A compelling case can be made that the past three Chicago Sun-Times Players of the Year were born for the honor. Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker and Cliff Alexander are giants, 6-9 and 6-10 physical specimens — players that stood out like men among the boys of the high school basketball world.
Jalen Brunson has an NBA lineage, but anyone that watched him play freshman year knows that the 2015 Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year honor wasn’t his birthright.
“[Freshman year] I thought he was slow,” said Rick Brunson, Jalen’s dad. “He was smarter than everybody but at that point I thought they were gonna catch him.”
Rick played in the NBA for nine years on eight different teams. While he grew up, Jalen Brunson watched how hard his dad had to work to be the 15th man on an NBA team.
“He never really had to talk to me about it because I watched him do it,” Jalen said. “I remember going to gyms still in a stroller or with a little ball in my hand just watching him sweat for hours. He did that once or twice a day every day. So I have always known what it would take to be good at the game. In a way that work ethic fell into my lap. I watched him fail, watched him get cut multiple times. Basketball is always a work in progress, something you have to keep striving for.”
Brunson dedicated himself to basketball after freshman year. He remembers one week in particular, in Charlotte (his dad was coaching the Bobcats) when he made up his mind.
“I was there for a week and a half and every day we shot three times a day,” Brunson said. “That’s when I really felt like this is it, this is what I’m going to do. And I just felt really confident going into sophomore year and it went on from there.”
All that work, the late night shooting with his mom Sandra rebounding, started to pay off. Instead of getting passed by, during his sophomore year Brunson started surpassing his peers.
The Patriots shocked the state in 2013 with an improbable run to the Class 4A state championship game. They lost to Parker’s Simeon team by 18 points. The run proved that a young Stevenson squad would be a force to be reckoned with for the next two years and it showed Brunson that he still had a lot of work to do.
“That game was really important to me because that was a big step towards what we have [at Stevenson] now,” Brunson said. “Playing against a pro like that and a team like that just humbled us. We learned that we weren’t the only ones that knew how to play basketball and we needed to work harder.”
The Patriots lost to Young in the Class 4A state semifinals last year. They ran in to another future pro, Okafor. Brunson was spectacular. He scored 56 points, a state playoff record.
The game will be remembered more for a controversial picture though. A single frame shot by a courtside photographer appeared to show Brunson giving a middle-finger gesture to the crowd. In real-time, it didn’t happen. No one watching the game saw anything at the time. Pictures can lie. But this one made the rounds on the internet. It led to the IHSA suspending Brunson for the third-place game, a decision the IHSA overturned just before game time. Brunson admits the controversy could sour another trip to Peoria.
“A little bit,” Brunson said. “But I’m just really focusing on playing my game, playing Stevenson basketball. I have a short term memory. Need to just turn the page on that.”
The glory years of Stevenson basketball almost didn’t happen. Brunson initially intended to go to Loyola. But after playing basketball with Connor Cashaw in eighth grade in Lincolnshire, he changed his mind.
“After moving seven times while growing up, I didn’t want to restart again [at Loyola],” Brunson said. “All my friends were going to Stevenson. I figured if it didn’t work out I could go to Loyola sophomore year.”
Brunson was 5-10 his freshman year. He’s now 6-2 and averaged 23 points, five rebounds and four assists this season.
Stevenson plays in the Waukegan sectional final tonight. The Patriots are clear favorites to advance to the state title game in Peoria next weekend. Once again, a Public League team [Simeon] is the likely opponent. Brunson knows there are a couple more loud, rambunctious crowds standing between him and a return date in Peoria.
“When the crowd is on me the most, that’s when I feel bad for the [opposing] team,” said Brunson. “I know that I’m going to play as hard as I can and when I play as hard as I can I know I’m going to produce.”