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Michael Smith, then an eighth-grader at Burr Ridge Middle School, protects the ball from Holy Trinity’s John Rave. | FILE
When St. Joseph center Nick Rakocevic partially blocked a shot by Fenwick guard Mike Smith during Friday’s Chicago Catholic League game in Westchester, memories flooded back for both standout sophomores.
Rakocevic and Smith were teammates on the Burr Ridge Middle School eighth-grade basketball team that captured the Class 3A Illinois Elementary School Association state championship in 2012.
“I would practice my floater in practice and he hated when I did it because he could never block it,” Smith said of their middle school days. “He was all happy because he finally tipped one [Friday].”
Rakocevic and St. Joseph earned bragging rights by pulling out a 68-62 CCL North victory in Westchester.
“We hoped to play together in high school, but it didn’t work out,” Rakocevic said. “Now, we’re kind of rivals. I wanted to beat him so I could let him know about it. He was upset that they lost a close game, but he got over it in a few days. It was great seeing him and I’m glad he’s doing well.”
The 6-foot-9 Rakocevic had 15 points and 16 rebounds in the win, while Smith scored 10 points.
“It was fun playing against my state-championship teammate,” Smith said. “I wish we could’ve got the win, so he doesn’t talk so much stuff about it.”
Smith and Rakocevic have remained friends since that magical middle school season. Burr Ridge had never even so much won an eighth-grade regional championship before capturing it all.
“That was one of my proudest moments in life,” Rakocevic said. “It was a brand new team. I transferred in and none of us ever really played with each other before. Most of the guys were football players. Me and Mike were the only real basketball players. We didn’t have chemistry at first, so to win it was unbelievable.”
In the final, Burr Ridge (10-0) beat Bloomington Holy Trinity (26-2) 53-44. Smith averaged 21 points in the three state tournament games in Monticello, including a record-setting 31 in the championship game. Rakocevic, who stood 6-4 in eighth grade, averaged 16 points.
Smith was held to five points in the semifinal, but contributed 15 assists, most of them to Rakocevic.
The inside-outside combination worked to perfection during the title run.
“Mike was just so explosive,” Rakocevic said. “No one could stop him. They didn’t know what to do against him because whether they were playing zone, press or man-to-man [defense] he just tore them apart. I was like the second piece of the puzzle.”
“When I had an off game or was not contributing, he’d step up and have my back,” Smith said. “We really bonded that season. We’ve been close ever since. He lives down the street from me and will still go to the gym to work out and play pick-up games. I wish we played high school basketball together.”
When it came time to pick a high school, both players wanted the opportunity to get on the court as soon as possible.
St. Joseph already featured a pair of highly-touted guards in Glynn Watson and Jordan Ash, so Smith chose Fenwick. The Friars had big men Tom Planek and Dan Dwyer entrenched in the rotation, and Rakocevic saw St. Joseph as a better fit.
Smith showed glimpses of his potential immediately as a freshman, while Rakocevic, who is still growing, learned the ropes behind now-graduated center A.J. Patty.
“He’s going to be a special kid,” Smith said of his buddy. “It’s hard to deny a 7-foot kid in high school or college. He’s big and tall and can shoot. I think once he gains some more weight and strength, he will be dominant. He has a lot of potential. He’s going to start exploding and have big years the next couple seasons.”
Both are having breakthrough campaigns and have emerged as two of the country’s top players in the Class of 2016.
Smith is averaging 18 points, seven assists and two steals to lead the Friars (13-5), who had played all season without injured Northwestern-recruit Scott Lindsey until Friday.
“It’s a great feeling,” Smith said. “Nobody really knew about us that well and now we’re considered two of the top players in our grade. Coming from Burr Ridge, which is not known for basketball, and having people see our potential has been fun.”
Rakocevic is averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Chargers (14-2) and those numbers have been on a steady rise. He already has offers from Creighton and Northern Illinois.
“I’m so blessed and thankful,” Rakocevic said. “It gives me motivation to keep working hard. I want to be the best and I want the whole nation to know my name.”