When I was a senior in high school, it was all about DePaul. Northwestern was always my team growing up, and the Fighting Illini were a strong second, and after that all Illinois schools were pretty much the same. But that changed when I became friends with Jonny Corwin.
My family lived in Evanston from 1984-1995, and in that time I made lifelong friends. When we moved to Wilmette the summer before eighth grade, I made some new friends, but I was still an Evanston guy and on weekends and over breaks I hung out with my Evanston group. During my sophomore year at New Trier, I became tight with Samoil Vangelovski, AKA Moil, AKA Smoil, AKA Sammy V. Moil and I first met at Wilmette Junior High, and then we had gym together sophomore year and became good buddies. We both knew Jonny, and the three of us became close during our junior year. We started hanging out on weekends, watching sports, eating burgers and wings, playing hoops, shooting pool, going bowling—basically all of the activities most beloved by the young active male.
That was also the year that DePaul’s head coach Pat Kennedy brought some pride back into the program by landing three prized hometown recruits: Lance Williams of Julian, Bobby Simmons of Simeon, and the best of them all, Quentin Richardson of Whitney Young. In the days of head coach Ray Meyer, DePaul basketball was a powerhouse. The team dominated college hoops from 1979-1981, bookending that run as the number one team in the regular season at the end of both the ’79 and ’81 seasons. I bet it would’ve been something to watch those teams play. Unfortunately, they too were a Chicago area team with bad luck or bad fate or bad timing or something—I try to keep the “choke” label away from us as much as possible—as they never even made it to a championship game. It was downhill from there. When I was becoming “aware,” DePaul was good but nowhere near the level of their glory days, and by the time I was reading the sports page every day, Ray Meyer was retired, his less successful son Joey was coaching the team, and DePaul basketball was somewhat of an afterthought.
That changed my junior year.
The team came together that season, going to the N.I.T., and it was clear that Richardson—or Q as the people were callling him—Simmons, and Williams were a special group. Jonny was a big DePaul fan, and his fandom has always been contagious, so Moil and I were pretty quickly roped into Blue Demon fever. Jonny also introduced us to Jake Bressler, a sophomore who announced games with Jonny, the kid who three years later brought me to the Bears-Eagles playoff game. The four of us began following the Demons intensely, going to games and keeping up with their stats, and as they got hotter our passion for them grew. We knew that the team needed one more season to become Great, to become a classic Chicago team. The potential was there, but there was a problem. Q was getting a lot of attention around the country, and talk was growing that he might leave the Demons as a freshman and head to the NBA. When Duke freshman, Fenwick graduate and Richardson rival Corey Maggette split out of Durham to join the NBA, many thought that Q would do the same.
But he didn’t. He stayed. The following season, Coach Kennedy reeled in recruit Steven Hunter, a seven foot rail-thin shot-blocking center, and with Q now a Player of the Year candidate, DePaul was a favorite to win the Conference-USA title.
When senior year came around, Moil, Jonny, and Jake were my three best friends at New Trier. Evanston and Wilmette are neighboring suburbs, but the division between the two school districts (Evanston and New Trier) is massive. I lived in Evanston for eleven years, and in that time I learned to think of New Trier as a rival. And then, only a year before I was supposed to attend ETHS, we moved and I found myself headed for New Trier. It was weird. When you move into a new city, you don’t have to adopt their sports teams, but when you go to a new high school it’s kind of hard to root against them. Yet at the same time, this was the school that I was raised to oppose.
It’s not really the same as college, when I went to Indiana and rooted for Northwestern. I chose to go to IU because of its newspaper and journalism program, because it was a Big Ten school, and because of its proximity to Chicago. Had I not enjoyed school at IU, I could have transferred, and then what ties would I have to Indiana? None. But that’s not really how it is in high school. First of all, most people don’t choose their high school; for the most part, kids go to the high school in their district. Secondly, high school is much more packed in than college is…it’s difficult to go to your high school basketball game and root for the other team.
By senior year, however, I really liked NT, and while I never went balls-out crazy for them during sports games like other kids, I wanted them to win and most importantly, I felt a connection to the school, to the teams, and to my classmates. It took a little while, but I did find my niche at New Trier, working for the radio for four years and the newspaper for three.
I had been doing a radio show called SportsLife with two other kids for three years, but we faded apart and by the beginning of the school year it was clear that my senior year would be spent doing SportsLife with Moil and Jonny. Senior year was also the year that I became co-editor-in-chief of the New Trier News. Moil became the sports editor, and just for kicks Jonny joined on as a photographer, though his main thing was announcing the football, basketball, and baseball games for WNTH with Jake. (We had a whole multi-media thing going on at New Trier between the four of us. It was pretty cool.)
So that’s what we did senior year, and it was great. Moil, Jonny and I had all gotten into school—Mizzou, UCLA, and Indiana, respectively—so that school year was a blast since we didn’t have many responsibilities. We did our radio show together, we did the newspaper together, and we watched the Blue Demons together. That team filled the excitement void created by the overall level of crappiness in Chicago sports at the time. The Bulls had just started Rebuilding Plan # 1, the Bears had an exciting but bad 1999, Northwestern football had an unexciting and bad 1999, the White Sox were boring, and the Cubs had just finished one of their most disappointing seasons ever, falling apart after the Wild Card season of 1998.
Illinois basketball was good as well, with the three Peoria-Manual guys, but for us it was all about DePaul. Q was the best—there was no doubt about that—but the difference between a team that you like and a team that you love is the role players. I liked that Illinois team…I enjoyed watching them play, and I knew the starting five (Frank Williams, Cory Bradford, Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin, and Brian Cook, in case you were wondering), but I didn’t know the role players. That DePaul team, that was the squad right there. It wasn’t just about Q. It was about hard working Bobby Simmons, a guy who busted his ass to make sure that his effort matched his talent. It was about five-foot-something point guard Rashon Burno, the little man who everyone loved. It was about Paul McPherson, the guy we nicknamed P-Mac, an athletic dunk-machine of a two-guard who became a somebody on that team. It was about Kerry Hartfield, a sophomore with a senior’s demeanor who let the spotlight shine on the other guys while he did his job. Moil kept the newsroom’s sports page corner covered with newspaper and magazine pictures of local teams, and as the season went on the corner turned into a DePaul shrine.
We covered the wall with DePaul clippings from the Trib and Sun-Times, we used New Trier’s poster-machine to blow up pictures of P-Mac, Q, Burno, Simmons, and Hunter, and to top it off Jonny and Moil made a giant Q-Tip out of butcher paper, newspaper, and cotton, and placed it in the corner across two shelves. It was awesome.
One night towards the beginning of the season, Sven and I went to a barbeque and blues place in Chicago called Famous Daves for a night of wings, chicken fingers, and good conversation. Before the live music started, Daves had a huge projection screen up in front of the stage, and they were showing the DePaul-Duke game. These were two teams that were supposed to have very different years. Duke was supposed to struggle in a transition year, having lost Brand, Langdon, Avery, and Maggette, and DePaul was supposed to be the exciting high flying squad of up-and-comers. But Duke was the better team that night, as an inconsistent DePaul effort gave the game away towards the end. Duke was also the better team overall during the season. Their three freshmen recruits—Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mike Dunleavy, Jr.—played terrific ball all year and led Duke to another number one seed. DePaul floundered, playing great at times and poorly at others, and never really becoming comfortable in the national spotlight. Still, they went to the NCAA tourney for the first time in a long time, notching a 9 seed.
When tourney time came around in March, we were excited, but cautious. By this point, the city was much more excited about the Illini than the Demons, as Illinois had played competitive and consistent ball to earn a number four seed in the tourney. But we were still all about the Demons. They were our team. The four of us taped copies of our March Madness brackets up to the front of the newsroom door for the whole school to see, and we used the poster machine to blow up a blank copy of the brackets for our “actual results” bracket that we put on the door and filled out as the tourney went on. Jonny picked the Demons to go all the way, and the first step was a first round matchup against the underachieving Kansas Jayhawks. That game wouldn’t be too much trouble as long as DePaul played the way that we knew they could, and after that we couldn’t help but look ahead to a round two rematch with Duke.
But wouldn’t you know it, the Demons did not play the way we knew they could. They lost to Kansas 81-77, and that was it. Q went pro and was drafted by the Clippers in the first round, P-Mac—against common thought—also went pro, Simmons and Hunter left a year later, Burno and Hartfield graduated, and Jonny, Moil, and I went off to our separate colleges.
People don’t talk about that DePaul team much anymore. They didn’t leave a winning legacy like Ray Meyer’s teams did, and they didn’t meet with a tragic shocking demise like so many other Chicago teams. They were a good group that underachieved and missed their small window. But they were our’s during our senior year. And for that I am thankful.