High school basketball is a game of stars. The talent is so diffused at that level that one great player can dominate. Yet because the talent is diffused, high school basketball is also a great team sport. A fivesome in sync can concentrate on stopping that one player, then methodically grind down the other team on offense. A star might ride roughshod over a conference during the regular season, but if he's in effect a one-man team he usually runs into trouble along about March in the playoffs.
Yet there are stars and then there are transcendent talents. Over the last decade of attending the Chicago Public League semifinals and finals off and on, we have never seen anyone like Kevin Garnett, the center on Farragut's city championship team this year. Deon Thomas, Jamie Brandon, Rashard Griffith, Kiwane Garris--all were players with star ability, outstanding talents. Garnett, however, is something altogether different, much more special and much more rare.
Garnett is a 6-foot-11-inch-tall will-o'-the-wisp, a spindly giant made of gossamer and set free to fly on the basketball court. He has an uncanny feel for the action, along with the coordination to maneuver himself through it as if he were some sort of fallen angel. He has a soft shooting touch, a sense of comfort and ease on the dribble, a creative flair for passing, a slashing, waspish manner around the defensive basket, and above all, unbelievable quickness for a big man. He's there and not there, a mirage--a talent package too good to be true.
Yet there he was last weekend at the UIC Pavilion, preaching to the converted. Given the uncommon attention surrounding Garnett, along with the widespread interest prompted by the hit documentary Hoop Dreams, it was no surprise that tickets for both the Public League semifinals and finals sold out for the first time in our memory. (All praises to our buddy Buck, a good friend and a fine gentleman, for having the foresight to go down to the Pavilion on Friday and buy tickets.) Yet the normal crowd hysteria, the screechy cheers and jeers of high school, seemed toned down from previous years as the aficionados moved in.
The upper deck, where we were sitting, was as usual crammed with the basketball faithful. On Sunday, the yuppie pilgrims sitting in front of us even brought a pocket television so they could check out the NCAA tournament pairings as they were announced during the game. We were all there to examine whether Garnett was for real, and he made an immediate impression. With his long, flapping, gownlike shorts hanging down below his knees and his warm-up jacket zipped to the chin, there was an air of the abbey to Garnett, a feeling he later emphasized by sometimes clasping his hands together as if in prayer when running downcourt after a particularly good shot. Seeing a player like that at such a stage of his development--a period of boundless promise--was an almost religious experience.
Early in the championship game Sunday against Carver, Garnett was posted up low, his back to the basket. Two weeks ago, we wrote of the Bulls' Toni Kukoc in that position making a move where he shows the ball over his left shoulder then spins quickly to his right. As a tall, thin player of versatile talents, Garnett has many similarities with Kukoc, and here he tried a similar but even more amazing move. He did the same spin, only without the fake. He simply spun to his right, but so quickly he left Carver center John Smith standing there as Garnett leaped and dunked the ball through the hoop. Just as amazing was the crowd response: a few immediate claps and hoots here and there, sure, but beneath that a mass sustained "Oooh," followed by murmurs of "Did you see that?" and "Damn!" and "Jesus H. Christ." We were all of us believers by then.
Even so, miraculous as Garnett proved to be, he was still prone to the usual star shortcomings when faced with opponents stressing a team concept. The Farragut Admirals trailed in the third quarter against both scrappy Dunbar in the semis and more talented Carver in the final. In both games Garnett played well, but not well enough to win by himself. In both, it wasn't until Ronnie Fields took control in the second half that the Admirals asserted their dominance. Garnett and Fields demonstrated that quality great teammates have for developing a dynamic to bail each other out.
Dunbar, even with its victories in the Public League playoffs, had somehow reached the semifinals with a pitiful record of 14-14--an indication of just how disastrous its season had been. The Mighty Men were now playing as a team, however, and they had a game plan in place to upset Farragut. That plan consisted of spreading out the offense to draw Garnett away from the basket, and getting back on defense to keep Farragut from turning the game into a dunkfest. The importance of this strategy was emphasized when Farragut's first three baskets came on a breakaway jam by Garnett, a breakaway jam by Fields, and a jump shot from the free-throw line by Garnett.
That jump shot Dunbar was prepared to accept. The Mighty Men were out to harass Garnett near the basket, allow him whatever points he could get outside, and then keep Fields from beating them. That they did early on. Dunbar kept Fields under wraps and stayed close through the first half, which ended with Farragut up 28-24. Then Dunbar came out determined to steal the game in the first few minutes of the second half. On offense, they kept isolating players on the weak side of the court, keeping Garnett and Fields on the other side, and they beat their men to the hoop time and again. On defense, they turned up the pressure and forced the Admirals into turnovers. Dunbar opened a 40-29 lead in what looked to be the biggest upset in Public League history. Yet by straying from the hoop and playing aggressive defense, Garnett led Farragut back into the game. Now Dunbar was rattled, and Farragut ran off 14 straight to take a 43-40 lead. That, however, was when Garnett was hit with his fourth foul.
With Garnett on the bench, Fields took over--both in running the offense and in applying the defensive pressure--and he was suddenly beautiful. Leading a small lineup, he padded the Farragut lead to 50-44 before Garnett returned with six and a half minutes to play. Then, just as Dunbar was rallying its forces, Fields exploded past his man and drove untouched to the hoop for a dunk. That made it 53-49. A few minutes later he raced open downcourt on a two-on-one break, and his teammate led him with a perfect alley-oop pass. The dunk made it 57-50. While Dunbar rallied one last time to close within 59-57, Farragut scored the final points to win 63-57.
Carver's semifinal victory over King was much more impressive, if only for the sheer mechanical grind-it-out quality it had. Carver was led into the game by Nick Irvin, a sophomore, the youngest in a series of athletic Irvin brothers. Irvin continues to carry a bit of baby fat on his body, giving him a Mark Aguirre build, but he is clearly a player. King was out to stop him; Carver aimed to do the same with King's Leonard Myles, a 70s retro player complete with Afro, headband, mustache, sideburns, and knee-high athletic socks. Both teams succeeded in shutting down the other's star, but that done, Carver prevailed, mainly on the strength of its alternating big men, starter John Smith and backup Alvin Robinson, who actually got the bulk of the playing time. They also had an outside sharpshooter to complement Irvin in Jason Garcia, and an excitable small forward in Marcel O'Neal. O'Neal had actually been enduring a rough playoff season until he led Carver with 15 points against King. He got the fans going early on with a skywalking dunk (he just barely made it; his legs were kicking him up through the air all the way), punctuated by a trademark gait down the court, as his fists pumped up and down at his sides. It was something we would see several times during the game, and one last time when it was over, just before O'Neal leaped into the arms of his teammates on the bench as time expired with Carver a 60-49 winner.
We did not see it at all last Sunday, even though Carver led 25-17 at halftime and seemed to have the game in control. O'Neal kept Fields in check early on, and the rest of the Carver players swarmed on Garnett whenever he got the ball low, forcing him into several turnovers. Toward the end of the half, Carver went to a small lineup with good success, and it clearly had Farragut on the run. Garnett dragged his warm-up jacket off the court at halftime, then dragged it back on after intermission.
Once again it was Fields who turned the tide. He and Garnett opened the half with baskets, then Fields went down the lane, was fouled, and forced a shot up and in to tie the score at 28. Garnett jumped on Fields's back and lifted his own feet off the ground, yet Fields walked around as if Garnett were no weight at all. Fields is an exceptional talent, but he is a much more conventional player than Garnett. Fields is a Michael Jordan wannabe, complete with a shaved head and number 23, the only player on either team to go to black shoes for the playoffs. Yet while he missed the ensuing free throw, he was also clearly feeling in the zone all of a sudden, and that made all the difference for Farragut. With Fields driving and either shooting in the lane (he finished with 22) or dishing out assists, Carver could no longer swarm on Garnett. When Fields wasn't chewing up Carver, Garnett was hitting a series of smooth and effortless turnaround jumpers (he finished with 32). After being held to 17 points at halftime, Farragut scored 54 in the second half. Garnett put them ahead on a pair of free throws at 32-30, and they never trailed again.
Not that it wasn't a great game. Irvin, after a subpar performance in the semis, kept Carver close almost single-handedly in the second half of the final, scoring 16 straight for the Challengers at one point. He hit a last-minute three-pointer to make it 45-38 after three quarters, stole the ball and converted a lay-up to open the fourth quarter, added a three-pointer from across the Eisenhower Expressway, and then made a Chet Walker Jr. move, bouncing off a Farragut player in the lane and throwing the ball up and in. But as Carver increasingly resorted to a one-man attack--the Challengers never went back to that small lineup that worked so well in the first half--Farragut played more like a team, with predictable results. Farragut won, 71-62.
Still, all eyes were on Garnett right up to the end. He is an open, emotional player, a quality that came through in abundance on the court as he mixed scoldings with hugs where his teammates were concerned. As the clock ticked down and the city championship neared, he was hugging everyone--big hugs with his boa-constrictor arms in which he clasped the recipient's head to his breast. Even Irvin got one as he left the game in the final minute.
Garnett is the closest thing to a Wayne Gretzky-style basketball genius we have seen in the city's high schools, but the future is far from certain for him. Dick Versace, the former Bradley and Indiana Pacers coach who's now Chicago's top basketball expert, says he thinks Garnett could go straight to the pros. He might have to, as he is said to have the usual academic problems. Still, he doesn't seem quite big enough yet for the National Basketball Association, while his prodigious talents would be squandered at some low-profile junior college.
Whatever happens, Chicago has been privileged to have him this season. Garnett, who is reported to have a fairly troubled family life, moved here from South Carolina last year just to play with Fields after the two developed a fast friendship at a basketball camp. So it was appropriate that Garnett saved the longest hug for Fields at the end of the championship game. He wrapped his arms around Fields's head at center court, right in front of the scorer's table, and then he leaned into him so that Fields slowly backpedaled as Garnett staggered forward, their feet in step. They were dancing the dance of champions, and at last it seemed there truly had to be some flesh and blood to this player almost too good to be believed.