On a school playground somewhere south of Roosevelt and north of 138th Street, Chicago’s next basketball prodigy goes fearlessly to the rim. He’s 12 years old, but he’s already got the dexterity of a 12-year veteran. His crossover is fierce yet understated and elicits the slack-jawed admiration of his classmates, as he first takes a defender off the dribble to his left, then to his right.
Three years from now, that same crossover will bring crowds to their feet as he tries to carve his name into the annals of CPS history at the school of his choice – probably somewhere like Simeon or Whitney Young. However, despite the seemingly infinite number of great basketball programs in Chicago, the decision on where he plays his high school ball will be a layup compared to his college recruitment.
Two hours south down I-57, the University of Illinois athletic department and head men’s basketball coach John Groce are hard at work, desperately trying to develop inroads to the talent laden Chicago basketball scene. He’s trying to make it an easier choice.
For years, Illinois basketball has lain dormant – a true napping colossus in the world of college basketball. The Fighting Illini have made a pair of Final Fours in the past quarter-century, and they’ve happily puttered about on the fringe of national relevance under Lou Henson, Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber.
However, it’s not enough for the flagship university in a state with such a rich basketball tradition (Illinois is the originator of “March Madness”) and an elite level of local talent. John Groce’s, and to an even larger extent AD Mike Thomas’, job depends on doing more.
With Depaul a non-factor and Northwestern a never-was, there has been a significant void in Chicago. The city lacks a premier destination for all its high school talent. For a short time, Illinois stepped up in the late 80’s.
The Illini went Flyin’ in 1989 behind city stars like Nick Anderson, Marcus Liberty and Lowell Hamilton. Had it not been for the tragic death of Simeon star Benji Wilson, who many believed was a lock to join his friend Anderson at U of I, Lou Henson’s only Final Four team at Illinois may have cut down the nets in Seattle.
However, the Illini have never been able to consistently pull the city’s best players. They still actively recruit the area, but they’re jockeying for position with the rest of Midwest and national powerhouses like Kentucky and North Carolina.
Not all of that is Illinois’ fault. Recruiting in Chicago is… well… complicated.
It’s become increasingly difficult over the years to gauge the motives of those influencing the decisions of a lot of the city’s elite level prospects. It’s been even harder to figure out who the hell the real influences actually are. Is it the AAU coach, the HS coach, the parents, the pastor, some distant relative or the girlfriend? A lot of times, nobody has a clue.
More often than not, no matter whom it is that handles the affairs of these prospects, the intentions are less than scrupulous. In the Chicago Public League, and in segments of the rest of Chicago’s high school basketball scene, greasing pockets has become as commonplace as the pick and roll.
When that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine any one school truly dominantly recruiting Chicago because of how many red flags it would have to raise. However, as the NCAA slowly plays catch up and levels the playing field, Chicago will become a place where a school like Illinois can really stock up.
If they can be successful, that is.
John Groce is certainly off to a blistering start. After being picked almost unanimously to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten, the Illini are now 8-0 and are ranked No. 22 in both the AP and the Coach’s polls.
That’s a start.
Winning will get Groce face-time with Chicago prospects and area coaches. As he continues to build those relationships, he’ll be able to establish a brand within the city.
But, it isn’t about simply winning. Eventually, John Groce will have to prove he can routinely put players into the NBA, and prove that he can do it quickly. With Kentucky and North Carolina thriving on farming NBA talent, Illinois has to prove they can do the same thing for inner-city Chicago kids looking to quickly secure their financial futures.
As of now, that’s not something you can hold against Groce, having come from a mid-major school, but he will inevitably have to “produce” NBA stars.
Nobody in the country, specifically in the Midwest wants to see that happen – certainly not in the Big Ten. Because if John Groce continues to win, AND puts players in The Association, that CPS pipeline might finally be more than a pipedream, and that means championships.
Big Ten championships and national championships.
Chicago is too big and produces far too much talent for anyone to build the proverbial fence around its borders, but anyone who lands three or four of the city’s best players annually is going to be a major player nationally. That’s the type of potential Illinois has.
It’s the type of potential Illinois has had for 25 years, but when you win the Maui Invitational and start off 8-0 under a first-year head coach, reaching that potential and landing the next big Chicago star all seems within reason.
Illinois is 8-0, but will the 12-year old ankle-breaker take notice?
Time will tell.