Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dante's Peak

I own a No. 17 jersey worn by Dante Calabria during his preseason stint with the Chicago Bulls in 1997. A precious few can write that sentence, probably just me and Calabria himself and maybe one of his close relations. The jersey was a gift from my wife on our wedding day, which arguably ranks among the coolest things ever.

The reason that my blushing bride scoured the Interwebs for that present is that Calabria is among my favorite players of all time. And since Calabria recently retired after 13 successful seasons in Europe, it seems an appropriate time to sing his praises.

Most U.S. basketball fans, of course, remember Calabria from his four years at North Carolina, where he was around for some heady times with the Tar Heels. Despite being a 2,000-point scorer under legendary coach John Miller at Black Hawk (Pa.) High School, Calabria was an under-the-radar recruit. Nonetheless, Calabria earned limited action as a freshman and played a minute in the Tar Heels’ 77-71 victory over Michigan in the 1993 NCAA championship game. Calabria’s role expanded from there, and his well-rounded skill-set meshed with Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse for two years, then with Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter for one season.

Dean Smith always praised Calabria’s hands. UNC’s coaching deity also loved Calabria’s passing ability and versatility, sometimes even inserting the 6-4 wing player at point guard. Calabria was also skilled practitioner of one of the game’s subtle arts: the entry pass to the post. If you watch a highlight package of Wallace’s college dunks, a lot of them came on gorgeous feeds from Calabria that perfectly led Wallace away from the defense and into scoring position.

Calabria’s most overt skill was his shooting touch. He had classical form on his jump shot, learned from his father, Chad Calabria, who starred at Iowa in the late 1960s. Dante Calabria shot 41.4% (188 of 454) on three-pointers during his four years with the Tar Heels. His best season came in 1994-’95, with defenses keyed on stopping Stackhouse and Wallace. That space allowed Calabria enough good looks to finish a remarkable 49.6% (66 of 133) on three-pointers.

Rare was the game in which Calabria carried the scoring load for UNC, but it happened in the third-ranked Tar Heels’ 100-70 victory over Florida State on Jan. 25, 1995. Seminoles coach Pat Kennedy started out with Bob Sura on Calabria, who drilled his first three-pointer after the defense lost track of him at the 17:40 mark of the first half. After the first eight minutes and a variety of zone looks by Florida State, Calabria had 11 points and made his first 3 three-pointers. He finished with 8 three-pointers in the game, including three during the game-clinching run in the second half, to tie Hubert Davis’ UNC record.

Calabria’s persona was also essential in his appeal. He played with a remarkable placidity, a common trait among great shooters. Calabria rocked low-top white sneakers with no socks showing, a rebellion against what was sartorially popular at the time (think of the high socks and heavy black shoes of Kerry Kittles and Glenn Robinson). Calabria’s singular style also often included an arm band just below his shoulder with the initials “C.S.” a tribute to his friend Chris Street, the Iowa player who died in a car wreck during the 1992-’93 season.

Calabria was categorized as a “grunge” player, a designation that was as cringe-worthy then as it is dated now. He was tagged with the label mostly because of his unkempt locks and an often-cited affection for Pearl Jam. It seems benign now but it went against the often buttoned-down approach of most UNC players under Smith. The cultivation of this “alternative” image, along with his leading-man looks, undoubtedly explained Calabria’s popularity with the female demographic.

All of this explains why I was such a fan of Calabria. Being in high school during Calabria’s heyday, all I wanted to do with my life was shoot threes, listen to “Vitalogy,” impress girls with my indifferent demeanor and be the cool white dude who got to play with the likes of Stackhouse and Wallace.

Calabria wasn’t drafted by an NBA team, but quickly found his niche overseas. He would surface Stateside during the summer leagues and show flashes of brilliance for the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Lakers (including 33 points on 14-for-16 shooting for L.A. against the Rockets in a 2001 summer league game).

But Calabria never played a regular-season game in the NBA. The closest he came was his preseason run with the Bulls in 1997-’98. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman weren’t playing because of injuries, so Calabria filled the team’s need for warm bodies. Calabria accompanied Chicago to the McDonald’s Open in Paris, where adoring crowds filled the Palais Omnisport de Bercy for a chance to watch Michael Jordan.

Calabria didn’t see any action as the Bulls wore their red jerseys in an 89-82 victory over PSG Racing. But in the championship game against Olympiakos Piraeus, with the Bulls leading, 93-70, Calabria and his white jersey checked into the game with 4:12 remaining. He shared the court with Rusty LaRue, Keith Booth, Boris Gorenc and Joe Klein. Calabria brought the ball up the court, got an offensive rebound, missed two shots and notched a steal during garbage time of the 104-78 victory.

I remember watching that game and fervently wishing Calabria could reprise that game against Florida State and earn a spot on a team that was destined to win its sixth championship of the 1990s. That didn’t stand to reason because the Bulls didn’t have a roster spot and Calabria’s game was more suited for Europe. He was waived shortly after the Bulls returned home. I didn’t give up hope for an NBA career, though, because that was my guy and there are always players who hit you at just the right times. And, little did I know that I would one day own that Bulls jersey.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Other Guys

Few games have more historical significance than the 1979 NCAA championship game. Michigan State’s 75-64 victory over Indiana State in Salt Lake City gave fans the first taste of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. It remains one of the most-watched basketball matchups ever.

But, quick, what happened in the semifinals of the 1979 Final Four? It’s easy to forget about Penn, which was dominated by the Spartans, 101-67. And despite all that sprang forth from the title game, Bird would probably rather have people remember the Sycamores’ 76-74 victory over DePaul.

Often lost among all the mythologizing and rhapsodic re-telling is the fact that Bird struggled against Michigan State, playing with a hurt thumb and scoring 19 points on just 7-for-21 shooting. He was the focus of double teams by the Spartans throughout the game. That stood in stark contrast to the strategy of DePaul coach Ray Meyer in the semifinals. The Blue Demons thought that they would let Bird score, but completely shut down the rest of his less-heralded teammates.

In retrospect, that probably wasn’t Meyer’s smartest coaching decision. Bird had gotten a fair amount of publicity, but the Sycamores’ game against DePaul would be the first time that a large national audience got to see him play.

Bird didn’t leave anyone disappointed. He was outstanding from the jump ball, which fell to Bird, who expertly tapped it to a streaking Carl Nicks for a layup. A few minutes later, Bird found some space against DePaul’s Curtis Watkins and got his first points on a 15-footer off the glass.

It was a sign of things to come. After the first 20 minutes, Indiana State had a 45-42 lead and Bird had 23 points on 11-for-12 shooting. He scored from all over the court, with either hand, making true believers of the venerable NBC announcing crew of Al McGuire, Billy Packer, Dick Enberg and sideline reporter Bryant Gumbel.

Watkins was hampered by a bum knee and couldn’t slow Bird. The Blue Demons also played their five starters for the entirety of the game, so they sometimes switched to a 2-3 zone to conserve energy. There probably isn’t a player in basketball history more equipped than Bird to destroy a zone. He had the brains to find the soft spots, the shooting touch and the passing vision when the defense collapsed on him. Bird finished with 35 points on 16-for-19 shooting, with 16 rebounds and nine assists.

Still, Indiana State could not put away DePaul. All five of the Blue Demons’ starters would be drafted by NBA teams, and they were led in this game by hotshot freshman Mark Aguirre and Gary Garland, who went by the nickname “the Music Man” and later worked as a backup singer for half-sister Whitney Houston.

Aguirre had 19 points, but missed his chance to alter history. With DePaul trailing, 75-74, in the waning seconds, Aguirre’s long jumper bounced off the rim and into the hands of Indiana State’s Leroy Staley, who added a free throw for the final margin.

If Aguirre’s shot had fallen, who knows how the next few years of basketball would have played out. Johnson and Bird certainly still would have been NBA stars, but there wouldn’t be the narrative of their rivalry without the founding story of the 1979 NCAA championship game. You just don’t mess with destiny.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Basket Case

Scottie Pippen now has a rightful place alongside the best players ever. But in the run-up to his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, it seemingly was a must to bring up the 1.8 seconds.

Pippen infamously refused to come back onto the court after Phil Jackson drew up the winning shot for Toni Kukoc in the Chicago Bulls’ 104-102 victory over the New York Knicks in Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals. The incident has been used to darken Pippen’s reputation as a selfish player. Somehow it also cemented the idea in some people’s minds that Pippen didn’t know how to handle being the locus of attention on a team.

The 1.8 seconds, of course, are merely a blip on Pippen’s remarkable road from abject poverty to team manager at Central Arkansas to one of the greatest NBA players of all time. But that shot should have been Pippen’s, and it is a good surmise that if Phil Jackson had to do it over again, Pete Myers would have been lobbing the ball in for No. 33.

Pippen momentarily lost his mind. It was a childish decision, to be sure, but it was a split-second response to a highly emotional situation. It helps Pippen’s side of the argument to get the full back story.

There was already the emotionally fraught dynamic between Pippen and Kukoc. This was also Pippen’s first year playing in the NBA without Michael Jordan, and the running theme of the season was whether Pippen could truly be a top dog.

Then there were the Knicks. Pat Riley’s teams had tried to scrap and pull and grab their way past the Bulls for years, often targeting Pippen for the most physicality. With Jordan off on his baseball sabbatical, the Knicks sensed a window of opportunity and were going to do whatever it took to knock the Bulls aside.

Pippen was often frustrated by the physical play. In this series, he had five fouls in Game 1 and fouled out of Game 2. It didn’t take long for the Knicks to go hard at Pippen in Game 3. Charles Smith checked into the game with eight minutes left in the first period and was involved in two shoving matches with Pippen in the span of 60 seconds.

All the grappling spilled over in the second quarter, when Bulls reserve Jo Jo English and Knicks guard Derek Harper touched off a brawl that spilled in the stands at Chicago Stadium just a few feet from the watchful eyes of NBA Commissioner David Stern.

So emotions were definitely running high in this game. Pippen was in the middle of the scrum but was mostly acting as a peacemaker. This was his team, the Bulls needed him on the court, and he took his job very seriously. He set the tone defensively, as always, guarding Harper on the ball, chasing sharpshooter Hubert Davis on the perimeter and bumping with Anthony Mason on the blocks. Pippen also got on teammate Luc Longley for being too passive and got in the ear of Scott Williams for being too reactive.

Pippen was also in the groove offensively. He had 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting at halftime. He pushed the tempo of the game as the Bulls upped the lead to 22 points at one point in the third quarter. Stupid fouls and mental mistakes by the Bulls let the Knicks back into game. Pippen scored his final basket to give him 25 points and the Bulls a 98-86 lead with just under five minutes remaining.

Pippen was obviously going full-tilt to get the Bulls past a hated rival. What was Kukoc doing? Not much. The rookie made a few nice passes, had some nifty post moves, but played only 13 minutes. Kukoc hadn’t been in on the court at all in the fourth quarter until checking in after the Knicks cut the lead to 102-100 in the final 30 seconds.

Pippen had his chance to the play the hero here but was caught with the ball as the shot clock was running out. He tried to make a one-on-one play but ran out of room on the wing because Kukoc was firmly planted in the corner. After Pippen’s wild three-pointer missed badly and the Knicks called timeout, he was seen yelling at Kukoc as the teams headed to their huddles.

So after Patrick Ewing’s runner tied the game, leaving those famous 1.8 seconds, and Jackson put the ball in Kukoc’s inexperienced hands, it was all too much for Pippen.

He melted down in an impossibly charged atmosphere. Who knows why “The Zenmaster” entrusted a rookie that was often criticized as being soft? Perhaps he knew that, with the Bulls inbounding on the right side, the left-handed Kukoc could field a lob pass against Mason and get off an easier shot than a right-hander could.

You can’t argue with the result: Kukoc calmly sank the jumper at the top of the key. But you can certainly argue with those who permanently grade down Pippen for refusing to play those 1.8 seconds. It was his team and his game to win against an opponent that had bullied and bloodied him in the past. That should have been Pippen’s shot.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Friars Club

The 1988-’89 St. Anthony (N.J.) Friars can legitimately lay claim to being one of the greatest high school teams of all time.

A cogent argument can be made for any of the Baltimore Dunbar Poets teams that went undefeated from 1981-’83 and, at various times, featured future NBA players Mugsey Bogues, Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Reggie Lewis. LeBron James’ teams at Ohio’s St. Vincent/St. Mary have gotten a fair amount of hype recently as well.

But the reason St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley Sr. can now call himself a Hall of Famer is that his teams are always tough defensively and highly disciplined on offense, with the ’88-’89 team best personifying his philosophies. Hurley’s teams also boast big names, and these Friars had Bobby Hurley, Terry Dehere, Jerry Walker and freshman big man Rodrick Rhodes.

That team was at the vanguard of the explosion in popularity of high school basketball. The Friars played a national schedule, flying to big tournaments from coast to coast. This is commonplace for powerhouse teams now, but it was rather revolutionary at the time. Hurley and other elite coaches drew criticism for what some deemed the “professionalization” of amateur athletics. But it is hard to argue with a loaded team like St. Anthony that needed to seek out the best competition available. What is the point of sticking around New Jersey and beating vastly inferior teams by 40 points every game?

The Friars also got national publicity. They even had a game televised by ESPN: a 64-45 victory over Flint Hill (Va.) in the championship game of the King Cotton Classic on Dec. 29, 1988, in Pine Bluff, Ark.

The tournament was one of the biggest for top-shelf prep teams, along with the Big Time in Las Vegas and the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C. ESPN’s first televised regular-season high school game was the 1987 King Cotton title game.

A year later, the nation had the chance to see how far prep hoops had come. St. Anthony’s opponent, Flint Hill, epitomized the new order. The prep school had taken its cues from another Virginia institution, Oak Hill Academy, in piecing together teams of all-stars.

Whereas St. Anthony largely took players from its area (granted it is a very fertile vineyard for the game), Oak Hill had set the standard of bringing in blue-chip recruits from anywhere, which in turn brought prestige and money to the school. This set the stage for the cash grab of the bloated 1990s, when fly-by-night schools cropped up across the U.S.

Flint Hill didn’t yet have that national reach, but it had struck gold by mining players from the Washington, D.C., area. The 1988-’89 team was anchored by senior forward George Lynch and junior guard Randolph Childress, both future ACC stars, and was widely seen as the No. 2 team in the country after St. Anthony.

So the nationally televised matchup was highly anticipated. It didn’t take long for St. Anthony to show that it was on a different level than Flint Hill. The Friars’ swarming help defense held Lynch scoreless in the first half, and the future stalwart defender was repeatedly torched by Walker (19 points and nine rebounds.)

Childress had just as much trouble with the younger Hurley, whose heady game was already fully formed. Hurley, as he always would, looked like a player that wouldn’t be out of place on a JV team. But he was the fearless leader of this team, and by the time he came out of the game late in the fourth quarter, he had 24 points, four rebounds and four assists. True to the breed of coach’s sons, Hurley rarely made bad decisions with the ball. Childress and Lynch combined for only 14 points. In fact, Flint Hill’s best prospect looked like future Villanova player Aaron Bain.

St. Anthony easily passed its biggest test of the young season. The Friars would run the table, finishing 32-0 and claiming that mythical national championship. The best prep team ever? Impossible to say, of course, but you certainly can’t go wrong by backing the 1988-’89 St. Anthony Friars.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Art of the Steal

Talking about defense is never easy. As hard as it is to actually play good defense, it’s almost as difficult to analyze during a game. There are so many strategies and moving parts that the human eye can’t process all the information at once. That’s why discussing it is usually limited to played-out maxims like “defense wins championships.”

Few coaches, on any level, have taught the nuts and bolts of defense like Dick Bennett. The crown jewel of Bennett’s impressive coaching career was taking a band of hard-nosed players at Wisconsin to the 2000 Final Four. UW was often criticized for its methodical offense, but the team made its bones on defense and the Badgers were fourth in the nation that season in scoring defense at 58.8 points per game.

Spearheading that team’s defense was point guard Mike Kelley, the school’s all-time steals leader with 275 and generally regarded as one of the best off-the-ball defenders in recent college basketball memory. He also shares UW’s single-game record for thefts with 10 against Texas on Dec. 7, 1999.

Probably Kelley’s best defensive work came in the first two games of the Badgers’ tournament run in 2000. The four players he matched up with all later played in the NBA — Fresno State’s Courtney Alexander and Arizona’s Luke Walton, Richard Jefferson and Gilbert Arenas.

Kelley had run into trouble before with big, athletic guards (Ball State’s Bonzi Wells gave him fits one game). Alexander fit that mold. Fresno State’s star led the nation in scoring at 25.3 points per game, so Kelley had to be in top form.

Kelley responded early, fighting around a screen by Fresno State’s Larry Abney, then jumping into the passing lane with his right hand to steal a pass by Demetrius Porter just over a minute into the game. That led to a fast-break layup and was the first of 17 turnovers by the Bulldogs. Alexander couldn’t get by Kelley and never looked comfortable, finishing 5 of 19 for just 11 points as UW won, 66-56. Kelley had six steals to match his assists.

Against Arizona, Kelley struck early again, knocking the ball away from Walton for a steal at the 18:40 mark. However, guarding Jefferson, Kelley picked up his second foul with 14:29 still to play in the first half. Kelley had to watch from the bench as Arenas got hot. The future “Agent Zero” had 12 of Arizona’s 23 points at halftime on 5-for-9 shooting.

Kelley was tasked with slowing down Arenas in the second half. He harassed Arenas into going 2 for 9 in the final 20 minutes. Kelley had five steals as UW knocked off the top-seeded Wildcats, 66-59.

So what did Kelley do so well? Why were the Badgers so good at slowing other teams’ offenses? Again, dissecting defense is difficult, so it is best to go straight to the source. After all, Kelley moonlights as an ESPN game analyst. Kelley was kind enough to respond to some wonky questions about defense, Bennett and the 2000 tournament.

Q. In the first two rounds of the 2000 NCAA tournament, you spent time guarding some future pro players, mostly Alexander, Jefferson and Arenas. Do you remember anything about your game plan for defending them?

A. We (I) had a more specific game plan against Alexander than the other two. The NCAA loss in the first round the prior year left such a bad taste in our mouth that we didn’t even bother worrying about our second round matchup, we just wanted to get a “W” any way we could. So, for Fresno State, the coaches spliced together all of his shots from about 3-4 games (I think they were his conference tournament games, but can’t remember exactly). It was a highlight tape like you wouldn’t believe. It was frightening because the guy could/would score from anywhere. But we were able to notice that when he went to his left, he usually pulled up for a mid-range jumper, and when he went right he went all the way to the bucket. He also preferred to take the deep 3 above all else. With that knowledge, our plan was to extend our “Pack” defense on him and take away the quick 3. Then force him left (a typical plan with a right-handed shooter) with the understanding that I needed to be ready for a quick pull-up.

Q. Coach Bennett is hailed as a defensive mastermind. What were his core principles on defense and what did he teach you as an individual?

A. Coach Bennett IS a defensive mastermind, and I don’t think you could find any of his peers that would disagree. He taught the “Pack” defense, which essentially consisted of a mini-three point line set in about two feet from the standard three-point line. The idea was that unless you were guarding the ball, you had to be inside the pack. A typical drill for us consisted of a half court 5-on-4 game where the defense had to match up one-on-one and the offense had one extra guard trying to penetrate. The extra guard could only shoot a layup or drive and dish to a teammate, but his goal was to test out the help ability of the defense. Tony Bennett typically played the extra offensive guy and he was fantastic. Bottom line, I’m a firm believer in the adage, “You are what you emphasize,” and with Coach Bennett, everything started and ended with the “D.”

Q. Creating steals has been compared to playing poker and reading an opponents “tells.” Is that something you pick up through playing a lot or is it a skill gleaned from watching video of other players?

A. The majority of defense is effort and positioning. If you want to be good at it, are willing to put in the effort, and have some basic principles that all five guys are trying to execute at the same time, you’re guaranteed an above average defensive team. I would say most steals come from within the normal course of business when playing in that sort of system. But the remaining steals typically come from the “tells” and almost always are learned on the fly … you see an opponent who’s winded and getting lazy with the ball, or maybe he’s not curling hard off a screen, etc. It’s kind of hard to explain, but you just see things or patterns that you’ve seen before or you just get a gut instinct and you go for it.

Q. You were lauded as a great off-the-ball defender. What did you focus on when your man didn't have the ball? How do you know how much space to give?

A. When defending a shooter off the ball, more than anything you have to focus on the screens. If you get picked off by a screen, it doesn’t matter how fast your closing speed is, it’s too late. As a result, I was allowed greater leniency to be out of the typical help position — because the further you are removed from the guy you’re defending, the easier it is to get caught up in the melee and get screened. The better the player/scorer, the closer I stayed at all times.

Q. How do you know when to gamble in the passing lanes for a steal? Do you get more conservative if the game is close?

A. It all depends. I probably got more conservative later in close games because of the risk involved. Also, I typically never tried to jump the passing lanes right away in a game because the other team was fresh and thus their passes were crisper. Usually after a few minutes you’ll notice a lazy pass here or there and then you start to look for your chances.

Q. What is the order of importance for getting steals — hands, feet, heart and head?

A. Great (tough) question. If I had to put in order, I would say heart, head (eyes/brain), feet, hands. As stated above, if you really want it and are willing to put in the work (heart), and have been taught a solid defensive system (head/feet), you’re 90% there.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Gone Too Soon

There is no greater basketball tragedy than Ben Wilson’s story. Len Bias’ death of a cocaine overdose shocked the sports world, but it is unassailably true that Bias put himself in a bad position that night.

Wilson was shot and killed in Chicago after accidentally bumping into three young men while crossing the street on the eve of the first basketball game of his senior year in high school. Wilson was already a legend in the world of Chicago hoops; he had built himself from a run-of-the-mill freshman into the nation’s No. 1 prep prospect as a junior at Chicago Simeon in 1984. By all accounts, Wilson was the best kid that anyone could have hoped to know. But he ended up being a victim of the urban violence that was all too common in America during the 1980s.

Wilson had solidified his rep as the best high school player in America at the venerable Nike All-American camp the summer after his junior season. The other top players in Wilson’s class included Danny Ferry, Sean Elliott and Pervis Ellison. But the last time the general public got to witness Wilson’s startling talents came on the final day of the Illinois High School Association tournament in 1984. Wilson’s stacked Simeon team beat Aurora West, 67-58, in the AA semifinal, and later in the day beat Evanston, 53-47, for the championship at Assembly Hall in Champaign.

Wilson was saddled with foul trouble and played limited minutes in the title game, but that is largely forgotten because of the show he put on against Kenny Battle and Aurora West in the semis.

Wilson was 6 feet 8 inches and could do a little of everything, which back in those days would earn a player the “Magic Johnson with a jump shot” honorific. That’s flattering, for sure, but not entirely accurate. Wilson was an able passer from the high post, but he lacked Magic’s incomparable vision and showmanship. The cool Wilson could probably best be likened to George Gervin. Like the Iceman, Wilson was venerated for his cardsharp’s sang-froid and smooth-as-silk forays to the basket.

Aurora West tried to contain Wilson by using multiple zone looks, anchored by the freakishly athletic Battle. Wilson never panicked, getting double-clutch shots off against Battle or dumping the ball down to fellow big man Rodney Hull. Wilson had classic post moves and could fill the lane on the fast break. He finished with a team-high 21 points in the semifinals.

It wasn’t just the numbers. Wilson was well-schooled by Chicago Public League coaching legend Bob Hambric. He came into the backcourt to help Simeon beat the pressure of Aurora West and Evanston. On the other end, Wilson’s impossibly long arms wreaked havoc for opposing players trying to crack Simeon’s full-court press or fearsome 2-3 zone. Wilson also quickly diagnosed what the other teams were doing on defense, and could often be seen directing traffic for the Wolverines’ offensive attack.

Wilson’s good nature was also clearly evident in his final two games. He’s seen patting officials on the back, even when questionable calls forced him to the bench during the championship game. He helped lift opponents off the court and was the first to congratulate teammates after a good play.

That’s what makes Wilson’s story all the more harrowing. A senseless crime deprived the world of a unique basketball talent, but it also took away an unimpeachably good person.

Wilson’s gone, but certainly not forgotten. Chicago Tribune hoops writer K.C. Johnson, who played on the Evanston team that lost to Simeon for the championship, wrote an affecting piece on the 25th anniversary of Wilson’s death. Childhood friend Nick Anderson wore No. 25 throughout his NBA career to honor Wilson. Another Simeon star, Derrick Rose, wore the number out of respect for a player from the neighborhood that died before Rose was born. The school retired No. 25 in 2009.

Who knows where basketball would have taken Wilson. The commonly held theory is that Wilson would have gone to DePaul, Indiana or Illinois. This has led fans of those schools to tantalizingly wonder what might have been. How about Rod Strickland running the break at DePaul with Wilson trailing? Or the inside-outside combination of Steve Alford and Wilson at Indiana? Or imagine the possibilities at Illinois with Wilson joining forces with Battle and the other Flyin’ Illini?

We’ll never know. And that’s only part of the tragedy.