When Willie Conner learned that Chris Head was going to be the next basketball coach at Crane, the 6-foot-4 senior acknowledged that he and his teammates would either buy into Head's program unconditionally or live to regret it.
"I knew about Head," Conner said. "Everybody was telling us over the summer that he would be our new coach. He is tough. He has a tough attitude about the game. He won a state championship at Westinghouse. He knows the game back and forth. What is his program? Defense and playing as a team.
"I was playing defense before but not like now. He is teaching me. I have to play it. I have to buy into it more than I had been doing. Now my demeanor is I have to get after it on every play. I can't take any plays off. How far can we go? We can win state."
Conner is Head's type of player...hard-nosed, chip on his shoulder, hungry, coachable, unselfish and a hard worker. He averages 18 points per game and has a dozen scholarship offers, including Northern Illinois, Illinois State, Rhode Island, Texas-Pan American, La Salle and Tennessee-Martin.
"He is one of the best players in the city," Head said. "He has a very high ceiling. He has just started scraping how good he can be. He is a late bloomer. He can play at a very high level. He reminds me of (former Westinghouse and Illinois-Chicago star) Cedrick Banks."
Head describes Conner as "a project, a rare kind of kid, not many like him. He makes kids around him better. Kids want to be like him or as good. He makes other kids want to play with him. In all my years of coaching, I haven't seen too many kids like that."
Conner is a unique story. His father recently was released from jail after serving 17 years. He credits his two uncles for helping his mother take care of him and keeping him off the streets and out of trouble. Now his father is back in his life.
"I wouldn't be here without my mother, who raised me," Conner said. "My uncles knew the neighborhood real well and know how the streets can get you and kept me away from the drugs and violence."
He enrolled at Hope Academy on the West Side, then transferred to Crane after his sophomore year. "People thought I couldn't do as much as I did at a private school. So I always play with a chip on my shoulder. I want to prove people wrong. They don't think I'm as good as some people say. I want to prove I can play at a high Division I level. If I had a dream school, I'd be playing at Georgetown. I hope they'll look at me and I get a chance to consider them," he said.
Conner still has some proving to do. Longtime recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye don't rate Conner among the top five players in the Public League. But they are convinced he is "certainly one of the most unheralded players in the city and a definite Division I prospect."
"He has tremendous scoring ability and can score points in bunches," the Schmidt brothers said. "we really like his skill set offensively. It includes a quick shooting stroke, solid range and good upper body strength that allows him to consistently get to the basket.
"He must now work on toning down his wildness and maintaining intensity at all times, as these are the things that will ultimately determine what college level he ends up at."
Getting more exposure in the state tournament would help. Crane carried a 10-4 record into Wednesday's game against Collins. The Cougars' will play at Orr on Friday and have a date with Kenosha Tremper on Sunday in the "Battle of the Borders Shootout" at College of Lake County in Grayslake.
"What I like about what we are doing is everybody is buying into the program and trying to get better every day," Conner said. "We just want to win and play together."
Conner is surrounded by 5-foot-9 sophomore point guard Timothy Triplett (8 ppg, 11 assists), 6-foot-3 junior Courtney Thomas (10 ppg, 10 rpg), 6-foot-4 senior Christopher Daily (7 ppg) and 6-foot sophomore Issaiah Hayes (14 ppg), perhaps the next great player in Crane's storied program.
"By the summer of his junior year, he will have 15 to 20 offers," Head predicted of Hayes.
Coming off the bench are 5-foot-8 senior point guard Khailfani Nichols, 6-foot junior Jalen Austin, 6-foot-5 junior Kendall Sidney and 6-foot-4 junior Richard Carter.
"Our two young kids at guard (Triplett, Hayes) have to get better," Head said. "What they have been doing is getting better in games and practices, something they do that makes us better as a basketball team, what a coach looks for. There are things that we are doing that make ourselves better.
"This team can be a good team. We can compete with anybody in the city as long as it is the right team that shows up. But I'm concerned about letdowns. Remember, you're dealing with teenagers and some days the teen kicks in and nobody is there. Nobody's head is in the game. I just hope we mature enough that we know we are getting into the second phase of the season. I think these kids are ready for the challenge."
Head has walked this path before. He began coaching at Farragut in 1983 and admits he stopped counting the number of years he has experienced in the coaching profession after 25.
He has been a winner wherever he has been. In four years at Westinghouse from 1998 to 2002, he won 84 percent (107-20) of his games, finished second in the 2000 state tournament and won the title in 2002. In one year at Proviso West, he was 19-9. In three years at Brooks, he was 21-9, 21-9 and 27-7. Now he is trying to weave his magic at Crane.
"Fifteen years ago, I was younger. In 15 years, you learn a lot of what to do and what not to do. I've grown a lot," he said. "One of the things I have learned as a basketball coach is more things have nothing to do with basketball, about people who have nothing to do with our program or our kids.
"Times have changed. High school basketball has gotten bad because of bad people. One of our fears is our kids are listening to people who have selfish motives. It's all about themselves and nobody else. At Westinghouse, we kept kids together in the spring and summer. Then the rules were changed.
"Today, more than ever, we need to have more contact with our kids or we will lose one or two in the summer to violent crime or some person who persuades them to transfer to another school. Too much is going on that has nothing to do with kids.
"I like to watch our boys go from boys to men. The charge of us as coaches is to make them responsible young men. As long as kids listen to me, I am satisfied. What is outside the program distracts us from working with our program.
"Gym shoe companies have put their stamp on things and have influenced what goes on in high school basketball in a negative way. They are part of the demise of high school basketball. Also local street agents and AAU and parents and local talent scouts on the Internet and local drug dealers.
"It is harder now to coach kids in high school because coaching has been taken out of the equation. You can't coach them anymore. You can't discipline them or holler at a kid anymore. I can be sued for what I say to a kid. I fear for my job.
"You no longer have role players, kids who are here because they work hard. No, he is an All-American but he can't make a left or right-handed layup. It is fair to say I have mellowed, but I can't say I'm having more fun. Sometimes it takes me out of character for fear of being called to the principal's office. All coaches in this country have that fear. It doesn't allow us to be the best we can be as coaches. The game has changed and we have allowed it to change not for the good but for the bad."
Head has been as controversial as he has been successful. He has been disciplined several times by the Chicago Public Schools and the Illinois High School Association, once serving an 11-game suspension. At Proviso West, he was accused of hitting a player but was acquitted by a jury in 2004.
Now he is at Crane. As Conner said, the players received a crash course on what they were getting before he arrived. The message was delivered by Tony Bennett, who played on Head's state championship team. Bennett was Conner's hero growing up. He said he molded his game after Bennett.
"It's great for me to be part of the kids on the West Side again," Head said. "At the end of the day, we can be a very good team. The first half of the season is feeling out each other, going through the remodeling phase."
Head said former coach Tim Anderson, who left to become an assistant at Texas-Pan American, did a good job of putting the house in order.
"What we are doing now is putting together something where the kids can understand they can be part of a program and a team," Head said. "My philosophy? The key is family. I try to make them understand they are here 80 percent of the day and need to get along.
"To be successful, they have to like each other and respect each other and their coaches. We grow as a team and family. It turns to love and brotherhood. On the floor, it starts at the defensive end. The offense will win some games but you have to play defense. Offense is our defense. We love to make our opponents uncomfortable. If that means pressure for 84 feet for four quarters, that's what it means.
"The first thing I told the kids when I took this job was: 'I'm not coming in to change anything. We want to get better at the things we are doing.' The kids knew me or knew of me. I wasn't a big surprise. The younger kids were excited for the opportunity to play for me."
Or scared to death. Whichever works.