Starks plants his roots in West Aurora

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Starks plants his roots in West Aurora

Juwan Starks is writing his own page in the history of West Aurora basketball. The 6-3 senior is averaging 22 points per game and is within 316 points of surpassing Billy Taylor as the school's all-time leading scorer.

Remember, this is West Aurora, not Rinky Dink High. Starks' coach is Gordon Kerkman, who has won 717 games in his 36-year career. Only 11 coaches in state history have won more.

Remember, this is West Aurora. Starks not only is on the brink of moving ahead of Billy Taylor on the all-time scoring list but he already has passed Kenny Battle, Bill Small, John Biever, Jim Krelle, Matt and Ron Hicks, Jay and John Bryant, Dameon Mason, Shaun Pruitt and Larry Hatchett.

The truth is Starks used to be an East Sider. His family has its roots in East Aurora. But his family moved to West Aurora so Juwan could attend kindergarten and his mother decided to stay. At 5, he became a West Sider.

At the time, he didn't know the difference. Now he does.

"Some family members say I should be a Tomcat instead of a Blackhawk," he said. "When I was a sixth grader, I watched the EastWest games. My uncle, Aaron McGhee, played for East Aurora and Oklahoma. When I was growing up, I didn't care. To me, it was just a different side of town. I was on the West Side and all the others were on the East Side."

But Starks is highly motivated this season. He is a rarity at West Aurora, a four-year starter. But he hasn't experienced as much success as former stars such as Taylor or Battle or Small. His last two teams were 13-16 and 14-12, hardly the kind of numbers that Kerkman is used to putting up. He won a state championship in 2000, finished second in 1997 and third in 1980, 1984 and 2004.

"Last year, we lost in the regional opener. It was very disappointing, a down year. I couldn't wait to come back this year," Starks said. "I felt I could do more to help my team win. I'm very motivated this year. I'm motivated by trying to win my first regional and by becoming the all-time leading scorer at West Aurora. We want to go Downstate this year."

He also is motivated to find a college. He said he is talking to Jacksonville, Liberty, Eastern Kentucky and Indiana State. But he has no scholarship offers. He hopes his performance this season will attract interest from more Division I schools.

The Blackhawks are 7-1 after sweeping Glenbard North 66-52 and East Aurora 73-42 last week. The Blackhawks will meet York Friday, then compete in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. To win the prestigious three-day event for the first time since 1990, they likely will have to beat Danville, Curie, Warren and Simeon in succession.

"We have been too up and down this year. We lack consistency," Kerkman said. "But Pontiac should be a barometer for us. If we get to the Final Four, that means we will play good teams. You hope to play four games and play good teams. It helps to make you a better team.

"I look for overall team play. Traditionally, we haven't been a team that focuses on one player. We look for balanced scoring. At Pontiac, we usually find out which kids we can depend on for scoring or if other kids will round into form and break into the starting lineup."

Kerkman counts on Starks, 6-foot sophomore Jontrel Walker (14 ppg), 6-foot junior Jayquan Lee (8 ppg), 6-1 junior twins Chandler (7.4 ppg) and Spencer (7.2 ppg) Thomas. But 6-6 junior Josh McAuley is making a good case for a starting spot and 6-foot senior Brandon Gossett also provides spark off the bench.

Last week, McAuley had 16 points and eight rebounds in a breakout game against Glenbard North, then came back the next night to get 11 points and 11 rebounds against East Aurora.

Starks had 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists against Glenbard North and Walker contributed 15 points. But Starks got into early foul trouble against East Aurora and finished with only six points. McAuley and Lee, who also scored 11 points, picked up the slack.

Kerkman recently celebrated his 75th birthday. But he hasn't lost a step. "I have no thoughts about retiring. I still enjoy coaching. When I don't enjoy it, I'm gone. I have fun working with kids. When you can't get them to do what you'd like them to do, it isn't fun," he said.

Practices and games are most fun of all. And he enjoys the challenge of teaching. "Right now, we're having a problem with decision-making. Unfortunately, I don't know how to correct it. I'm trying all kinds of passing drills to indoctrinate them into decision-making," he said.

He relishes the opportunity to match wits and X's and O's against good teams and good coaches. He acknowledges that the game has changed, that players have more athleticism and teams apply more ball pressure than in past years. But he doesn't agree with the common assessment that kids have changed. Not his kids, he insists.

"Most people say the kids have changed...more distractions, like video games...but they haven't changed in terms of attitude," Kerkman said. "We do things differently, new drills. Practices are better than 20 years ago, more organized. I'd like to think I'm doing a better job of coaching."

Starks has observed Kerkman up close and personal for four years. He admits it is easy to get "star-struck" over his winning record and stories about what a great coach he is. "But once you get to know him, he is so passionate about the game. He will do what it takes to win. He motivates us a lot, gets us hyped up for games," he said.

He reminds that former West Aurora star Dameon Mason once told him: 'Coach can be mean. But he's really trying to help you succeed and motivate you to be a better player.' Starks and his teammates often mimic Kerkman, the way he talks, the way he yells, how he sometimes forgets a name or a play, how he gets bright red in the face when he tries to drive his message across.

"We look at him as a father figure," Starks said. "He is always going to be there for us. He never puts anyone down. He always picks us up. He is always consistent. He never changes. He has a great basketball IQ. He does the same things, the same drills, but he doesn't do what others do."

He still conducts three-hour practices, something he adopted from his mentor, John McDougal. And he doesn't pressure the ball as much as he did when Kenny Battle was playing. This team isn't as quick as the teams of the 1980s so he has slowed down the game a bit and relies more on solid defense.

"I don't think I have changed much," Kerkman concluded. "I don't get on referees as much as before. I used to worry more about officials' calls. But the more I officiated, the less I coached. I'm not as concerned about their decisions as I used to be."

Oh, one last thing. Practices are more tiring. Just as long but more tiring because his knee might get sore or pain in his lower back might force him to sit down. "I don't like to do that," he said. He still is having too much fun.

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

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The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and Miami Heat featured three future Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Derrick Rose had been named the youngest league MVP in league history weeks earlier. Luol Deng was blossoming and would earn All-Star nods in each of the following two seasons. $82 million man Carlos Boozer had averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first season with the Bulls. The series was loaded with star power.

But buried deep in that series was a matchup of unsung reserves that influenced the series far greater than their numbers in the box score indicated. Udonis Haslem averaged just 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 22 minutes in the series – the Heat won in five games – but his impact was felt nonetheless, in part because of the physicality he brought against an energetic second-year forward named Taj Gibson.

“When we played them in the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson had an incredible impact on that series, and (Haslem) was just coming back from an injury,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s tilt between the Bulls and Heat. “And we thought that was probably the missing component in that series early on, was having a player like UD to match up against (Gibson). And that really helped us close that series.”

Five years later Haslem is on the final leg of his NBA career. He’s only appeared sparingly in seven games for the Heat in this his 14th NBA season. But the two-time NBA champion has had a lasting impact on the Heat organization – so much so that they allowed him to miss Friday’s game to attend his son’s state-title football game in Florida – and has etched himself in Heat lore, despite never averaging more than 12 points or nine rebounds in a season.

It’s not unlike the career path Gibson has taken in his eight seasons in Chicago. The now-31-year-old Gibson has spent the majority of his career playing behind the likes of Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. And while he’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ rotation since joining the team in 2009, his role has never matched his ability or production. It’s why Haslem said he sees so much of himself in Gibson, an unselfish, care-free teammate, yet also someone who is willing to work every day despite the lack of accolades.

“Taj plays hard, man. He’s a guy that gets all the dirty work done. The banging down in the paint, he knocks down that 15-footer, (he) rebounds,” Haslem told CSNChicago.com. “A lot of similarities to myself when I was a little younger. Like you said, unsung. Doesn’t look for any attention, doesn’t look for any glory. Just goes out there, is professional, and does his job every night.”

And in his eighth NBA season, Gibson has done his job every night incredibly well. Through 23 games he’s posted career-best numbers in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals, and isn’t far off in points and blocks per game. His 16.9 PER would be a career-high.

He’s done all this with little real estate in the spotlight. Jimmy Butler has cemented himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, and free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have earned headlines.

But Gibson has been as reliable and consistent a frontcourt player as the Bulls have – he’s one of three players to have appeared in all 23 games this season – and he’s playing some of his best basketball while the Bulls are mired in a mini-slump.

“He’s a rock for us on this team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s going to go out and do his job. He’s never going to complain about his role. He’s going to put on his hard hat and make the little plays that may not show up in the box score, but help you win.”

Including Gibson’s 13-point, seven-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over the Heat, he’s averaging 12.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in the Bulls’ last 11 games. He’s corralled 16 offensive rebounds in that span – including two on Saturday that he put back for layups – and is the main reason the Bulls entered as the league’s top offensive rebounding team in the league (and second in total rebound percentage). The Bulls are also nearly six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gibson on the floor.

Gibson’s and Haslem’s career numbers are eerily similar – Gibson has averaged 9.3 points on 49 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds, compared to Haslem’s 7.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds, with this year excluded. And both players accomplished their numbers while acting as the third scoring option, at best, on their respective teams. Wade, who spent 13 seasons with Haslem, also sees similarities in the two forward’s games and personalities.

“Taj does his job. He doesn’t try to do too much. Some nights he’s featured a lot. Some nights he’s not. He’s out there to do his job, wants to win,” he said. “(Haslem and Gibson) are very similar. He has that mentality where he’s a workhorse and he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Added Spoelstra: “Incredible amount of similar qualities. In my mind both those guys are winning players and have all the intangibles and toughness. Doing the little things, the dirty work, both those guys embody all those qualities. We’ve always respected Gibson because of that.”

Gibson is third on the Bulls in field goal attempts per game, the first time in his career he’s been higher than fifth in that category. The Bulls are using him more than ever before, and it’s paying off. He's in the final year of his four-year contract with the Bulls, and is looking at a significant pay raise in free agency this coming summer. Whether his future is in Chicago or elsewhere, don’t expect him to change his persona or mentality anytime soon. Much like Haslem did for years in Miami, Gibson has defined being a consummate professional, teammate and player.

“When you’re on championship teams, competing for a championship, trying to go deep in the playoffs, trying to do special things, guys are doing to have to sacrifice their game. Everybody can’t play big minutes; everybody can’t take the shots,” he said after the Bulls’ win over the Cavs on Thursday. “I’m one of the guys that sacrificed my game for the good of the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’m going to go out and do (it).

“If a coach wants me to set 100 screens and not take a shot, I’m gonna do that because I’m about helping the team. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. As long as I’m out there enjoying myself, having fun and playing with great teammates, I’m blessed.”

Morning Update: Bulls take down Heat for second time this season

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Morning Update: Bulls take down Heat for second time this season

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