Bell, Levin lead Oak Park's revival

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Bell, Levin lead Oak Park's revival

Ka'Darryl Bell, Gabe Levin and Alex Nesnidal have been playing basketball together since seventh grade. In fact, Bell preferred playing football and quarterback until his friends coaxed him into realizing that basketball and point guard were better choices.

"I was always athletic and I liked the aggressiveness in football," Bell said. "But I twisted my knee in the state final in the Pop Warner League and was out for four or five months. That shied me away from football. I began to concentrate on basketball.

"When I was a freshman, everybody wanted me to try out for football but I didn't want to. I love the competitiveness in football. But it requires more skill to play basketball, more than quickness. I've always been a point guard. You have to know the players on the floor."

Bell, a 6-foot-1 senior who is committed to Bradley, and Levin, a 6-foot-7 senior who likely will attend a prep school before moving on to a Division I program, are the reasons why Oak Park is in first place in the West Suburban Conference's Silver Division.

The Huskies are 14-5 going into this weekend's conference games against Proviso West and Lyons. They'll meet fast-finishing York next Tuesday. In his fourth season, coach Matt Maloney is seeking the school's first regional title since 2008 and first trip to the state finals since 1976.

"Bell and Levin are our two best players, the two best players in the conference," Maloney said. "Our other players are able to accept and embrace and willing to buy into their minor supporting roles. We have good kids with high academic ability and good leadership on and off the court. We have no off-the-court issues."

Best of all, the Huskies are healthy. Bell (13 ppg, 4 assists, 3 steals) suffered torn ligaments in his wrist and missed most of December. Now he claims he is back to 100 percent efficiency.

In his absence, Levin (20 ppg, 10 rpg, 3 assists, 3 steals) carried the team, which went 9-1 during one stretch. In recent games, he had 23 points and 11 rebounds against Evanston, 20 points and nine rebounds against Glenbard West and 32 points and 11 rebounds in last Friday's 63-62 overtime loss to Hinsdale Central.

"The coach didn't tell me to step up but my teammates told me to step up. It brought more confidence to my game. I'm just staying more aggressive," Levin said. "As a team, we are so passive, anyone can have a great game. It's just how I started to play, getting on the boards all the time and not taking any plays off."

But the loss to Hinsdale Central, even though it didn't affect their conference standing and likely won't damage their sectional seeding behind unbeaten and second-ranked Proviso East, served as a wake-up.

Afterward, 5-foot-8 junior guard Jakari Cammon was the first to get everybody's attention. "This can't happen again if we want to be great," he told his teammates.

Then Bell chimed in: "We have to take responsibility for our own actions. It wasn't one person who messed up, it was the whole team."

"I was speechless," Levin admitted. "I couldn't believe we had lost at the buzzer. By the time we got back on the bus, we were all on the same page. We learned we have to be ready to play from the tip-off."

Maloney reminded his players that they must play four consistent quarters. "There have been few games when we play consistently from start to finish. We could be dangerous if we play hard from the tip-off rather than in the second or third quarter," he said.

"We can't come out and beat Glenbard West by 27 points and then lose to Hinsdale Central," Bell said. "We never play all four quarters as a team. We can control it. We must come out and play hard from the beginning.

"Last year's teams was all over the place. They didn't know their roles. Everybody wanted to be the man and score 20 points per game. We know our roles. Everybody plays their roles. Statistics don't matter. There are no egos, no jealousy. These guys are willing to give up something to benefit the team."

There is a sign in Oak Park's locker room that motivates Bell, Levin and the other players. "How do you want to be remembered?" it says. "We want to be remembered as one of the great teams ever to come out of Oak Park. We want to go deep into the playoff," Levin said.

"The loss to Hinsdale Central will be beneficial down the road. If we have another let-up, it will be a surprise to me. We know we can't let that happen again if we want to have a great team. When our defense is on, it's hard for a team to run its plays against us."

Levin, who just turned 17, is an honor roll student and has offers from Loyola and Colgate. But he probably will attend St. Thomas More preparatory school in Oakdale, Connecticut, "because I will get another year of experience, my body will fill out and I will be more prepared to play right away at Division I."

Bell and Levin are complemented by Cammon (6 ppg), 6-foot-4 junior Alex Gustafson (5 ppg) and 6-foot-3 senior Alex Nesnidal (10 ppg). Gustafson is a defensive specialist who limited York star David Cohn to 10 points, none in the second half. Nesnidal is one of the conference's most prolific three-point shooters.

The bench features 6-foot-8 juniors Thomas Ross and Virgil Allen and 6-foot-7 junior T.K. Mattox. Maloney rotates them in an out of the lineup whenever he wants to get bigger on the floor.

Bell is anxious to make an impact at Bradley. He chose Bradley because the coaching staff has a reputation for developing players and he believes they will prepare him to play point guard in the NBA.

"And I can help rebuild the program," he said. "I want to be part of a team that brings the program back to where it once was, when it was one of the best in the country."

At the moment, however, his mindset centers around his high school team. "I have Gabe and Alex and Jakari who can score. My job is to get people open, make plays for other people. I know when I need to score. My job is to make the right decisions. If I'm open, I take the shot. But if someone else is open, I give the ball to them," he said.

Bell, Levin and Nesnidal have shared that mindset since they played at Roosevelt Middle School.

"Everybody tried out for the basketball and got really close," Levin said. "We just click. We have the same interests...basketball, video games. Everyone is on the same page."

Maloney, 36, a 1993 graduate of Oak Park, played for Al Allen, who won 391 games in 22 years but only four regional titles, the last in 2008. Maloney played on two of Allen's best teams, 25-4 in 1992 and 23-4 in 1993. Along the way, he learned some valuable lessons.

"What (Allen) did so well was put academics and citizenship above victories," Maloney said. "He taught us about being a man first. I admired his integrity and how he stuck by his principles no matter what. He'd be proud of how these kids act on and off the floor."

He enrolled at Millikin University but was injured and transferred to Dominican. At Dominican, he coached Oak Park's freshman B squad. That's when he got bit by the coaching bug.

"My original plan was to go to law school. But once I was injured in college, I realized how passionate I was about the game. When the freshman B coach resigned, I applied for the job," Maloney recalled.

He worked his way up the coaching ladder, serving three years at freshman B coach, then 10 as sophomore coach, then the varsity. His first team was 13-13. His second team was 22-6 and lost to Proviso West in the regional final. Last year's team was 10-13.

Oak Park has a glorious tradition in high school athletics dating to the early 1900s and Bob Zuppke, Glenn Thistlewaite, Glenn Holmes, George Trafton and Charlie Hoag. But that's all about football. What happened to basketball?

Harry Kinert, who coached Freeport to a state championship in 1951, came to Oak Park and guided the Huskies to fourth place in the 1954 state tournament. In 1976, Tom Meyer produced a 28-5 team that finished third in the Class AA tournament. Since then, no team has advanced beyond the sectional.

It won't be easy for Maloney to improve on that record this season. He is aware of the history.

"We have played in the toughest sectionals for the last 20 years. We've never been blessed with an easy route to state," he said. "I recall my junior year. We beat St. Joseph but lost to Proviso East by six in the sectional and they went on to win the state title. As a sophomore, we lost to Nazareth and Sean Pearson in the sectional final.

"We had some good teams that made some noise. But the sectional became so tough. Two years ago, we were 19-4 going into the sectional seeding and we got a No. 5 seed. We opened with Fenwick, an above .500 team. How's that for a first-round opponent? If we're going to be successful, Bell and Levin must play as they are capable of playing."

White Sox courting of Luis Robert leads to 'Christmas in May'

White Sox courting of Luis Robert leads to 'Christmas in May'

When he learned last November that elite talent Luis Robert could be available by June 15, Marco Paddy didn’t hold back: It was time for the White Sox make their move.

Much like with Yoan Moncada before, the team’s international scouting director had an extensive history scouting Robert, who on Saturday signed with the White Sox after he received a $26 million signing bonus. After watching him for five years, Paddy believed in Robert enough to recommend the White Sox pay several severe penalties to sign a player the franchise thinks could be an everyday center fielder with power.

By signing Robert, 19, the White Sox must not only pay a luxury tax of almost equal value to the bonus, but they’re also unable to sign any international prospect for more than $300,000 in each of the next two classes. But given the limited competition and the unique talent he saw, Paddy let the White Sox know Robert -- a potential top-30 prospect in baseball -- was a player they couldn’t afford to bypass. Thus begun the team’s courtship, one the Cuban cited as having a major impact on his desire to sign with the White Sox. Now, the White Sox not only have Moncada after trading for him in December, but they also have another potential cornerstone to build around.

“From the beginning we were very serious about it,” Paddy said. “Knowing we weren’t going to have 29 other clubs competing against us was a good thing for us because we knew our competition pool was a lot smaller. We went in it with everything we had and if we missed out on some guys that’s fine, that’s the risk you take.

“It’s a dream come true to be honest with you, having those guys with that kind of ability together. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. But I saw Moncada about the same age I saw Robert and it’s like Christmas in May.”

The pursuit of Robert -- a player general manager Rick Hahn describes as a “dynamic, potential talent” -- began in December at the winter meetings at National Harbor, Md. Having learned that Robert would potentially be a late addition to the 2016-17 international class, Paddy asked for a meeting with Hahn, executive vice president Kenny Williams and chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Paddy and Hahn had previously held several similar state-of-the-international-picture meetings to determine when to make a splash on the market.

This was different.

“Marco approached us and said, ‘This is the guy,’ ” Hahn said.

It was still a “what if” proposition because Robert not only had to establish residency, but he also had to receive clearance from Major League Baseball to be part of the 2016-17 class, a critical factor. Under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams could spend whatever they wanted on a player as long as they paid a luxury tax. But under the new CBA, teams are limited to a maximum of $5.25 million for bonuses.

While the White Sox felt Paddy’s familiarity with Robert would give them a chance if he wasn’t eligible until July 2 (the next class), they knew they’d compete against fewer teams for his services under the old rules. Hahn said back in March the White Sox intended to be a player either way. On Saturday, he said it was Paddy’s initial determination that spurred him into action.

“Marco personally was willing to suffer the penalties that it has on his world for the betterment of the organization,” Hahn said. “Marco’s evaluation and presence and willingness to sacrifice potential future signings for this reinforced the notion that this was the right move to make.”

Then everyone else got involved and the White Sox went overboard to recruit Robert.

If Saturday’s pregame presentation is any indication, the White Sox pulled out all the stops.

As Robert was introduced for his press conference, he sat in front of banners featuring current and former White Sox from Cuba, including Alexei Ramirez, Minnie Minoso, Jose Abreu and Moncada.

Once he was on the field to throw out the first pitch, the team played a short video that was filmed Friday night on the scoreboard with numerous White Sox fans welcoming Robert to Chicago. As Robert trotted to the mound to throw his pitch to Abreu, team employees stood atop the home dugout with a sign that read “bienvenidos” and holding Cuban flags.

But the post-signing efforts were nothing compared to the team’s full-court press of Robert last month.

[MORE: Luis Robert will start journey through White Sox organization in Dominican Summer League]

Hahn and Williams brought several showstoppers with them when they traveled to the Dominican Republic for a private workout with Robert last month. Included were a power point production and an iPad with a video presentation that the White Sox communications department put together in six days, Hahn said. Manager Rick Renteria narrated the short video in Spanish and it included personal messages for Robert from Abreu, Moncada and Michael Ynoa, who shares the same trainer (Edgar Mercedes) and worked out with Robert in the offseason.

“It was a beautiful video,” Robert said through an interpreter. “The part (that stood out) the most was when Ricky Renteria was talking straight to me, saying they need me here to win several championships.”

But more than the video, Robert said the desire displayed by the White Sox made his decision easy. Hahn said the White Sox felt confident heading into the final 24 hours that they were in the lead for Robert. Not only had they bid aggressively, Hahn thought the White Sox made a strong pitch. That feeling only increased last Saturday morning when Robert changed his Instagram avatar to a picture of him wearing a White Sox cap.

“The video helps a lot, but the thing that made me make a decision was who was the team that showed more interest,” Robert said. “That was something that made me feel good.”

Paddy had seen enough in five years to feel confident in pushing the White Sox to be a player for Robert.

He first scouted Robert at the under-15 Pan American Championships in 2012 in Chihuahua, Mexico. Paddy’s interest in the 6-foot-3, 175-pound center fielder only grew as Robert matured physically. Paddy suspected that once Hahn and Williams would be on board once they saw the passion with which Robert played.

Robert described himself on Saturday as player who likes to fight and “give all that I have for my team.” Paddy said it wasn’t a difficult call to push Hahn when he considered the player’s tools and makeup, as well as the last opportunity to spend big on an international talent.

“You put all those things together, it becomes easy,” Paddy said. “As I watched him over the years grow, get stronger and get better, it became evident to me that if we had an opportunity to sign this guy, it would be a good thing for the organization.

“The level of ability, the tools that I saw that he had, and the past and now present, it’s something you don’t see every day.”

Tyler Danish gets win in first big league start as White Sox beat Tigers in first game of doubleheader

Tyler Danish gets win in first big league start as White Sox beat Tigers in first game of doubleheader

Usually when a pitcher walks six batters in one game, it’s an outing to forget.

Not the case, though, for Tyler Danish, who will always want to remember what went down Saturday on the South Side.

After making three relief appearances last season, Danish made his first big league start in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader against the visiting Detroit Tigers. And despite issuing a sextet of free passes, he allowed a goose egg on the scoreboard, earning his first major league victory in the White Sox 3-0 win.

“That's great. I mean you dream as a kid to pitch in the big leagues,” Danish said. “To get my first win in my first career start was special. I'm glad my mom was here, I'm glad she got to enjoy that. It was a very special day, something I'll always remember.”

Danish got into some early trouble and looked like he might’ve been heading for the same type of sky-high ERA that he put up in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it call up in 2016, when he turned in a 10.80 earned-run average in 1.2 innings. He walked three batters in the first inning Saturday, escaping thanks to a double play and a bases-loaded ground out to end the inning.

Twice more he had multiple runners on base, but he got out of those innings unscathed, too.

“He was throwing enough strikes that with the sinking action, he was able to get that ground ball in the first inning, the double play,” manager Rick Renteria said after the game. “Then most of the game he was still staying down in the zone. He was missing but just missing off on the fringes of the plate.

“I think he was very composed. The first couple of innings he was a little accelerated but he slowed down. In the end we wanted to make sure he was ready to go out and finish it.”

[WHITE SOX TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Despite the walks, Danish impressed. In addition to throwing five scoreless innings, he allowed just three hits and struck out seven Detroit hitters. Danish became the first White Sox pitcher to throw at least five scoreless frames and give up three or fewer hits in his first big league start in nearly a decade. The last guy to do it was Lance Broadway in September 2007.

“I definitely was nervous in the first inning. I was expecting it,” Danish said. “I came in and tried to pitch as well as I could with that. But I did settle in after the first couple innings and just started breathing a little more. I felt comfortable and the bullpen did a great job, the defense did a great job.

“I think a little bit of nerves. Obviously you don't want six (walks) every game, but I thought I made good pitches when I needed to. Now, go and enjoy this thing and tomorrow we'll be back again.”

Even though offense was hard to come by, the White Sox hitters managed three runs against an otherwise dominant Michael Fulmer. The reigning American League Rookie of the Year yielded just six hits through his first seven innings of work, the lone run in that span scoring on a bases-loaded double play in the fifth.

The White Sox got to Fulmer slightly more in the eighth with runs scoring on a Leury Garcia triple and a Jose Abreu broken-bat bloop single. Fulmer still finished with fewer than 100 pitches thrown in his eight innings, recording every out for Detroit.

The White Sox bullpen was perhaps the most impressive unit of the game. Chris Beck, Anthony Swarzak, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson threw four scoreless innings and struck out nine hitters, including eight straight at one point.