lead at the end of the first frame and scored first in the second quarter for a 17-point lead. The game seemed over.
Yet Farragut brought out a full-court press of its own and started forcing turnovers, while the Admirals got better at handling Westinghouse's defense. When they beat the press they spread the floor, making it harder to double- and triple-team Poole. With five minutes left in the second quarter he finally scored his first field goal, making it 22-9. Coach William Nelson brought big 6-7 sophomore Ollie Bailey off the bench, and he and the other Farragut players started crashing the boards and getting offensive rebounds. Bailey missed two free throws, but moments later he made two as Farragut closed to 25-17 with two minutes left in the half. Courtney McGarry's three pulled the Admirals to 27-23 at intermission. Farragut had pulled off an 18-5 run of its own that almost atoned for the first quarter.
The breaks continued to run against Westinghouse in the second half. The Warriors missed a layup to start, then Glover committed his third foul against Poole, whose free throws made it 27-25. If Westinghouse was going to hold the lead, it would have to prove its team concept didn't just amount to Glover and Brown dividing up the points. The person who got the Warriors going turned out to be Jamarcus Ellis, a baby-faced 6-4 sophomore with a shake-and-bake, stop-and-pop, wheel-and-deal array of moves and a slashing way of driving into the lane reminiscent of a left-handed Scottie Pippen. Farragut could never pull even, and Ellis's running jumper in the lane put Westinghouse up 33-29. Farragut's whippet-thin guard, Marcetteaus McGee, got hot and hit a pair of threes, the second to make it 38-35 Westinghouse, but the Warriors had weathered their tough stretch and were now dashing up and down the court and flowing to the hoop in waves. Brown hit a couple of free throws at the end of a fast break and Westinghouse led 42-35. But Farragut held on. A three-point play by Poole and a couple of free throws by McGee made it 42-40 going into the final eight-minute period.
Again Westinghouse ran out its lead. Ellis took a steal end to end. Then the Warriors broke the Farragut press, and when Brown stopped and popped it was 49-42. Next came the piece de resistance. Ellis drove the lane and dished a beautiful no-look, behind-the-back pass to Glover, whose easy turnaround jumper made it 51-42. Ellis followed with another steal and end-to-end rush, finishing with a nice basket at the end and a foul. The free throw might have put the game away, but Ellis missed. Westinghouse was up 53-42 with five minutes left.
McGee had gone cold, but Poole kept pounding away inside. He made two free throws, and when Farragut pressed on the inbounds pass he came up with a steal and an easy basket to make it 53-46. The reinvigorated Admirals continued to close the gap. Then came the first in a series of key defensive plays by Ellis. Farragut came down on a fast break and the dribbler was fouled just as he put up his shot, but Ellis came out of nowhere to swat the ball away and avert a potential three-point play. As it was, Farragut converted both free throws to make it 56-53 Westinghouse. Farragut's trap produced another steal and another fast break and foul, but again Ellis swatted the shot away. This time Farragut made just one free throw, so it was 56-54 with 90 seconds left. When Poole was fouled on Farragut's next possession and converted both free throws, the game was tied.
Again Westinghouse broke the press for a quick advantage at the other end, and Ellis played middleman, swinging a pass in the lane to Glover on the baseline for a hoop that put the Warriors back in front, 58-56. Again Poole tied the game at the line. With 26 seconds left, Westinghouse got sloppy and almost lost the ball. Ellis put up a desperation shot and missed, but 6-6 Westinghouse center Richard Russell, who'd had his hands full with Poole all game, came down with the rebound and was fouled. He missed the first shot and Nelson called a time-out to try to ice him, but the pause allowed Russell to compose himself, and he made the second free throw. Farragut broke the ensuing press in such textbook fashion that it must have been set up during the time-out, and a perfect pass found an open Bailey driving the baseline. But again Ellis came out of nowhere to swat the shot out of bounds--this time with no foul in advance. Farragut inbounded to McGee who passed to Poole--who else was the ball going to go to?--and his shot in the lane went in, lipped around the back of the rim from left to right, and rolled out like Mick Jagger's tongue. Glover pulled down the rebound, was fouled, and made both shots at the other end. Seconds later, another rebound and foul sent him back to the line. Glover made one of the shots, to make the final 62-58 and give him 26 points for the game, the same as Poole.
The victory sent Westinghouse's players, cheerleaders, coaches, and fans onto the floor. Channel 11 went quickly to ads (ads on public television? does some federal law state that all TV sports must be disrupted by commercial breaks?), then paused only for a quick courtside interview with Glover before hurrying on to a Frank Sinatra-Judy Garland pledge-month special. I wished I were at the UC to see how the award ceremony went--to see if Poole's expression ever changed from the blithe, faintly dismissive LL Cool J look he always seemed to affect, and if sophomore Ellis was getting the credit he deserved from upperclassmen Glover and Brown. Still, if I'd been at the game I wouldn't have been able to see the replays of Ellis's behind-the-back pass and his blocks. With each of those moments, I imagined basketball aficionados across Chicago--in their dens or kitchens, bedrooms or living rooms--letting out little cries of Ooooohhh!