Crane old-timers recall the good times

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Crane old-timers recall the good times

Eugene Ford, Tim Robinson, Carl Merritt, and James Jackson remember the way it was in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s when Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory High School was a showplace on the West Side. They are saddened by recent reports that the 121-year-old school is being "phased out" by the Chicago Board of Education.

"Crane was another world back then," said Ford, a 1965 graduate who was the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year in basketball. "America was coming into its own with issues that had to be dealt with. We rode the back of the civil rights movement. Doors opened up. We pursued opportunities."

"To hear that Crane is closing is sad. They talk about (former Chicago Bears owner and coach) George Halas being the most famous alumnus of the school. But there were a million George Halases at Crane. Basketball was king. There were many good teams and players who brought the student body together, that created great school spirit and pride."

Last Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced that Crane and Dyett would be slowly phased out of existence and four struggling elementary schools would be closed by summer. Crane will stop enrolling freshmen and the dwindling student body will begin sharing space with Talent Development Charter School.

Crane built its reputation on basketball and its West Side rivalry with Marshall. Ford led Crane to the 1964 city championship. Robinson led Crane to the 1957 Public League title. Jackson was an All-State selection in 1974. For 40 years, Merritt has organized the CraneMarshall reunion that annually attracts 300 to 500 alumni.

The school has produced many outstanding basketball players, some of whom went on to compete in the NBA. The list also includes Tony Allen, Cory Blackwell, Dan Davis, Ken Colliers Norman, Bob Dillard, Anthony Manuel, Joe Daughrity, Jerome Freeman, Nate Williams, Andre Wakefield, Joe Reiff and Sherron Collins.

It is argued in some circles that too much basketball and not enough academics, the same formula that ended King's basketball dynasty, was the reason behind Crane's demise. That and too much violence and the razing of the Henry Horner and Rockwell Gardens housing projects that effectively turned the community from a neighborhood to transient.

"We had a West Side neighborhood then," Ford recalled. "Now the kids are bused in. They are transients. The neighborhood has broken down. The family was more intact then, more structured. You don't have that today."

But, Ford insists, there is always politics. "So many school superintendents come to Chicago. All of them come with new ideas of how to fix the problem of the public schools. But we've never had one superintendent who was a product of city schools, someone who knows what is going on from within the system," he said.

Robinson, a minister, is reminded of the old gym with the running trackbalcony surrounding the playing floor. He recently spoke to players on the 2011-12 squad in the new gym. It is hard for him to believe that his alma mater is being phased out.

"If they are going to phase out the school, I'd be disappointed," he said. "Back then, there was a high spirit of pride in the school. I can't recall any major incidents. The student body was involved. There were a lot of activities, a lot of expectations because of the basketball team.

"Everyone made sure there was an environment where everybody looked forward to going to school. We have competition with Marshall but it was clean. CraneMarshall was the biggest rivalry in the city at that time. The students took great pride in it."

Jackson, who has lived in Australia for the last 30 years, attended Crane because all of his brothers and sisters and most of the kids in his neighborhood went there. Crane also had a tradition for producing good basketball teams and players.

"It was a tough school in a tough area and the thing I remember most even before I went to the school is I always heard stories from my brothers about the basketball teams," Jackson said. "It had a reputation as one of the best schools in the area for basketball."

Jackson attended Medill Primary and was recruited to Crane by coach Dan Davis, a Crane graduate who had played with Ford on the 1964 city championship team.

"To this day, I am in contact with Dan," Jackson said. "On my visit to Chicago last year, he did some personal training with my son. He took us to Crane to watch some games. I was proud to show my son my heritage of high school basketball."

"I can't imagine basketball without Crane on the West Side of Chicago. Crane developed me into the player I was, it kept me off the streets and out of trouble and gave me direction in life. I will certainly be sad to see the school gone, all those memories."

Merritt, a graduate of 1958, recalled that the school was more than basketball. "We had great teachers at the time. If you wanted to learn, you would learn, from music to shops. We also had a great band. Of course, we always had good basketball, great players," he said.

Merritt organized the first CraneMarshall reunion in 1974. He arranged for top-notch singing groups, including the Drifters and the Spaniels. One of the first groups was Merrit's own, the Tomcats, which featured six Crane and Marshall graduates. The event got bigger and bigger. Sit-down dinners attracted crowds from 300 to 400, as many as 500, with alumni coming from New York and California.

He recalls when he attended Crane, there was only one policeman, a man named Peterson, who patrolled the hallways.

Despite reports of repeated violence and declining attendance, Merritt doesn't believe Crane will be phased out as was Austin, another West Side school with a great tradition in football.

"Someone suggested that we should put together a group to save Crane," he said. "But I think we should wait to see what (the board) has planned. Maybe Crane will be better. Nobody wants to send kids there now because of violence. I still live in the same house that I lived in when I went to Crane. I think the neighborhood is getting better. More people are moving in."

Interestingly, George Wilson almost ended up at Crane. He graduated from summer school at Crane, then enrolled at Marshall where he became a three-time All-State basketball player and the leader of Marshall's 1958 and 1960 state championship teams. He also has been involved in the CraneMarshall reunion for 40 years.

"My feelings would be the same if I heard Marshall was closing," Wilson said. "MarshallCrane was the big game on the West Side. It meant the world to me. When I talk about my days at Marshall, I always will mention Crane. I have fond memories of that rivalry. We didn't hate each other. We were very competitive with each other. We were always friends."

Food for thought on Bears training camp

Food for thought on Bears training camp

Bear-ly Possible?  Maybe Not…

As the Bears prepare to take the field for the first time in Training Camp-apalooza 2016, we present a little food for thought here that Leonard Floyd was too full to finish.  As Ryan Pace continues to build this roster, this team’s injury margin for error remains smaller than the Minnesotas, Green Bays, Carolinas, Seattles and Arizonas of the NFC.  Idle football off-season minds can start working with actual news and reality as teams charge toward the first full week of September.  But here are a few thoughts about this team that’ve passed between my ears over the past week or so, and you can decide whether I should’ve slathered the top of my head with sunscreen, too.

2nd and 3rd before 1st

As we anxiously await Saturday’s first contact practice at camp to see how Leonard Floyd stands up to attacking NFL linemen, the thinking here is guard Cody Whitehair and defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard will play a greater role for the Bears this season than their top draft pick.  Even with his role simplified compared to what it was at Georgia, there’s still a physical and mental learning curve that might not be as steep for the two guys in the trenches.  Whitehair started for four years at Kansas State, Bullard the equivalent of three at Florida, and many scouts believed both could’ve been drafted even higher than where they landed with the Bears.  I’m still confident Vic Fangio can turn Floyd into the player the team projects, and will make some impact plays in 2016.  I just think the steadier contributions will come from the other two.

White will be a Beast

….eventually.  Call him an “advanced” rookie because he had to settle for just being around the team, getting a knack for NFL life, as well as mental playbook reps and a month of actual on-field practice.  And that will help him now.  He had an big-target NFL body before his injury a year ago and that size and speed figures to win a lot of battles down the road, along with his share this season.  But his limited route tree he had at West Virginia has to grow, and how quickly that happens immediately affects the level of his impact this fall.  Is 65 to 70 catches (4-plus per game) too much to ask?  If….if…he, Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal and Zach Miller don’t miss significant time and those weapons are available options all season, White’s numbers could exceed that.

Top 10 “D”

Consider Coordinator Vic Fangio taking over a unit that had its two worst seasons in franchise history, and taking it from 30th overall in 2013 and 2014, to 14th in 2015.  And he didn’t have close to the pieces he needed.  So many square pegs for round holes.  Now, add Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman as an inside linebacker tandem that can’t be surpassed elsewhere around the league.  Throw in an end who can anchor one side of the line in Akiem Hicks to pair with an ascending young nose tackle in Eddie Goldman.  Pernell McPhee’s knee needs to be ready, with Willie Young and Lamarr Houston rotating in.  With health, that’s a front seven to be excited about for the first time, post-Lovie.  Now, the secondary is another issue, needing Tracy Porter to stay healthy, Kyle Fuller to put it all together and Adrian Amos and a safety-to-be-determined required to make more plays on the ball.  Between the improved first two lines of defense and Year Two of defensive back tutorship under Ed Donatell, I’m sayin’ there’s a chance.

Four-win First

The Houston Texans are a better team than the Bears right now, and should be a better team this season.  But if they open the season without J.J. Watt (back surgery), Brock Osweiler feels the weight of $72 million ($37 million guaranteed) with a green receiving corps outside of DeAndre Hopkins, and the new-look Bears defense can create some chaos and uncertainty for the hosts, it’s not out of the realm of possibility the Bears could steal that opener, depending on their health going in.  So after that?  It’s Philadelphia at home, what should be a dreadful Cowboys defense in Dallas, then Detroit at Soldier Field.  Of course, this franchise has to figure out a way to beat the Lions, which they haven’t done since 2012.  The biggest test to a four-win first month would seem to be the first one.  They pull that off, maybe that baby bear baseball team won’t steal all the attention come October.  If they get there.

In closing, I have not been sipping the Bears Kool-Aid that on-air partner Dan Jiggetts loves to swig.  But who knows?  Maybe I needed to shampoo with some of that sunscreen, after all.

White Sox expect Chris Sale's return to be 'fairly normal'

White Sox expect Chris Sale's return to be 'fairly normal'

It doesn’t sound as if there’s much ambivalence among the White Sox about Chris Sale’s expected return on Thursday.

Manager Robin Ventura said Wednesday he expects things to be “fairly normal” as Sale is scheduled to pitch the finale of the Crosstown series after serving a five-game suspension for insubordination and destruction of team property. Adam Eaton said teammates should have no reservations about Sale’s coming back after his actions Saturday left them in a bit of a bind. And pitching coach Don Cooper said he’s the first to forgive and that everyone has situations they might later wish they’d handled differently.

“Open arms,” Eaton said. “He’s our teammate. He’s our guy. All of the things that are swelling around about his character, who he is as a player … he’s my brother and I enjoy every second with him on and off the field. Can’t be a better person. I’ll be excited to see him and I’m sure he’ll be in the same form he’s been the entire year — go out and perform and be Chris Sale.

“I’m sure he’ll be well-rested and a clear mind for him I’m sure is going to be a good thing. We’ll welcome him back.”

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The pitching staff could use some innings from Sale without question. When he didn’t pitch Saturday, the White Sox filled those innings with a committee of relief pitchers. Prior to Tuesday’s win, the bullpen had pitched 19 1/3 innings the previous four games.

But the White Sox have handled the drama extremely well. They’re 4-0 with one game left in Sale’s suspension and they look forward to having their ace back. Cooper said he hopes to move on, sentiments that were previously echoed by Ventura and executive vice president Kenny Williams.

“Welcome back, let’s go,” Cooper said. “Let’s go to work. Let’s move on. Listen man, who would want to be held responsible for the (stuff) they did at 22, 24, 26, 27, you know what I mean? He’s way too good of a kid. I don’t think anybody would. Everybody screws up from time to time or has some missteps.”

One of the actions that has caught Sale flack is his criticism of Ventura’s handling of the situation. Neither Ventura or Williams responded to Sale’s comment on Tuesday that “Robin is the one who has to fight for us.” Ventura said he wouldn’t have done things any differently and Williams applauded how Hahn and Ventura handled a difficult, “unique” situation.

Ventura said he doesn’t expect much out of the ordinary.

“I think it’s going to be fine,” Ventura said. “Players always have their teammates’ backs, and that’s no different with our clubhouse, and it’s going to be fairly normal, as far as he’s going to be prepared to pitch and our guys are going to prepare to play and it’s going to go from there.”

White Sox C Dioner Navarro has a good story behind the best game of his career

White Sox C Dioner Navarro has a good story behind the best game of his career

There’s a good story behind the best game of Dioner Navarro’s 13-year career. 

On May 29, 2013, Navarro — then playing for the Cubs — hit three home runs and drive in six in a 9-3 Crosstown victory at Wrigley Field. Both were career highs. 

And Navarro did it without a whole lot of preparation. 

“I got to the ballpark and I didn’t see the lineup, I thought I wasn’t playing,” Navarro recalled. “So we go out for stretch and the first group is hitting and they called my name and I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And they said ‘You’re playing.’ It was already too late to get into the group so I went inside.”

Navarro only took two rounds of batting practice in his haste to get ready. But he also took those swings thinking right-hander Jake Peavy was going to start for the White Sox, so he hit left-handed during batting practice. 

The White Sox, though, were starting left-hander John Danks, so the switch-hitting Navarro wound up batting right-handed when the game started. 

The pregame mixup hardly hurt Navarro, as it turned out. He homered off Danks in his first and second at-bats, and then launched a three-run homer in the seventh off White Sox right-hander Brian Omogrosso. 

“It was one of the best experiences of my career,” Navarro said.

Navarro is one of a handful of people to play for both the Cubs and White Sox since the two teams began their annual interleague series in 1997 (others include pitchers Jeff Samardzija, Bob Howry, Edwin Jackson and Neal Cotts, among others). His perspective from playing off the Addison and Sox/35th Red Line stops is one he said he’ll cherish after his career is over. 

“I’m really fortunate to be part of it from both sides,” Navarro said. “A little bit bittersweet because the Cubbies had lost 100 games the year before and we were onto our way to lose 100 more games that year (2013). But still the rivalry against this team was something that people always talked about. Being part of it with the Cubs and now being part with the White Sox is a tremendous experience, something I look forward to share with my kids when I get older.”