THE BLOG
01/13/2014 03:23 pm ET | Updated Mar 14, 2014

Christmas in a Gym: The Rivalry

Something's changing on the South Side.

Maybe that's why Nick hasn't screamed at his players yet, hasn't stopped practice and sent them to the baseline for suicides, or sprints. Instead, he's sitting in the bleachers and admiring, starters against subs.

Earlier in the season, he was always on his feet, stomping, sweating, pleading for perfection, yelling and shaking his head. Now, everything seems to be coming together. With such a young team, he was worried about leadership. He recalls the three seniors that won State. He wishes I could've come to those practices, heard how loud his leaders were.
But those guys are gone.

Billy Garrett Jr. plays at DePaul, proving himself one of the best freshman in the Big East, maybe the country. Kyle Davis won team MVP, he's at the University of Dayton. Markee Williams' playing junior college ball down in Florida.

One the eve of the Simeon game, I sat next to Nick in the bleachers, where he lounges now, and asked him about the difference leadership makes.

That team rallied, he said.

First, they rallied for Nick's father.

If you didn't know (again, because you are a causal high school basketball fan), the Irvin family is basketball royalty in Chicago. The patriarch, McGlother "Mac" Irvin, founded the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program, the premier travel team in Illinois and routinely one of the best in the country. On Christmas Eve two years ago, Mac lost a long a battle with diabetes. Morgan Park's State championship was dedicated to the aptly nicknamed, "Godfather of Chicago Basketball."

This year, Nick held the first annual Mac Irvin Diabetes Classic out in north suburban Elgin. All proceeds went to the American Diabetes Classic. Of course, Morgan Park started their season as the Classic's main event. They faced-off against host school Larkin and won in overtime. Mac's Classic took place the same day as the Chicago Elite Classic.

Organized by Whitney Young, Simeon and the City of Chicago, the two-year-old Elite Classic takes place at University of Illinois-Chicago. On the event's website, under the "Hosts" tab are welcome letters from Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Under "Partners": Nike, Coca Cola, Comcast...you get the picture. Eight teams from the Chicagoland-area were invited, along with six teams from across the country.

Mac's Classic thanked Larkin's Guidance Office, English Department and students, among others, for their generous donations.

Purposefully, Mac's Classic only featured teams from Chicagoland. Teams that don't get national attention. Teams like Proviso East and Bogan, a member of the Red South.

One can speculate why Morgan Park hasn't been invited to the Chicago Elite Classic. Reasoning for the snub lies somewhere between disrespect and dislike and fear. Same logic Nick gives for why Whitney Young won't schedule regular season games against Morgan Park (In all fairness to Whitney Young, this season all of their non-conference games were played outside Illinois, some on national T.V., as part of what I call the, "2013-14 Jahlil Xperience Tour").

Morgan Park and Simeon's rivalry could provide a simple explanation.

Nick and Rob Smith, Simeon's head coach, have beef, as most rival coaches do.

Sitting next to me before the Simeon game, when we were talking about leadership and rallying, Nick admitted that he likes Rob, he just doesn't like loosing to him.

Then we talked about Tyrone Lawson.

Starting in the Wayne Blackshear-Jabari Parker days, the rivalry moved to Chicago State University. CSU's arena could fit more fans. January of last year was Jabari's final game against Morgan Park, the end of the superstar chapter. Simeon won a close one, 53-51. After the game a fight broke out on the court. Rivals got heated. Each side blamed the other, later, in newspapers. The teams were separated.

Nick told me they were in the locker room when they heard someone got shot in the parking lot. When they found out it was Tyrone, they prayed. The seniors, the leaders, knew Tyrone, he was their age, in their grade. Consensus has it that the shooting was unrelated to the scuffle. The two men charged were 29 and 32, not reckless teenagers often associated with violent crimes in Chicago.

Nick and Rob were suspended four games. Tyrone's death made national news. No Chicago State this year.

What would you pray for? If you were a senior in high school facing a locker room filled with teammates that look to you for guidance? You had just lost to your arch-rival in heartbreaking fashion. You fought them when you were supposed to be shaking hands. Then, when you're seething in the locker room, you find out about Tyrone, a good kid, like you, that was fatally unlucky, a type of bad luck you are all too familiar with being black and growing up on the South Side.

Do you pray for world peace? For violence to end? For guns and cowards to never mix?
Do you pray for fantasies?

Or, do you rally, again? Win the State Championship for Mac, Tyrone and Morgan Park?
Or, do you hear Nick, sitting next to you in the bleachers less than 24 hours before the biggest game of the year? Hear him say that he wants to win for the community? How he wants to do something positive for the fans?

Yes, you do. And you believe every damn word of it.

Tomorrow. The Proviso West Holiday Tournament. But people are still talking about this year's Simeon game, six days in the past.