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Jalen Brunson scored 18 points Saturday against Edwardsville in a game he was at one point suspended for. | Patrick Gleason/For Sun-Times Media
PEORIA — Jalen Brunson was tremendous on Friday against Young. The Stevenson junior scored 56 points, breaking the all-time state-tournament record of 55 set in 1984.
Despite the effort, Stevenson lost the Class 4A state semifinal game. Brunson was in tears after the game and could barely speak at the press conference. He had clearly left everything he had out on the court.
It was a fabulous high school basketball game between two talented teams. There were emotional outbursts from players, fans and coaches after nearly every point scored and every foul called.
More than a dozen photographers lined the court snapping photos throughout the game. One of those photos caught Brunson with his arms raised in the air and both middle fingers extended. The photo wound up on Twitter shortly after the game.
No one saw anything during the game, no one mentioned anything about the gesture at the lengthy post-game press conference. It simply wasn’t an issue until the still photograph hit Twitter.
Brunson saw the photo on Twitter and immediately apologized for the gesture. It was a natural and classy act, totally understandable when he saw such an alarming picture of himself.
On Saturday, video of the incident began circulating. It made clear that the still photograph simply caught Brunson at an awkward moment. He wasn’t thrusting the bird at Young’s crowd or any other player. Without the still photograph freezing the exact moment, the incident wasn’t even noticeable.
Jalen Brunson’s father Rick, a former Bull, told the Sun-Times at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday that the Illinois High School Association was considering suspending Jalen for the third-place game against Edwardsville. At 4:30 p.m. the IHSA had a meeting with Jalen Brunson, Rick Brunson and several Stevenson administrators, including superintendent Eric Twadell and athletic director Tricia Betthauser at Carver Arena.
At 5:50, Rick Brunson emerged from the meeting and told media members that Jalen was suspended for the third-place game, which was scheduled to start at 6:30. Stevenson did not take the Carver Arena floor with Edwardsville at 6:15 for pregame warmups. Two Carver Arena security officials told the Sun-Times that Stevenson wouldn’t leave the locker room.
At 6:26, just four minutes before game time, Rick Brunson told the Sun-Times that the IHSA had reversed its decision and Brunson would be allowed to play. Stevenson took the floor at 6:30. The Patriots defeated Edwardsville 70-63, and Brunson scored 18 points.
“[Not playing] was under consideration by our superintendent and others,” Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. “They were still making the decision right until the last moment.”
Ambrose said they learned that Brunson was cleared to play “about five minutes before tip-off.”
“I’ve never seen them change (into their uniforms) that fast,” Ambrose said.
During the game the IHSA released a statement that Executive Director Marty Hickman had suspended Brunson, but the IHSA Board overturned the decision after hearing an appeal.
“This was a unique situation in terms of how the gesture was brought to our attention via social media,” IHSA Board President and Wauconda High School Principal Dan Klett said in the statement. “As a Board, we wanted the opportunity to hear from the student-athlete and review additional materials. After doing so, the Board agreed that the gesture could have been inappropriate. However, without additional supporting evidence, we could not make the determination that the gesture was intended as an unsportsmanlike action and chose to overturn the ruling.”
The entire saga was ridiculous, an embarrassing blemish on the state’s premier high school sporting event. The drama played out during the Class 3A state title game, overshadowing Morgan Park’s victory.
Brunson described his day as “up and down.”
“When I’m on the basketball court I feel at home,” Brunson said. “I’m just really thankful to be able to play.”
None of the officials made a call on the court Friday about the incident. No media members, IHSA officials or spectators even noticed it. Even if the gesture had been intentional, which it clearly wasn’t, who cares? Unsportsmanlike incidents happen during every game. Sometimes the officials miss the call. That doesn’t mean the IHSA should be combing through social media looking for reasons to punish players.
It’s been a violent, controversial year for Chicago high school basketball. Saturday was supposed to provide some relief, and the focus should have been on two state championship winning teams. Instead a silly little drama overshadowed it all.