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NBA playoffs

Chicago has long history of courtship

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / April 23, 2009
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CHICAGO - Long before Derrick Rose became a rookie sensation, the nationally acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams," and Michael Jordan first starred in a Bulls uniform, Chicago had a love affair with basketball.

Abe Saperstein founded the Harlem Globetrotters here in 1926, and the team adopted the name Harlem because it was viewed as the center of black culture at the time. The first African-American to sign an NBA contract was Chicago's Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton with the Knicks. Former NBA stars Mark Aguirre, Doc Rivers, Isiah Thomas, Maurice Cheeks, Quinn Buckner, Cazzie Russell, Tim Hardaway, Terry Cummings, and Antoine Walker hail from the Windy City. And while Texas might be known for its high school football, the same could be said about high school basketball in Chicago.

Sorry, New York, Chicagoans have no problem boasting that their city is the real mecca of basketball. Rose even called it "our sport." And tonight in Game 3 of the first-round playoff series between the Celtics and Bulls, Chicago will have three of its own to support in Rivers, Rose, and Celtics guard Tony Allen.

"I don't know where the talent came from, but we have a lot of people in Chicago that can play," Rose said. "Some should have made it before me. I know a lot are going to make it after me. I don't know why. I just know it's a city that loves basketball. It's the No. 1 sport in Chicago."

Basketball becomes ingrained in children in Chicago. While surely the Bulls are an influence, dreams of being a high school star initially foster that enthusiasm.

As a kid, Rivers dreamed of playing for Proviso East High School, not for the Bulls. Rivers's uncle, Jim Brewer, a former NBA player, was the first notable player to come out of Proviso East. With Rivers in attendance at age 7, Brewer led the school to its first of four Illinois state titles in 1969. Rivers went on to star at Proviso East, too, and was a three-time All-State selection. Other NBA players who followed Brewer and Rivers at Proviso East included Donnie Boyce, Sherell Ford, Michael Finley, Steven Hunter, Dee Brown, and Shannon Brown. Rivers's mother, Bettye, still attends Proviso East games.

"Road or home, I went to every game from kindergarten till I got to high school and then I played," Rivers said. "It started with watching my uncle. I started watching even before that. My parents, people in my community, just watched high school basketball.

"You go to your high school and it's huge. As a kid, you don't grow up wanting to be a pro player. You grow up wanting to play for your high school. That's good. That's healthy. And I think that's why [Chicago] ballplayers understand winning. They are not thinking about the pros or college. They're thinking about high school. That's a good thing."

Hardaway remembers when Rivers and Thomas were high school phenoms playing in front of thousands of fans in the late 1970s. Rivers actually graced the back page of the final issue of the Chicago Daily News in 1978.

"He was dunking, scoring, posting people up," said Hardaway of Rivers. "When Doc and Isiah played, they had 5,000 people at their games. I went to one game of Doc's and always heard about Isiah. When I was like in the sixth or seventh grade, my coach took me to see Doc. At high school games in Chicago, it's nothing to see 3,000-4,000 people. In Chicago, we love basketball. We love football, but we really love basketball. It's our first passion."

The latest Chicago high school star to make it to the NBA is Rose, who yesterday was named Rookie of the Year. He is the youngest of four boys who grew up on the South Side, spending countless hours playing on outdoor courts. Rose, Mr. Basketball in Illinois in 2007, led Simeon Career Academy to two straight state championships, and a No. 1 national ranking by Sports Illustrated.

"I wanted to be the best. I played in grammar school and stuff. I started early," Rose said.

Rivers believes Thomas, a Hall of Famer, is the best player to come out of Chicago. But there may never have been a player who made more of an impact in Chicago prep basketball in one year than Kevin Garnett.

After playing in South Carolina his first three years, Garnett played his senior season at Farragut Academy in Chicago. The slender big man was named Mr. Basketball in Illinois in 1995 after averaging 25.2 points, 17.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 6.5 blocks while leading Farragut to a 28-2 record. Garnett was the fifth pick in the 1995 NBA draft and is cheered enthusiastically during pregame introductions when he plays the Bulls.

While Rose never saw Garnett play in high school, he heard stories from his brothers.

"He was just talented and they knew he had a [budding pro] career," Rose said. "They say he was dunking on everybody and bringing more energy to the game."

While Rivers joked that he only considers Garnett a Chicago native when he is playing well, Allen considers him a true Chicagoan.

"I caught a couple of his games [on television]," Allen said. "He's stamped already, for sure. You want to say he's from Chicago. Well, he put in his work. He's stamped. Chicago is behind Kevin Garnett, trust and believe that. He was always screaming, hollering, and yelling."

So, why is basketball so big in Chicago? Hardaway believes the ability to play indoors at a YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, or other gym in the winter helped.

"A lot of people don't want to be in the cold," Hardaway said. "If you like the cold, you can play football. The rest are indoors playing basketball."

No matter what the weather, Rose always found a way to play, even when a gym wasn't available.

"My friends and I would shovel snow, break the ice, and just move it to the side," Rose said. "We didn't do the whole court, but we did have the half court."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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