Legendary high school basketball coach Landon “Sonny” Cox, who won three state championships and a state-record 85 percent of his games at King, died Tuesday morning.
Cox, born in Cincinnati in 1938, took over the King program in 1981 and compiled a remarkable career record of 503-89 in 20 years.
“He’s a legend who meant so much to high school basketball in the city and state,” said Simeon coach Robert Smith, who calls Cox a coaching mentor.
Cox was known not only for his coaching success and some of the most revered teams in state history, but also for his bravado and the star players he produced. There was a certain swagger Cox possessed that rubbed some the wrong way as he turned King into a national power in the 1980s.
“Coach Cox was different in so many ways,” former King star Marcus Liberty said. “People didn’t understand him. He was flamboyant in how he dressed, how he talked and how he did things. There was a cockiness about him. But that confidence trickled down to his players.”
Liberty, one of the most celebrated players in state history, says Cox saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself.
“He told me as a sophomore that I would be the best player in the country,” Liberty said. “As a kid at that time, I had no idea. But he had a belief in me that did wonders for me.”
By the time Liberty was a senior, the 6-8 forward had emerged as the No. 1 high school basketball player in the country.
Cox churned out iconic players for over two decades, including Jamie Brandon, the third leading scorer in state history, Johnny Selvie, Levertis Robinson, Rashard Griffith, Thomas Hamilton, Michael Hermon, Leon Smith and Imari Sawyer.
While the coaching numbers are legendary, he was also an accomplished jazz musician. At the age of 24 he moved to Chicago to pursue a musical career. While playing jazz throughout the South Side in those early years in Chicago, he also began teaching and coaching in Chicago Public Schools.
He landed at King, where he not only won three state championships in 1986, 1990 and 1993, but also finished second in 1987 and third in 1989 and 1999.
But what set Cox apart, according to so many of his former players, is what he did for them behind the scenes. To a player they say that is what largely went unnoticed but was remembered and appreciated.
Tracy Dildy was a star point guard in the city who came to King with Cox in 1981 out of eighth-grade. Dildy has an endless list of stories and examples of how much Cox did for his players, including being a much-needed disciplinarian.
“So many of us didn’t have fathers, so he became that father figure to us,” said Dildy, a longtime assistant college basketball coach and the former head coach at Chicago State. “If you missed class or had trouble with a teacher, he was going to discipline you. He constantly stayed on you.”
Dildy says Cox helped make it easier for families who desperately needed it. There were players who would spend all day with Cox throughout the summer. Dildy remembers going to gyms and playgrounds and doing whatever Cox could do to help keep them off the streets and out of trouble.
“He would feed kids breakfast, lunch and dinner if they needed it,” Dildy said. “And he didn’t look out for just his players. He took care of kids, period.”
And then there was Christmas.
“He made Christmas for many of us,” Dildy said. “He would give a family a Christmas tree. He provided families with presents who couldn’t afford them. He was the kindest, nicest man.”
Liberty, who went on to play at Illinois for the legendary Flying Illini, knows how Cox was perceived by some. But like Dildy, Liberty knows a different man, a man most people on the outside never understood. They weren’t aware of the impact he had on inner-city kids.
“They didn’t see all that he did for kids,” Liberty said. “They didn’t see him give a winter coat to a kid he didn’t even know. They didn’t see him drive from 118th to 22nd to go pick up a kid who didn’t have a ride to school. They didn’t see him talk to gangbangers, telling them to leave our kids alone. He would not let us fall victim to the streets.”
Johnnie Selvie, who teamed up with Jamie Brandon to famously lead King to a 32-0 record and a state title in 1990, had his troubles as a youth. He says because of where and how he grew up, there were three choices for him.
“I was either going to be in jail, be killed or go to school,” Selvie said. “Because of coach Cox, I stayed in school. He pushed me to get an education.”
Selvie, who became an assistant coach for Cox for four years and was the head coach at Lindblom at one point, says he owes so much to his former coach.
“He cared for his players like they were his own kids,” Selvie said. “When I heard the news I broke down, shed some tears and was really in disbelief. If it wasn’t for him … He always picked me up.”
Cox had an impact on current Public League coaches, both at the end of his own coaching career and continuing after he retired in 2001.
“He was one of the guys, one of the coaches who helped get us to where we are today in coaching,” said Smith, who has won seven state titles at Simeon. “Throughout my career I would talk to him about how he would get all that talent to play together and how he would manage all that talent. He was a mentor to me.”
Mike Oliver took over the Curie program in 1995 and played in the same Red-Central Conference as King. Oliver said Cox always provided him with advice that he never forgot, including immediately after Curie upset King three years into his coaching career.
“The game is over, we upset King for the first time and our kids are dancing on the court, running around,” said Oliver, who since then has turned Curie into a Public League power. “Coach Cox came over to me and tells me, ‘Make sure these kids line up and shake hands. It’s your job to show them how you handle winning.’ That always stuck with me.”
Cox also always reminded Oliver in those early years to make sure his team and coaches dressed well.
“You look good, you play good,” Oliver said Cox would tell him. “He was a mentor and a consultant for us young coaches.”
Cox’s legacy as a coach is undeniable. So, too, was his personality, one that made headlines for reasons other than basketball. He was accused of recruiting violations and the center of an IHSA investigation. The book Raw Recruits came out in the early 1990s and painted Cox in an unfavorable way, accusing him of accepting payouts from college coaches in return for players.
While accused, Cox was never found guilty of any misdeeds or violations when it came to the payouts mentioned in the book. But the jealousy many city coaches –– and those around the state –– had for Cox was prevalent.
However, Dunbar coach Fate Mickel, perhaps Cox’s biggest rival in the city during those years, saw it differently.
Mickel, who says their King-Dunbar battles with one another “were like a gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” was never bothered by Cox’s success, swagger or boldness.
“When you dress good, look good, win good and have the hype advantage, jealousy can certainly come into play,” said Mickel of the bitterness and discontent by many towards Cox. “But people who really knew him weren’t jealous of him. We never once got into any arguments. He was a good man and a helluva musician.”
But make not mistake about it, Cox was front and center for two decades when Illinois high school basketball was thriving. His teams were legendary and must-see attractions. They packed gyms in the city and beyond.
There was the 1986 state championship team, led by Liberty and Robinson, that beat Simeon and Nick Anderson in the Sweet Sixteen and knocked off Kendall Gill and Rich Central in the state title game.
The 1987 team lost to East St. Louis Lincoln and LaPhonso Ellis in the state championship, while the 1990 team rolled all season long en route to an undefeated title. That team, with Brandon, Selvie, Griffith and Ahmad Shareef is considered by some to be one of the state’s all-time greats.
Behind the famed 7-foot twin towers of Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton, King throttled everyone, finishing 32-0 and winning the 1993 state championship.
The 1994 team was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state heading into the postseason. But that Michael Hermon-led King team was stunned by Westinghouse, 59-58, in the city championship, one game from reaching Champaign.
But with all the coaching highlights, controversy and entertainment his teams provided through his 20 years at King, the impact ran much deeper and there were intense feelings towards Cox –– from genuine respect to jealousy.
“The impact he had on so many players, coaches and kids is what really stands out,” said Liberty. “I was able to see him a couple of years ago and an opportunity to tell him how much I loved him at that time. I’m grateful for that. He will be missed.”
Landon Cox’s career at King
1985-86: 32-1, Class AA state title
1989-90: 32-0, Class AA state title
1992-93: 32-0, Class AA state title