Monday, February 23, 2015

Kevin Garnett, Dee Brown, Juwan Howard, Ronnie Fields…just who was the best high school basketball player?

Who was the best high school athlete you covered? I get asked this question a lot.

One of the great things about sports is that we are always wondering who is the all-time the best. From the Top 100 Best NBA players to Hall of Fame inductees—the debate is ongoing.

Kevin Garnett dunking during
his first go-around with the Timberwolves
I thought it was time to turn back the clock and think about some of the best high school players. I asked a few of my former sports writing colleagues from Chicago to join in the fun.

Here’s the roster for our high school sports roundtable:

Tina Akouris covered high school sports from 1994 to 2013, with a break from 2009 to 2012 to cover the Big Ten, and is currently a producer/writer for WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105.9 FM in Chicago.

Dale Bowman covered high schools sports from 1984-2013 and is currently the Chicago Sun-Times outdoors columnist, host of Outside with Dale Bowman radio show, co-host and prime blogger for Stray Casts Media, and monthly columnist for Heartland Outdoors.

Orrin Schwarz has covered high school sports from 1991-present and is currently Assistant Sports Editor/DuPage County and pro soccer writer for the Daily Herald Media Group.

And I covered high school sports from 1985-86, 1988-2000, and 2012-2013.

So, without any further delay…

Who were the Top 5 boys basketball players you covered or saw play and why?

Tina: The ones I remember most are from St. Joseph in Westchester: Demetri McCamey and Evan Turner mid-2000s; and Leon Smith from King and Quentin Richardson from Whitney Young in the mid-1990s.

McCamey and Turner just dominated, and playing their home games in a small gym probably helped make them appear bigger than they were.

Smith and Richardson went head to head in a Public League Championship game [1998] and the hype leading up to that game was intense. It was the good guys of Young vs. the rough-around-the-edges guys from King. People thought Smith had taken a few cheap shots at Richardson in that game. 

Dale: Ronnie Fields, Farragut, mid-1990s. He was just an explosive all-round player.

Tommy Kleinschmidt, Gordon-Tech, late 80s. He was an all-round, technically perfect and better athlete than most would admit of a white player.

Rod Brookin, Steel-High, Steelton, PA, mid-80s. A monster player, who smashed backboards, at least twice if my memory is right, and packed gyms.

Kevin Garnett, Farragut, mid-90s. I suppose I should include him, but Fields was a better high school player.

I only had a chance to cover or see them once or twice, but King’s Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton, early-mid 90s. They were big enough to play in the NBA in high school, probably the greatest Twin Towers anywhere in the U.S. at any time

Orrin: Dee Brown, Proviso East. He had a special quality about him even then. You had fun watching him have fun.

Drew Crawford, Naperville Central. A great athlete, but also a very smart player, son of NBA ref Danny Crawford.

Ronnie Fields, the best athlete this side of Michael Jordan, too bad he couldn’t get things together outside of basketball.

Kevin Garnett. I thought it was a mistake for him to go pro straight from high school. Turns out the mistake was mine.

John Shurna, Glenbard West. Not a great athlete, but he made everyone around him better.

PJ: Jamie Brandon, King, late 80s-early 90s. From the moment I saw him play he made this list. He was a leader on the court and early on in his high school career you knew he was really good. He led his team as a senior to a 32-0 record and the state title and was Mr. Basketball in 1990. I remember a half-court buzzer beater he made in the semi-finals of the Public League Championships to help his team advance. I think it was his sophomore year. To this day, they are still debating whether that one left his hands before the clock ticked down.

Kevin Garnett. He dominated in his senior year. A great player.

Ronnie Fields. He was another player that was fun to watch grow from his sophomore year on. I agree with Dale, he was better than Garnett.

Juwan Howard, CVS, late 80s. There was a lot of talent in Chicago during this time and he stood out. Like Jamie Brandon, he just kept getting better.

If you could travel to any time period, what boys basketball player or team would you like to see play and why? Or, if it’s a player/team in another sport, please share.

Tina: I’d love to have seen Ben Wilson play at Simeon his junior year, the season that my former colleague at the Sun-Times, Taylor Bell, named him the No. 1 player in the nation. I was only in junior high when Wilson was killed so I don’t remember him that much.

Dale: Baseball, Shawon Dunston. I just thought he had baseball gifts beyond belief.

Orrin: Kenny Battle, 1984 West Aurora. When I was in high school, he was the guy to watch.

Thornton High School basketball…1998? It was a pretty amazing team also with Antwaan Randle El, Napoleon Harris, and Tai Streets. They played football professionally, but they were a lot of fun to watch on a basketball court.

Brian McBride’s Buffalo Grove soccer team.

PJ: Benji Wilson. From what I’ve heard, he was simply the best.

Proviso East’s 1991 one-loss state championship team with Michael Finley, Sherrell Ford, and Donnie Boyce. The “Three Amigos” were future NBA players.

And I think I want to see Rod Brookin smashing those backboards!

Who were the Top 5 all-around male/female high school athletes you’ve seen play and why?

Tina: Candace Parker, Naperville Central, graduated in 2004. She played like a guy, and I mean that as a compliment. She had this easiness on the court and by her just showing up, she could intimidate players on the other team...thereby getting a win.
Alexandria Anderson
competing in the long jump
in high school

Alexandria Anderson, track and field, Morgan Park [she went on to Texas and is now competing for USA Track & Field]; early 2000s. She was the one who broke Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s state record in the long jump. No one thought anyone could do that. When she ran, it looked like she was floating.

Dan Dierking, Wheaton Warrenville South (WWS), mid-2000s; football and track. He was the Sun-Times player of the year his senior year. He broke some of Red Grange’s records at WWS, but I remember him more as just being a nice kid, who didn’t let all the hype get to him.

Dale: Terri Zemaitis, early 90s. Three-sport star at Downers Grove South, then an All-American volleyball player at Penn State.

Ricky Watters, mid-80s. I covered him when he was already a stud football player as a sophomore at Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, PA. By the time he was a senior, not a single school would kick the ball to him.

Ronnie Fields. A helluva a basketball player who seemed to enjoy what he did.

Mark Mulder, Thornwood, baseball, mid-90s. He was such a good baseball player that when the coaches and I were doing the Sun-Times All-Area team, we had three options for him: pitcher, first base, or DH.

Rod Brookin. First high schooler I saw bust a backboard, at least twice. You had to get to his games more than an hour ahead of time, even if you were press, to get in the gym.

Orrin: Candace Parker. The best women’s basketball player ever.
Candace Parker, now with
LA Sparks, dunking

Mike Fisher, Batavia, soccer, 1993. The first MLS draft pick, but he chose med school. I’ve never forgotten his bicycle kick goal in the state third-place game.

Austin Teitsma, Glenbard South football, wrestling, track, 2011. He always seemed to have a smile on his face. A great teammate who also excelled in all three sports, and I think he won state titles in track and wrestling. Played football at Illinois.

Justin Jackson, Glenbard North, a freshman running back at Northwestern. I never actually saw him play football, I just had writers thanking me each week for sending them to cover his football games. I did see him play basketball. He took his team to the supersectional. A year later that team has only won half a dozen games.

Reilly O’Toole, WWS football, just quarterbacked Illinois. This might have been what it was like watching Fran Tarkenton.

PJ: Karen O’Malley, Madison East (WI), basketball, 1985. She went on to play at the University of Wisconsin. She had a sixth sense on the court. She saw everything, knew when to play more aggressively and just loved to play the game.

Kristi Gaines, Tunstall (Dry Folk, VA), softball, 1991. She was the ace pitcher on this team that lost a tough 2-0 game in the state semi-finals. She led her team to a 23-2 record and totally dominated batters. The best high school baseball or softball player I ever saw play the game.

Donovan McNabb, Mt. Carmel, early 90s. As a quarterback he just stood out.

Who were the biggest surprises (went on to have bigger college/pro careers than you imagined) in any sport?

Dale: By far, Kevin Garnett. I thought Fields was a much better player. Second would be baseball player Jody Gerut, Willowbrook. I would have never thought he would be signed, let alone make the majors. But he did.

Orrin: Frank Kaminsky, Benet Academy, playing at University of Wisconsin. Nobody who saw him play in high school expected him to be this good. Nobody.

John Shurna. A great kid who nearly carried Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament.

Antwaan Randle El, Thornton about 1997, Indiana, Pittsburgh Steelers. Considering his size, or lack thereof, he did much better than expected.

Chad Steinbrecher, Glenbard West soccer, 1992, U.S. Navy Seals, multiple deployments, son of former U.S. Soccer secretary general. Excelled on a different playing field.

Who were the biggest busts (athletes you thought would make it, but didn't)?

Tina: Kyle Prater, Proviso West; he graduated in January of 2010. He went to USC but was injury prone and transferred to Northwestern. People made a big deal about him in high school because he was tall (6-5ish), but he also played in one of the weaker football leagues in the area. He was banged up a lot at Northwestern, too.

Evan Watkins, Glenbard North, quarterback; went to Northwestern. He was a huge kid, over 6-5 and everyone fawned over him as a high school quarterback...again the height thing....and he WAS good in high school, but at Northwestern he was behind Dan Persa and didn’t see much playing time until Persa ripped his Achilles tendon against Iowa in November 2010 and Watkins had to take over. The kid looked scared, like he wasn’t prepared and was just really awkward out there. He ended up leaving the football program.

Dale: Ronnie Fields. I thought he was a lock for the NBA from the time he was a freshman in high school.

Robert Farmer, a running back from Bolingbrook who was buried at Notre Dame by Holtz (if my memory is right, or maybe I just like to blame Holtz). Farmer might have made the greatest high school play I ever saw. He was playing safety or cornerback, I forget which one, and an opposing wide receiver ran free. Farmer came from the other side of the field and ran him down, then blew him up with a hit from behind, from behind I said, which could be heard on the other sideline.

Jarrett Payton, St. Viator, mid-to-late-90s. He could have been one of the greatest soccer players to come out of Illinois, instead he switched to football and was so-so.

Orrin: Mike Fisher. He probably shouldn’t be considered a bust since he chose med school after graduating Virginia. But he would’ve been a great pro.

Ronnie Fields, poor grades, a car accident, poor basketball fundamentals because he relied on outstanding athleticism.

Benji Wilson
Benji Wilson. Again, not really a bust. Murdered on a Chicago street before he could graduate high school. He would have been one of the best basketball players to come out of Chicago. All the greats to come out of Simeon, like Jabari Parker and Deon Thomas, are compared to Wilson.

Billy Savarino, soccer, Brother Rice. Set the Illinois scoring record, but he wasn’t a good enough athlete to be great at the next level at Notre Dame.

PJ: Jamie Brandon. I thought he would have a great college career and a lock for the NBA. He was a good ball-handler, floor leader, and shooter. He went to LSU and played with Shaq. He never got to play in a system that used his skills. He didn’t do much at LSU and declared for the draft early and went undrafted.

I agree with Orrin and Dale on Ronnie Fields.

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And I must say while we still do not have a clear cut answer to the all-time best high school basketball player or the best high school athlete, we were all so fortunate to have witnessed so many greats.

Follow Orrin on Twitter @Orrin_Schwarz

To read Dale’s outdoors columns check it out here Sun-Times outdoors
You can catch Dale’s podcast (coming soon) and blogs here Stray Casts "Outdoor Cartoon Television"
Follow Dale on Twitter @BowmanOutside

Follow Tina on Twitter @takouris