One of my prides and joys, Glenbrook North's boys basketball team, took third place in the Illinois Class AA state basketball finals this Saturday. This is the third time they've gone downstate, and the first time in the school's 49-year history they've placed.
They were outstanding. I'm quite happy I made the short-notice trip home to see them. It was worth every dime.
I flew to Midway, picked up my rental car, shot down to Bloomington, stopping just long enough to check into my hotel, and high-tailed it west to Peoria. I arrived about 5:30pm, well in advance of the 8:15 start time, and before all but the parents and a few lead-footed kids. By gametime, our crowd had probably swelled to near 700 people. Sadly, spring break began this weekend, so a lot of people couldn't make this trip. We were dwarfed by the some 2000 people that came down from Johnsburg (781 students, population 4831.) Johnsburg was the media-favorite Cinderella team.
It didn't matter. Our crowd was louder, our team was better. Eytan Azaria scored 27 of North's 47 points, against Johnsburg's total of 24. It's the first time since 1975 that a player has outscored his whole opposing team. By the end of the first quarter, we held a 12-3 lead, and the crowd was chanting "Over-rated!". By the end of the third, it was 35-13, and the chant was "How'd you get here?!" Johnsburg scored their last points with 1:16 remaining in the game. The crowd switched from "Drive home saf-ley!" to "Eytan beat you!"
I talked to my dad after the game. I'm told the television crew was not pleased. Tough. Everybody said we wouldn't make it there either, so we were just as unlikely a candidate as Johnsburg. Somebody had to lose. It sure as hell wasn't going to be us if we had anything to say about it. :P
Regardless of what was to come, we would finally take home hardware this time, and everyone was ecstatic. North's previous two state final appearances ended after the first game. In '93, we were ripped a new asshole by Danville and Keon Clark. (Yeah, that Keon Clark.) In '95, we lost by three to Joliet. But if you survive the quarterfinals, you can lose the semis and the consolation game and still walk out with the fourth-place trophy and medals.
Some people would later think that was okay. These were the people that left after our semifinal loss the next morning. Not that there were quite as many people left by then. See, the school administration, in its perpetually erratic wisdom, refused to run buses down from Northbrook on Saturday. Therefore, the only students that could attend were the ones who had come down with parents, or whose parents would let them drive that far.
On the odd chance that any of my old friends on the administration ever read this, YES, I'M SAYING YOU GUYS WERE MONUMENTALLY DUMB.
This kind of thing doesn't happen that often. We'll be lucky to have it ever happen again, so it's imperative that everyone be allowed to enjoy it to the fullest. You dropped the ball. Don't ever do that again. Those kids deserve better.
Anyhow, the semifinal... it was an ugly fight. The first quarter was all Thornwood's, and I wondered if we were finally in over our heads. But we seemed to figure things out in the second quarter, and we battled back to take the lead. It was neck and neck the rest of the way. Only twice more did anyone get to more than a four-point lead. Thornwood was containing Azaria far better than Johnsburg did. This opened up Jon Scheyer (North's freshman phenom,) but not explosively.
The end of the game progressed almost in slow-motion. Both teams took forever to run offenses, trying to run the clock down. North to keep Thornwood from taking the lead back, Thornwood to keep North at bay if they could take it. Sean Emerick got us a one-point lead draining a 3 at the four minute mark. Thornwood took it back on a jumper thirty seconds later. (In the game's official play-by-play records, there is nothing between those two events.) Azaria answered it a minute and a half later. Thornwood was fouled and split a pair of free throws to tie it up. Jon Scheyer would drain a pair of his own to take a two-point lead with 54 seconds left. 54 seconds of defense, hopefully with some insurance points, and we'd play for the title.
We still had a respectable crowd. They never sat down, and they never shut up. Once again, someone led the "Down To The River" cheer between the third and fourth quarter. I'd moved up to the cheap seats with the kids on Saturday, from the expensive seats with the parents on Friday, just so I wouldn't be out of place at times like this. Several times, a couple of Thornwood students would climb up into our section, taunting us to provoke a response. They got it. Our people started throwing food, magazines, garbage, whatever was handy at them. I made no move to stop it. Let these pricks get hit and soaked with pop, and let security learn to do their jobs keeping adversaries apart.
The insurance seemed like a given. Both teams backed off on their pressure, each letting the other hold and dribble the ball near midcourt, for fear the ballhandler would beat his man and have a 5-4 advantage down low. With both teams in the bonus, and no 35-second shot clock, Thornwood would have to foul to get the ball back. By happenstance, they fouled Eric Walowitz twice after rebounds. Twice, he missed the front end of the one-and-one free throws. The lead remained at only two. Thornwood's Eric Gray put up a 25-foot three-pointer, surely in desperation, and it fell with seven seconds left. 9 times out of 10, that shot bricks. But when your opponent misses free throws, easy layups, and turns the ball over, you tend to catch breaks like that. That's just basketball.
We called time out to set up one last play. We got it downcourt, but nobody could get a good look at the basket. Sean Emerick's attempt clanged off and was tipped out of bounds by Thornwood. With six-tenths of a second remaining, the inbound pass went to Scheyer, whose falling, off-balance shot had little chance of succeeding.
I might be nitpicking here, but in a situation that tense, I think you give the ball to someone with more experience. Jon's an oustanding player, but there are just some things you only learn with experience.
The clock expired, and Thornwood rushed the floor. They'd earned another chance at a state title. (They've lost the title game a couple of times in the last decade.) Jon Scheyer lay facedown on the court in shock. Like vultures over a corpse, two press photographers swooped in to record him.
A lesson for you kids at home: When this happens to your teammate, you need to get them up off the floor immediately, and you or someone else needs to stand between them and the photographers. This is the most embarassing and demeaning photograph you can print of a sports event. A big "fuck you" to all the photographers and editors who think that kind of thing is printworthy. A pox upon both your houses.
The crowd was stunned absolutely silent. A couple of people tried to start a cheer to congratulate the effort, but it quickly fizzled. It's as if we'd all been hit in the chest with bricks. I've been there before, and you never get used to it.
A lot of people decided to go home. Fourth place was good enough. Who cared about third? It wasn't the championship anymore. It was Saturday, spring break was starting, they may as well get home before dark. The rest of us sat around in a daze, paying no attention to the three-point contest taking place on the floor.
I think it's better to lose a close game, and know you competed, know you made your opponent earn it, than to get blown out and either doubt whether you really deserved to be there, or be bitter that the brackets were stacked against you. But that's little consolation shortly after a loss. Eventually, we all stumbled outside. zombies in search of food.
I left the Civic Center through the same door the team was using. Half an hour after the game's end, Eric Walowitz (I believe it was him) was still crying, a towel draped over his head. The team had had several chances to put the game away, surely. But Eric had not once, but twice had the easiest of all opportunities handed to him, and he'd failed both times. This clearly wasn't lost on him. I can only imagine how awful he felt. It hurts just to see that, because there's flat nothing you can do for a person in that emotional place. "I was this close, and I let my team down."
Downtown Peoria isn't the most exciting place in the world. And worse, I was alone. I didn't want to bug the parents or the staff, and I didn't want to be the Creepy Old Guy hovering around the kids. (Adam Sandler can do that, but I am not him.) I walked around aimlessly exploring for a bit, sat down at the public library and read a bit, and stopped at Quizno's, ignoring the occasional rude Thornwood or Evanston fan along the way. (What is it about people from low-income neighborhoods that so many of them go out of their way to show they have no class? For as much shit as I give New Trier, I never had problems when I'd wear colors on game days, going to get my hair cut around the corner from that school.)
Staring across the Illinois River (at the temple of H0T C0W DETH that is Steak N' Shake,) I thought about how hard is has to be for a team to get emotionally ready to play a third-place game. You've just suffered a heart-crushing loss. You're out of the running for the championship, the one thing everybody wants coming down there. (Who aspires to second, third, or fourth place?) And now you're supposed to get up for another game? I don't know exactly where it ranks, but that's got to be one of the hardest things there is.
I rolled back into the Civic Center about 6:00 for the season's last game. I supposed it was some small consolation that, as dejected as our team was, Evanston was in just as bad a place. Our student crowd had dwindled to maybe 100-120 people. Evanston still had a lot more--hell, three of them were sitting in the section across the aisle from us. Fuck it, we were still going to be louder than them, if it killed us. And of course, they did not have the big green phallic foam pool noodle!
We started out really weak. Evanston jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead. Coach Weber called a time-out less than forty seconds into the game. Emerick came out and nailed a 3, but then Evanston responded with a dunk. This could really have gotten embarassing. But somehow, our guys started to find themselves again. Walowitz scored, Emerick and Azaria quickly hit a pair of threes, and we had the lead. We held that lead 'till the middle of the second quarter. Marcus Kardos hit a three at the first quarter buzzer.
The referees let a lot of stuff go in the state finals. They almost never call ticky-tack fouls. But what was bugging me was they were blowing offensive foul calls. Twice, our players were run over with no call. And then one was called for a charge over an Evanston player who obviously wasn't set. My mom swears she heard my "YOU WOULDN'T KNOW A CHARGE IF YOU HAD 'AMERICAN EXPRESS' TATTOOED ON YOUR ASS!" cry on TV at home.
We started to slip again. By halftime, Evanston had a 7 point lead. I thought, this game is going to be won by whoever comes out more fired up after the intermission. If Evanston pushed it to eleven or twelve points, I figured we were done for. Sadly, I've seen Glenbrook North teams fold in the past in places like this. Fortunately, it didn't happen here. Jon Scheyer scored nine of our next twelve points and got us back into the game. The last four minutes third quarter went back-and-forth, and we led by one at the end of it.
Evanston would tie the game again a minute into the fourth quarter, but that would be as close as they got. We quickly pushed the lead out to four, and then nine. It was never less than five after that. Eric Walowitz had clearly recovered from his performance against Thornwood. He would finish with eight rebounds and 7-of-9 from the free throw line. Jon Scheyer would go 11-12 on his way to 20 points, and Eytan finished his career with 23.
Again, our crowd never sat down and never shut up. Our boy with the foam
The team, they had their difficulties. Hell, it's been in the press, so I can come out and say it. Most of the seniors took issue with having a freshman starter, for all the typical reasons. Whatever personal issues they may or may not still have off-court, this team showed the maturity to put that aside on-court.
And then, they played with the same intensity, dedication, and heart that we like to think Glenbrook North is known for. My contemporaries laid a foundation eleven or twelve years ago, which teams have built on since, and this one has built it to a new peak. They now point the direction for succeeding teams to follow. I had a chance to talk to some of the underclassmen after the tournament, and many of them still remember our run, one even commented that our 3OT supersectional loss to Stevenson was still the greatest game he'd ever seen. I don't think it's lost on them that they are now doing the same for another generation of young children.
Indeed, they confirmed that the third-place game was every bit as hard to get up for as I thought it had been. Players talking, trying to pump up their teammates, but you could hear in thier voices that even they didn't really believe what they were saying. But eventually, they got it together, and they got the job done. Only two teams in the state get to end their season with a win, and they're one of them. Right now, they are indeed the pride and joy of Northbrook.