Brian Howard, St. Ignatius' leading scorer, wears No. 5 on his jersey. Not 23 or 1 or 34 or 7 or other popular numbers worn by other athletes. But there was a sound rationale behind his decision to choose a single digit that isn't a number of choice.
Oh, Howard is aware that a baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio, wore No. 5. And his father's favorite NBA player, Jason Kidd, wore No. 5 when he played for the New Jersey Nets.
"My dad teaches me to try to be my own person," Howard said. "You don't see a lot of 5's on the court, especially in the NBA. I want to make my own identity. Maybe people will come along and follow my identity, like other players with other numbers."
Howard, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, is making a reputation for himself this season as St. Ignatius has won 11 of its first 13 games and emerged as a leading contender for the Class 3A championship.
He has averaged 20 points per game against one of the state's most competitive schedules. In the last three games, the Wolves defeated highly rated Downers Grove South and De La Salle to win the Jack Tosh Holiday Classic at York but lost to St. Rita last Friday 50-42.
Against St. Rita, Howard was limited to 12 points while St. Rita star Tony Hicks scored 15 of his game high 22 points in the second half. St. Rita forced 18 turnovers, including 10 in the third period. The Mustangs closed out the third period on an 11-0 run and St. Ignatius never recovered.
The schedule doesn't get any easier. St. Ignatius will host St. Joseph Friday, then face Farragut Sunday in the Martin Luther King Classic at Whitney Young. They'll have a rematch with De La Salle on Jan. 20.
"We play one of the toughest schedules in the state," coach Rich Kehoe said. "It's a challenge to play in a high-quality league and play a top-rate schedule against good coaches and good teams. This isn't the best team I've coached. But, potentially, it is the best team that can go a long way in the state tournament."
In his 23rd year of coaching, the 66-year-old Kehoe believes he is getting better with each passing season. This is his second tour of duty at St. Ignatius. He was fired in 1986 but continued to teach at the school. Asked to assist former coach John Tracy from 1995 to 2002, he succeeded Tracy. In the last nine years, his teams were 141-54.
"I wasn't turned off (to coaching) after being fired in 1986. In fact, I got back into it the next year with a one-year stint at Maine East. And I interviewed at other schools," Kehoe said. "I wanted to get back into the arena as a head coach. What else can it do? I like coaching. I feel I'm getting better at it. And I have good talent to work with."
Kehoe has five senior starters, three of whom started on last year's 20-8 finisher that lost to Whitney Young in the regional final. Two are three-year starters, including both guards -- Howard and 5-foot-10 senior point guard Jack Crepeau (nine points per game, five assists).
Last year's squad was led by massive 6-foot-11, 245-pound Nnanna Egwu, now at Illinois. He was a huge presence in the post and an outstanding shot blocker. While this year's team has some size, its strengths are shooting (over 50 percent from three-point range), balance, defense and guard play.
With Howard and Crepeau in the backcourt, the front line is 6-foot-8 senior center Peter Ryckbosch (13 points, six rebounds per game), 6-foot-4 senior Marty McClure (10 points per game) and 6-foot-3 senior Abdoulie Conteh (nine points per game). Off-the-bench support is provided by 6-foot-8 senior Bill Lawrence, sophomore shooting guard Lester Larry, junior defensive stopper Billy Langhenry and 6-foot-1 senior Brandon Felton.
"We have six guys who have scored in double figures. Every starter is averaging in double figures. Opponents can't key on one player," Kehoe said. "And these kids have been playing a long time together, 37 games in the summer, two fall leagues. The more we play, the better we get. I hope we don't peak early.
"What York told me is we can come from behind to win against good competition and we can play solid defense for four quarters, something that was lacking earlier this year. This has to be the most cumulative team I have coached, the most interlocked team I have coached. Everybody has to pull together."
Kehoe said he discounts his team's 11-2 record. "January is an acid test when we play ranked teams," he said. St. Rita was a good start. "We have to make a concerted effort to improve. We can't sit on our laurels. We can't let Thanksgiving to Christmas be the highlight of our season. The easiest part of our schedule is over," he said.
If there is an indispensable player, it is Howard. Call him Mr. Clutch. He is a superb three-point shooter. Since his sophomore year, he has converted game-winning or tying shots or game-clinching free throws on 11 occasions. In the final at York, he hit the last-second shot against De La Salle that forced overtime.
"He is a big-time player," Kehoe said. "He has a lot of moxie and plays well under pressure. He came to us as a smallish kid and built himself up in the upper body. He isn't just an outside shooter but he can muscle to the basket. He is a role model of what hard work and weight lifting can do."
Last year, Howard played in Egwu's huge shadow and averaging about 12 points per game. "I saw myself more as a shooter," he said. This year, he believes he is a more complete player, more aggressive, more of a leader -- and a more dangerous scorer. It isn't his team, but...
"We are more balanced this year. More kids are contributing," Howard said. "In order to win, sometimes I need to score more points. Or other times they need me to be a passer or play harder on defense, whatever they need for me to do.
"We're not surprised to be 11-2. We are where we should be. During the summer and fall, we improved a lot and beat some very competitive teams. We have a certain confidence about us. We believe in each other and trust in each other to make the right plays at the right time."
Despite its success in recent years -- Kehoe has produced five 20-game winners and his 2008 and 2009 teams were 42-13 -- St. Ignatius struggles to gain its fair share of celebrity or respect in the Catholic League and beyond. It is often stereotyped as the academic school that also plays a good brand of basketball from time to time.
"Most of us feel like we didn't get as much recognition as we should have gotten," Howard said. "That was one of our motivations going into the York tournament. We still feel we are underdogs and have something to prove on the court. We play with a chip on our shoulders.
"At York, we learned we have a lot of heart to fight against teams that are perceived to be better than us, teams that are rated ahead of us. When the pressure is on, we have poise because of our senior leadership. That's the difference-maker, our senior leadership.
"Everybody's dream is to win a state championship and ours is no different. In any given game, somebody can step up, like in the York tournament. Someone can step up and make the winning shot. That's the luxury we have with this team this year."