Landon "Sonny" Cox fell to his knees, no doubt for the first time since a childhood Sunday school class. It was beyond belief, but then again so was King's 76-75 victory over Marshall in the Public League basketball semifinals at the UIC Pavilion. In the end, however, King found that miracles served a team no better than pure talent. This was Westinghouse's year to break through; the Warriors were probably the best all-around team, with the most well-developed basketball players. Funny, sometimes, how that happens.
King will be back next year to once again carry its corpulent coach beyond his abilities. That's when the Jaguars' famed class of '93 will come of age. They started all juniors this season, two of them--Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton--more than seven feet tall. Cox isn't a bad coach; he just isn't a very good coach. He doesn't challenge his players to be anything more than they are: merely talented. He had King asking to be beaten in both its games last weekend. Marshall couldn't oblige; Westinghouse did.
While King was led by its two big men, Westinghouse was led by David Greer, a six-foot-six-inch forward, and Kiwane Garris, a six-two guard. Garris, a junior, is mercurial: hot-tempered but quick to go cold. He led Westinghouse through the first half of its 54-53 semifinal win over Taft last Saturday. In the second half, however, he was quiet and error-prone by turns. That was when Greer, a senior, took over. He finished with 18 points to Garris's 17. He is a tall, sleek player with a soft shooting touch from mid-range and a quick move to the basket on the drive. Sunday, in the final, he was also the most mature player on the floor, and it's no accident his team won.
Yet the best game of the weekend--no, the best game of the basketball season, at any level--was the semifinal last Saturday afternoon between King and Marshall. King was six points down with 37 seconds to play in overtime, with Griffith and Hamilton on the bench, both having fouled out, along with starting point guard Ronald Minter. Still, the Jaguars came back and won, in a game so improbable it left everyone in the crowd hooting--either with glee or in disbelief.
King was merely functional as a basketball team this season. It got by on the prodigious abilities of Griffith and Hamilton, who played like a couple of big brothers who conspired to put themselves on the same team in a game with their little brothers and their friends. They are awesome high school specimens, but they weren't challenged in the King scheme because they didn't need to be challenged for King to win games--up until the end, that is. They sat back in a zone defense, swatting away shots and pulling down rebounds. On offense, nobody else on King seemed to have a feel for passing to them--the passes were lofted too high or bounced too low--except for Griffith and Hamilton themselves, who passed to one another with a skill that indicated their talents were not being fully exploited.
Griffith is the more impressive of the two. He had a major role on the 1990 Public League championship team--Jamie Brandon's last go-round--as a freshman. Since then, he has filled out, and his body has even started taking on a sculpted appearance. He can leap and he can pass, but he hasn't yet developed anything resembling a pro move. He hasn't had to.
Hamilton is the same only opposite. Again, it's as if they were brothers, with one looking like one parent and the other like the other, but with certain basic similarities between them. Hamilton is beefy, soft, and rounded, not sculpted at all. He is a big basketball Buddha, but unkempt and temperamental. He wore his shorts hanging low, his shirt usually untucked, and he adopted the style of the season in the Public League: a sockless look that made it seem the players had just come in from a playground game. On Hamilton, however, it looked not as if he had come in from the playground but as if he had just been sent out with the garbage and had slipped away before he could be assigned any more chores.
They can both play, though. At one point midway through the third quarter of the semifinal, they hustled downcourt on fast breaks and pounded in back-to-back rebound dunks. That gave King a 51-49 advantage, its first lead in quite a while, because the scrappy Marshall team was playing an intense game, the kind of game it takes to win against superior players.
These same two teams met last year in the semifinals, when Marshall hustled King off the court. For about 34 of the 35 minutes of this year's game, the Commandos were doing it again. King led into the second quarter, but then went dead at the free-throw line when Marshall got into the penalty. The Commandos rallied for a 27-26 halftime lead. In the second half, with shooting guard DeWarren Stewart the only person playing any kind of basketball for King, Marshall pulled ahead 42-36 and held a 44-41 lead after three quarters. That was when Hamilton and Griffith put on their little show to put King ahead with five minutes to play. King went to a man-on-man defense, and it was a scramble the rest of the way.
While King had the two stars, Marshall had a team. If the Commandos had played Westinghouse in the final it would have been a great game, probably even better than the King- Westinghouse matchup turned out to be. Roderico Dale, Courtney Hargrays, and Quadell Kimble all kept the Commandos in the game in the late going, while Ontario Brown kept his King counterpart, point guard Minter, in check throughout. Minter was listed in the program as six feet tall, but that had to be a typo; he looked about half the size of Griffith and Hamilton, about five feet even. He exaggerated that effect with baggy pants that fell below the knee, and with an untucked shirt that had a hemline lower than most miniskirts. With the score tied at 62 in the final minute, however, he tied up a Marshall player and got a jump ball called, with the arrow pointing King's way. He then drew a foul and hit both free throws, the second one trickling in, to give King a 64-62 lead. Yet Griffith was called for his fifth and final foul while struggling for the rebound that never came, sending Marshall's Kimble immediately to the line, and he made both foul shots to tie it at 64, which is what it was at the end of regulation.
Without Griffith, the Jaguars looked listless in the three-minute overtime. Minter fouled out, and Hamilton followed. Marshall's Hargrays made a driving lay-up and was fouled, sending him hopping under the basket with both arms straight at his sides, as if he were almost petrified with happiness. He made the shot to give Marshall a 75-69 lead and, it appeared, the game. There were only 37 seconds to play, and Marshall itself seemed to think the game won. Yet Stewart hit a basket. Then Richard Williams, King's sixth man and lone senior, made a three-pointer from the pro distance to make it a one-point game, and Marshall's Hargrays--in one of those awful, nightmarish moments common only to high school ball--was whistled for inbounding the ball and then catching a return pass before he stepped over the line. That gave King another chance with ten seconds to play. After one shot went astray, with the rebound bouncing off a Marshall player out of bounds, Harold Mapp, who had replaced Minter at point guard, got the ball on the inbounds and--under tight coverage, again by the suddenly star-crossed Hargrays--arced a high shot that hit nothing but net. King had won. Cox fell to his knees right there on the court, with the Tribune's Terry Armour later reporting that he had kissed the gym floor.
Westinghouse, too, survived a tight one, nipping a Taft team that was the antithesis of King. Blessed with a couple of splendid midsize basketball players--seniors Kenneth Pratt and Shawn Jackson--Taft coach Frank Hood didn't assign them set roles, but allowed them to roam. Pratt and Jackson should have played forward in any traditional scheme, but Hood knew they'd probably play guard wherever they went to college, and so they were free to either skirt the perimeter--Jackson, particularly, has a nice three-point shot--or move down low. Pratt is going to make some college coach a fine shooting guard. He had that half-finished look of the star high school athlete--all tightly wound in the midsection and thighs, but with thin arms and calves. He had 23 points and just missed his own miracle buzzer-beater--a long toss from center court that was on line but just short.
That left King and Westinghouse, and they played a great game last Sunday evening, much closer than the 76-68 outcome. All four teams had been nervous and sloppy in the semifinals, but in the final both King and Westinghouse were sharp at the outset--the same phenomenon as in baseball, where the fear of losing usually produces skittish play in the playoffs and better performances in the World Series. On defense, Westinghouse played a full-court press but fell back into a zone once King got the ball across center court. King scored most of its first-half points by attacking the Warriors while they were making the transition from the press to the zone. Once in the zone, the three deep Westinghouse players on the baseline--usually Kory Billups and Terrance Nicholas along with Greer--swarmed on Griffith and Hamilton whenever they got the ball.
It was an extraordinarily well designed game plan thought out by Westinghouse coach Roy Condotti. King stayed close mainly on the hot shooting of Stewart, who carried them through the second half, finishing with 24 points. Westinghouse relied on Greer and Garris, both playing complete games this time. Early on, Garris shot a bounce pass through traffic on a fast break, with Greer getting the bucket a pass later. And Garris also shot well. Whenever he hit one, he'd hunch his shoulders forward and clench his fists, stalking on defense the way rapper L.L. Cool J stalks the stage. And Greer was just superb. He dropped one jump shot with one of those spin-heavy rotations that make the ball hang in the net, then made a quick pirouette that left Hamilton standing dumbstruck the next time down the court for a lay-up.
King led 20-16 at the quarter and 38-37 at the half, but in the second half came out shooting poorly. Hustling up and down the court, Westinghouse moved out to a 56-51 lead after three quarters. Midway through the fourth quarter, with Westinghouse threatening to go into a stall (ah, the intricacies of high school basketball), King went to a man-on-man defense and went out in front 68-67 with two minutes to play, on the strength of a Hamilton bank shot followed by a Minter three-pointer. Yet King then fell back into a zone defense, surrendering the initiative and, it turned out, the game.
One Westinghouse free throw later, Garris stole the ball and was fouled on the ensuing drive, giving him two free throws, which he converted for a 70-68 Westinghouse lead. He then outjumped Griffith on the inbounds pass for another steal and was fouled, again converting both free throws. After a couple more Westinghouse free throws, King's Jerard Billingsley missed two foul shots. Greer outjumped Hamilton after the second miss and was fouled. He made both his free throws to complete the scoring, 76-68. Garris finished with 27 points, Greer with 19.
This was Westinghouse's third straight Public League championship game. The Warriors lost to King two years ago and to Marshall last year. Garris will be back next year, but this was it for Greer. After being the most composed, self-possessed player on the floor for 32 minutes, he went wild at the buzzer, hanging on the rim of the Westing-house basket with teammate Travis Weatherspoon. While the other Westinghouse players mobbed one another at the center of the court, Greer circled them, running with both arms raised, around and around and around, smiling with his head in the air, like a little boy running in circles just for the pure joy of making himself dizzy.