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Sun-Times Player of the Year Cliff Alexander dunks against Simeon. Worsom Robinson/For Sun-Times Media.
The quickness, power and raw athletic ability of Cliff Alexander’s game is stunning. Watch Alexander play for 32 minutes and the sports fan in everyone takes over. This season’s controversies recede into the background, and all that remains is a greedy wish to see his next astounding athletic feat.
Alexander, the Sun-Times Player of the Year, traveled the country this season and provided high school basketball fans with countless memorable dunks, blocks and even rebounds.
The Curie senior is poised to become a top-five NBA draft pick after just one year at Kansas. Alexander and Young’s Jahlil Okafor, last season’s player of the year, are considered Chicago’s best big men since King’s Thomas Hamilton and Rashard Griffith in 1995.
For the next 20 years, area big men likely will be compared to Alexander and Okafor — Alexander as the gold standard for speed, power and athleticism; Okafor for technique, poise and polish.
“[Alexander] was absolutely physically dominant in terms of strength and explosiveness, and everything he did was to help his team win,” said Frank Burlison, one of the most respected basketball scouts in the country. “There was nobody close to him in terms of how well he played when I watched him this year, and there is nobody like Alexander that will be in college basketball next year.”
Unfortunately, two large controversies were just as much a part of Alexander’s season as his dominant play.
In November, Alexander selected Kansas in a televised news conference. His now infamous hat trick was nothing more than a nervous kid making a mistake, but it brought out the worst in a large group of Illinois fans. They booed him in person, on Twitter and all over the Internet all season long.
Three months later, the Chicago Public Schools ruled seven Curie players ineligible, saying the school’s administration hadn’t filed the paperwork required for the players, whose GPAs had fallen below 2.0. The CPS forced Curie to forfeit all 24 regular-season victories, including the city championship. Then came the stunning playoff upset loss to DuSable.
So Alexander’s senior year goes into the record books as 0-26, but none of his big moments can be erased from Chicago’s memory. Alexander’s dominant second half against Montverde (Fla.), the No. 1-ranked team in the country, was the command performance of the season, not just in Illinois, but across the country.
It took Alexander, a 6-9 forward, four years of hard work to get to that point. He arrived at Curie as a 6-6 overweight freshman with no basketball skills. In fact, he had played more football than hoops. He didn’t turn to basketball until eighth grade.
“When we first saw him, it was like watching Bozo,” Condors coach Mike Oliver said. “He couldn’t run. He couldn’t even catch the ball.”
Despite the lack of ability, Alexander was recruited heavily out of junior high — by high schools and gangs.
“His mother was looking for a situation where she could get him out of the community he lived in [West Garfield Park],” Oliver said. “It’s not the best place to raise a kid. He’s been a target for gangs, they want to recruit him, they are always looking for some big guys for protection.”
Latillia Alexander, Cliff’s mother, figured that Curie was in a more stable neighborhood and that it was close enough to home but far enough away to keep him out of trouble.
Oliver took Alexander under his wing. He drove him to school every day and taught him the game.
“[Oliver] has been tremendous over these last four years,” Latillia said. “He’s always been there for Cliff.”
Alexander learned how to dunk freshman year. He mastered the basics. His mother started to notice the improvements his sophomore year.
“He couldn’t hit a layup freshman year, so I was surprised with how he started playing,” Latillia said.
The summer after his junior year, Alexander exploded into the national rankings, and the recruiting circus began. It ended in November, when Alexander picked up an Illinois hat, put it down and put on a Kansas hat. After the news conference, Alexander said his teammates had told him to pull the trick.
Alexander doesn’t want to discuss the incident anymore. Oliver wants to set the record straight.
“I’m really upset with Illinois people,” Oliver said. “The hat trick was an honest mistake. That kid was so nervous he didn’t know what hat he was putting on. He lied to make it look like he wasn’t doing something stupid. That wasn’t Cliff. He made a mistake. He was nervous, so he told a lie, which is what children do.”
Oliver said that Alexander never had any ill will toward Illinois. In fact, Oliver said that an hour before the announcement, Alexander told him he wanted to go to Illinois.
“He talked to me that morning and said he wanted to go to Illinois,” said Oliver. “I don’t know what happened in that last hour.”
After the news conference, Alexander told Oliver that he thought Kansas coach Bill Self could get him to the NBA quicker than Illinois coach John Groce.
“Illinois was my first option and the place I wanted to go for a long time,” said Alexander. “But Bill Self and his history of developing players made the decision.”
High school basketball players are more accustomed than ever to dealing with the media. Many high-level players are polished quote machines by their sophomore year, confident and smiling in front of television cameras. That isn’t Alexander.
“Cliff has had about 24 months to learn to deal with stardom,” Oliver said. “Jabari [Parker] and [Jahlil] Okafor, they were born into stardom. With Jabari, his dad was an NBA player, so he was going to be an NBA player. Okafor’s cousin was an NBA player, so he was going to be an NBA player. Cliff doesn’t have that background. It’s a difference in background. All Cliff had was negativity, and those other kids had positivity. He had plenty to be nervous about.”
Eventually, Alexander will become more media-savvy. He’ll have plenty of guidance with that at Kansas. High school had to be about basketball. There was no other choice.
“It’s a great story,” Oliver said. “A kid that’s not as talented as the other kids but improves so much and works so hard on the court that he becomes one of the best players ever in Chicago high school basketball. It’s just remarkable.”