Gustafson is Oak Park's "glue guy"

Gustafson is Oak Park's "glue guy"
January 29, 2013, 1:00 pm
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When he was younger, Alex Gustafson preferred baseball to basketball. He wanted to be a pitcher, the next Greg Maddux. But he was taller than most of his friends so he began to enjoy basketball more and more. Then he discovered other things that attracted him to the game.

"I began to enjoy the thinking, reading and reacting aspects of basketball," he said. "It was better than sitting back and thinking before a play happens as in baseball. So I stopped playing baseball in eighth grade. I like being an all-around player. I try not to be one-dimensional."

In the Gustafson household, he couldn't afford to be. He looked up to his brother, who is eight years older, and his sister, who is seven years older. Both scored 33 on their ACT and attended the University of Illinois. Alex scored 32 on his ACT and likely will attend the University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, Grinnell, Illinois Wesleyan or Macalester College in Minnesota.

"They aren't smarter than me but they got lucky on one day. They took the ACT twice to get 33. I took it once," said Alex, who ranks in the top 10 percent of a class of nearly 900 students. "Yes, I'm very competitive with them. My parents always influenced me to put school in front of sports."

Gustafson, a 6-foot-4 senior, is described as "the glue guy" on an Oak Park-River Forest team that is battling for first place in the West Suburban's Silver Division and will carry a 14-6 record into Friday night's game against Proviso West.

After winning 10 of 11 and five in a row, the Huskies have lost two of their last three, including conference decisions to York and Hinsdale Central. So they are anxious to bounce back as they hope to improve on last year's 20-7 finish, which was capped by a loss to Schaumburg in the sectional semifinal.

Gustafson is Mr. Everything. He averages seven points, 3.5 steals and five deflections per game. In last week's 61-54 victory over Morton, he scored a season high 19 points. He plays multiple positions in the zone defense and often plays point on the press. He always defends the opponent's best player.

"He is our hardest worker consistently each and every game and every day," coach Mike Maloney said. "He plays so hard that he makes other guys ratchet their games up a notch. He is our glue guy. He keeps holding us together."

In one game last year, Maloney found himself with no one to play guard. Three had fouled out, one was injured and another was benched for disciplinary reasons. "I feared the worst," the coach said. He approached Gustafson. "I need you to play point," he said.

"I like being an all-around player. I try not to be one-dimensional," Gustafson said. "I've always loved defense. When I guard the best guy on the other team, I want to hold him below his season average. I try to make up for other guys' mistakes so it doesn't hurt our team. I like to steal the ball or get a hand on the ball, anything that can make a difference in the game.

"I'm always thinking. I put myself in the ball-handler's position. What would I do in his situation? I played all five positions last year. You have to be ready for anything, like when York ran a 1-3-1 zone against us or when Morton played a triangle-and-two."

York's 1-3-1 zone baffled Oak Park throughout the game and the Dukes prevailed 63-52. In last Friday's 53-45 loss to Hinsdale Central, junior guard Erick Locke scored 26 but the Red Devils had more balance with three players in double figures.

"Potentially, this could be the best team I have had," said Maloney, in his fifth year. "We feel we have guard play to match up with teams in our sectional. We can be hard to prepare for. Locke brings firepower to this team. He is one of the best juniors in the state. If we get help from our supporting cast and more consistent play from our inside game, we can be tough to beat."

Gustafson and Locke (20 ppg), a 6-foot-1 transfer from Brooks who has scholarship offers from Valparaiso, Illinois-Chicago, Chicago State, Rice and Jacksonville, are surrounded by 5-foot-8 senior point guard Jakari Cammon (9 ppg, 2.5 assists), 6-foot-7 senior T.K. Mattox (8 ppg, 7 rpg) and 6-foot-8 senior Thomas Ross (5 ppg, 6 rpg, 3 blocks). Locke was a freshman at Oak Park before moving to Brooks, where his father was head coach.

More size comes off the bench with 6-foot-9 senior Virgil Allen (4 ppg, 4 rpg) and 6-foot-2 junior Jason Gant.

The key to success, according to Maloney, is for Mattox, Ross and Allen to step up their production. "I want them to average a combined 25 points and 20 rebounds per game. If they do, we can be dangerous. They have started to produce. That's why we went on a winning streak," the coach said.

Maloney, a 1993 graduate of Oak Park, played for former coach Al Allen. At 19, he was Oak Park's freshman B coach. After three years as freshman coach and 10 years at the sophomore level, he succeeded Allen when he retired. Three years ago, the Huskies were 22-6 but lost to Proviso West in the regional final. Last year's team won the conference title.

"We lost the top three players from last year's team but we returned eight kids. And Locke came back," Maloney said. "It took a month to clearly establish roles and for some kids to realize they no longer were in secondary roles, that they were primary players. It took Locke a while to get the offensive and defensive concepts back. Now we're starting to jell and playing our best ball of the year."

Oak Park prides itself on defense, holding opponents to fewer than 45 points per game. The Huskies employ multiple defenses, mixing man-to-man, zone, 1-2-2 ball press and diamond-and-one press. In one game, they normally will give opponents four or five different looks. "We're in the business of confusing opponents," Maloney said.

"When we play well, with energy, it is the best team I have ever been a part of," Gustafson said. "When we play solid defense, which we have done in nearly every game except York and Hinsdale Central, no one has scored 50 points against us. But we can't have any off nights on offense. When our three bigs are on, it is helpful for us. It opens up the floor and allows us to do what we want."