Hirsch set the tone for Public League supremacy

Hirsch set the tone for Public League supremacy
March 11, 2013, 10:45 am
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It has been 40 years since they celebrated their few hours in the spotlight, winning the state high school basketball championship. Next to being named to the 1984 NBA All-Star Game, Rickey Green said it was the proudest achievement and most exciting time of his life.

They still are close, like they were while growing up in the Avalon Park neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. When their coach underwent double bypass surgery last December in Las Vegas, many of them called to wish him well and extend their love.

Hirsch 1973. Rickey Green, John Robinson, Josh Smith, Mike Matthews, Pete Allen, Robert Brooks, Reese Morgan, Carl Henderson, Frank Byrd, Greg Jones, coach Charles Stimpson. They finished 29-2 and set a standard for future Chicago Public League teams to follow.

"When you have a player like Rickey Green, you are glad you could go all the way. A lot of great players who went to the NBA didn't get to the state finals," Stimpson said.

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Hirsch wasn't a surprise or a fluke. The Huskies had made their mark in 1969, when they nearly upset top-rated Proviso East in the supersectional at Hinsdale Central. Led by Geoff Roberts, Hirsch led late in the game only to fall 47-46 to Jim Brewer and his Proviso East teammates who went on to win the state title.

The experience always left a bad taste in Stimpson's mouth. It persuaded the Illinois High School Association to change its format in 1972. With the introduction of the two-class system, the Public League champion no longer had to play in a suburban supersectional. Instead, the city champion automatically advanced to the Elite Eight.

But Stimpson was eager to make amends. In 1972, Hirsch lost to Carver in the city quarterfinals. There were high expectations for 1973. Most of the leaders of the 1972 squad were juniors, including Green, John Robinson, Josh Smith and Mike Matthews.

"I didn't realize how good we could be until (Harlan coach) Lee Umbles saw us play a game and reminded me that we had three very good shooters (Green, Robinson, Smith) who could score in double digits in any game. We had something that most teams didn't have.

"It also was a team that listened. They were all on the same page. We had a harder time getting out of the city than we had Downstate. To win after a 10-year lapse (Carver won in 1963), it gave a lot of other coaches incentive that they could go Downstate and win."

Hirsch had another edge. Stimpson attended a lot of clinics. At one of them, he listened to UCLA coaching legend John Wooden describe his zone press defense. Stimpson copied every detail. During the 1972-73 season, he confused opponents by using Wooden's press for one half, then the Jacksonville press for the other.

"Our kids had to learn to play defense by moving their feet and not slapping at the ball," Stimpson said.

"Conditioning was important," Smith said. "Coach Stimpson stressed that the team that had the fewest turnovers and most rebounds would normally win the game. And we were close. We were a family. Through the years, we have remained close. We stay in contact. Other teams aren't close like we are."

After losing to Carver in the city quarterfinals in 1972, Matthews said the underclassmen vowed to win the state title in 1973. They remembered the 1969 team's experience against Proviso East and they felt they didn't get a fair shake from the officials in the Carver game.

"No calls went our way. We should have won the game. We always felt we could have done in 1972 what we did in 1973. Who knows what we could have done as juniors? It got our minds right for our senior year," Matthews said.

"The 1969 players were from our neighborhood. We played against them when we were younger. They taught us how to play the game. We felt pride for Hirsch since we were freshmen, when Rickey was on the varsity. We wanted to step up our game and redeem 1969 and make a mark for the 1973 team. We were aware of the history that could be made based on what Cazzie Russell and Joe Allen did in 1962 and 1963."

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Hirsch opened with a victory over Bo Ellis and Parker, which was the preseason favorite in the Public League. Then they lost to Phillips. They didn't lose again until their last regular season game against Harlan when Stimpson chose to start the second string.

The Huskies nearly didn't get out of the city playoff. In their second game against Du Sable, they trailed by 18 points in the first quarter and nine at halftime. Du Sable was led by William Dice and sophomore Maurice Cheeks. Smith was sidelined with a sprained ankle. But Robinson scored 40 points to spark Hirsch's comeback.

"We were leading by one point at the end of the game and Du Sable had possession under our basket," Stimpson recalled. "They tried to pass to Dice but Matthews intercepted the high pass to preserve the victory."

In the final, Hirsch got past Parker 55-53. The Huskies, who were ranked No. 12 in the state after the regular season, eliminated Moline 57-50 in the quarterfinals, tournament favorite Lockport 83-67 in the semifinals and New Trier 65-51 for the state title.

In the final, Hirsch used its pressing defense to outscore New Trier 12-2 in the third quarter, breaking a 34-34 halftime tie, and the Trevians never recovered. Robinson scored 17 points, Green 16, Smith 14. Robinson and Green finished 2-3 in tournament scoring behind West Aurora's Matt Hicks. Green was an all-tournament selection.

"Next to being an NBA All-Star in 1984, the greatest thing for me was to play on the 1973 state championship team," said Green, who played in the NBA for 14 years before retiring in 1992.

"I was lucky to play for an NCAA title in 1976 but we didn't win it. It's a great accomplishment to win a state title. How many guys do you know can play for a state title?

"What I remember most is we had no idea we would play for the state title at the beginning of the year. We went out and played and we were winning but it didn't cross our minds until we got to the tournament. We had a great team but nobody thought we would win. Most people picked Parker with Bo Ellis and Lockport with Ellis Files.

"But our team had guys who played their roles. On most teams, everybody likes to shoot. But we had specialists. Matthews was a defensive guy and blocked shots. Robinson was a muscle player inside. Smith was quick and long and could run. I could score. Allen was a defensive player. We didn't get credit for being as good a defensive team as we were."

Green went to Vincennes, Indiana, Junior College, then joined Robinson at Michigan. They led Michigan to second place in the 1976 NCAA tournament. Robinson, who was co-captain of Michigan's 1977 team, died on September 23, 2012. He was 56.

Stimpson, who coached at Hirsch from 1963 to 1991, lives in Las Vegas. He used to drive 18-wheelers before retiring for good. Brooks died of heart problems at age 26.

Smith retired from ITV Steel Corporation and now works as an engineer for the Chicago Public Schools. He will be inducted into the Chicago Public League Basketball Coaches Association's Hall of Fame in May.

Green is retired from the Cook County Forest Preserve District. And Matthews is a writer and published author. He writes financial books and romance mystery novels. He self-published a book, "Financially Speaking."

"I still remember going to the Carlinville Christmas Tournament. Nobody knew where Carlinville was," Smith recalled. "We broke every record in the tournament. It gave us an idea of how good we were.

"Afterward, the Carlinville coach praised us. He said we were so strong, he would never invite another Public League team to his tournament. 'If you make it Downstate, you guys are going to be state champs. And we'll be there to support you,' he told us. They had a whole section cheering for us."

It was a year to remember. Forty years ago.