Remember those amazing Appleknockers?

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Remember those amazing Appleknockers?

Since I retired as a sportswriter and high school sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001, I have written four books, two of them on high school basketball in Illinois.

In retrospect, I regret that I didn't write at least three others--on Hebron's 1952 team, the smallest school ever to win a state championship, Thornridge's 1972 team, the best in state history, and the 1964 Cobden Appleknockers, perhaps the best Cinderella story of all.

Fortunately, someone else was enterprising enough to do it. Scott Johnson, an assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, and his wife Julie Kistler co-authored "Once There Were Giants." Scott Lynn, a former basketball player at Lincoln, authored and self-published "Thornridge." And Teri Campbell and Anne Ryman co-authored "The Amazing Appleknockers" for Lusk Creek Publishing.

In my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press in 2004, I wrote chapters on all three subjects.

During one of my research trips to southern Illinois, I visited Cobden High School and interviewed Cobden star Chuck Neal at his home in nearby Anna. I also interviewed several other players by telephone and visited coach Dick Ruggles at his home in Nashville.

It was a magical story. Aside from Hebron in 1952, the state tournament hasn't seen anything like it. Cobden was the school of 147 students that could and almost did. The Appleknockers lost to Pekin 50-45 in the state championship game, but they captured the hearts of everyone outside of Pekin.

Campbell and Ryman never saw the 1964 Cobden team play--they are 1986 graduates of the school. But they heard all the of stories and decided they should put them into print. They spent four years researching the subject and two years trying to find someone to publish their manuscript.

"Being from Cobden, you always hear the story of the amazing Appleknockers. We wanted to preserve it. It if wasn't written down, we thought it wouldn't be remembered accurately or perhaps not at all," said Campbell, now a basic skills specialist and assistant coordinator for public and sport information at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.

"That's Cobden's claim to fame. The 1964 team's picture is in the gym. They are our local heroes. I didn't know the details of the story. I just knew they went to state and lost to Pekin. A lot of people think they won. When I was a student, marching in a high school parade in West Frankfort and in the State Fair parade in Springfield, people said we won state in 1964. We wouldn't correct them."

But Campbell and Ryman, very close friends who have known each other since third grade, decided to set the record straight. Their first interview was star player Kenny Flick, who still lives in Cobden. Flick's decision to quit the team during his junior season because his girlfriend got pregnant, and his return to the team as a senior is only one of the most interesting stories in the book.

"He had a reputation of not being real talkative but he talked to us for three hours," Campbell said. "He told us a lot of stories that weren't basketball-related. We knew it would be a book. We were committed. It wasn't all that hard to get interviews. Bob Smith (who died in 2008) is the only one who isn't alive. But we had interviewed him. Our only regret is he didn't see the finished product."

Ryman, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is a reporter for the Arizona Republic, said she was impressed with how the coaches and players were able to recollect things. Ruggles, for example, had total recall of his two-year hiatus in Cobden, a word-for-word account, a virtual play-by-play.

"We were fascinated by the level of detail," Ryman said. "We never went away from an interview without learning something. It was so rewarding to talk to them about what they went through. They weren't out for personal glory. There was no star. It was just a case of who was hot that night. There were so many good stories, like a soap opera."

Theirs is a fascinating tale. It's all there...how 27-year-old Dick Ruggles was recruited from Hurst-Bush High School to become the coach at Cobden, the tragic death of starting guard Tom Crowell, star player Kenny Flick's decision to quit the team after his girlfriend got pregnant, the school board's decision to change a rule prohibiting married students from competing in sports, thus allowing Flick to return to school and play on the team as a senior, the one-point victory over Egyptian in the regional, the triple overtime victory over Pinckneyville in the supersectional, almost play-by-play accounts of the important games, mascot Roger Burnett placing five apples on the floor of Assembly Hall while 16,000 fans cheered, the fanatical support by students, parents and fans.

Perhaps most intriguing is Ruggles total recall of the events, from his decision to take the job before the 1962-63 season to leaving Cobden after the 1963-64 season to become coach at Nashville. The book is laced with his recollections of plays and games, pregame speeches, halftime speeches, postgame speeches, quote by quote. It is as if it all happened last week, not nearly 50 years ago.

When I interviewed Chuck Neal at his home in Anna in 2002, nearly 40 years after teammate Tom Crowell had drowned in a swimming accident a few months before the 1963-64 season, he still had to wipe away tears when recalling the tragedy.

"What always has stuck with me is had I not lied to my father and gone where we were supposed to go, it may not have happened," he said. Neal, Ken Smith and Crowell planned to go swimming on a warm day in May. Chuck knew his father, a member of the school board who largely had been responsible for hiring Ruggles, didn't want him to go to Little Grassy Lake because it was known to have a big dropoff. So Chuck told him they would go to Lamer's Pond. Instead, they went to Little Grassy.

Crowell wasn't a very good swimmer. Smith and Neal decided to swim across the cove but told Crowell to stay behind in a shallow area. When they got halfway across, they turned around to see Crowell struggling in deep water. He apparently had tried to follow them. Neal went ahead to get help and Smith swam back and desperately tried to save Crowell's life.

"It was the most horrible experience I even had, even worse than Vietnam," Smith said. "He kept fighting me and he kept going under and he was gone. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about it. I think about what Tom could have been."

The class of 1964 still gets together every five years and the graduates who still live in the Cobden area get together every month. The basketball team celebrated a 40th anniversary by serving as grand marshals of the Peach Festival parade. A 50th reunion is planned in 2014.

A story like this had to be told. So it's a good thing that Campbell and Ryman, after looking for a publisher for two years, finally ran into the owner of Lusk Creek Publishing of Makanda, Illinois, at a winery in southern Illinois.

"We had a lot of rejections," Campbell said. "University of Illinois Press and Southern Illinois Press turned it down. Some publishers wouldn't even accept a proposal. SIU thought it was too small of an audience."

It's a story that anyone would love to read.

Nikola Mirotic and why the Bulls traded their second-round pick

Nikola Mirotic and why the Bulls traded their second-round pick

The Bulls entered rebuild mode on Thursday night after they dealt Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves. They acquired a pair of guards in Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 pick which they used to select Arizona power forward Lauri Markkanen.

But the Bulls opted not to continue adding youth to their roster when they sold their second-round pick, No. 38 overall, to the Golden State Warriors. That pick was Oregon power forward Jordan Bell, who many considered a late first-round prospect.

The move was perplexing for a team that hours earlier had traded away its franchise player to start a youth movement. But VP John Paxson said after the draft that the decision to move the pick was based on team depth, hinting at a significant move the Bulls will make in free agency.

"We had some wings on our board that we had targeted that were the only way we were going to keep that (No. 38) pick, and they went before us. And drafting Lauri (Markkanen), and the fact that we have, Niko’s a restricted free agent we intend to bring back, Bobby Portis, we didn’t want to add another big and that’s really all that was left on our board."

Both Paxson and general manager Gar Forman have said since the season ended that Mirotic, who will become a restricted free agent on July 1, is part of their future plans. The Bulls will be able to match any contract that another team offers Mirotic, and they intend to keep the 26-year-old in Chicago. After Butler's departure, Mirotic is now the longest tenured member of the Bulls. He's been with the team for three seasons.

The wings Paxson may have been referring to include Miami's Devon Reed (32nd overall to Phoenix), Kansas State's Wesley Iwundu (33rd overall to Orlando) or SMU's Semi Ojeleye (Boston, 37th overall). Point guards Juwan Evans (Oklahoma State) and Sterling Brown (SMU) were still on the board and potential options, but the Bulls were set on looking for wing help after receiving point guard Kris Dunn and shooting guard Zach LaVine in the Butler trade.

The Bulls frontcourt depth looks filled, as Cristiano Felicio is expected to return behind Brook Lopez. Mirotic, Portis, Markkanen and Joffrey Lauvergne should make up the power forward depth chart. Opting against using the 38th pick, which Golden State bought for a whopping $3.5 million, also leaves the Bulls with room to add a 13th player in the fall.

"It keeps us at 12 roster spots and gives us real flexibility for our roster," Paxson said. "So we didn’t just want to use up a roster spot on a player that we probably wouldn’t have kept."

How White Sox players managed the 'chaos' of Thursday's record-setting rain delay

How White Sox players managed the 'chaos' of Thursday's record-setting rain delay

MINNEAPOLIS -- Some guys played cards. The soccer ball got kicked around in spite of the close quarters in the visiting clubhouse. There was dancing. A magic trick or two was attempted. A few players even tried to get in a nap.

White Sox players found myriad ways to keep themselves occupied during Thursday’s draining 4-hour, 50-minute rain delay -- the longest in Minnesota Twins history.

Yet despite not knowing what time the game may start, White Sox players found a way to overcome the uncertainty and stay engaged. Similar to May 26 when the first game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers was cancelled, the White Sox figured out how to go from zero to 60 in mere seconds. Though there’s no exact formula for success, the White Sox seem to have figured out a way to endure the elements and get out quickly. On early Thursday evening, the White Sox overcame the rain and misery to jump ahead of the Minnesota Twins en route to a 9-0 victory at Target Field.

“We keep it real loose whether,” veteran third baseman Todd Frazier said. “We have a good time. We enjoy each other’s company. Win lose or draw, tomorrow’s a new day. Today we kept working hard and we knew we had a game to play and eventually we were going to play it. We turned it on at the right moment.”

Jose Quintana saw so much of his iPad that eventually he had to turn it off out of sheer boredom. Thursday’s starting pitcher was almost able to complete two feature-length movies during the rain delay. Quintana, who excelled with nine strikeouts in 6 2/3 scoreless innings, watched ‘Fast and Furious 7’ and ‘Get Out’ on his iPad during the delay.

While he liked the action movie, Quintana wasn’t as fond of the latter, though he admits he’s not a big fan of horror movies.

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“I think it was bad because too much time in front of the iPad,” Quintana said. “It made me bored.

“I just tried to stay relaxed, focused on the game. … Tried to come back and work a little bit. It’s a little hard, but we don’t have control so stay focused on the game.”

Whereas the White Sox determined when they played last month at home -- they cancelled Game 1 of a doubleheader at 1 p.m. and pushed the second game back to 8 p.m. because of rain -- this time was in the Twins’ hands. The forecast called for rain all afternoon before things cleared up around 5 p.m.

While the White Sox were in limbo as to when they would play, they had a pretty good idea that eventually they would.

“It’s miserable,” Frazier said. “You try and find some things to do, play cards, hang out with the guys. If you had a set time it would help. But we came out banging in that first inning. It’s huge.”

White Sox manager Rick Renteria is impressed with how his team has handled both long days. The White Sox also defeated the Tigers 8-2 on May 26th. While Renteria and his coaching staff spent a lot of his time preparing for their upcoming home series against the Oakland A’s, he’s pleased with how his players managed themselves through the uncertainty.  

“They’re the ones who are dealing with the chaos,” Renteria said. “They’re the ones who play the game and who have to have their minds to be ready to go out and perform. They’ve been able to respond well. It’s part of who they are, their character, and hopefully it’s something they continue to be able to do and build on.”