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Illinois prep basketball’s version of 30 for 30

A year ago, the City/Suburban Hoops Report highlighted and praised ESPN’s critically acclaimed “30 for 30” documentary series on ESPN. Following the premier showing of “Benji” on Tuesday night — the story of Simeon star Ben Wilson and the senseless tragedy that shook and altered an entire city in 1984 — the Hoops Report is running the blog from last November that showcased what a potential, yet fictitious, “30 for 30” on Illinois prep basketball might look like. Here is that story, with a few additional documentaries added to the original list.

Any sports fan who missed out watching ESPN Films’ critically acclaimed 30 for 30 last year, a documentary series featuring 30 films done by Hollywood filmmakers, missed some of the best sports television the Hoops Report — and most sports fans — have ever watched. We’re talking must-see, set the DVR and a wide-range of feelings will surely follow and pour out after watching.

These are stories — 30 in all over the past 30 years — you never thought would grab you the way they do. These are fresh takes on sports stories that go beyond. Fortunately, a new batch is being distributed for sports fans this fall.

The 30 for 30 basketball stories alone have included gripping tales. Among the stories told in this series have been the relationship between former Loyola Marymount stars Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers, an inside look at the death of Len Bias and, maybe the best and most poignant of all, the story of war, friendship and sportsmanship through the eyes of Vlade Divac, the late Drazen Petrovic and the greatest European National Team of all time. (The wife had a tear in her eye after this one. OK, I nearly did, too).

Other must-see 30 for 30 stories included “One Night in Vegas,” the story of the friendship of boxer Mike Tyson and rapper Tupac Shakur; “The U,” the racial and cultural evolution of Miami football in the 1980s; “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson,” which included the 1993 trial of prep phenom Allen Iverson, and “The Best that Never Was,” the close look at one of the most heavily recruited football players ever, Marcus Dupree, and his quick rise to fame and stardom and an even quicker fall.

While it would never happen and the idea is purely fictitious, I would do anything for these great storytellers to get their hands on real Illinois prep basketball history. I’m talking the likes of John Singleton, Peter Berg and Barry Levinson taking the many great prep basketball stories in Illinois and delving into them with full gusto and deliver the quality and unique television we’ve seen with the original 30 for 30. Can you imagine an up-close, investigated inside look at 30 prep basketball stories from Illinois high school basketball over the last 30 years?

So here is an installment of a few potential stories, all of which occurred in the last 30 years (since 1980). Just as “Benji” was brought to life, here are stories the Hoops Report would love to see highlighted in an Illinois prep basketball 30 for 30 version. What are some of the Illinois prep basketball stories you would love to see showcased in a 30 for 30 series? The Hoops Report would love to hear your ideas.

“Cradle of the Crossover”

In the fall of 1992, Howard Nathan was removed from DePaul and its basketball program due to academics. For the former McDonald’s All-American and Mr. Basketball winner from Peoria Manual, that would seem to be the lowlight. This film would examine the fall of Nathan — the player and person — who did ultimately log 15 minutes of NBA playing time in five games with the Atlanta Hawks during the 1995-96 season. The demise of a once promising basketball career included brushes with the law that led to jail time and a tragic car crash that left Nathan paralyzed in 2006, when a drunk drive ran a stop sign and hit Nathan’s Oldsmobile. This story continues as the film would show how Nathan has rebounded from past transgressions and life’s pitfalls, how he remains upbeat and optimistic and how he has changed his life. He’s become a community spokesperson and one who does what he can to help troubled teens in Peoria.


This would be a no-brainer, right? Full access to it all? An inside look at Kevin Garnett’s move in the summer of 1994 from rural South Carolina, where he was Mr. Basketball in that state as a junior, to the inner city and Farragut High School — the reasons why it happened, how it went down and how the best player in the country landed in coach “Wolf” Nelson’s lap. This anticipated 30 for 30 would show us the impact the move had on Chicago high school basketball and the beginning of the prep phenom regularly jumping to the NBA. Imagine a Garnett-type move and story happening now? With all the media and internet exposure?

“Not Quite Good Enough”

Thornton had great athletes (NBA player Melvin Ely, NFL players Napoleon Harris and Antwaan Randle-El) in the mid-1990s and piled up wins (93-4) and trophies (2 state runner-up finishes and a third-place finish) over a three-year period. But it was never quite enough as the Wildcats fell to Peoria Manual, which handed Thornton three of its four losses. A legacy and legend were built, even without reaching the goal of a state title.This is a look at that team and program, the highly-anticipated matchups between Peoria Manual and Thornton, as well as the coach, Rocky Hill, who ultimately lost his job despite all the success.

“End of the Two-Class Hoops Society”

In January of 2006, Illinois high school basketball was forever changed. The IHSA made the bold and controversial move to potentially harm the exciting and healthy two-class system in boys basketball. Now with this 30 for 30 investigative documentary, everyone will be able to see just how it all went down. They will get to see how the four-class system was ramrodded through by the IHSA, starting with ignoring the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association and continuing with the infamous “survey” that neither truly supported the switch or even had a large response from IHSA member schools. This will examine that decision and the effect it’s had (good and bad) on prep basketball, its marquee event and its fans.


A look at the “free-spirited” and “controversial” Ron Felling, the Lawrenceville coach who put his stamp on everything in this small, downstate town on the Illinois/Indiana border. Felling, with the help of 1983 Mr. Basketball winner Marty Simmons, went on a two-year run where Lawrenceville won two straight state titles and went 68-0 along the way. A close-up portrait of small town America driven by its basketball team in the mid-1980s.

“Nothing is Guaranteed”

Ronnie Fields, the great Farragut dunking roadshow, attracted fans, coaches and filled gyms with his dunks, talent and high-flying act. But his story does not conform to America’s definition of superstar athlete. He was Chicago basketball with his signature dunks that filled gyms. However, since a dangerous car wreck late in his senior year, he battled injury, academics, legal issues and oversized expectations. Today Fields remains the athlete who reminds everyone nothing is guaranteed.

“The Jordan Boys”

Wonder what life was like living as the basketball-playing sons of the biggest sports icon in the world and in the city their dad owned? The Jordan years — in this case, the kids playing prep hoops in Chicago — is revisited. An up close and personal look at Jeff Jordan’s days at Loyola Academy and Marcus Jordan’s early years at Loyola before transferring to Whitney Young, where he won a state title his senior year.

“Twin Towers”

Now 20 years since their debut, the King tandem of Thomas Hamilton and Rashard Griffith, a pair of 7-foot high school stars, have left more questions than answers when it comes to why neither player reached the heights everyone expected. They were a traveling roadshow as prep stars, attracting recruiters from schools all over the country. An examination of the road these two high-profile prep players took since being hyped as early as 14 years old.


There was the success (an astonishing 503-89 in a 20-year run). There were the players (Efrem Winters, Levertis Robinson, Marcus Liberty, Jamie Brandon, Rashard Griffith to name a few). And there was “Sonny.” Throughout the 1980s coach Landon “Sonny” Cox’s King Jaguars became a national program, producing wins, titles and big-time individual talent. King basketball blazed a new image in high school hoops in Chicago. And with the success came swagger, bravado and controversy. This was the lone larger-than-life prep basketball program in Illinois basketball history during this era. Imagine unprecedented access to all that went down with the King program over a 20-year period. There was controversy and plenty of jealousy that followed Cox wherever he went as the coach at Chicago King, but there are plenty of untold stories of how the iconic Cox helped youth on the South Side, along with his love and talent as a jazz musician. That’s some good television.

“On Guard! — in the SICA East”

The 1989-90 season was the year of the guard in the state of Illinois, led by Chicago King superstar Jamie Brandon. But if you were a fan in the south suburbs in the late 1980s and were following the Class of 1990, you were treated to a special time in the legendary SICA East basketball conference. The conference featured the guard trio of Tracy Webster of Thornton (Wisconsin), Townsend Orr of Thornridge (Minnesota) and Brandon Cole of Bloom (DePaul) — plus talented Drennon Jones of Eisenhower (UIC). Here is an internal look at the long-lasting friendships between these players, especially the bond between Thornton-Thornridge rivals Webster and Orr, from their childhood days through today. Imagine the great footage that could be found from those classic matchups in south suburban gyms.

“$80K and the Chevy Blazer”

The recruitment of Simeon’s Deon Thomas turned ugly — so says former Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl, who taped conversations with Thomas and contended Illinois offered $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer. The way recruiting was looked at changed forever in Illinois as Iowa and Illinois engaged in a recruiting battle for the Simeon star. The NCAA cleared Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins and Illinois in Thomas’ recruitment, but it sanctioned the Illini for other violations and setting the program back a few years. What followed left Illinois on probation and a winding coaching road for former Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl. Here is a look back at how that started and how it went down.

“Out of Nowhere”

What if I told you a player from the city of Chicago was the No. 1 ranked player in the country and no one knew who he was just six months earlier? The unparalled story and rise of Anthony Davis of Chicago Perspectives. How about access to some film going back to see where he was as a freshman and continuing on through his sophomore and junior year when he played in absolute obscurity? The film feature would lead right up to the explosion of Davis as a prospect that catapulted him to No. 1 ranked player in the country and a national story.

“J-Rich: A Cautionary Tale”

Aside from the feel-good Anthony Davis story, this one would be the most recent, albeit a completely opposite tale. The focus in this documentary quickly shifts from the talent and promise at an early age to all the headlines and drama that followed Jereme Richmond throughout his mercurial career. First, the transfer of the top basketball prospect in the state and eventual McDonald’s All-American from middle-of-nowhere North Shore Country Day to Waukegan. Then everything else: the fights; the discipline problems; getting kicked off his high school team; the two sectional “T’s”; the dramatic buzzer-beater over Warren; leading his team to Peoria; Mr. Basketball; his one year at Illinois; all the legal problems; and where he is today.

“Before there was Doc, Dee and the Three Amigos”

Forget Doc Rivers, the “Three Amigos”, Dee Brown and the illustrious last three decades of basketball at Proviso East for a moment. The story of this program’s first state title needs to be told. Yes, this is before the 30-year dateline the Hoops Report implemented for this Illinois version of 30 for 30, but this will appeal to all audiences in a reminder of how deep sports are woven into the fabric of communities and our culture and the impact they can have. This was the Illinois high school basketball version of the movie “Remember the Titans”, with racial fights and riots, politics, racism, helmeted police on school grounds, death threats and utter chaos in a community with endless disturbances. Through it all, Proviso East basketball was the beacon for everyone in the community and brought people from both sides together.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport