THE BLOG

Christmas in a Gym: The Game

01/06/2014 10:25 am ET | Updated Mar 06, 2014

So, there were Nick Irvin and Rob Smith representing their communities, with 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Rob looks big-time, in a good way. He looks... stately; like he could coach at the University of Illinois, which was rumored as possibility after his third-straight 4A Championship in 2012. Towels set them apart.

Rob, almost always sitting at the end of the bench, only rising in extreme circumstances, keeps his towel neatly folded over his seat back. He'll pick the towel up, wipe, fold and put it back in its place.

Nick never sits down. He runs up and down the bench, shouting, stomping, clapping, sweating, wiping. He keeps a sweaty towel clenched in his palm. When he points to a spot on the court and yells a player's name, the player glances over at the bench and follows his finger.

Nick calls timeouts after mistakes and walks onto the court, foaming at the mouth, to let the culprit have it -- like he did the first game of the season at the Mac Irvin Classic, when sophomore Charlie Moore missed a defensive assignment: He met Charlie at the free throw line and put his growling face in his point guard's ear. But then Nick showed how he gets his players to respond. He backed away from Charlie, allowed his star sophomore to walk past and then put his sweaty palms on Charlie's shoulders, leaned in and whispered encouragement. Morgan Park won by two in overtime.

Against Simeon, Charlie couldn't play, bad thigh bruise. Sophomore big man Alonzo Chatman, out with a foot injury. Senior forward Lamont Walker, out with an ankle. All three potential starters. When you're deep like Morgan Park, three key players down with injuries won't destroy you, it just makes things interesting.

Besides, senior Josh Cunningham looked like the best player on the court, finishing with 18 points and 12 rebounds. On the season, Josh is one of three players in the Red Division to rank in the top-5 in scoring and rebounding. The others: Cliff and Jahlil. Nick told the Chicago Sun-Times after the game that Josh is "the player of the year."

Nick loves his players. And he loves this team. But he knew that without last year's leadership, he'd have to coach in overdrive. Without three key players against his bitter rival, Nick coached with a sweaty towel clenched in his palm, acting so wild at times that one fan asked another, "Isn't there a coach's box?" If there is a coach's box, Nick breaks through it constantly with exaggerated high-kicks and triumphant fist pumps straight out of gladiator movies.

So there's Simeon sophomore Zack Norvell rising up from long distance, down by two, under 10 seconds left. Miss. Josh rebound. Simeon junior Ed Morrow, intentional foul. Words exchanged. Chests bumped. It looks like it's happening again, what the suit-wearing Simeon administrators holding walkie-talkies feared. Not another brawl.

Before the game, the announcer warned the crowd to stay in their seats. Bathroom users, or fans craving nachos from the concession stand, would not be allowed re-entry until the end of the quarter, or a time-out. Josh and Ed tangled under the basket. Security steadied for a stampede from the stands. Assistant coaches in front of their benches, arms outstretched, created a wall between the players and the court. The announcer pleaded with the fans and players, "It's just a game! It's just a game!"

And then it was over. No punches. No melee. Two Chicago police officers sauntered off the court, chests puffed out. Josh made the first free throw. Missed the second. 58-55, Morgan Park. For the first time since 2010, Simeon lost at home. Nick's first win at Simeon.

So there's Nick, fists raised, strutting to the locker room, but who's that next to him? Jumping in the air, hugging him? That's Jarrin Randall.

There goes Jarrin now. He cuts to the basket and throws an alley-oop to Josh. Bam! Nick's clapping.

"Goooooood."

It's starting to feel like Christmas.