Taft revives memories of the past

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Taft revives memories of the past

Kevin Siudut wasn't around at the time, of course. But Taft coach Brett Nishibayashi constantly reminds his players of the good old days, when Taft dominated the Chicago Public League's Red-North, when coach Frank Hood's teams won 21 or more games for six years in a row, when Kenny Pratt was one of the best players in the state, when Pratt and Enoch Davis and the 1992 team went 28-2 and reached the Final Four in the city playoff.

"When you look at the trophies in the case by the gym, you see what Taft used to be," said Siudut, a 6-foot-6 senior. "You see that and you think we should be doing it, too. We know Taft used to have a history where it owned the Red-North and went deep into the city playoff. We want to add to that.

"We see this season as a special opportunity. We want to make this season our own. The coach gives us quotes to us in the morning and gets our minds in the right place for practice and games. He always talks to us about what Taft used to be, about Kenny Pratt."

Siudut has a scrapbook full of his coach's quotes, about 90 of them according to his latest count. Each morning, he hands a quote to each player. If someone fails to pick up his quote, it means an extra suicide drill in practice.

"Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard," is one of Siudut's favorite quotes.

He knows what hard work is all about, on the basketball floor and in the classroom. He is an International Baccalaureate student. He has an excessive workload of challenging curriculum, beyond the Advance Placement level. He has a 3.2 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 31 on his ACT. He is interested in several Division III schools and wants to study business or accounting or financing.

"I'm a math guy. That's my thing," he said. "The IB program is a very rigorous program that gets you ready for college. It involved a lot of projects. But I also want to play basketball in college."

Siudut got bit by the basketball bug while watching Michael Jordan in his last years in the NBA. "He gave me a love for basketball. I started to play in the Biddy League, as much as I could," he said.

"I also played football, soccer and baseball when I was growing up. But I always knew basketball was my favorite sport. In basketball, anything can happen. A team that isn't supposed to win can win."

But academics always have been important, too.

"I always felt I was smart, that if I focused in school I had a lot of potential to learn," Siudut said. "The IB program kicked me in the butt, but it taught me a lot. It was tough in the beginning to adjust because it was so tough, especially with three hours of basketball practice, then three hours of homework. Now I realize how good it was for me."

Basketball has been fun, too, bouncing back from last year's 14-16 finish. Taft is 16-7 after starting 0-4. The Eagles have lost only three times since Thanksgiving and have won their first Red-North title since going to the Elite Eight of the city playoff in 2001. Awarded the No. 3 seed in the Public League tournament, they will face Jones on Wednesday in the opening round.

"We find a way to win," Nishibayashi said. "When Taft became a neighborhood school, the demographics changed. We used to get kids from the west, more athletes. Now the athletes go to Loyola, Notre Dame, St. Patrick, Lane Tech or Whitney Young. They have a lot of options. We have become the last resort in a lot of respects.

"All I am doing is being honest. When I talk to parents, I'm upfront with them. If you want to be a part of something, rebuilding a program that once was competitive in the city, I tell them, come to Taft. We are changing the culture. Kids have bought into my program. I don't want us to be a good team. I want us to be a good program.

"We were close to getting over the hump the last couple of years. But we have to learn how to win games. It is getting contagious. Now the kids believe they are supposed to win these games. I'm a big believer in hard work. All the coaches I've played for were big on working hard. If you work hard, you will get the results that you desire."

Nishibayashi, 33, a Taft graduate of 1997, played for Frank Hood. He was a 5-foot-5 guard who understood that he lacked physical tools so he had to be cerebral to be effective. He also worked for Bosko Djurkovic at Carthage College. Now he works for his father, Nick Nishibayashi, the athletic director at Taft who coached the basketball program for eight years.

"I played and worked for people who influenced me and propelled me into coaching," said Nishibayashi, who is in his fourth season after succeeding his father.

"This isn't perfect but it is very persistent. The kids believe they can win and compete. They are all blue-collar kids. Character is a big part of why we are winning. These kids feel like they are supposed to win. They play hard, play smart and play together. They believe if you play the game in the right way, you'll win more times that you don't."

Siudut, who averages eight points and eight rebounds per game, is part of the success story. Other starters are 6-foot-5 sophomore John Joyce (15 ppg), whom the coach targets as the team's only potential Division I prospect, 6-foot-5 senior Tim Reamer (16 ppg), 6-foot-2 junior guard Josh Doss (11 ppg) and 5-foot-5 senior point guard Taylor Kuehn (2 ppg, 3 assists). The sixth man is 5-foot-10 senior Pierre Pozzi (3 ppg), a foreign
exchange student from Italy.

"This team is the first time in a while that all the kids work hard on both ends of the court," Siudut said. "We have a lot of fun. Winning is a lot of fun for us. We're a very close group of guys. We play for each other and have each other's back at all times. Playing for a team like this makes you want to hustle and dive for loose balls and stop the fast break. You know there are four other guys on the court and you want to do it for them."

He sensed this would be a special team since the end of last season, when Taft lost to a good Notre Dame squad without one starter. "It sent a message. We took a lot of momentum from last year. We had a good summer in a couple of leagues against quality teams like Oak Park," he said.

"Once the school year started, I knew it would be a special year because everyone was working hard. We even started conditioning a month before the season began."

"We don't shy away from good competition," Nishibayashi said. "Three of our first five games were against Zion-Benton, Notre Dame and Evanston. I wanted to change the culture with this group, make them understand what Taft used to be, that it wasn't a doormat, that it used to own the Red-North in the 1990s.

"Taft always won when I was growing up. I watched Kenny Pratt. He was as good a player as there was in the city. His All-America stuff is in the trophy case with the team picture of the Final Four team in 1992. We want to get back to the way it was."

Wonky streaks, good fortune over Cavs on the line for Bulls

Wonky streaks, good fortune over Cavs on the line for Bulls

No matter the metric or the occasion, the only thing definitive about the Bulls over the last two seasons has been their mystifying dominance over the Cleveland Cavaliers in head-to-head matchups.

That, and their fascinating streak of consecutive wins while playing at home on TNT, a streak that could end at 19 games Thursday night when the two teams with varying objectives clash at the United Center.

The Cavaliers are searching to find themselves, along with a light switch that will perhaps alert them to a lost defense over the past several weeks that has been worst in the league since the All-Star break.

The Bulls are searching for consistency, but since it’s probably a little too late in the season for that, they’ll settle for a playoff spot with eight games left.

They’ll take two straight wins for the first time in a month, if they can get it.

They’ll extend a goofy streak, if that’s what things will come down to.

“The big thing is obviously you have to execute very well against this Cleveland team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You have to go out there with great urgency, great energy. I anticipate them coming in and playing with a ton of energy tomorrow. We’re going to have to match that. We’re going to have to come out and play physical basketball.”

Having a big break between games this late in the season is a rarity, as the Bulls have been off since Sunday evening, but it’s just another weird detail in this weird Bulls experience.

An experience that the mild-mannered Hoiberg has to experience from his couch some nights, such as watching the Miami Heat furiously steal a game in Detroit at the buzzer with a Hasaan Whiteside tip-in to extend a lead over his team to a game, followed by another win Wednesday to put more distance between the two teams.

“I did, actually,” said Hoiberg with a smirk when asked if he’s scoreboard watching and paying attention to the teams ahead of the Bulls in the playoff race.

After being prompted to give his raw emotions when Whiteside’s tip-in occurred, he slipped right back to Robo-Hoiberg—although one can imagine how animated he must’ve been while looking to catch a break from a previous contender for the eighth spot in the Pistons.

“It is what it is,” Hoiberg said. “You have to go out and worry about yourselves at this time of year. It was a great finish for Miami, obviously, the way that game ended. But there’s nothing you can do about that. You’ve got to worry about yourselves and hopefully go out and execute.”

Going 6-1 against the Cavaliers in his two seasons as Bulls coach is probably the biggest feather in his cap, including three wins in all three meetings this go round.

The rhyme or reason doesn’t seem explainable, but Nikola Mirotic seemed to give a few keys to the Bulls’ success over LeBron James’ Cavaliers: Sharing the ball, controlling the glass and getting back on defense.

“Against big teams, we play much better,” Mirotic said. “I don’t know why is the reason for that. We need to find a way to play against everybody like that. It’s on us. We just have to prove it.”

Usually, those tenets seem to work against most teams, not just the supremely talented champions who’ve just lost a grip on first place in the conference.

But their inconsistencies have left the Bulls here with a handful of games left before the April 12th finale.

A win over Cleveland could mean everything, or nothing at all, or something in between.

“Sure, we understand,” Mirotic said. “We’ve been in a very similar situation last year. We didn’t make the playoffs so this year we want to try to make that push. I think we have a good schedule for the last. Very important game tomorrow, huge one. I think we have played very well against Cleveland until now. We have a chance. We need to get out there and play with energy.” 

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