Rashard Griffith has a regal bearing on the basketball court. He stands seven feet one inch tall, with muscular arms and shoulders and a firm chin, which he holds high. In a high school basketball game he seems the one person on the floor with a set purpose, a sense of what it is he excels at and what needs to be done. He is also, typically, the one player who favors high, white athletic socks. Most high school players today go for that no-socks, just-laced-on-my-shoes-to-go-play-on-the-blacktop look (even though they are probably wearing footies under their high tops). Griffith's aloof demeanor and high socks give him the look of a prince who has sneaked out to play with the street urchins. They might all be equal on the court, for the moment, but a single glimpse is enough to convey which of these young adults is a finished product and is going places. Griffith is the king of King.
Griffith was the starting center on Martin Luther King Jr. High School's previous unbeaten state championship basketball team three years ago, back when he was a mere 6-11 freshman. That team was led by Jamie Brandon and Johnnie Selvy, but I've always remembered the sequence, in a state quarterfinal game against West Aurora, in which King coach Landon "Sonny" Cox put five freshmen, including Griffith, on the floor at once. They blew a big lead and Cox had to put the other starters back in, but the nucleus of this year's King colossus was on display even then. Griffith and, I seem to remember, Thomas Hamilton and Ronald Minter were all getting their first exposure to big-time pressure. They would succumb to the pressure in the next two Public League playoffs, but this year they were seniors, and they went about their business with remarkable resolve for players their age. After surviving a triple-overtime Public League quarterfinal against Marshall they were never again challenged--not in the city playoffs, and not in the state quarters, semis, and finals played in Champaign last weekend.
Griffith's skills are already fully formed. On offense, he has quick moves to the basket; and unlike a lot of big men--his teammate Hamilton, for instance--he gets back swiftly on defense. Playing directly under the hoop in the team's zone, he is nevertheless able to jump out to get a hand in the face of opposing shooters because he knows Hamilton can handle the rebounds on his own.
Hamilton is seven feet four inches tall, and while he's listed at 295 pounds, well, if he's a gram under 300 I'll buy him lunch at Gene & Georgetti's for a week. Griffith is signed to attend the University of Wisconsin--a decision that went against the wishes of coach Cox without causing any noticeable alienation between the two (even when Griffith's mother went public with accusations that Cox pimps his players to college coaches)--while Hamilton is headed downstate to the University of Illinois (one of Cox's favored schools). They have grown up together and they have learned how to play together; they know how to pass to one another, to set each other up. Yet while Griffith is a finished product who will make the Badgers instant Big Ten contenders and an NCAA Tournament team, Hamilton is a project, flabby and unformed. He isn't the athlete Grffith is, he doesn't run as well, and he is a slovenly defensive player. Still, at 7- 4 he is imposing by definition, and he is not without offensive skills; he appears to be both a better outside shooter and a better passer than Griffith. He has the soft, pudgy hands of a pool shark, which, combined with his size, is no small advantage on the basketball court.
These two players make an instant impression, but so do all the King players. A week ago last Sunday they came out for warm ups before the Public League title game at the UIC Pavilion, and they worked their usual psych job against defending city champion Westinghouse.
The day before, in the semifinals against Carver, King had gone out the same entrance. The players came in at a comer of the court and divided into two groups, with half going one way around the border of the court in single file and half the other. The two lines gave a series of high-fives under the far basket, then circled on around to give low-fives at the other end. With the King players dressed in satiny yellow warm-up suits that looked like silk pajamas from the Hugh Hefner collection, that made for quite a first impression. The Carver players went about their warm-up drills while trying not to pay any attention--unsuccessfully. Psych advantage to King.
Carver tried to offset this advantage with its band. King, too, had its marching band in the stands--as usual, as anyone who puts in regular attendance at these events well knows. (I do, and this year I'm pleased to report a record turnout among my circle, all brought out by the pageantry of big-city high school basketball and, of course, the prospect of seeing King's two seven-footers. One of the great all-time high school teams? We weren't yet sure.) The two bands didn't play at the same time, but sent songs back and forth--with a minimum of melody and a maximum of attitude. Carver won the battle of the bands by pulling Boyz II Men's 'End of the Road" from its repertoire and then issuing a saucy chorus of "What! What! What!" when the King band was slow to respond. So the two schools took the floor on equal footing, sort of--until the tip.
King was never beaten this season. Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High School was ranked above the Jaguars nationally, but it's hard to imagine anyone defeating King, not the way the team played the last two weekends. Against Carver, Kings Dewarren Stewart opened with a series of long jump shots while Carver was packing its five players around King's two titans in a tight zone defense. With Stewart leading the way, King scored the first 11 points of the game--the last two coming on a tip jam by Hamilton that tipped the base of the support--and the Jaguars never looked back.
Griffith and Hamilton made King the team to beat from the opening game of the season. Shooting guard Stewart and small forward Jerard Billingsley, however, were the two players who made King great. Stewart displayed a dependable three-point shot when open; while Billingsley had a slightly shorter range, he was capable of driving to the hoop off passes from the two big men when they were double- or triple-teamed. Point guard Minter was good at doing what he had to do, which was get the ball across half court against pressing defenses. With Hamilton and Griffith positioned near the basket, and with Stewart and Billingsley popping from outside when the defense cheated, King looked unbeatable. And over 32 games, from start to finish, they were. In the Public League final, Westinghouse's only hopes were in the hands of guard Kiwane Garris. Garris, also a senior, was instrumental in the Warriors' upset of King in last year's title game. He is not yet a finished product, but--let me tell you--he can play.
Garris, like most city players, wears his shorts droopy and dragging low on his ass and more often than not his shirttail out. At 6-2, he is not of imposing size, but he has relatively wide shoulders and well-developed arms. He runs with those shoulders forward and swaying, with his hands in loose fists with the thumbs sticking out, sort of like a young, lean Reggie Jackson.
Garris can still play out of control from time to time, especially on defense. But against King he was the picture of determined discipline. He opened driving and passing, trying to get his teammates involved. Yet when his passes went to teammates in the lane, their shots were swatted away by Griffith and Hamilton.
At the other end, Hamilton opened the game with another tip jam. He can look laconic from moment to moment, but there were times--like this--when he got the ball down low and with opposing players clawing all around him simply had to score. I'll say this for him: when the big man is hungry, he eats. Then Stewart hit two straight three-point shots to give King an 8-2 lead. Garris drove the lane himself and didn't pass off, but Griffith stayed in position and smothered his shot. When Minter fed Hamilton on an alley-oop, King led 17-7. Westinghouse never got the lead down to single digits.
After a while Garris gave up passing inside and began looking for his shot. He has a beauty. He finished with a respectable 20 points, hitting five from three-point range. He too is headed to Illinois next year. From the looks of it, he'll have little trouble developing into a top college point guard. He is a smooth ball handler, a sweet shooter, and a determined defensive player, and Illinois coach Lou Henson should help his defense. If Henson can avoid doing the same job on Garris's offense that he did on Bruce Douglas's, Garris should someday make a good (perhaps excellent) pro. Like Griffith, he is the real thing, a gem, though not yet polished.
Westinghouse didn't bring its band, so the King group was able to take its time before drawing "End of the Road" on Westinghouse. After three quarters they couldn't resist any longer. Then the King fans in the stands began to chant "We're going downstate" during the game's waning moments.
King freshman Leonard Myles beat the buzzer with a fast-break slam dunk, making the final 77-52, then went tearing around the floor like a fireworks pinwheel. The King players gathered at center court, bouncing all together in a group. Towering above the rest, Griffith and Hamilton, nearing the end of their four years together, exchanged high-fives. Then, led by Griffith, the Jaguars walked over to congratulate Westinghouse for a good game. Stewart gave Garris an extended hug, and Hamilton too hugged Garris--his new Illini teammate--as the two teams mingled.
Like most people, I had been rooting for Westinghouse because they were the underdogs, but I didn't root intensely. What I wanted most, I have to admit, was to see King tested and prevail. Having seen these players as freshmen three years ago, and having seen them upset by Westinghouse last year, I wanted to see if they could finally fulfill their potential. They did. Keep in mind, they won the state title last Saturday night for the most part without Griffith, on the bench for much of the final with (questionable) foul trouble. I can remember the immortal Thornridge team of Quinn Buckner 20 years ago, but not well enough to compare them to King. I'll leave that to someone else. I think this King team would have beaten the King of three years ago and any other high school team I have ever seen. Years from now, when Griffith and Garris and, yes, Hamilton are playing in the pros, when Stewart has made his mark with some college team and perhaps made the pros, and the same with Billingsley, I think they'll be generally recognized as one of the great high school teams of all time. In their senior years, Griffith and Hamilton and Billingsley and Stewart and Minter were unbeatable.