The good, the sad and the ugly: A look back at the decade in high school basketball

The decade in prep basketball featured great players, the death of an icon and a canceled state tourney.

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Simeon’s Jabari Parker (22) and Kendall Pollard (24) celebrate after a slam dunk by Pollard.

Simeon’s Jabari Parker (22) and Kendall Pollard (24) celebrate after a slam dunk by Pollard.

Sun-Times file photo

As the 2009-10 basketball season finished and another decade closed, could anyone have ever imagined what was to come in the next decade?

From the good (the truly unbelievable rise of Anthony Davis) to the bad (a sectional game being suspended and super-sectional being forfeited due to a brawl) to the unfathomable (the cancellation of a state tournament), this past decade was memorable for so many different reasons. 

In a decade loaded with big-named stars, controversial stories and sad endings, the 2010s provided basketball fans with 10 years of material to talk about. 

These were the biggest headline-grabbing high school basketball stories of the decade. 

IHSA cancels state tournament

Pick any decade from the past and you probably won’t be able to top this story from this past year.

The IHSA announced on March 12, just as Class 1A and 2A schools in Peoria were ready to play state semifinals games and Class 3A and 4A sectional title games were set to tip the next day, that it had canceled the remainder of the boys state tournament. 

Every year since 1908 the state awarded a state championship. But the COVID-19 pandemic ended that in 2020. And immediately lost were so many memorable March Madness moments and experiences.

The Anthony Davis story

The decade started with a stunning and unprecedented rise of a player and a once-in-a-lifetime story that explains it. 

While Davis became a national champ and All-American at Kentucky, the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and is now one of the greatest players in the world –– and a reigning NBA champ with the Lakers –– the rise to get to that point is the biggest story.

Thanks to a seven-inch growth spurt, Davis went from an obscure high school guard playing in the Public League’s Blue Division at an unknown charter school in the city (Perspectives) to a towering 6-10 skilled big man and the No. 1 ranked player in the country –– in less than a year. 

As the decade opened in 2010, Davis literally came out of nowhere in the spring of his junior season on the AAU circuit with Meanstreets. Within a couple of months he was the top-ranked prospect in the country in the Class of 2011 and had college and NBA scouts drooling. 

There has never been a meteoric rise anywhere close to that of Davis and likely will never be again. 

Legendary coach Gene Pingatore dies

While Pingatore was 83 years old, the legendary and highly-respected coach was set to begin his 51st season at St. Joseph when he suddenly passed away in June of 2019. 

Pingatore is the winningest coach in state history. He compiled a remarkable 1035-383 record in 50 seasons while gaining national fame. Pingatore coached basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, had a starring role in the 1994 documentary “Hoops Dreams,” and won a pair of state championships in what was arguably the most iconic coaching career in the history of the state. 

Curie’s eligibility scandal

Curie enjoyed a ton of success throughout the decade, including winning a state championship in 2016 and arriving as a legitimate state power over the course of the decade. 

But the biggest Curie headline became national news when in 2014, Curie, the No. 1 ranked team in the state at the time and No. 2 team in the country according to USA Today, was stripped of its 24 victories and city championship.

A Chicago Public Schools investigation revealed seven basketball players were ineligible since the beginning of the season. 

The Condors, led by star Cliff Alexander, were at one point 24-1 following a dramatic, four overtime win over Young in the city title game. Then just seven days later they were forced to forfeit all of its wins and the Public League championship.

Curie was allowed to play in the state tournament. But Alexander and a depleted Curie roster lost to DuSable, 88-85, in overtime of its regional semifinal game. 

Officially, the loss left Curie 0-26 on the season. 

Top 10 Lincoln Park season canceled

After climbing into the top 10 of the Sun-Times Super 25 rankings with a 19-3 record, Lincoln Park’s boys basketball program was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. 

The season was suspended and ultimately canceled last February with a story that rocked the high school basketball world and the Chicago Public League. 

An investigation of the school’s basketball program led to the cancellation of the season, In addition, the principal and assistant principal were removed when the investigation revealed allegations of sexual misconduct by students and adults, retaliation against witnesses and athletic recruiting violations. 

A report of misconduct involving the basketball team’s December trip to Detroit led to the probe which revealed what the CPS termed “egregious and systemic policy violations.”

Jabari Parker’s hype and Simeon’s four straight state championships

Jabari Parker entered Simeon just prior to the start of the decade with a mega-amount of fanfare. By the spring of his junior year, Parker was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and anointed by the magazine as ‘“The best high school basketball player since Lebron James.”

The 6-8 star helped lead the Wolverines to a state championship as a freshman. And then another one as a sophomore. And another one as a junior. 

Then in Parker’s final season, albeit an injury-plagued one, Simeon completed its four-peat with a state title run in 2013-14. Simeon, led by Parker and fellow four-year star Kendrick Nunn, became just the second program in state history to win four straight state championships, following Peoria Manual’s run from 1994-1997.

Jalen Brunson finger gate

Did he or didn’t he? And if he did, what was the intention?

A brief, fraction-of-a-second moment from Stevenson superstar Jalen Brunson led to confusion, instant negative reactions and a social media firestorm during the 2014 IHSA State Finals in Peoria. 

An argument could be made that the Stevenson star ranks among the state’s most decorated players in history. 

Brunson won over 100 games in his career (2012-2015) while leading three different teams to top three finishes at state including a state title. He’s among the state’s top 20 all-time scorers, a McDonald’s All-American, a consensus top 20 player in the country and a gold medalist for FIBA Americas national team. 

He even went on to win two national championships in college and was named the national Player of the Year while at Villanova. 

But in the waning moments of one of the greatest individual performances this state has ever seen –– Brunson scored 56 points in a state semifinal loss to Jahlil Okafor and Young –– a misconstrued gesture grabbed state and national headlines while becoming a major news story.

Although there was debate because the gesture was so quick and brief –– it was actually broken down many times, frame by frame, and determined it lasted one-fifth of a second –– a photojournalist did catch Brunson’s two middle fingers raised in the air. That set off a social media firestorm following the state semifinal loss. 

Tweeted Brunson: “I apologize for the image that was captured in last nights game but I do not apologize for the action because I didn’t do what was portrayed.”

Stevenson’s Jalen Brunson (15) lays in a reverse shot against Riverside-Brookfield.

Stevenson’s Jalen Brunson (15) lays in a reverse shot against Riverside-Brookfield.

Sun-Times file photo

Initially, the IHSA determined Brunson would not be able to play in the third-place game, suspending him for the apparent photo the Peoria Journal-Star ran on its blog and Twitter page. Minutes before the game, the IHSA”s Board of Directors overturned the suspension. 

The belief was that Brunson’s actions were reactionary and taken out of context, that he was reacting to a moment in the game and not flipping off the Young fans. Even the photographer from the Peoria Journal-Star later came out publicly and said he should not have used the image. If not for the photo being posted, no one would have seen or even known of Brunson’s action. 

Chicago Public League basketball decade dominance

Of the 27 state championships won in Class 2A, 3A and 4A throughout the decade, the Chicago Public League won over half of those titles. 

While there were only two classes of basketball throughout the 20 years of the 1980s and 1990s, the Public League came home with a combined four state titles; this past decade city teams won 14 state championships in just nine years. 

The Public League’s shining moment in the decade came in the 2016-17 season. Orr won the Class 2A title, Morgan Park captured the Class 3A championship while Young beat Simeon in an all-city final in Class 4A. 

Cliff Alexander’s hat trick

No one knew where Curie’s Cliff Alexander was headed on the day the 6-9 manchild was announcing his college commitment. That went for both Illinois and Kansas, presumably the final two leaders in a group that included DePaul and Memphis. The coaching staffs at both Illinois and Kansas just kept their fingers crossed in the final hours of that November day in 2013.

Cliff Alexander dunks.

Cliff Alexander dunks.

Sun-Times file photo

Alexander, a five-star recruit and top five player in the country, provided a gut-punch to Illinois fans who tuned in for his national television announcement. Alexander reached for and briefly grabbed the Illinois hat in front of him before setting it down and putting the Kansas hat on his head.

The video of Alexander’s rope-a-dope went viral. There was outrage on social media among Illinois fans across the state with several very funny reactions of disbelief caught on video.

North Lawndale/Farragut brawl leads to sectional forfeit

The IHSA disqualified both Farragut and North Lawndale from the state basketball tournament when an ugly brawl erupted at the end of their sectional championship game showdown. 

Farragut led North Lawndale 56-50 in the closing minutes when a Farragut player was undercut on a dunk attempt. That incident ignited players and a fight broke out involving players and fans. 

As result, DePaul Prep advanced to Peoria and the Class 3A State Finals without having to play a super-sectional game.

Illinois prep NBA Lottery picks

There was a four-year run stretch where the state was front and center during the NBA Draft in June. 

The state produced five NBA Lottery picks during that time, including No. 1 pick Anthony Davis (Perspectives) in 2012, No. 2 pick Jabari Parker (Simeon) in 2014 and No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor (Young) in 2015. 

In addition, Meyers Leonard (Robinson) went No. 12 in 2012 and Frank Kaminsky (Benet) was the No. 9 selection in 2015. 

State prep stars on NCAA’s biggest stage

An overlooked but unprecedented and brilliant run of Illinois prep players playing in the NCAA National Championship Game was certainly one of the biggest highlights of the decade. 

During an eight-year stretch in the decade (2012-2019), the NCAA title game had at least one former Illinois perp player competing in the championship game each year. In total, the state had 10 different players playing in NCAA Tournament championship games during that period. 

The list included Kentucky’s Anthony Davis (Perspectives) in 2012, Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear (Morgan Park) in 2013, UConn’s Ryan Boatright (East Aurora) in 2014, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor (Young) and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky (Benet) and Duje Dukan (Deerfield) in 2015, Villanova’s Jalen Brunson (Stevenson) in 2016 and 2018, Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell (Simeon) in 2017), Michigan’s Charles Matthews (St. Rita) in 2018 and Texas Tech’s Matt Mooney (Notre Dame) in 2019. 

What made the moment even greater was the fact Davis, Blackshear, Boatright and Okafor all won titles with Brunson winning a pair of titles. 

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