Knicks GM Grunwald, former HS star Cross and what could've been

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Knicks GM Grunwald, former HS star Cross and what could've been

When Glen Grunwald was named vice-president and legal counsel of the Denver Nuggets, I called to congratulate him. We go back a long way, to the time he broke in as a freshman sensation for Norm Goodman's basketball team at East Leyden.

When he returned my call, he began: "I finally made it to the NBA."

Now he's back again. After serving as interim general manager for the New York Knicks since last July, he has promoted to executive vice-president and general manager on a permanent basis. No more interim. He has a hearty endorsement from Knicks owner James Dolan.

"Glen has done a terrific job this season," said Dolan, the chairman of Madison Square Garden. "He is an intelligent, seasoned executive and we look forward to him continuing in the role of general manager for many years to come."

Grunwald was just as upbeat when he returned my congratulatory call the other day. "It's a new job. We have a great fan base. Hopefully we can keep moving forward. I never knew where life would take me," he said.

After serving as general manager of the Toronto Raptors from 1994 to 2004, he became president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade, the largest business organization in Canada, before joining old friend and college teammate Isiah Thomas as senior vice-president of basketball operations of the New York Knicks in 2006. He was promoted to interim general manager in 2011.

Now he is preparing for the NBA playoffs and the upcoming NBA draft. He is excited about working with another college teammate, Mike Woodson, the Knicks' new head coach, and is proud of the development of former Oak Park star Iman Shumpert, who moved into the Knicks' starting lineup, then suffered a season-ending ACL tear last Saturday at the same time that the Bulls' Derrick Rose was sidelined with the same injury.

Shumpert was the Knicks' first-round draft choice last year, the No. 17 pick out of Georgia Tech. "He has played so well for us. Unlike most rookies, he knows how to play hard and compete. He has great physical gifts. He is athletic and has a great NBA body," Grunwald said.

Of all of the outstanding high school basketball players I observed as a student and fan and covered as a sportswriter for four daily newspapers over a period of 50 years, two who stand out are Grunwald and Russell Cross.

I'll always wonder how good they could have been, if they could have achieved the Hall of Fame stature of George Mikan or Harry Gallatin or Andy Phillip or Isiah Thomas or Dan Issel or Cazzie Russell or Jerry Sloan or Don Nelson or, upon his retirement, Kevin Garnett.

They never had a chance.

Grunwald, the only four-time All-State selection in Illinois history, was recruited out of East Leyden by Indiana coach Bob Knight. He chose Indiana over North Carolina and Kentucky. But he suffered a severe knee injury during the summer prior to his freshman year and never was able to fulfill his enormous potential.

"Sure, I'll always wonder how good I could have been," he once told me. "It was tough not to succeed in basketball after high school. But I was part of a good college program and happy to be part of its success, however small. When you are injured, you feel you can get better. But the gradual realization is that it won't be the same."

He was co-captain of Indiana's 1981 NCAA championship team that was led by Isiah Thomas. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the fifth round of the NBA draft but never played in the NBA. Instead, he focused on his education, earning a law degree, an MBA and an Honours business degree in marketing. He was a successful corporate attorney for major law firms, including Winston & Strawn in Chicago, before joining the Denver Nuggets.

Cross was the Bill Russell and Anthony Davis of his time, a 6-foot-10 center with great athleticism and the wingspan of a 747 jumbo jet. A two-time All-Stater, he had a feared reputation as a rebounder and shot-blocker and led Manley to the state championship in 1980.

Under the guidance of coach Gene Keady at Purdue, Cross was Big Ten Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-Big Ten selection. He led Purdue to the NIT finals as a freshman and sophomore. As a junior, his team lost to Arkansas in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Afterward, he declared for the NBA draft. He was selected by Golden State as the No. 6 pick in 1983.

But his professional career never took off. He was slowed by a knee injury that he suffered during his senior year at Manley, when a Simeon player charged off the bench and tackled him to prevent him from scoring. The injury was never completely repaired and his knee got progressively worse, despite surgery during his sophomore year at Purdue.

He was traded to Denver but was released. He played in the CBA, then went overseas and played in Italy and Spain for seven years. He retired in 1991 after doctors told him that he couldn't play another year on his damaged knee.

"From a physical standpoint, I never played well in the NBA. I never played up to expectations and my potential," Cross said. "My skill level wasn't quite the same. I wasn't able to run as fast or jump as well, things that were part of my game that helped me to dominate."

But Cross, a very religious man, has no regrets over his experience. "I am appreciative of what I got done in high school and college. There was some disappointment but no regrets for not playing in the NBA," he said.

"It was a blessing in disguise that I was able to play overseas and see other countries and learn new languages."

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

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USA TODAY

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

It's not something that's been said often over the decades, but Northwestern is one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

That's the story the standings tell, and with another week of the 2016-17 season in the books, the Wildcats sit at 5-2 in conference play, good for the second-best mark in the league.

That fifth conference win came Sunday afternoon with a 74-72 defeat of Ohio State. It was the first time Northwestern won in Columbus since 1977.

This is the first 5-2 start to Big Ten play for the Cats since 1968. So is this the first time ever the Cats get an invite to the NCAA tournament?

Of course that remains to be seen, but Chris Collins' squad sure seems to be setting itself up for inclusion in the field of 68. Sunday's win was just the latest to come away from Evanston, and in seven conference games, four of the team's five wins have come in road games, including three straight at Nebraska, Rutgers and Ohio State.

Northwestern had to find a way to win Sunday. A couple surges in the first half took the Cats from modest deficits to a lead that grew as big as eight. The halftime advantage was five, but that slipped away quickly as Northwestern shot poorly after halftime. Ice cold is a better descriptor, the Cats struggling to get their field-goal percentage above 30 percent over the final 20 minutes. It got there eventually, the team finishing shooting 32.3 percent in the second half, but it was the work from the free-throw line that made the win possible. Over the final 20 minutes, Northwestern was 14-for-16 from the charity stripe, including going 11-for-12 over the final minute and a half.

The key stretch came when a Scottie Lindsey 3-ball broke a 56-all tie with four and a half minutes to play. Ohio State countered with a bucket, but freshman point guard Isiah Brown turned in back-to-back scores of his own, the second a breakaway layup off a steal. That made it a five-point lead, and though the gap shrunk over the game's final three minutes, Northwestern's free-throw shooting allowed the Cats to hold that lead the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot at the free-throw line. They were 12-for-23 on the game, and all but one of the attempts came in the second half, making for 10 missed free throws over the game's final 20 minutes. Northwestern committed a lot of fouls, but Ohio State couldn't capitalize, something that has to be quite painful for the Buckeyes, considering they had edges in other statistical categories. They shot 45.6 percent from the field compared to the Cats shooting 37.5 percent. Ohio State also had 16 second-chance points and 28 points in the paint. But Northwestern had 17 points off 13 Ohio State turnovers.

Lindsey finished with a game-high 21 points and has scored in double figures in every game this season. Bryant McIntosh had 17 points, and Vic Law had 10. Jae'Sean Tate scored 14 points for Ohio State, with JaQuan Lyle adding 13, Trevor Thompson scoring 11 and Cam Williams putting in 10.

The win was Northwestern's fourth straight and boosted its overall record to 16-4 to go along with the 5-2 mark in the conference. The Cats next play Nebraska on Thursday.

The loss snapped a modest two-game win streak for Ohio State and dropped the Buckeyes' record to 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. They next play Minnesota on Wednesday.

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."

Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.

The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.

"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.

"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.