The Sun-Times archive is littered with stories proclaiming 1971-72 Thornridge as the greatest team in state history.
Debates spring up after Peoria Manual’s run of four consecutive Class AA state titles from 1994 to 1997 and Simeon’s run of four consecutive Class 4A state titles from 2010-2013.
I watched Manual win all four titles in person and saw them play at Pontiac during the run so I’m very familiar with that group. I covered the Simeon teams, so I was at every significant game during those four years. So I have a handle on those two contenders.
But I wasn’t even born in 1972. I remember when this game first popped up on YouTube. I believe I mentioned it on Twitter and I sat down and watched it.
Speed is hard to measure on tape. And it is even harder on an old black and white broadcast with a tiny screen size. And by all accounts, speed was one of the major keys to 1972 Thornridge’s press defense.
So this week I sat down to really watch the 1972 title game. I got out the legal pad and kept stats. And then I watched it one more time, just to be sure.
Quinn Buckner, a two-time Sun-Times Player of the Year, reminds me so much of Quentin Richardson and Sergio McClain. He’s an undeniable, dependable force.
The 1972 Falcons averaged 88 points and limited opponents to 52. They shot more than 50 percent. No one got within 14 points of them all season. They went undefeated and scored 104 points in the state championship game. 1972 Thornridge is still the only team to break the 100-point mark in a state title game.
In 1995, a national publication ranked the 1972 Falcons as the fourth best high school team in United States history. They were behind Baltimore Dunbar 1982-83, Power Memorial 1963-64 of New York City and DeMatha 1964-65 of Hyattsville, Md.
The survey was put together by a committee of sportswriters, talent scouts and coaches. Thornridge finished ahead of teams led by Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain.
Illinois placed four teams among the top 25 - Thornridge, King 1989-90 (10), King 1985-86 (18) and Quincy 1980-81 (20). Proviso East 1990-91 earned honorable mention.
But that was in 1995, before Manual and Simeon had their dominant runs. It was before Illinois high school teams were allowed to travel all around the country.
There is no question that the 1972 Falcons were the most dominant team in state history. The Manual and Simeon teams did not dominate the state the way 1972 Thornridge did. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t better teams.
On the broadcast of the 1972 title game the play-by-play man makes an interesting statement:
“I think it is safe to assume that as great as the ball clubs of the past were. And this I mean sincerely in no way to demean the great athletes that played and won championships here, I just believe youngsters today are bigger, stronger, quicker and above all, better trained and better coached.”
He was right. And the same holds 50 years later.
Simeon coach Bob Hambric weighed in on the matter in 2007, comparing Thornridge to Derrick Rose’s Simeon teams and the Manual dynasty.
‘’That was too long ago,’’ Hambric said. ‘’Basketball has changed too much to compare those teams.’’
Legendary Quincy coach Jerry Leggett also chimed in after Manual won the fourth consecutive title in 1997.
“Thornridge was the greatest team of the 1970s, Quincy was the best team of the 1980s and Peoria Manual is the best of the 1990s,” Leggett said.
“Players are bigger, stronger and better. There are better coaches, too. And so much summer competition. Physically, the players are quite different. That’s why Quincy was better than Thornridge and Peoria Manual is better than Quincy.”
Champaign-Urbana sportswriter Loren Tate in 1997: “Thornridge was a dominant team in 1972, but I don’t think they could beat Thornton now because of the advancements in basketball over a period of time. No one ever had to beat a team as good as Thornton, as Manual did.”
So I’m not alone in thinking current players would just be too much for a 1972 high school basketball team. Even the most dominant squad in state history.
The 1997 Manual team featuring McLain, Marcus Griffin and Frankie Williams was the USA Today national champion. They finished 31-1 and I believe they would have beaten 1972 Thornridge six or seven times if they played 10 games.
I’ll also take 2007 Simeon (Derrick Rose, Tim Flowers, Kevin Johnson, Bryant Orange, Brandon Hall) in six of ten games against 1972 Thornridge. That’s the team that beat Oak Hill at UIC, which is the best performance I’ve ever seen from a high school team. 2007 Simeon and 1972 Thornridge are similar, they rely on teamwork more than individual talent. But I don’t see how the Falcons could successfully press Rose.
Then there is 2013 Simeon. It’s unquestionably the greatest collection of talent the state has ever seen: Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn, Kendall Pollard, Russell Woods, Jaylon Tate, Donte Ingram, DJ Williams, Ben Coupet, Zach Norvell, Ed Morrow, Josh Thomas.
That Wolverines squad is difficult to judge over the course of the season because Parker was injured and missed games early in the season and then slowly played his way into shape over the next several months.
But what we saw from 2013 Simeon in Peoria was fantastic. Parker was excellent. The Wolverines dominated Jalen Brunson’s Stevenson team, an eventual state champion, in the title game.
I’d take 2013 Simeon to win seven or eight of 10 against 1972 Thornridge. And this might upset some people, but I think there are several teams over the last 30 years that could give the Falcons a game.
Watch 1972 Thornridge for yourself and see what you think. Unfortunately the Sun-Times online archive doesn’t go back to 1972, so I couldn’t post the original game story. But I did include a Taylor Bell feature on the Falcons below the video.
Oh, and they interviewed some of the player’s girlfriends at halftime of the tv broadcast, which is totally weird.
1971-72 Thornridge (33-0)
F Greg Rose 6-3 Jr. 19 ppg
F Ernie Dunn 6-1 Sr. 12 ppg
C Boyd Batts 6-7 Sr. 23 ppg
G Quinn Buckner 6-3 Sr. 20 ppg
G Mike Bonczyk 5-9 Sr. 10 ppg
Trip down memory lane - Even after 30 years, Illinois basketball hasn’t seen equal of Thornridge 1972
March 12, 2002
BY TAYLOR BELL
They were the best there ever was.
Even today, on the 30th anniversary of its crowning achievement, Thornridge’s 1972 basketball team generally is regarded as the best in state history.
How do we know? Because no coach has stepped forward to argue that his team was as good or better.
In a survey of 150 coaches, players and media conducted by high school sports historian Pat Heston, Thornridge 1972 earned 1,456 points. Taylorville 1944 was second with 727 and Quincy 1981 was third with 705. They were followed by Collinsville 1961, Mount Vernon 1950, Centralia 1941, Marshall 1958, Peoria Manual 1997, King 1993, Lyons 1953 and King 1990.
Coach Ron Ferguson’s Falcons were special. Check the math. In a 33-0 season, they averaged 88 points and allowed an average of 55. They defeated 14 conference champions and forged a state-record 58-game winning streak that stood for 10 years.
In the state playoffs, they won by margins of 28, 29, 19 and 35 points. Their 104-69 slam-dunking of Quincy in the championship game is considered the standard by which all others are measured. It was a Rembrandt in a gallery full of Warhols.
But the most eye-popping statistic is that no opponent finished closer than 14 points. Talk about pressure. They were the defending state champions with a big target on their backs for everyone to shoot at, and no one came closer than two touchdowns.
“I never saw a better team,” said Peoria Manual’s Dick Van Scyoc, who coached for 44 years and won more games (826) than any coach in state history. I was proud that we lost to them three times [and finished fourth in the 1972 state tournament]. We didn’t lose to an ordinary team.”
During warmups, it looked like an ordinary team. At 6-7, rail-thin Boyd Batts was the only player taller than 6-3. Quinn Buckner and Greg Rose were 6-3, Ernie Dunn was 6-2 and point guard Mike Bonczyk was 5-9. Sixth man Nee Gatlin was 6-3. The bench didn’t go any deeper.
What separated the Falcons from everyone else was their teamwork, versatility, unselfishness, 1-2-1-1 press, athleticism and quickness. Toss in the leadership of Buckner and Bonczyk, and you have an unforgettable chapter in the history of the sport in Illinois.
“Every player was quick and athletic and could handle the ball,” Ferguson said. In college, you can’t do that. We didn’t have to hide anyone defensively. I’ve never said we were the best team. But we were as dominating in our era as any team has ever been.”
The players were 17 and 18 then. Now they are 47 and 48. But they haven’t forgotten what each says was the most memorable experience of his life.
“It was the best time of my life,” said Buckner, who went on to win an NCAA championship at Indiana, gold medals at the Pan American Games and the Olympics and an NBA championship with the Boston Celtics. I was doing something I loved to do with friends I knew all my life, and my family was watching me.
Even though we had distractions at the time, we had something to rally around. We had great resolve. For a young group, we were pretty focused to be good. It says something about your character when you win one year, then go back and win again. It’s always tougher the second time around.”
Batts and Rose were free spirits. Batts had a fiery temper. If he didn’t get the ball often enough, he pouted. Rose had two children when he was in high school. To feed them and pay bills, the young singer/guitarist/drummer played musical gigs at local nightclubs until the wee hours of the morning.
Boyd was a hothead, but he trusted me,” said Buckner, now a basketball commentator for ESPN and the Indiana Pacers. I got him to do things that he didn’t like to do. We’d get Boyd and Greg the ball to shoot, and they’d be happy. All I cared about was winning.”
Rose, who continued his singing career in California, and Batts, who played professionally in Europe for 15 years and now is a postal worker in Madison, Wis., recall that they never again played for a team that demonstrated such teamwork and fundamental skills.
“I still play, but today’s kids don’t listen to old-school attitudes that we had,” Rose said. [Kids] don’t understand the game. We didn’t depend on one player to carry the team. We had fun.”
It gives you a special feeling inside, knowing that 30 years ago you accomplished something that people still remember,” Batts said.
The team’s quickness and pressing defense, which featured principles that Ferguson copied from Collinsville coach Vergil Fletcher’s ball-press, separated them from others. But Bonczyk said he thought what made the Falcons unique, even by today’s standards, was their unselfishness.
“It was about winning, not individual goals. That separates great teams from good ones,” said Bonczyk, who later played at Illinois State, coached a state championship team in Kansas and now is the head coach at Notre Dame High School in Peoria.
We were an unselfish team. Today, society is so selfish. But when we stepped on the court, there was no pettiness or jealousy. We played roles. We were uncannily unselfish. It wasn’t about me, it was about all of us.”
The experience taught Dunn, now an executive for one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world, how to succeed beyond basketball.
“It taught me that if you work hard, you reap a lot of benefits,” Dunn said. We learned how to deal with people and different situations. I have never found that kind of chemistry with a bunch of kids. People know the game, but you can’t find kids with the same kind of understanding of the game that we had. Everything flowed. Everything was automatic.”
And Ferguson was the ringleader. He had a knack for organization. He later served as the athletic director at Bradley University for 18 years and as the director of special events and assistant to the university president for three years.
“We were ahead of our time,” Buckner said. “Basketball hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. You still put as much pressure on people as you can. If you can do anything more efficiently or faster than they can, you can beat them.
“It was one of the highs of my life. It framed my life. I was part of something very early that gave me confidence to handle pressure in any given situation. When it was over, we had a better perspective. It was the end of a great era. We were ready to take the next step in our lives.”