No matter how I started to write this story, no matter how many times I deleted a sentence and started over, it felt more and more like writing a season obituary rather than a season recap.
That, in and of itself, is just sad and frustrating, even a week after the IHSA made the decision to pull the plug on the remainder of state tournament play. And I’m just a writer who loves basketball and is a fan of this sport. You take it to an entirely different level when you think of those players and coaches who put in the endless time needed, pushed themselves during the spring, summer and fall, and grinded through the season to get to this point.
This recap will get us through 90 percent of the season. The problem is that final 10 percent of the season is the most exciting. That final 10 percent answers season-old questions and brings closure to what transpired the previous three-plus months.
While we all terribly missed that final 10 percent, we can celebrate the 90 percent that was played. So here is what I will remember most from this 2019-2020 season that was abruptly cut short in the most unprecedented way.
➤ Sadly, what I will first remember about this past season — and for years to come — will be the feeling I had the exact moment when it became fact that the season would not be played.
I was one who, before the final decision came down, continued on and on for 24 hours to anyone I talked with that the season would not be played out. No matter how much the IHSA fought it off, it was just a matter of time.
Still, the finality of when I received word that it was officially done, when I received the text I was waiting for — “It’s over. State canceling everything” the text read on my phone — and I followed by putting out my own tweet … Well, that’s the first thing I will remember when I look back on this season.
➤ The second thing I will remember are all the texts and conversations I had with coaches who were still in the midst of their respective playoff run, who were locked in in that coaching mode so late in the season, playing and prepping with so much on the line. Listening to them and reading their texts and seeing and hearing the true pain and disappointment they had for their players was clear. Yes, it was always, with every single coach I corresponded with, about their players. The kids were who they always mentioned first.
➤ I’ll remember that the 2019-2020 seasons were the best in school history for several teams that didn’t really have any postseason history. These were teams that advanced deeper and secured win totals never seen before in their program’s history. That includes the likes of Hinsdale South, Cary-Grove, Loyola and Wauconda. They all set school win totals — and were still alive in sectional play.
Yes, the ending of a dream season should feel like an absolute gut-punch for every team that didn’t win a state championship. Losses in a sectional title game, super-sectional or in Peoria sting like no other defeats. But it’s supposed to feel like that after a loss, not after it being taken away.
➤ DJ Steward’s play and talent will be remembered. He’s a McDonald’s All-American and a Player of the Year headed to Duke. In the biggest game of the year, a sectional semifinal win over Simeon, Steward took over the game in a way that showed why he’s the best senior prospect and player in the state. I’ll remember that was the last game of the season that I watched.
But what I’ll remember more is how this kid always carried himself. He was respectful to the game, opponents, coaches, media and always looked like he was having so much fun. He never once cried, moaned or sounded off about disrespect, even when his national ranking wasn’t as high as it should have been and he wasn’t the No. 1 prospect in the state early in his career. That’s a tiresome cry that has become too routine among players (and their people) in today’s world.
DJ Steward went about his business, played the game and showed character with his actions and his words. And I don’t think the average teen basketball star even recognizes or knows that people truly watch that stuff and appreciate it. It would be wise for so many others to grow up and pay attention to how Steward did.
➤ I’ll remember how the season started off in a pretty cool way: Young vs. Morgan Park at Chicago State. The top two seniors, Steward and Morgan Park’s Adam Miller, squaring off in a game featuring the No. 2 and No. 3 ranked teams. The game may not have lived up to the early hype — no season-opener could possibly do so — but it was pretty cool.
➤ Loyola’s defense is memorable. As one defensive guru of a coach, Benet’s Gene Heidkamp, told me recently, “I think it’s one of the greatest high school defenses I’ve ever seen.” That’s a credit, of course, to coach Tom Livatino and his players for buying in, staying consistent and disciplined with it. After all, defense is a different animal than offense in the way it can alter a game, just without the glamour and appreciation the offensive end produces.
I’ll remember the defense — from the length it had to the fundamental principles it played with to the pride it showed — that stymied opponents and was at its best at the end, limiting three postseason teams to 25 points or fewer in three wins.
➤ I’ll remember watching two different Simeon teams in the 2019-2020 season. The young team with a senior transfer finding his way while scuffling during a 5-5 start to the season. And the much-improved Simeon team that went on quite a run, beating Morgan Park, Notre Dame and Collinsville en route to finishing off the regular season with nine straight wins. That included winning a city championship behind Jeremiah Williams with wins over Curie and Morgan Park for a second time.
➤ I’ll remember the energy and competitiveness Curie’s Ramean Hinton played with. That it was at a different level. Heck, it’s going to be easy to remember since they are currently the first two words out of my mouth when college coaches call about the 6-4 senior who is now the best uncommitted prospect in the state.
➤ I’ll remember how well Curie played and how composed the Condors were through losing their coach Mike Oliver to a suspension. What Curie did in its final regular season game at Notre Dame was special. In front of a massive and ear-piercing Notre Dame home crowd, Curie did what it did all season — play with poise and conviction while pulling out a win in what was quite an atmosphere for a visiting team to play in.
➤ What Oak Forest did this season, winning its first conference championship and regional title in 33 years while finishing with 55 wins, will be remembered. But I’ll remember what that team did for the community and school and what a different feel it was around Oak Forest when you were at a game and talking with anyone associated with that program.
➤ Maybe Evanston wasn’t playing its absolute best basketball at the end of the season, but the Wildkits were still plenty good enough to win a sectional and get to Peoria. But I’ll remember for just how that team was clicking on all cylinders for two months during its pretty remarkable 18-0 start to the season. That was a fun team to watch. And will be one of the best next season.
➤ I’ll remember thinking back in June and when the season began in November that Joliet West would be much improved this season; after all, the Tigers won just five games a year ago.
But I’ll remember more how improved they actually were, along with senior Jamere Hill’s individual improvement. This 29-win team had a chance to be playing in Peoria while Hill went from a small college prospect to a mid-major prospect in a matter of months. When was the last time a team improved its win total by 24 games from one season to the next?
➤ I’ll remember Ahron Ulis and his understated stardom. Ulis, the consummate leader who made a team better and elevated those around him just with his presence, was an under-appreciated prospect.
➤ I’ll remember Notre Dame for a number of reasons, starting with the fact the Dons —Yes, the Niles Notre Dame Dons! — were the best team in the state in Class 3A. And I will remember the deafening, rambunctious student section at Notre Dame. It’s become the best, most consistent student section since Brother Rice’s Crusader Crazies.
➤ I’ll remember Bloom’s high-flying act, particularly the performance the Blazing Trojans put together in its dazzling display of talent and athleticism against Evanston at the When Sides Collide Shootout in January. Bloom had that crowd buzzing, just as it did so many times this season.
➤ I will remember Dom Martinelli being unlike any player I’ve watched and covered in a long time. What a unique style the Glenbrook South star played with in scoring over 2,000 career points.
He wasn’t a shooter. He wasn’t blessed with speed. He wasn’t an athletic force. He wasn’t a player with 6-7 or 6-8 size who dominated around the rim. He was a player who you have to just forget about what he isn’t and relish in what he is as a player. He was smart, crafty, heady, tough, competitive and had skills that went unnoticed. Getting to the free-throw line is a basketball skill. And Martinelli lived and thrived there.
You rarely ever see a player like a Derrick Rose, Jahlil Okafor or Tyler Ulis. We’re lucky when we do. But in a completely different way, we also rarely see a player like Dom Martinelli.
➤ Thornton’s 32-1 season is memorable enough. But I’ll remember that this was the team others can look to when they have big dreams but lack big names. By that I mean this team will be remembered for its heart, togetherness, toughness and how they competed. That is what led the Wildcats to that 32-1 record.
➤ I’ll remember watching Pat Ambrose coach this season and thinking about how much pride, joy and a unique experience he must have had in coaching his two sons. Those three had what was a pretty enjoyable two-year basketball run that included a whole lot of wins. The ending, though, was bitter and hard to take.
This year’s Stevenson team was what you envision a high school team to be with a group of seniors that grew together as a group and team over the years.
➤ I’ll remember watching Max Christie of Rolling Meadows and Bryce Hopkins of Fenwick square off in a January game at the When Sides Collide Shootout and thinking, “I’m so glad we have another year to watch these two.”
➤ I’ll remember that one team, the one that was overlooked, not talked about all season while playing in the Public League’s White-South. That red and green team just off of Halsted down on 113th in the Roseland neighborhood that deserved more pub and credit than it received.
Little ol’ Fenger with 235 students, led by unknown talent Donovan Taylor, made it all the way to a Class 1A super-sectional. Fenger lost a heartbreaker to Roanoke-Benson, which made a game-winning shot with seven seconds to play to pull out a 45-43 win. Hats off to the Fenger Titans.
➤ Unfortunately, I’ll remember a terrific Lincoln Park season being cut short, even before the coronavirus ended everything, with off-court issues.
➤ I’ll remember Aurora Christian losing its two leading scorers and top players from a year ago — Jaehshon Thomas transferred to Whitney Young and Will Wolfe transferred to Oswego East — but surpassing all expectations anyway. The Eagles and Taaj Davis won 25 games and reached the Class 1A state semifinals in Peoria without them.
Speaking of Davis, I’ll remember the weekend when the senior guard scored 112 points in two games. Yes, 112 points. He scored 58 in a win over Bishop Mac and 54 in a win over Chicago Christian the following day.