Christmas gift: Holiday basketball in Illinois

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Christmas gift: Holiday basketball in Illinois

Holiday basketball was founded in Illinois, at Pontiac in 1926 and at De Kalb in 1928. Now tournaments are conducted throughout the state during the Christmas season. We take them for granted. But few other states schedule high school tournaments during the holidays.

I discovered holiday tournaments when I was working at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1966. I had heard about the Centralia tournament, founded in 1943 by legendary coach Arthur Trout, so I was anxious to attend and experience the competitive atmosphere of southern Illinois basketball.

At the same time, I attended the biggest holiday tournament in the country, at Normandy, a St. Louis suburb. The field of 32 teams always included most of the top programs and players in the St. Louis area. The talent wasn't comparable to Illinois but it wasn't chopped liver.

When I was hired by the Chicago Daily News to cover high school sports in 1968, I couldn't wait to feast on the holiday tournament menu. Pontiac and De Kalb were established, Proviso West was just starting up and other Christmas events -- East Aurora, Rich South, Chicago, Lemont, Wheeling, York, Elgin -- were in the works.

Pontiac and East Aurora were the dominant events in the 1970s. Bloom and Quincy were state powers and gave Pontiac a lot of flair, as Simeon does today. East Aurora featured Ernie Kivisto's host Tomcats, East Leyden and Maine South.

Then Proviso West stormed into the spotlight in 1968-70 when its three winners--Evanston, Proviso East and Lyons--went on to win state championships. All of a sudden, Proviso West was the place to be...the best teams, the best players, the biggest crowds.

In the early years, I used to play a game on the opening day of the holiday events. I'd try to figure out how many tournaments I could attend in one day. For example, I would start at Pontiac because they used to schedule the top-seeded team (Bloom or Quincy) in the 10 a.m game on opening day.

One year, I started in De Kalb, then went to East Aurora, Lemont, Chicago and Proviso West. Another year, I started at Wheeling. Another time, I started at Rich South. The Chicago event, conducted at Illinois-Chicago's old gym on Roosevelt Road, was unique because it scheduled its championship game in the afternoon of New Year's Eve.

My favorite holiday tournament memory? Watching Tom Parker score a then single-game record of 50 points as Collinsville defeated Alton in the championship game of the Carbondale tournament in 1967.

Parker, a 6-foot-5 forward, had one of the most extraordinary seasons in state history. He averaged 33 points per game. Adolph Rupp and Joe B. Hall recruited him to Kentucky, where he was the SEC's freshman of the year and a three-time All-SEC selection.

After Proviso West became established as the place to be, I used to show up at 8 o'clock on opening day, wish tournament director Joe Spagnolo the best of luck, then sit down in a comfortable chair under the big scoreboard on the east side of the gym and watch every game of the four-day event.

Because of the fierce competition, there were so many dramatic moments.
Fortunately, Spagnolo has brought them back to life for basketball fans by listing them on the Proviso West website, which has had over 2.5 million hits in three years.

How many of these games did you attend or how many of these incidents did you witness?

1. In 2005, with his future college coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke watching, Glenbrook North's Jon Scheyer scored 21 points in 75 seconds and set a single-game tournament scoring record with 52 points--but the undefeated defending state champion lost to Proviso West 85-79 in the quarterfinals.

2. In 1967, Evanston and Bob Lackey defeated Proviso East and Jim Brewer
60-48 in overtime in the championship game. Evanston went on to win the state title. Proviso East, led by Brewer, won the tournament and the state title the following year.

3. In 1994, Farragut's Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields of Farragut won the championship and dominated the tournament in rock star fashion, drawing huge crowds and signing autographs after each game. After the season, Garnett was a the No. 5 pick in the NBA draft.

4. Speaking of overflow crowds, Isiah Thomas and St. Joseph bested Glenn "Doc" Rivers and Proviso East 88-72 in the 1978 championship game.

5. In 1995, a Ronnie Fields windmill dunk over a Loyola player is the most remembered of his many slams. He drew a single-game record crowd of 4,188 and contributed 17 points and 14 rebounds as Farragut edged New Trier 47-44 in a quarterfinal thriller. Farragut held the ball and ourscored New Trier 4-3 in the final eight minutes.

6. Representatives from the Chicago Public League's Red-West Division won nine straight championships from 1994 to 2002. Farragut's 1994 squad, led by Garnett and Fields, won every game by at least 20 points.

7. Proviso East dominates the all-tournament selections with 30 different players, including Brewer, Rivers, Al Nunness, Joe Ponsetto, Michael Finley, Sherell Ford, Donnie Boyce, Roderick Floyd, Shannon Brown, Dee Brown, Kenny Davis, Jamal Robinson and Sterling Brown.

8. In 1996, en route to claiming consolation bracket honors, two Dunbar players broke the backboard in a first-round game, causing a one-hour delay.

9. The Proviso EastLyons rivalry in the 1960s and 1970s saw one of the schools advance to the championship game in 13 consecutive years. In 1970, Proviso East edged Lyons and Owen Brown, then the defending state champion, by a 71-68 margin.

10. King dominated the tournament in the 1980s, winning 16 of 19 games, and winning the championship in 1985, finishing second in 1981, 1983 and 1984 and fourth in 1986 with Efrem Winters, Marcus Liberty and Levertis Robinson. In all, coach Landon Cox won 24 games, two titles and eight trophies in 14 years.

Spagnolo has some special memories, too. "Two of my most favorite memories of the Proviso West tournament had to do with the weather," he said.

In 1987, eight inches of snow fell overnight before the second day of the tournament and teams arrived 30 minutes late for the first game. But the assigned officials never made it to the gym. So Spagnolo and Bruce Joslyn were summoned from the scorer's table and told by tournament director Bernie Skul, Proviso West's athletic director: "Move the game along to get us back on time."

"After the first overtime ended with the game still tied, Bernie came to me and said: 'You'll never officiate again.' Since then, I've gone on to become a full-time officials, working boys IHSA regional championship games for the last five years. But Bernie's remarks still hold true. I haven't worked a game at Proviso West since," Spagnolo said.

In 2010, only 30 minutes before the start of the tournament, the roof started leaking in the main gym, causing a 90-minute delay prior to the opening tipoff. Before the day was over, the tournament was back on schedule.

That night, Spagnolo had a dream. "What if we played games in the field house at the same time that games were being played in the main gym?" he said to himself.

So he arranged for a portable playing court to be installed in the adjacent field house and doubled the size of the tournament so it is the largest high school holiday basketball event in the country under one roof. Spagnolo's dream led to this year's plans for expansion to a 32-team field.

Finally, Spagnolo reports more history will be made on Dec. 26 when St. Joseph plays Manley in the 16th and final game of the opening round. But the focus won't be on the teams, players or coaches. It will be on the officials.

Three generations of the Olesiak family will be working the game together. Ron Sr., who worked the Proviso West tournament before becoming a 21-year official in the NBA, will work with son Ron Jr. and grandson Forrest. It will be Junior's 11th appearance at Proviso West. He was assigned to the IHSA's sectional at Glenbrook South last year.

Ron Sr. still recalls the first high school game he ever officiated--at his alma mater, Kelvyn Park. "Joe Tadelman was the coach. The ball was in-bounded in the backcourt and I blew the whistle after five seconds. Joe said: 'You can't have five seconds in the backcourt.' I said: 'You're right.' I was working with Burt Levinthal. What a good time we had," Olesiak said.

A Hall of Fame softball player, Olesiak has officiated for 45 years. He started at the high school level in 1969 and worked the state finals in 1986. He worked in Division I for seven years before moving to the NBA. He worked Big Eight and Missouri Valley tournaments and worked the NBA playoffs and two all-star games.

Now he is working with his son, who is 45, and his grandson, who is 20. They worked together for a few games last year and have worked together about 15 times this season. This is the first time they have worked together at Proviso West.

"I never had one game that I felt was my biggest game," Ron Sr. said. "Every time I go on the floor is the biggest game. Every game was a big game for me, high school or college or NBA."

Fitting that running backs could play biggest role in Big Ten Championship Game

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USA TODAY

Fitting that running backs could play biggest role in Big Ten Championship Game

INDIANAPOLIS — It's December in the Midwest, and the conference of Red Grange, Archie Griffin and Ron Dayne again looks like it could be decided by the guys toting the rock.

How fitting that Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game in Indy will feature two of the best running backs in the conference. Wisconsin and Penn State boast great defenses, and the Nittany Lions in particular have had success with an explosive passing attack this season. But it's a pretty safe bet that Penn State's Saquon Barkley and Wisconsin's Corey Clement will be relied on the most by their respective teams in pursuit of a conference title.

In each of the last two Big Ten title games, running backs have played starring roles. Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott turned in the first of a trio of jaw-dropping postseason performances here in 2014, rushing for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Last year it was Michigan State's LJ Scott, who carried the ball 14 times and finally plunged into the end zone to cap the Spartans' epic game-winning drive. Perhaps Saturday will bring the next star turn for a Big Ten back.

Barkley is riding high at the moment, named earlier this week the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and the Big Ten Running Back of the Year. The honors are definitely deserved, as while Barkley wasn't the conference's leading rusher, he was its most "must-watch" player. Barkley is not just fantastic at all the things that make a running back great, but he adds highlight-reel plays to the routine ones, juking and hurdling defenders on a shockingly regular basis.

But don't let the fact that he wasn't the league's leading rusher fool you, he's got the stats, too. Barkley rushed for 1,219 yards on the ground — averaging better than 101 yards a game — also scoring a conference-best 15 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 21 passes for 327 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.

"I'm really proud of him, as good as he's doing on the football field, he's doing just as well in the classroom. He's probably doing better in the community. He's been great when it comes to community service, how he's handled all this success that's happened so quickly for him. He's handled it better probably than any young player I've ever been around.," Penn State head coach James Franklin said during Friday's press conference. "I think that's one of the reasons we've probably had the success we've had, is I think it says a lot about your team when your best players are great guys, are great teammates."

Wisconsin's defense has been excellent this season, one of the three or four best in the country, and it has experience in shutting down top-tier backs like LSU's Leonard Fournette and Northwestern's Justin Jackson, who was the Big Ten's leading rusher. But Barkley is a different kind of challenge.

"Saquon Barkley is a heck of a football player, really talented, can make things happen even when it's not necessarily blocked clean or whatever it may be," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said Friday. "I think when you add the fact of what they're doing, (quarterback Trace) McSorley, the receivers, whether it's him running the ball, pushing down the field, our defense will be tested in a big way. We've got to make sure that we play good assignment football. Penn State forces you to defend the whole field, not just the run game, not just the passing game. We've got to do a great job of playing individual assignment football, but then ultimately team football. Once the ball declares, we have to get as many hats to it as we can. He is an extremely talented, good football player. I enjoyed watching him until we started getting ready to play him this week. He's a heck of a player."

Everything Chryst said is by design. Franklin gave a pretty good scouting report of what teams have tried to do to slow down what's been an explosive Penn State offense, though no one's stopped the Lions for about two months, as they enter the Big Ten title game on an eight-game win streak. And Franklin expected a similar strategy from Wisconsin, thankful to have Barkley, who can break out against any defense.

"Saquon Barkley I think is going to keep 'em honest," Franklin said. "He's had one of these years around the offensive line where, you know, he kind of pounds and struggles and fights and scratches and crawls for any yards he can get. Then usually at some point during the game, usually at a critical time, he breaks a big one for us. Their game plan is going to be similar to what we saw the last four or five games of the year. People are going to try to overload us in the box. They're going to blitz and twist the front to cause challenges with our offensive line, eliminate Saquon from beating them. They're going to play the secondary probably off and soft and going to say, 'We're not going to let Saquon run the ball, and we're not going to give up explosive plays.' Because those have been the two secrets to our success on offense: big plays in the passing game and Saquon Barkley being able to make plays as well. I don't see that formula changing against us."

While Barkley comes in with the hardware, he's hardly the only star running back in Saturday night's matchup. Wisconsin boasts its own excellent back in Corey Clement, the senior who after an apprenticeship under Melvin Gordon and James White has emerged as the latest in the incredibly long line of star Badger backs.

Clement was banged up last season, limiting what was supposed to be his break-out campaign. But this season, he's shown what we've all known he's been capable of. He rushed for 1,140 yards on the season, scoring 13 rushing touchdowns. And he's been especially terrific of late, breaking the 100-yard mark six times in the last seven games and in each of the last four games. He scored seven touchdowns, more than half his season total, in the last four games.

It seems like more of the same for Wisconsin, which has had great success running the ball for as long as many fans can remember. Look at the Badgers' all-time rushing list. Eight of the top 13 names on that list have played in the last 20 years: Dayne (1), Montee Ball (2), Gordon (3), Anthony Davis (4), White (5), P.J. Hill (6), John Clay (10) and Clement (13).

Chryst has been around for the careers of a lot of those guys. After playing at Wisconsin, he was a Badgers assistant in 2002 and then from 2005 to 2011 before a three-year stint as the head coach at Pitt and now his current job as the Badgers' head coach.

"I've been lucky to be with a lot of them," Chryst said. "They're all so different. I think each individual player's journey either to Wisconsin or once they're there sets them apart. Then certainly they all have different styles, playing with different lines, quarterbacks. So they're all very different. Corey has done a nice job this year. I've enjoyed watching him grow. I think he has taken steps forward this year. He's been playing at a good level. We're going to need him to continue to grow and get better because, you know, we're going to be tested differently. I've loved what he's done and meant to this team. Can't and wouldn't compare him to all the other guys because they're all so different."

And just as Chryst pointed out the immense challenge of stopping Barkley, Franklin discussed the task of stopping Clement — not to mention talented backups Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw.

"They have a very diverse running game, do a lot of different things," Franklin said. "It starts with their O-line and tight ends. Obviously the running back is special. ... They have a 235- pound back who makes plays. They have a really diverse running game. When you're able to impose your will in the running game on people, be able to do different things in terms of giving different looks like formation or different plays, whether it's power or whether it's lead, a lot of different things that they try to do, counter as well, then be able to play-action off of it, people are getting frustrated trying to put an extra guy in the box, be overly aggressive to stop the run, it creates one-on-one situations on the perimeter, creates chunk plays for them."

Without a doubt, these are two of the three best running backs in the Big Ten, Jackson being the other. It should be an absolute treat to see them compete Saturday night, but it's a downright necessity for their teams: In addition to a Big Ten title on the line, the winner could snag a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Bears-49ers: And the winner is?

Bears-49ers: And the winner is?

Both teams are on track to be drafting in the top five, and the inevitable “the loser is the winner” talk has made its rounds, meaning that a defeat moves the loser higher in the draft order. The reality is that neither team will tank the game for draft position.

But the chances of two woeful teams playing well are slim. The 49ers won in Week 1 and then have lost 10 straight. The Bears are trying to avoid losing four straight for the first time under John Fox.

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Quarterback Colin Kaepernick burst upon the NFL scene in 2012 with a blowout of the Bears in his first start. He has regained his starting job in San Francisco and is still one of the prototypical mobile quarterbacks.

But the 49ers are the NFL’s worst defense in both points and yardage allowed, and they are the worst rushing defense in the league. Expect the Bears to try exploiting that and give quarterback Matt Barkley a balanced run-pass game plan.

Prediction: Bears 24, 49ers 20