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THORNRIDGEThe Perfect Season in Black and White
By Scott Lynn
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 Scott Lynn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe'll Be Back
They won a state record 54 straight.
They were black and went to a white school. They won by an average of 32 points a game.
One was white and played on the black playgrounds. They averaged 87 points a game before the 3-point-line.
They were thirteen when their lives changed with the assassination of
Doctor King. They had the national high school player of the year.
His mom led the fight for desegregation. They travelled the state playing in the north, the south, and when it counted most in central Illinois for the state championship. And they won it. Again.
They survived the '60s and matured in the '70s. They played in historic high school gyms and in front of 16,000 in the state title game.
Some wore Afros. One had a mop top with Elvis sideburns. Broadcasters, sportswriters, coaches, and players say they were the best. Period.
They grooved to the hits from Motown. They became a broadcaster, a telecom executive, a high school coach, a cook, and an R&B singer.
But in 1972, they were the perfect basketball team. They were THORNRIDGE.
* * *
Longtime basketball fans in Illinois remember the names - Quinn Buckner, Boyd Batts, Mike Bonczyk, Greg Rose, and Ernie Dunn. They are forever linked inlegend as the starting five on the greatest high school basketball team in the state's history, a team once ranked as one of the top five high school teams in the nation's history. The Falcons did not exactly come out of nowhere. Nearly everyone expected them to win the 1972 Illinois state championship. Most confident of all were the Thornridge players. One of them willingly posted a target on their backs exactly 364 days prior to the 1972 title game.
It was March 20, 1971. Chicago's Top 40 AM radio stations WLS and WCFL were playing the hits. Janis Joplin belted out "Me and Bobby McGee", the number one song on the Billboard Top 100. One of the hottest selling 45s in America, The Temptations' "Just My Imagination", played on transistor radios throughout Illinois as blacks and whites grooved to the sounds of Motown. The new issue of TV Guide included a story on the 1970-71 All-America Basketball Team featuring Austin Carr of Notre Dame and Sidney Wicks of soon-to-be-again champion UCLA. On television that Saturday evening, viewers around the nation tuned in to action-packed episodes of "Mission Impossible" and "Mannix." However, basketball fans in Illinois dialed their TVs to Chicago's WGN Channel 9 or to one of the other stations on the statewide network that televised the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state tournament live from the Assembly Hall in Champaign.
Thornridge of Dolton and Oak Lawn Community, south suburban schools located just nine miles apart, had followed Friday quarterfinal round victories with semifinal wins Saturday afternoon, setting the stage for Saturday night's first all-Chicago-area final in the history of the 64-year old state tournament. With the entire state watching, the Falcons, playing their third game in 24 hours, survived a late Oak Lawn rally to win 52-50 and claim the school's first state basketball championship. Victory wasn't assured until two Oak Lawn shots bounced off the rim in the final seconds. When Thornridge sophomore Greg Rose hauled in the defensive rebound as the final horn sounded, the Falcons sprinted up and down the court while leaping high into the air in jubilant celebration. For the Thornridge players and coaches, it was a richly deserved championship. The only blemish on their record was a stunning loss to tiny Mounds Meridian in the 1970 Carbondale Christmas tournament. Thornridge won its next twenty-one games to finish with a record of 31-1.
Moments after becoming the 1971 state champions, the Thornridge players continued to celebrate on the floor of the Assembly Hall. They hugged and mugged for the cameras while savoring the fruits of their labor. Junior point guard Mike Bonczyk (pronounced BAHN'-zick) enjoyed the moment but was already dreaming about winning another championship. During the postgame television interviews, Bonczyk calmly looked into the camera and issued a warning to the teams around the state that would try to dethrone the champions the following season.
"I'm a junior, and we've got four or five guys coming back next year," said the confident Bonczyk. "And we're gonna be just as tough next year."
39-year-old Thornridge coach Ron Ferguson, who said he felt like he was 60 after surviving the grueling tournament trail, immediately began to dread the challenges his team would face the following season. While relieved to have finally won a coveted state title, Ferguson knew the pressure to win another championship would become overwhelming over the next twelve months.
"The first thing I felt inside was the pressure that was going to be on us after winning and having pretty much everybody back," says the now 78-year-old coach at his home near Peoria, Illinois. "I said, 'God, you know everyone is going to be gunning for us, and we're going to have to play so much better to overcome it.'"
There was little question that Thornridge would be the team to beat in 1971-72. From the championship team's core, only starting center Mark McClain and sixth man Mike Henry would graduate. Four starters from the 1971 championship team would return. Bonczyk, the pass-first point guard, would be back to orchestrate the offense. Also returning would be Boyd Batts and Quinn Buckner. They were already considered two of the most athletic and talented players in Illinois. Buckner had just become the first junior ever to be named the Chicago Sun-Times Illinois Player of the Year. Thornridge fans would also have a chance to again savor the marvelous skills of Greg Rose, who was a starter as a sophomore on the 1971 championship team. But that would be next season. First, the Falcons would celebrate a state championship with their fans.
On Sunday morning, March 21, 1971, the Thornridge players packed their bags into the trunks of the brand new 1971 Buicks that had been provided by Bauer Buick in Harvey for the team's trip downstate. After the Falcons made the long drive north from Champaign, they were met by an estimated 15,000 fans who lined the streets from Illinois State Highway 57, through Phoenix and Harvey, all the way to the school in Dolton. A motorcade of some 600 cars was led by two fire engines from the Dolton Fire Department. The Falcons' cheerleaders rode on the first fire truck while the Thornridge players waved to fans from the second fire engine. The team started out at 172nd and Halsted Street and paraded through many local communities. The players waved at fans while they wound through the streets of Harvey, Phoenix, South Holland, and Dolton before arriving at Thornridge High School which is located in Dolton. The 3000 seat gymnasium was packed with more than 5000 raucous students and fans. Thousands more waited in the school parking lot to welcome the team home. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, the man who had guided the team to the state title was not to be found on either fire truck.
"I wouldn't ride on the damn thing," says coach Ferguson. With a laugh, he adds, "I told the other coach, (varsity assistant Dave Lezeau), 'That's your assignment. I'm not gonna ride.' They were lucky to get me to make a speech at the [championship celebration]."
Ferguson was somewhat concerned about the safety of his players. He knew something bad could happen if teenagers were allowed to fool around without adult supervision. Ferguson gave his assistant coaches an explicit order.
"I said, 'You guys get on there and don't let any of them fall under the fire engine or anything like that.'" laughs Ferguson.
Because he rode apart from his players, the head coach was late for the championship celebration at the school. The open convertible in which Ferguson was riding became separated from the rest of the parade by a train that slowly rolled through Dolton at a most inopportune time. By the time the train rolled through the middle of the parade, the fire trucks, and most of the fans that had lines the streets, were nowhere in sight. Fans had abandoned their positions along the parade route to follow the players to the school gymnasium. Due to the unfortunate timing of the train, Ferguson rode the rest of the way to the high school in relative solitude.
Inside the gym, the Thornridge pep band played. Students and fans of all ages, both black and white, stood as one to deliver a five minute standing ovation as the players entered the gym holding the prized state championship trophy which was adorned with a basketball net from the Assembly Hall draped over the top. Buckner and Batts proudly took turns carrying the golden trophy while receiving countless congratulatory pats on the back.
Batts addressed the fans and declared, "If I do my job and Quinn does his job, ain't nobody gonna stop us."
Considering the possibility of back-to-back state titles, the crowd was whipped into an absolute frenzy as Bonczyk stepped to the microphone and announced, "We'll be back next year."
Buckner then praised his teammates and thanked the fans and students for their support. He indicated that with their help, the Falcons could again be champions the following year. Nearly four decades later, Buckner explains why he didn't feel comfortable making any guarantees about the next season.
"That's not my nature. That bravado, that's Mike," laughs Buckner. "I'm tellin' ya. Mike has always been like that. You know, just short of saying a little too much. Boyd had the same kind of bravado, so they could say that."
Bonczyk admits he was a rather cocky high school junior who made his prediction of a second straight championship while still feeling the euphoria of becoming a state champion less than 24 hours earlier.
"Well," laughs Bonczyk, "that was the youth, the exuberance. You're sixteen or seventeen years old and you know, we were just having fun the first year. We didn't understand what was to come the following year. You're so excited about everything and you just say things. It just comes out."
In the packed gymnasium that memorable Sunday afternoon in March of 1971, black and white fans celebrated in unison. It was remarkable to see how everyone had come together to support the team during the final weeks of the Falcons' championship run. It had not been that way much of the season. Many fans had been slow to jump on the bandwagon, a surprise considering the basketball team was ranked number one in Illinois. Some Thornridge fans felt the Falcons would fall flat at tournament time considering they had never won any postseason trophy. With the fans taking a wait-and-see attitude, the Falcons rarely played before capacity crowds during the regular season and in the early rounds of the state playoffs.
Illinois was changing to a two-class (large-school, small-school) system in 1972, so the 1971 tournament was the final time all high schools in Illinois played for a single state championship. To win the 1971 title, the state champion had to win nine consecutive playoff games. The champion had to win three games in a regional and two more in a sectional just to reach the "Sweet 16" and be considered a "state tournament" team. Eight "super-sectional" games, most played at college arenas around the state, determined the eight quarterfinalists. The "Elite Eight" advanced to play in the Assembly Hall on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign. Every game played in Champaign was televised live on a statewide network which gave an Illinois high school player maximum exposure in the days prior to ESPN, the regional sports networks, and the internet.
Thornridge had the advantage of hosting its own regional tournament in 1971. The Falcons easily won their first two games downing St. Francis De Sales 86-44 and Quigley South 102-41. Despite the blowout wins, many wondered if Thornridge would be able to get past rival Thornton of Harvey in the regional final. The Falcons had never advanced out of the regional because the Wildcats had always blocked their path. In the ten years of Thornridge's existence, Thornton had won the regional championship each year. Thornton was the area's powerhouse high school basketball program. The Wildcats had won a pair of state championships and had played in five state championship games through the years. You could understand if the Thornridge players and fans had an inferiority complex. They were not accustomed to being considered one of the state's elite. Being ranked number one in the state was a new experience for Thornridge and its followers.
Ten years of frustration ended in March of 1971 when the Falcons defeated Thornton 66-58 in the regional final. Even so, there were still some fans hesitant to give their hearts to the team. During the state tournament, participating schools were given tickets to sell to their fans. Thornridge was unable to sell its allotment and had to return 350 unsold tickets for the Falcon's next game against Marist in the sectional tournament at Joliet. However, the fans' excitement grew after Thornridge came from behind in the second half to beat Marist 66-55 in the school's first-ever sectional appearance. Thornridge then posted a 66-63 win over one of the state's best teams, Joliet Central, in the sectional final to reach the "Sweet 16" for the first time. At that point, people began to realize Thornridge might well win the state championship. By the time Thornridge defeated Chicago Harlan 73-63 in the Crete-Monee super-sectional to earn a trip to Champaign as one of the "Elite Eight", fans were scrambling for a seat on the bandwagon. For the next twelve months, Thornridge High School basketball tickets would be one of the toughest tickets in Chicago area sports.
As the Falcons prepared to play Kewanee in the IHSA quarterfinals at the Assembly Hall, they knew they had been somewhat fortunate to get to Champaign. Thornridge needed a 23-point performance from sixth man Mike Henry to overcome a halftime deficit in the win over Marist in the sectional opener. Then in the sectional final, the Falcons were challenged by the host team, the Joliet Central Steelmen. Joliet Central was a very good basketball team with an excellent young coach in Dale Glenn. Joliet Central had finished third at state the previous season. Future Illinois State University standout Roger Powell was back for the Steelmen and proving to be a difficult matchup for opposing players. The packed gym at Joliet Central was quite intimidating for most visiting teams. The boisterous Joliet Central fans were extremely close to the action and seemed to be situated right on top of the players. It was so loud fans could be seen putting their hands over their ears. Joliet, a tough industrial city, was proud of its Steelmen, and many of the area's rabid basketball fans expected Joliet Central to win the state championship after coming close the year before. Thornridge was fortunate to survive at Joliet. Powell, a first team all-state swingman, moved down to the low blocks and scored a game-high 34 points. But the Falcons survived when Powell missed a potential tying basket late in the game, and Henry again came to the rescue for Thornridge making three free throws in the final 21 seconds to clinch the win.
The Falcons dodged another bullet against Harlan in the super-sectional. The score was tied at halftime, and Thornridge was in serious foul trouble. Four Falcon starters (Buckner, Batts, Bonczyk, and Rose) would each finish with four fouls, one short of disqualification. But Rose scored 11 of his team-high 23 points in the fourth quarter to lead Thornridge to its 18th straight win.
In the state quarterfinals, a Buckner steal in the final seconds denied Kewanee the opportunity for a potential game-winning shot. Rose scored four points in the final five seconds to seal the Falcons' 63-58 victory. The Saturday afternoon semifinal game against Danville was a relative breeze. The defensive-minded Falcons held the Vikings to just 28% shooting from the field in a 57-47 win. Buckner was again the hero finishing with 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists.
Excerpted from THORNRIDGE by Scott Lynn Copyright © 2009 by Scott Lynn . Excerpted by permission.
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