You can start with Derrick Rose, who led Simeon to back-to-back state championships before becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft a year later. Then it was Anthony Davis, a 6'2 guard with only a scholarship offer from Cleveland State as a sophomore before a massive growth spurt helped him blossom into the No. 1 overall draft pick and an NBA All-Star as a 20-year-old. Now it's Jabari Parker, four-time state champion at Simeon, tearing up opposing defenses at Duke.
The basketball talent Chicago has produced the last seven years is something special, and on Friday night it reached its apex. The Whitney Young Dolphins and center Jahlil Okafor (the No. 1 prospect in the country and a Duke commit ) faced Kansas commit Cliff Alexander (the No. 3 prospect in the country) and his Curie Condors for the city championship.
It was a dream matchup that almost didn't happen -- Young overcame a 15-point deficit to get there and Curie won at the buzzer in the semifinals -- but fate intervened and gave Chicago the game it was waiting for all year. It would have been cruel if the Chicago Public League championship came down to anything other than Big Cliff vs. Jahlil. People came to Chicago State from all over the city to watch it happen, and the game did not disappoint.
Four overtimes, a game-winning buzzer beater, a charged atmosphere, a celebrity guest appearance by the immortal Antoine Walker ... this game had it all. It even led off the late edition of SportsCenter on Friday. Well, it had everything except for what was supposed to be an epic clash between arguably the two best Chicago high school big men ever because of foul trouble, triple teams and impatient guards. But more on that later. Before you can feel the gravity of the evening, you need to know about the two players.
Okafor is the No. 1 player in the country because his game is advanced way beyond his years. You will never see a high school big man who has moves like Okafor. He probably has a better post game than most of the young bigs in the NBA right now. His footwork on the block is tremendous and he's got a soft touch with either hand. At 6'10, 275 pounds and with that much skill, he's basically completely unfair at this level.
Okafor is a thoughtful kid. When I spoke to him last year about his friendship with Parker, he said he hoped Chicago's elite basketball talent can be a positive influence for a city plagued by senseless violence. He has been open speaking about how the death of his mother helped shape his life and career. He's following Parker's footsteps by going to Duke -- no, they're not thinking of playing together yet -- and he'll likely be a lottery pick a year later.
For a comparison, think Al Jefferson. Okafor doesn't have elite athleticism, but he displayed good bounce last night, dunking four times in the first half. He showed at the FIBA U19 World Championships that he can dominate elite competition, finishing that tournament with a PER over 40. He's a throwback to another era -- a low-post scoring big -- and he's probably going to be a great college player and good pro for a long time.
While Okafor is more highly regarded nationally, Alexander has captured the attention of the city all year long like no one since D. Rose. When I asked a veteran Chicago Sun-Times photographer about the difference between Cliff and Jahlil, he said, "Okafor is Beverly Hills, Cliff is Inglewood." He explained Okafor's game by acting out an up-and-under move. As for Alexander, he put his hand on the top of my head, pretended to dunk on me and started screaming.
That's about the perfect description of both players. Alexander dunks everything, swats shots into the 10th row and flexes after every big play. He's the best. He has the personality of Lance Stephenson x Tyler, the Creator and plays like a shorter Andre Drummond.
Alexander's recruitment was hilarious and absurd. He loved all of the attention, posting photoshopped pictures of himself in various schools' uniforms in the months leading up to his announcement. It took on another level locally because his decision came down to Illinois vs. Kansas -- and the Fighting Illini almost never land elite homegrown talent. Of course, Alexander ripped out the hearts of the Illini in the most shameless way possible, and it remains something close to my favorite thing ever:
Long live Cliff Alexander.
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Now that we have all of that out of the way ... let's talk about this game. Because it was ridiculous and the atmosphere was great.
One thing to understand about CPS games -- or this one, at least -- is that there's rap music blaring throughout pregame and during every dead ball. When I walked in, the DJ was in the midst of going through "Worst Behaviour," "Chain Smoker" and "Black Skinhead." Really sets the mood:
So, that's great. Take note, Every Sports Team Ever Currently Playing "LIGHT 'EM MUP MUP MUP" Eight Times Per Game. You can do better. You haven't lived until you've seen a high school basketball halftime show set to "Hannah Montana," let me tell you.
With the crowd going crazy, Okafor and Alexander were banging inside from the tip. Young was playing a 2-3 zone and trying to deny Alexander the ball every time down, and they were doing a pretty effective job. On the other end, Young was swinging the ball and finding ways for Okafor to get easy buckets. Okafor was dunking early and often but Young was still trailing most of the first half. With Alexander occupying so much attention, Curie's guards had room to hit shots and were able to get some easy buckets in transition by forcing turnovers.
The problem is that Okafor couldn't stay out of foul trouble. He got his fourth foul midway through the third quarter and sat until there was three minutes left in regulation. Oddly enough, with Okafor on the bench, Young started to gain ground.
It's rare that a top-100 prospect is the third best player on the floor in a high school game, but that was exactly the case on Friday. Paul White -- a 6'8 power forward who's committed to Georgetown -- got overshadowed by Okafor, but he's very skilled player. With Okafor out, White went to work and helped the Dolphins make it a game.
Young cleared out for Okafor as soon got back in. He went at Alexander in the post and bullied his way inside for two points:
On the next possession, Curie went inside to Alexander and Okafor fouled him. He was done and Young was trailing and it looked like it was over. Alexander got a breakaway dunk that caused the gym to erupt and put Curie up six with 50 seconds left.
Then Young hit a three, Curie missed four straight free throws and Young had a chance to tie. They went to Miles Reynolds, their best shooter and a St. Louis-commit, and he made a wild three-pointer to send it into overtime:
If the individual matchup between Cliff and Jahlil was a bit underwhelming, it didn't matter. The gym was alive and we were set for a great overtime period. Then it started and Curie held the ball. They didn't stop.
There's no shot clock in Chicago high school basketball, so Curie just stood there. With Young double teaming Alexander in the zone and collapsing every time he touched the ball, the game got ... very slow.
One overtime session after another ended, and Alexander could barley get the ball with Okafor out of the game. Alexander ended regulation with 18 points. After four overtimes, he had 20 points. This is why high school might be the only level of basketball where guards are more important than big men. With Curie's backcourt unable to get Alexander touches, and the coaching staff neglecting to try even a simple pick-and-roll, he was essentially neutralized.
For all of those who complain big guys like to play outside too much, consider Cliff Alexander (who doesn't) had zero touches in 3rd OT.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) February 22, 2014
It's fitting that a game hyped up as a battle between two great big men came down to the role players. For all of the recruiting drama and way-too-early NBA projections, this was a high school basketball game. No one on the floor was worried about anything else.
At the end of the fourth overtime, a sparingly used guard on Curie finally ended it. Kamar Marshall hit a shot at the buzzer and Curie won the city title:
We have a scene at Chicago State https://t.co/ENhQ9LRLI7— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) February 22, 2014
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was in the house and he was loving it. I'd like to imagine 'Toine started shimmying after the game-winner went in. There was even a guy going nuts in a Paul McPherson Warriors jersey.
Alexander and Okafor will have their moments and will probably be millionaires one day soon. Friday night wasn't about them, though. It was about everything else. The role players, the coaches, the atmosphere, etc. Cliff and Jahlil didn't stage the historic one-on-one battle everyone wanted, but the game might have been better because of it.