Curie's Alexander looks to be more offensive


Curie's Alexander looks to be more offensive

Curie's 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander and Whitney Young's 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor are best of friends. "We are close, like brothers," Alexander said. They also are two of the top four or five high school basketball players in the nation in the class of 2014, maybe 1-2.

They'd like to go to college together, which would be the equivalent of landing Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the same recruiting class. The odds of that happening, according to Alexander, are 7 out of 10. Both are being recruited by Kentucky, Michigan State, Illinois, DePaul, North Carolina State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

For the time being, however, they are focusing on the 2012-13 season. Each believes he can lead his team to a state championship, something they failed to do a year ago, so they have put the recruiting process on the back burner until after the season.

"Michigan State and Kentucky are the ones I like most, also Baylor," Alexander said. "I want to get an offer from UCLA, also North Carolina. I would like to consider them. But I haven't heard from them. It bothers me a little bit."

Like Okafor, he has no timetable for making a decision. "I will commit after next season. I'm not paying attention to the recruiting process now. I'll think about it at the end of this season. I want to focus on this season," Alexander said.

As he continues to develop his skills, especially offensively, more school can be expected to join the pursuit. He has 22 offers as he prepares for Curie's Nov. 30 opener against perennial national power Oak Hill Academy in Benton, Kentucky. Other big dates are Homewood-Flossmoor in the Derrick Rose Shootout on Dec. 8-9 at the Ray Kroc Center in Chicago and the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.

In last Friday's opening 72-39 loss to perennial national power Oak Hill Academy of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, Alexander had 26 points and 13 rebounds.

In last Sunday's 37-36 loss to Benet, Alexander was limited to six points, seven rebounds and three blocks. He was outplayed by 6-foot-9 junior Sean O'Mara, who had 13 points, including a game-winning free throw with 12.5 seconds left, as Benet scored the last six points.

Despite an 0-2 start, Curie coach Mike Oliver remains optimistic.

"Potentially, this could be the best team I have had," said Oliver, who has won more than 300 games in 16 years. "We have a lot of talent, a lot of new players and the best player (Alexander) I have ever had. Our guard play will be good. We are quick, play well together and can shoot well from the outside."

Last year's team finished 26-3, losing to state champion Simeon in the Public League final and the Pontiac Holiday Tournament final and to Marist in the regional final at the buzzer.

"It hurt bad. It took a long time to get over it," Alexander said. "We have to come out stronger this year. It's my team. I'm the only returning starter. I have to step up. Last year's team was better than this year. It had more talent. But we can pull it out this year. We have good shooters. They will take pressure off me and let me operate on the post. My eyes light up when when they don't sink in and double me."

Oliver has a new game plan for Alexander this season. And his eyes light up every time he thinks about it. Alexander reminds Oliver of New York Knicks star Amare Stoudemire, a shot-blocker who is very athletic, like former Public League stars Leon Smith of King and Russell Cross of Manley, who dominated games on defense.

"He knows how to play the game now. He will bet the ball a lot more this year. We have added low post moves to his game so he can dominate more on offense than before. He has gotten stronger. He spent a lot of time in the weight room. He is thinking more offense this year," Oliver said.

Last year, Alexander averaged 14 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. This year, Oliver hopes he will average 20 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks. Alexander's personal goals are 25 points and 15 rebounds.

"He doesn't have to impress anyone. He is like a big kid in a candy factory," Oliver said.

It took some time for Alexander to realize that basketball, not football, was his game. He didn't play basketball in grammar school. Until his freshman year, he thought he would be a football player in college and maybe beyond. "I didn't think I had a future in basketball," he said.

But Alexander said he got hooked on basketball as a freshman and forgot about football. "I liked dunking," he said. Now his game is so much more.

"The coach wants me to be more dominant on offense this year and that sounds good to me. I have been staying after practice to work on post moves and jump shots. I went to summer camps...Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James, adidas. I have post moves this year. And I put on some muscle. I'm much stronger and I feel in much better shape.

"I have to be the most dominating player on the floor every night. My skill set is better. My attitude has changed. I want to come out every game and dominate. Last year, I didn't do it every game. I folded up. I didn't do too good. My teammates and coaches tell me to dominate every game, to bring the dog out. That's what I plan to do."

Oliver will surround Alexander with 6-foot-1 senior guard Marcellus Davis, 5-foot-9 senior guard Demarcus Richardson, 6-foot-6 senior Malik Elbey and 6-foot-3 junior Joseph Stamps. Davis, a transfer from De La Salle, averaged nine points off the bench last season.

Top reserves will be 6-foot-4 sophomore Joshua Stamps, Joseph's brother, and 6-foot-3 junior Sheriff Matlock.

Over the years, Oliver has been one of the most successful coaches in the Public League without generating much fanfare. He has won 20 or more games for the last 10 years, has won the Central Division title 12 years in a row and reached the Final Four in the city playoff for the last two years and the final eight in nine of the last 10 years.

A 1987 graduate of Curie, Oliver was the No. 3 scorer in the state as a senior, in a class with more celebrated Marcus Liberty of King and Joe Daughrity of Crane. He attended Aurora University, then became sophomore coach at Curie in 1992. He won back-to-back city titles, then became head coach in 1996, succeeding James McLaughlin, who went to Homewood-Flossmoor.

"We play pressure defense and an uptempo offense. We play more like a Red-West team but we are on the Southwest Side, which is why we have been so successful," Oliver said. "We get in your face and we are aggressive. We push the ball. We're not afraid to play four guards."

As long as Alexander is in the middle of them.

The new Cubs are out to write their own history

The new Cubs are out to write their own history

The Cubs felt so nervous just before a 7:09 first pitch on Saturday night that Javier Baez found the camera looking into the home dugout, waved with a big smile and started pumping his fist, hamming it up for the video board as Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” blasted through the Wrigley Field sound system.

The Cubs then ran out onto the field and systematically destroyed the Los Angeles Dodgers, ending this National League Championship Series in six games with a 5-0 win that featured almost no tension or suspense, obliterating for now the narrative around this franchise.

The old stadium still kept shaking, from Kris Bryant’s RBI single in the first inning to the clapping to Anthony Rizzo’s “Intoxicated” walk-up music to a standing ovation for Kyle Hendricks, who outpitched the supposed best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw.

“We don’t care about history,” Bryant said. “This is a completely different team, different people all around. It doesn’t matter. This is a new Chicago Cubs team. And we are certainly a very confident group.”

Sure, 1908 will hover over the entire World Series, which begins Tuesday night against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. But this is the new normal for Bryant, who within two years has won 200 games, four playoff rounds, a Rookie of the Year award and probably MVP hardware.

This team isn’t going away, either. With a chance to win the pennant for the first time since the Truman administration, the Cubs started two rookies who began this season at Triple-A Iowa – catcher Willson Contreras and outfielder Albert Almora Jr. – in a lineup that featured Bryant (24), Rizzo (27), Baez (23), Addison Russell (22) and Hendricks (26).

Contreras caught a shutout and posed for a moment at home plate watching his line-drive homer off Kershaw fly into the left-field bleachers in the fourth inning. Rizzo – who had looked overmatched earlier in the playoffs – became the first left-handed hitter to homer off Kershaw during this calendar year.

And when Rizzo tried to wave off Baez for the ball Josh Reddick popped up to the right side of the infield in the fifth inning, Baez cut right in front of Rizzo to catch it, continuing a long-running gag among the Cubs infielders.

“I don’t think they’re oblivious, because that’s sort of insulting in some ways,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “They know the history. I just don’t think they care. They think they’re a good team and they love to play. And we have some guys that definitely shine on the big stage.”

Baez – a September call-up last year who couldn’t get an everyday spot during the regular season – showed off his bat speed and unbelievable defensive instincts and emerged as the NLCS co-MVP along with big-game pitcher Jon Lester. Sold on the idea of all this young talent someday coming together, Lester joined a last-place team after the 2014 season, taking a leap of faith, even at $155 million.

“I don’t feel like there’s pressure at all in our clubhouse,” said Almora, the first player Theo Epstein’s front office drafted here in 2012. “There’s just hunger and excitement and desire to win.

“None of us were around in 1945…so we just got to write our own history.”

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This is what the Cubs have been talking about since the New York Mets swept them out of last year’s NLCS, since the Ricketts family invested almost $290 million more in free agents, since unconventional manager Joe Maddon made “Embrace The Target” the theme of spring training.

Whatever your preconceived notions of the old Cubs are, know that this group has an amazing sense of balance. They are youthful and experienced. They play as a team and with individual flair. They have style and get dirty. They are analytical and sort of oblivious. They are loose and intense. And the ending hasn’t been written yet.

“We still got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “We’ll enjoy tonight – don’t get me wrong – we’ll have a celebration. We’ll have a good time. We’ll smile, we’ll hug each other, probably get drunk a little bit…but we got some work to do.”

Kyle Hendricks outduels Clayton Kershaw and delivers legendary performance that puts Cubs in World Series

Kyle Hendricks outduels Clayton Kershaw and delivers legendary performance that puts Cubs in World Series

John Hendricks sent a text message to his son at 11:24 a.m. on Saturday: “Good luck tonight!! Remember, great mechanics and preparation will prevail. Just let it go!!” It ended with three emoji: a smiley face with sunglasses, the thumbs-up sign and a flexed biceps.

The Cubs have bonded fathers and sons for generations, and Hendricks immediately understood what it meant for his boy when the Cubs traded Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline on July 31, 2012, telling Kyle: “You win in this city, you will be a legend. There is no doubt about it. This is the greatest sports town in the United States.”

This is the intoxicating lure of the Cubs. It didn’t matter that Kyle had been an eighth-round pick out of Dartmouth College, and hadn’t yet finished his first full season in professional baseball, and would be joining an organization enduring a 101-loss season, the third of five straight fifth-place finishes.

Kyle’s low-key personality will never get him confused with an ’85 Bear, but he delivered a legendary performance in Game 6, outpitching Clayton Kershaw at the end of this National League Championship Series and leading the Cubs to the World Series for the first time in 71 years.

Five outs away from the pennant, a raucous crowd of 42,386 at Wrigley Field actually booed star manager Joe Maddon when he walked out to the mound to take the ball from Kyle and bring in closer Aroldis Chapman. Kyle, the silent assassin, did briefly raise his hand to acknowledge the standing ovation before descending the dugout steps. 

After a 5-0 win, Kyle stood in roughly the same spot with Nike goggles on his head and finally looked a little rattled, his body shivering and teeth chattering in the cold, his Cubs gear soaked from the champagne-and-beer celebration.

“It’s always been an uphill climb for me, honestly,” Kyle said. “But that really has nothing to do with getting guys out. My focus from Day 1 – even when I was young, high school, college, all the way up until now – all it’s been is trying to make good pitches. 

“And as we moved up, you just saw that good pitches get good hitters out.” 

At a time when the game is obsessed with velocity and showing off for the radar gun, Kyle knows how to pitch, putting the ball where he wants when he wants, avoiding the hot zones that lead to trouble, mixing his changeups, fastballs and curveball in an unpredictable way that takes advantage of the team’s intricate scouting system and keeps hitters completely off-balance.

“Kyle didn’t even give them any air or any hope,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.

Amid the celebration, scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod spotted Kyle’s dad and yelled at John: “You f------ called it!” John – who once worked in the Angels ticket office and as a golf pro in Southern California – had moved to Chicago two years ago to work for his good friend’s limo company and watch his son pitch at Wrigley Field. John had told McLeod that Kyle would one day help the Cubs win a championship.

“That was one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen,” McLeod said. “Ever.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities] 

The media framed Kyle as The Other Pitcher, even though he won the ERA title this season, with all the pregame buzz surrounding Kershaw, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL MVP. Except Kershaw gave up five runs and got knocked out after five innings, while Kyle only gave up two singles to the 23 batters he faced, finishing with six strikeouts against zero walks and looking like he had even more left in the tank at 88 pitches.

“It was incredible,” Ben Zobrist said. “That was the easiest postseason game we’ve had yet and it was the clincher to go to the World Series. 

“He’s just so good, so mature for his age. He just has a knack to put the ball where he needs to. He’s smart and he’s clutch. He deserves to win the Cy Young this year.”

Where Kershaw’s presence loomed over the entire playoffs, Kyle has always been underestimated, coming into this season as a fourth or fifth starter with something to prove, and even he didn’t see all this coming. But big-game pitchers can come in all shapes and sizes and don’t have to throw 97 mph. 

“He wants the ball,” John said. “Every big game – I don’t care if it was Little League or wherever – he wants the ball. Plain and simple, (he’ll) get the job done.”