Times are changing at Simeon

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Times are changing at Simeon

Bob Hambric was a very private and very disciplined person. Simeon's late basketball coach guarded his family's privacy and defended his policy of not allowing the media to talk to his players and not permitting college recruiters to contact them until after their senior season.

Hambric, who died in 2009, often was criticized for his rigid and uncompromising standards. But he was universally respected for never bending to pressure from administrators, parents or media. He did it his way and if you wanted to play for him or associate with him, you played by his rules.

One of the most controversial was his decision not to allow freshmen to play on the varsity. Any freshman. And that included future NBA star Derrick Rose, who later led Simeon to two state titles under Hambric's successor, Robert Smith, who had played and coached under Hambric.

It was hard to argue with his methods because he was one of the most successful coaches in state history. In 24 years at Simeon, he won over 80 percent (551) of his games. In the 1990s, he won 20 or more games for 10 years in a row. His 1984 team, led by the late Ben Wilson and Tim Bankston, won the Class AA state championship.

Hambric took pride in the number of players he sent to college, including Nick Anderson, Deon Thomas, Bryant Notree, Bobby Simmons, David Knight, Deon Butler, Cody Butler, Belefia Parks, Ervin Small, Mario Bailey, Kevin Turner and Calvin Brock.

When Smith was handpicked to succeed his mentor as Simeon's head coach in 2004, he advocated most, if not all of Hambric's philosophical and disciplinary standards. Players didn't talk to the media and college recruiters were kept on the outside looking in.

But times have changed. Smith has become even more successful than his predecessor. He has won 88 percent of his games and five state championships, including the last three in a row. He is seeking to become the first coach in state history to win four in a row.

Old-timers say Hambric wouldn't recognize his program today. Smith agrees. "Times change and we have changed with the times," he said.

All-Access Simeon? Daily stories in print and online in the Chicago Tribune? Comcast SportsNet Chicago hires a reporter to write two or three stories a week on Simeon? Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate and all of their teammates talking to the media? A cover story on Parker in Sports Illustrated?

What would Bob Hambric think of all of this?

"He probably wouldn't be very happy with what is going on," Smith said. "What would I say to him? Everyone has to change with the times. This is a big adjustment for me...television cameras, reporters around all the time. It is something I don't like. It doesn't fit my personality.

"But when you have players like Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, it is only fitting that everyone gets to know who they are besides being a basketball player. The CPS (Chicago Public Schools) get a lot of negative publicity. We thought it would be good to get positive publicity.

"Next year might be something different. But right now we have an opportunity that CPS never had before, to win four state championships in a row. It is fitting to tell the story all the way."

Smith grew up in the Hambric system. Discipline was No. 1, first and foremost. Not talking to the media was huge in his eyes. He felt the media would dominate one player and not give other players any exposure. He was always worried about producing bulletin board material for opponents and creating petty jealousies among his players.

The recruiting policy has changed, too. "I was against committing early but I felt some kids might have missed out on scholarships. I feel it is good for some kids. I don't know if Jaylon Tate would have gotten a scholarship from Illinois if he had waited," Smith said.

"Hambric didn't let kids talk to college coaches until after the season. With times changing, I thought waiting for certain people might mean you can't get the offer you want. Parents should be fully involved. I should give advice if they need it."

As he prepared for the 2012-13 season, Smith was perfectly content to run his program exactly the way he had run it since he succeeded Hambric. Before preseason practice began, however, he was approached by the Chicago Tribune, which proposed an All-Access feature that would publicize the program on a daily basis.

"I told them I would get back to them," Smith said. "Hambric and I would have a fatherson conversation if he saw this today. How did it all come about? The biggest thing is us trying to win four state titles in a row. That is big on my mind. I want the kids to be prepared.

"This is the kind of stuff that they will experience when they get to college...cameras, microphones, interviews. Four of our kids are going to high-level programs. Like being on the court, they need to practice for the questions and the cameras and the atmosphere.

"Jabari does a great job of it. Kendrick, too. It is time for them to step out. I had to step out of my comfort zone to do it. The parents trust my judgment. No parents have questioned what we have done. It took me a week to make a decision. I didn't talk to the kids. I made the decision about them and what they had going on by myself."

So Smith opened the door. He scheduled a media day a week after preseason practice began. The reporters and cameras were there. "You guys are lucky," Smith told them. "You wouldn't be in the building at all to talk to the kids if Hambric was still coaching."

"The first thing I thought about was how positive it would be," Smith said. "I didn't want it to be a situation where they were downing kids or just talking to Jabari. I wanted everyone to tell their stories. And I wanted to make sure we were emphasizing CPS, the good things that go on. I didn't want to just showcase basketball. I want them to know other things about our kids."

Like his predecessor, Smith keeps track of everything that is going on. His name is on the program, his reputation. He said he wakes up every morning and reads the newspaper to see what has been written. And Smith wants everyone to know that this isn't just a Tribune thing, that all media outlets have access to his program.

"We will step out of our box like the Tribune but I won't let the media dominate Jabari all the time. They have to talk to other players," he said. "We feel if it is positive for Simeon and CPS, we are willing to do it."

It didn't take Smith very long to squelch any fears that such a drastic change in policy and unprecedented exposure to his players would have a negative effect on the program, that it would jeopardize Simeon's attempt to write its own chapter in the history of high school basketball in Illinois.

"I noticed it in the second week of practice, how focused they were on detail," he said. "These kids are focused. They want to win the state title. They aren't concerned with the newspaper. This is nothing to them. I felt they were mature enough to handle it.

"This thing is positive when we are all doing good. It isn't about Smith or Jabari or Kendrick. It's about everyone on the Simeon basketball team. I have never been around a group of kids who understand where we are and were we want to go. The leaders are so good and unselfish. All they want to do is win. It is the most mature group I have coached. They think they can't lose. They don't want to be the team that didn't win (the state title)."

Smith said the final piece of the puzzle for this year's team was uncovered and put securely in place when he persuaded Jaylon Tate to become the vocal leader.

"We were missing that, a vocal leader. Last year, we had Jelani Neely and Steve Taylor," the coach said. "That is Jaylon's role. I told him that we didn't have it and we needed it. I was looking for a leader and he felt he was the one. The others don't have that kind of personality. They are more laid back. They show you on the court."

"Everyone understands that Jaylon is the vocal leader. They can't let him down. He is so focused that everything is being done right. Jabari, Kendrick and Kendall Pollard lead by example. But you have to have a locker room and court guy who is vocal and talks to the other kids, who knows what I am looking for, who tells the other kids what they have to do."

Yes, times have changed at Simeon. Smith, his friends and former teammates still sit back and talk of the way it was when their former coach and mentor was there.

"It was like a fraternity," Smith said. "If you played at Simeon, you knew what was going on. It all happened to us as players. We could recite stories and lines about Hambric. He never changed his routine. Had he changed a little bit, he might have won more state titles. But that wasn't his ultimate goal. He wanted to make young men into men."

But he wouldn't permit freshman to play on the varsity, even Derrick Rose. Today, Smith has two promising freshmen on his varsity roster, Ben Coupet, whose father played at Simeon, and Zack Norvell.

"We wouldn't have freshmen on the roster today if we didn't think they could handle it. Sometimes we put kids on the varsity to show them they aren't ready. But sometimes freshmen are capable of handling it," Smith said.

Yes, times have changed at Simeon.

Jose Quintana on Tuesday opponent Chris Sale: 'He was the best teammate I ever played with'

Jose Quintana on Tuesday opponent Chris Sale: 'He was the best teammate I ever played with'

The majority of the talk surrounding Tuesday night's pitching matchup at Guaranteed Rate Field will be focused on the guy pitching against the White Sox.

Chris Sale returned to the South Side for the first time since being traded to the Boston Red Sox this past offseason, and he'll take the mound against his former teammates Tuesday. But the White Sox, who traded away one of the best pitchers in baseball, will be sending another All-Star hurler to the mound to oppose Sale.

Jose Quintana gets the ball for the White Sox, and while the attention will be squarely on Sale — and the emotions he does or does not show and the reaction he receives from the fans — Quintana will have his own emotional roller coaster going on, pitching against a guy who served as a mentor of sorts for the first five seasons of his career.

"Throwing on the same day will be a different feeling for me because he was the best teammate I ever played with," Quintana said. "It will be a different feeling watching him go against me after the last four years when he was my teammate. We talked last night. He said, ‘Hey, I’m in town. I can’t wait to see you guys.’ So I’m excited to play against him."

Sale had a few years on Quintana in major league service, but the duo looked like they would be a near-untouchable 1-2 combo at the front of the White Sox pitching rotation for years to come.

They both represented the White Sox at the All-Star Game last season and both finished in the top 10 in voting for the American League Cy Young Award.

[WHITE SOX TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Sale was shipped to the Red Sox to start the White Sox rebuilding effort, breaking up that duo leading the staff. But as is often the case, it's not the performances and the statistics that Quintana misses the most about Sale but rather the qualities he brought as a teammate.

"I learned from his focus on the game and his passion for baseball," Quintana said. "We talked a lot over the years. But the first thing I learned from him was focus.

"I miss him. He was one of my best teammates ever that I played with. I understand it was part of the game. It’s a business and that happens. ... I miss his energy. We have a lot of guys here with energy too, but I miss the energy he had every time we talked in the dugout, watching the game."

Sale is having one of the best campaigns of any pitcher in baseball through the season's first two months. And while Quintana's start has been shaky at times, he's still the White Sox ace. It's that standing, though, that has had his name the subject of plenty of trade rumors during the offseason, spring training and since Opening Day. There is an expectation, warranted or not, that he will soon join Sale in departing the White Sox for a big prospect haul.

Until then, though, Quintana is taking over for Sale as the team's No. 1. The two old mates will go head to head Tuesday night in a monumental matchup, and Quintana is already projecting that focus he learned from Sale.

"I have just one game, and I have my focus on throwing the ball well for my team, to get a 'W.' That’s my focus every time, to do my job," Quintana said. "It will be a different feeling because I’m pitching against him, but I don’t want to pay attention to the other team. I just want to do my job."

Chris Sale has 'no hard feelings' as he returns to face White Sox

Chris Sale has 'no hard feelings' as he returns to face White Sox

Though he had a “couple blips on the radar,” including a few high-profile instances last season, Chris Sale has no regrets about his White Sox tenure.

The former pitcher returned to Guaranteed Rate Field as an opponent for the first time on Monday morning and said the majority of his White Sox memories are fond. The five-time All-Star takes the mound for the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night in a highly anticipated matchup against former teammate Jose Quintana. Despite an, at times, intense final campaign that included a five-game suspension imposed by the club for destruction of team property, Sale wouldn’t change anything about his six seasons with the White Sox.

“It got me to where I am today,” Sale said. “Can't change the past, just try to become better in the future. Appreciative of my time here, the people I met here, the relationships I built, most of the things I did here, too. I'm appreciative of everybody involved that got me to this point right here. Without a lot of people in this building I wouldn't be sitting here right now, that's for sure.”

Sale’s current seat is atop the world.

Not only does he pitch for a perennial contender at “buzzing” Fenway Park, Sale has thrived. He’s 5-2 with a 2.34 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 73 innings over 10 starts. During those 10 turns Sale tied the major league record he already shared with Pedro Martinez with at least 10 strikeouts in eight consecutive starts.

It’s all part of a transition he has found easier than he expected. Sale spent spring training at home because the Red Sox train in Florida. He also has liked working with Boston pitching coach Carl Willis and appreciates a fresh set of eyes.

“It wasn’t as crazy as I thought,” Sale said. “Boston has been nothing but great to me.”

If Sale holds any ill will toward the White Sox front office, he wasn’t letting on.

The 2010 first-round draft pick is still highly thought of within the White Sox clubhouse and known as a great teammate. Quintana and James Shields both called Sale one of the best teammates they’ve played with in their careers. Nate Jones described Sale as a “model citizen” who stood up for what he believed in. Those beliefs led to Sale erupting twice publicly during the 2016 campaign, including a lengthy rant in spring training directed at executive vice president Kenny Williams after Adam LaRoche’s abrupt retirement. In July, Sale objected to the team wearing throwback uniforms and cut them to pieces during batting practice, which led to a five-game suspension for insubordination.

[MORE: Jose Quintana on Tuesday opponent Chris Sale: 'He was the best teammate I ever played with']

But Sale sounds as if he has moved on.

“There's no hard feelings,” Sale said.

He admits there could be a few strange moments on Tuesday night when he sets foot on the mound. Sale had already experienced some abnormal emotions when he set foot in the building he called home for seven seasons for the first time since last October. Aside from a brief visit following a 2015 brawl with the Kansas City Royals, Sale set foot in the visiting clubhouse for the first time -- “a little longer walk,” he said. He wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more in store when he faces some former teammates on Tuesday.

“It's going to be hard not to crack a couple of smiles out there, just because I spent a lot of time with these guys,” Sale said. “These guys were my teammates for a handful of years, some of them. We've had some good times together so it would be hard not to smile out there.”

Sale looks forward to Tuesday’s atmosphere and has thought about how he’ll be received by White Sox fans. He said he feels like he run into more White Sox fans since he’s left than when he played on the South Side. While he’ll be a little nervous, Sale said he expects he’ll have fun with the experience.

“I just want to let everyone know that I appreciated my time here,” Sale said. “There’s a couple of blips on the radar amongst a lot of really good times. So more times than not it was great. I appreciated it.  I always had good teammates. I always had a great coaching staff. I’m appreciative of that so I don’t want to lose sight of that.”