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The 28-3 Friars Were Elite-Eight Great in 1998!

February 27, 2018

How can it be that one of Fenwick’s most magical boys’ basketball teams played 20 years ago, our hoopsters’ last full season in the ‘old’ Lawless Gym?

By Mark Vruno

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Coach John Quinn '76 (center) surrounded by "his guys" for the 1997-98 team photo. (Current Athletic Director Mr. Scott Thies '99 is #14.)

This basketball season marks the 20th anniversary of arguably the best and deepest high school basketball “class” that our state has ever produced. Thanks in large part to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, who were on the verge of their second three-peat NBA championship, basketball fever was running hot in Illinois. In 1998 players from our state comprised more than 10% of the top 100 high-school recruits in the United States, and more than 40 seniors went on to compete at the Division I collegiate level.

The #2-ranked Friars’ Corey Maggette ’98, a three-time All-Stater and Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior, was one of those basketball supernovas. In his remarkable high-school career Maggette amassed 2,450 points and more than 1,000 rebounds as a four-year varsity starter for Fenwick. “That was a great year for Illinois basketball,” says John Quinn ’76, Fenwick’s head coach at the time, and it was a super-special season for the Friars. It had been 30 years since Fenwick had beaten Crane for the ’68 city title, back when the Catholic League and Public League champs still met for bragging rights. (Nineteen years later, the 2016-17 season would be another one of historic proportions for Fenwick’s “Men of Steel.”)

Many faithful fans remember Maggette throwing down dunks in 1994 as a skinny, 15-year-old freshman. (His frame grew by two more inches and some 20 more pounds during the next three years, Coach Quinn notes.) “He was 6’4” as a freshman and lean,” remembers Quinn, who also stands 6’4” and no longer coaches but is a Golden Apple history teacher at Fenwick. As a student-athlete himself, Quinn never made a Fenwick basketball team. The irony isn’t lost on the longtime coach, who had a nose for local talent.

“‘I think sometimes when you’re not as talented a player at a young age, you pay more attention to the strategic side,’” Quinn told Chicago Tribune sports reporter Barry Temkin in a November 1997 interview. “‘I always thought that was my strength, that I had a good understanding of the technical side of basketball.’ He also understands the psychological side,” Temkin wrote. Senior guard and co-captain Sean Toolan added, “‘He’s a player’s coach in the sense he doesn’t restrict you. For instance, our offense is based on recognition of the defense instead of necessarily having set plays.’” Quinn would go on to receive the Chicago Catholic League (CCL) Tony Lawless Award as Coach of the Year in 1998 and garnered a similar honor from the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association (IBCA).

Strategy aside, Maggette’s athletic gifts were obvious. “The thing about Corey is that he had a 42” vertical leap. He was the state high-jump champion in grade school and could dunk the basketball literally from a standing position [without a running start],” Quinn says. “He was a good baseball pitcher, too – just a tremendous, all-around athlete. He could have played football had he wished.” Carl Bridges ’87, another tall (6’5”) Fenwick alumnus-turned-coach, first introduced young Corey to Coach Quinn. Bridges coached a Chicago Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball team on which Maggette had played since the fifth grade. “AAU ball wasn’t new 25 years ago, but it was emerging here,” Quinn explains.

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In addition to accolades as a McDonald's All-American in 1998, Maggette was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year and was a two-time Parade All-American (in 1997 and '98) and a three-time All-Stater at Fenwick.

“Corey was no prima donna,” his former coach insists. “He was very shy when he was young, and some people mistook his shyness for arrogance,” which is unfortunate. “He was dignified and respectful to officials and is one of the humblest people I’ve encountered in my 28 years of coaching.” Twenty years ago he described the versatile Maggette as “an artistic player who also enjoys writing poetry. Corey is … an Honor-Roll student who is among the most respected kids at Fenwick.” The star player remained loyal, too. “To this day, Corey is the only player to personally deliver a Christmas gift to my house,” Quinn shares, “and he did that for the two years he could drive at Fenwick.”

Clean-living and humble

Maggette “avoided temptations,” Quinn says, watching his diet and nutrition closely even at a young age. “Corey never smoked or drank [alcohol] – he wouldn’t even drink carbonated beverages! Just look at him now. He’s still in great shape.”

Maggette was proud to be at Fenwick, Quinn adds: “He loved being a Friar, and he loved being a Catholic-Leaguer.” The coach remembers Corey escorting Craig Lynch, a blind reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, to his seat before every home game. “Craig would take Corey’s arm and say, ‘It’s nice to see you.’ He did it because it was the right thing to do. That’s Corey.” 

By the time he was done rewriting the Fenwick record book, Maggette’s teams would win four consecutive Chicago Catholic League (CCL) titles. “That had never been done before in the school’s history,” notes Quinn. Maggette was the 15th-ranked player in the country his senior year. “In one national ranking at the end of the season, the State of Illinois had six players in the top 30, reported City/Suburban Hoops Report: Whitney Young’s Richardson (#8), Maggette (#15), Peoria Manual junior Frank Williams (#21), Julian’s Lance Williams (#24), Simeon’s Bobby Simmons (#26) and Farragut’s Michael Wright (#29). Also in the Top 100 were Galesburg’s Joey Range (#49)Moline’s Traves Wilson (#82)Young’s Dennis Gates (#92) and Cordell Henry (#98).

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Future NBA stars Maggette (left) and Quentin Richardson of Whitney Young led the State of Illinois/Chicago-area star-studded basketball "Class of 1998."

“The class [of ’98] had it all, with true difference-makers at the top, size, superior depth and future NBA first-round picks,” according to Hoops Report. Maggette had company, including: fellow McDonald’s All-Americans “Q” Richardson and the 6’4” Frank Williams, who was named Illinois’ “Mr. Basketball.” Each member of that elite trio was a consensus top 25 player nationally and played big-time college hoops -- Maggette for Duke University, Richardson for DePaul University, and Williams for the University of Illinois. Each also played professionally in the National Basketball Association (NBA); Maggette and Richardson both were first-round draft choices in 1999 and 2000, respectively.

“Corey helped put Fenwick’s ‘modern’ basketball program on the map,” praises Mike Curtin, who served as Athletic Director during Maggette’s reign on the court at Fenwick’s original Madhouse on Madison, aka the Lawless Gymnasium. It was a special time in a special place, and “it was a lot of fun,” he recalls.

Ah, that ‘Old Gym’ Charm

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Maggette holding court (and calling for the ball) in Fenwick's old Lawless Gym.

From the geometric parquet floor to its cramped quarters, the old gym had an aura and “reeked of tradition,” Curtin notes, not to mention of sweat and other mustiness. “It could get hot in there!” he adds with a laugh, and the buzz could get real loud -- especially with sell-out crowds packed in like sardines. “I think the gym’s capacity is 800 or 900, but we could cram in close to 1,500 people,” Curtin says. “We put chairs in the balcony, but the view was bad from up there. So everybody would hang around the railing. And the ticket situation was a nightmare every time we played at home.” Some games were so well attended, Quinn recalls, that “we showed them on closed-circuit TV for the overflow crowd gathered in the student cafeteria.”

The old gym really was a great atmosphere for basketball. “We played De La Salle on a Friday night, and the game was on TV. The Lawless was packed and rockin’, standing room only,” Curtin recalls. “The Meteors’ Coach Tom White, who now is the AD over there, says to me, ‘This is like ‘Hoosiers.’ ’ And it was!”

“Keep in mind that ‘the Link’ didn’t exist yet,” adds current AD Scott Thies ’99, a junior guard on that ’98 team. “The entrance to the old gym was on Washington Blvd., up the stairs. We put temporary bleachers in front of where the Band Room is. There wasn’t much room,” says Thies. Curtin adds that if it was a rainy or a snowy night, someone was always mopping the wet floor near the Washington end of the court. “I remember [the late] Coach Heldmann taking tickets in the ticket booth off of Washington -- no freebies!” Thies smiles.

Even at away games, the energy often was electrifying. “People came to see Corey,” Curtin observes. “It was the Maggette Show.” The then-AD remembers going on the road to Kankakee to play Bishop McNamara on a Saturday afternoon. “Their student body was cheering for Maggette. They had come to see him play. It really was surreal.”

Quinn adds, “Yeah, it was like the circus hit town everywhere we went. Our guys were a charismatic group with a lot of personality and flare. We pushed the ball every chance we got and played great defense. We were also a tremendous free-throw shooting team [nearly 71%], too. They were fun to watch, and they were a fearless bunch. If they got down in a game, it never fazed them. For me, the biggest challenge was keeping them all grounded and focused on team goals.”

The consistent performance of Maggette, a Duke recruit, earned him All-CCL honors for four consecutive years – he twice was named the conference Player of the Year -- as well as All-Illinois selection as a sophomore, junior and senior. Nationally, he was a McDonald’s All-American, a two-time Parade All-American and the aforementioned 1998 Gatorade National Player of the Year.

“John [Coach Quinn] knew he had something special with Chris Williams and Maggette,” Curtin notes. The former played different positions yet still was a three-time All-CCL choice among the league’s coaches. In their junior year in 1996-97, Williams, who is 6’2”, played point guard for the Friars, who went 23-6 and advanced to Fenwick’s first Super-Sectional. They lost to a talented team from Thornton Township (Harvey, IL), 40-33, in a slippery Hinsdale Central gym. The Wildcats were led by speedy Antwaan Randle El, a three-sport athlete at Indiana University who played wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL. Thornton’s team also featured 6’10” All-American center Melvin Ely, who would go on to play at Fresno State for Coach Jerry Tarkanian and in the NBA. In his senior year, Williams was named to Illinois’ All-State Team. “He could shoot and was a great clutch player,” exclaims Quinn.

Supporting cast

The Friars won 23 of 25 regular-season games while playing “a ferocious schedule” in 1997-98, according to Quinn. “Every opponent of note had DI and/or NBA [caliber] players,” he adds. Together with fellow senior co-captain Williams, Maggette helped the Friars run the table (14-0) in the CCL. Williams had moved to off-guard with the arrival that autumn of Quentin Gilmore, a 5’11” point guard who had transferred in from St. Joseph in Westchester. “Back then, you could transfer from Catholic to Catholic [school],” explains Quinn, without losing a year of eligibility. “Quentin had wanted to come to Fenwick out of grade school but things didn’t work out.

“So we basically played with three guards that year,” Quinn continues. “Chris [Williams] scored over 1,000 points himself at Fenwick. Gilmore came in, and he was a team player – a natural leader who did not have a big ego.”

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Williams (#12) was a team leader and All-State player.

And bringing all the intangibles to the court was 6’0” co-captain Toolan, a three-sport athlete who also played quarterback for the Friars’ football team and, later, shortstop for the Fairfield University baseball team in Connecticut. “Sean was from St. Luke’s [in River Forest],” Quinn says, “and his sports’ IQ was off the charts. He knew how to help the team win and did all the ‘little things.’”

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Gilmore (left) was a transfer from St. Joe's, and Toolan (#10) was a three-sport athlete with a high "sports I.Q.," says Quinn.

The talented Friars entered the State Finals Tournament with only two regular-season losses: a two-point overtime defeat at the hands of New Trier two days after Christmas and a three-point heart-breaker on Valentine’s Day to #1-ranked Whitney Young. Led by 6’6” junior Richardson, a DePaul recruit, the stacked Dolphins’ team would go 30-1 and win the National AA title.

The February 14th game played to a packed house at Northwestern University’s Welsh-Ryan Arena on a Saturday night in Evanston. The more than 8,000 fans in attendance witnessed Maggette and Richardson drop 28 points each; both players shot 11 of 17 from the field. The Fenwick star added 14 rebounds, while Whitney Young’s “Q” grabbed 19 boards of his own. The Friars came out tight and tentative against Young’s strong line-up, and the Dolphins charged to a 25-12 lead midway through the second quarter, according to a Chicago Tribune account by Bob Sakamoto.

But the Friars roared back in the second half behind a barrage of Maggette swishes from beyond the three-point arc, followed by driving layups from Williams and fellow guard Gilmore. Entering the fourth quarter the score was knotted at 43 apiece and still was tied at 55 with 12 seconds remaining before the Dolphins sealed the deal by making three clutch free-throws down the stretch.

Video Highlights of '98 Fenwick - Whitney Young GamE (fast forward to the 4:22 mark) 

The only other truly close contest that the Friars had all season came three weeks earlier, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, versus eventual state runner-up Galesburg, which lost to only one other team before falling to Young in the championship game. That game was a thriller, according to former Head Coach Quinn. “It was the ‘Hoops in the Loop’ tournament,” he recalls, “and we were down two [points] with seconds remaining late in the game. Assistant Coach Jeff Carpenter ’74, who was an All-American when he played here [before playing at Notre Dame], looks at Maggette and screams, ‘What’s he doing?!’ ‘Winning the game,’ I said as Corey hit a three-pointer for the win!”

To qualify for state and punch its ticket to Peoria, Fenwick dominated its Sectional opponents: Nazareth Academy (71-42); Catholic-League rival St. Joseph (69-52), which fielded three Division I players; and Proviso East (63-50), which featured future NBA seven-footer Steven Hunter (with whom Maggette had grown up), in that order, after dismantling Elmwood Park by 35 points (67-32) in the Regional. The quintet of Gilmore, Harris, Maggette, Toolan and Williams then led Fenwick to a 75-56 Class AA Super-Sectional victory over Rich Central from Olympia Fields.

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The official program from downstate in '98.

Maggette had plenty of on-court support from his own Friars’ teammates. “We had four Division I kids on the floor,” Quinn point out. Williams, the crafty, shooting guard, went on to play for Loyola University Chicago, then transferred to Ball State. He averaged 24.5 points per game (ppg) for the Cardinals in 2003, which was tops in the MAC and eighth in the nation. The 90 three-point shots made by Williams during the 2001-02 season still is a team record. He went on to play professionally in France and other parts of Europe.

The previously mentioned Gilmore had transferred from St. Joe’s in Westchester to run the offense and dish from the point. Meanwhile 6’9” big man Jabari Harris, a junior who went to Timothy Christian grade school in Elmhurst, prowled the paint, blocking shots and throwing down monster-dunks with Maggette. (Gilmore played collegiately for McNeese State in Louisiana and the College of Charleston in South Carolina; Harris for the UIC Flames.)

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Harris was a 6'9" junior.

Coming off the bench and rounding out the Friars’ team, 6’7” Mike Shannon added 215 pounds of muscle and ambidexterity in the middle. “Mike helped us in big games when people got into foul trouble,” Quinn added. (Shannon played on at the University of St. Francis in Joliet. Shannon is an uncle of the Friars’ present, two-time football All-State wide receiver Mike O’Laughlin ’18, who is headed this summer to West Virginia University, and his brother Casey ’17, an All-State center-fielder now playing baseball for the NU Wildcats.) Marc Micheli was a 5’8” senior reserve guard who also contributed, as did 6’3” junior forward Stuart Glenn, but the Fenwick team was not deep. Fenwick’s “Fab Five” starters played a lot of minutes. “We played iron-man basketball with five or six guys, like those old DePaul teams,” Quinn says.

Maggette, the solid, 220-pound “small” forward from Bellwood, signed with Duke and fellow Chicagoan Coach Mike Krzyzewski, but he left after an ACC All-Rookie freshman season. (In addition to Coach K, Indiana University Head Coach Bobby Knight visited the gym in Oak Park, before the AAU craze, back when college coaches still scouted high-school players in person.)

Professionally, Maggette averaged 20 points per game (ppg) during a 14-year career. He was drafted 13th overall by the Seattle SuperSonics and traded to the Orlando Magic, then spent eight years with the Los Angeles Clippers. Maggette hung up his pro gym shoes five years ago, after consecutive seasons in Milwaukee, Charlotte and Detroit. His Fenwick jersey #50 from hangs in the Fieldhouse Gym – one of only five retired in the school’s 89-year history.

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Fenwick retired Maggette's jersey in 2007.

Familiar foes

Coming in at number 100 on the aforementioned top Illinois’ players list was Kevin Frey (#100), a 6’7” All-State forward for Maine West (28-5) who transferred from Mount Carmel and would give Fenwick fits in the quarter-final game. Frey was the leading scorer with 28 points and seven rebounds. (He went on to play at Xavier University.) The Warriors also featured fellow All-Stater 6’8” Lucas Johnson, who had more than 800 career boards in high school and would play for the Fighting Illini. Frey, Johnson and Maggette all had played AAU ball together for Coach Bridges.

In their Elite Eight matchup on March 20, 1998, the Warriors shot 45% for the game, which they won 76-64. They also frustrated Maggette, holding him to 10 points (he made only four of 22 shots from the field). Williams scored 24 points for the Friars, and Gilmore added 22 more. “Corey has had a magnificent career but he never got started tonight,” Coach Quinn said in a post-game interview. “He rushed some shots that he usually finishes frequently.”

After a nearly even first quarter, the Warriors jumped out to an 11-point halftime lead (44-33). The Friars, buoyed by several points off turnovers, closed to within one point after the third, 52-51, but ran out of steam. “I want to give credit to our kids for sticking close in a game where they [Maine West] made 13 more free-throws than we did, and that was the difference in the game,” Quinn added. “Our kids came back in the third quarter but it took a lot of energy, and we couldn’t sustain our level of play.”

All these years later, Curtin still questions some of the officiating during that game. Not to sound like sour grapes, but his memory is like a steel trap: “They made 32 of 40 free throws,” he states correctly without looking at a statistic sheet, “and we shot 11 of 14 from the line.” The foul-calling discrepancy seemed lopsided and played in the opponent’s favor. “Maine West was big and physical, and Maggette got bumped a lot down low. There were a lot of non-calls, especially in the fourth quarter,” Curtin believes. “Corey picked a bad night to have an ‘off’ game. Believe me, he didn’t have many.”

Looking back on that magical season two decades ago, Quinn concluded: “It is difficult to believe that 20 years goes by so fast. We really wanted that rematch with Whitney Young!”

Mr. Thies adds, “I was very fortunate to have had the experience of playing on the 1998 Fenwick basketball team. It was truly one of my greatest life experiences and elevated my love for high school sports. The thing I will remember the most is the noise in Lawless Gymnasium every time Corey Maggette took off on a breakaway dunk,” he reminisces. “Every square inch in the Lawless, including the balcony, was packed with people. This was the last full season played in the Lawless Gymnasium and, man, was it a memorable one! People came for the show and never left disappointed.”

hoopdreams

FILM FACT: The sports/drama documentary “Hoop Dreams” made its debut 24 years ago.

HOOP DREAMS Trailer

 

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