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All-Star 2020: Is Chicago the true Mecca of basketball?

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Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Wednesday 12 February 2020 11:11, UK

Chicago-born NBA stars Anthony Davis, Dwyane Wade, Isiah Thomas and Derrick Rose
Image: Chicago-born NBA stars Anthony Davis, Dwyane Wade, Isiah Thomas and Derrick Rose

To a long lineage of Chicago-born NBA players, the Windy City’s rich hoops history stands above all.

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Eddie Johnson was almost done with his run, and he wanted to finish strong. So with legs pumping, head down, the lanky forward from Westinghouse High School pushed hard down a back street in the West Side neighbourhood where he spent his teenage years.

He sprinted until he got the sense that he no longer was alone.

Chicago native Eddie Johnson in action for the Seattle Supersonics
Image: Chicago native Eddie Johnson in action for the Seattle Supersonics

"I ran into a gang meeting, it was probably 1,000 guys deep," Johnson said. "They looked at me, and some of them were getting ready to get physical."

Then something strange happened: Nothing.

"About 10 guys in the crowd noticed me and knew what I was doing," Johnson recalled. "They let me go through. 'Don't bother him,' guys were telling other guys. They knew I had an opportunity to do something. And they didn't bother me."

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Johnson got a pass that day. Enough of the hard cases in the crowd respected the dream he was chasing - from Westinghouse to the University of Illinois to the NBA, where he played 17 seasons and scored 19,202 points - that they cut him slack, same as they have for players before and in the four decades since.

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It's a sign of the reverence vast segments of the local population have for the sport, the high regard that bolsters a case made constantly by players and coaches with roots here. More than any other city in the nation, they contend Chicago is the Mecca of basketball.

Anthony Davis celebrates after making a big play against the Phoenix Suns 0:51
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With NBA All-Star 2020 descending on United Center (home of the Bulls) and Wintrust Arena (where DePaul University's teams and the WNBA's Chicago Sky play) this week, a familiar refrain that Chicago might be the centre of basketball's universe packs some extra context and credibility. Not that certain proponents are ever shy about making the claim.

"In Chicago, it means a lot more to us because we are a basketball city and we are the Mecca of basketball, and you can quote me on that," Lakers big man Anthony Davis said back in July.

A product of the Englewood neighbourhood on the South Side, Davis was back in town to work with a Nike youth camp for kids ages 8-17. He hadn't participated in anything like that in his grade school years, coming up the grittier Chicago way, indoors or (most of the time) out.

"It's basketball in any condition, you know you gonna find a way to play," Davis told a gathering of reporters. "No matter if it's hot, it's freezing cold in the gym, outside it's raining, whatever. … By any means necessary, we wanna play the game."

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Clippers coach Doc Rivers, a high school All-American from just outside the city limits in Maywood, backed Davis' take entirely.

"Yeah, he's right. It's not even a question," Rivers said. "The Mecca of basketball is absolutely Chicago players. New York gets all the rub, which I don't get, but Chicago, it's not even close."

The talent pipeline that delivered everyone from George Mikan and Cazzie Russell to Jabari Parker and Davis was pumping particularly well during Rivers' heyday.

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"You play against everybody," Rivers said. "I mean, how many kids can say, unless you grew up in Chicago, you can have a pick-up game out in the park with Isiah Thomas, Terry Cummings, Maurice Cheeks, Mark Aguirre, Darrell Walker. There's not a lot of pickup games like that in your same grade. That's every year. That's called Chicago basketball."

Look, this is highly subjective and largely recreational. Basketball fans across the country can argue for their towns as Meccas and no one is going to break the ties.

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New York? Of course. Los Angeles is the glamour market of the NBA, the site of so many players' offseason homes and training regimens. Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit can muster cases too. And if this version of the debate weren't so NBA-centric, Indiana and North Carolina might try to crash the party as state entries.

But this is Chicago's time to shine. And to brag.

"Look at how many players we've put in the league," said former NBA swingman Kendall Gill, raised just south of the city in Olympia Fields. "It's like we never stop sending guys to the league."

Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat reacts after hitting a three pointer against the Philadelphia 76ers during the second half at American Airlines Arena 0:45
Miami Heat All-Star Dwyane Wade went from starting at Chicago's Richards High School to becoming a three-time NBA champion

With each one, the fraternity grows. "Definitely," Gill said. "When Dwyane Wade was first in the league, I was at the end of my career. But when he saw me, he said 'hey Chi-town.' And I said, 'hey, what's up young fella?' The young players know about the guys before them, and it's always going to be repeated."

The Chicago Stags disbanded in 1950 after four seasons. The Chicago Packers-turned-Zephyrs lasted two years before moving to Baltimore in 1963. But when the Bulls were created in 1966, they stuck. More than that, they became the only NBA expansion team to reach the playoffs, going 33-48 while coached by Chicago favourite and Tilden High grad Johnny 'Red' Kerr.

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The Bulls weren't an instant hit with paying customers, but by their fourth season, they had assembled the nucleus of a contender that reached the conference semi-finals or finals for five consecutive seasons. They won no titles, but the crew of Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Bob Love, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle played some of the fiercest, most exciting games in franchise history.

Until 1984 or thereabouts.

Michael Jordan throws down a two-handed dunk
Image: Michael Jordan throws down a two-handed dunk

Michael Jordan's impact in growing basketball's popularity in Chicago is undeniable. The season before he was drafted, in a Bears and Cubs town, the Bulls drew an average of 6,365 fans. In Jordan's first two seasons, that bumped to about 11,600 per game, with about 7,000 unsold seats most nights in the cavernous Chicago Stadium. But by 1987-88, attendance had nearly tripled in four years to 18,061.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver was studying at the University of Chicago during Jordan's early years. "Prior to that 1988 NBA All-Star game [at the Stadium]," Silver recently told NBC Sports Chicago, "I attended lots of games with my friends in law school. My recollection is it was not difficult to get tickets. Even for the great Michael Jordan, you could go to the ticket window before the game."

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In the 1990s, though, the Bulls broke through, winning six championships in eight seasons with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson and the rest. Kids throughout the country wanted to 'Be Like Mike', but nowhere more than in Chicago.

Still, Jordan was born in Brooklyn. His family soon moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. He doesn't qualify for any all-time All-Chicago team. Neither, for that matter, do Love, Walker, Scottie Pippen or Dennis Rodman.

Same with Kevin Garnett, who tore it up in his one year at Farragut Academy - the nation's No 1 prospect, leading to a Hall of Fame-worthy NBA career - but spent his first 17 years in Mauldin, South Carolina.

 Isiah Thomas plying for the Detroit Pistons 0:41
Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas starred at Chicago's St Joseph High before having himself a Hall of Fame career in the NBA

No, the best to ever come from and represent Chicago have deeper roots. Like Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings, Davis, Wade and Derrick Rose. And Isiah Thomas.

"Isiah, he took it to a new level," Johnson said. "He was a true prodigy. His ball-handling, his persona, all as a young man. I played him one-on-one when he was in eighth grade and I was a junior, and he almost beat me. I had to be real physical with him to beat him."

Thomas checked all the boxes of Chicago basketball bona fides. He was one of nine children, raised by his mother Mary on the West Side, not far from the asphalt court at Gladys Park. Money was tight, food was scarce.

Seeking better for her youngest son, she steered Thomas to the suburb of Westchester - a 90-minute commute each way by bus and train - to St Joseph's High School. That's where he starred and earned a scholarship to Indiana, where he took coach Bob Knight and the Hoosiers to the NCAA title as a sophomore in 1981.

Derrick Rose playing for the Chicago Bulls in 2016 0:47
Detroit Pistons' Derrick Rose starred at Chicago's Simeon Career Academy before being drafted first overall by his hometown Chicago Bulls

Now imagine Rose getting drafted by the Pistons instead of the Bulls in 2008. That's essentially what happened with Thomas in 1981, when Detroit selected him second overall in the Draft, four spots ahead of Chicago.

The most successful player in the city's history - a 12-time All-Star, two championships, Hall of Fame - wound up exiled to a rival, often feeling like a villain in his own town once Jordan moved in.

"We all grew up Bulls fans," Thomas said several years ago. "But my mom and my brothers… sometimes I would look up in the stands and see them clapping for the Bulls, and I'd be like, 'What the hell? I gave y'all them tickets!'"

 Isiah Thomas plying for the Detroit Pistons 0:41
Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas starred at Chicago's St Joseph High before having himself a Hall of Fame career in the NBA

Basketball took Thomas out of Chicago but nothing could take Chicago out of him. Some see his smile and on occasion wonder about his sincerity. But no one questions the authenticity of his trek from mean streets to posh boulevards across 50 years in the game.

Chicago might be the Mecca, but if you grew up the way Thomas did, getting out was better than getting "next!"

"What makes the journey special in Chicago," Johnson said, "is navigating the games and navigating the peers that would try to get you to do something you didn't want to do. To get past that and be smart enough to not get caught up in anything."

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That applied to the city more than players raised in the less-risky suburbs of Chicagoland. But eventually, all hoops roads led to the same place.

"There was never any prejudice in basketball in Chicago," Johnson said. "If you could play, you could play. We judged you on that. And how tough you were.

"Could you deal with a really intense situation? We'd go into neighbourhoods that weren't the best, guys would get physical with us, elbows get thrown to where you're going to have a fight. What do you do? Do you keep playing hard?"

In this town you do. Or you're done.

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