It's all about respect: The 1998-9 Tribune All-State boys basketball first team

Tribune staff reporter

Leon Smith and Imari Sawyer were playing basketball in their own little worlds, even though each had "King" emblazoned across the front of his jersey.

The 6-foot-10-inch Smith was the lord of anything near the basket, dunking with impunity and intimidating those who dared to challenge his authority.

Sawyer was a backcourt artisan, deploying a crossover and stutter-step dribble to create openings for his repertoire of innovative moves to the hoop.

Once they learned that each could dominate within a team concept, King (25-6) began living up to its preseason hype as one of the top teams in the country.

Smith and Sawyer head the Tribune 1998-99 All-State Boys Basketball team and have led No. 1 King to the Class AA quarterfinals Friday in Peoria.

"Imari and Leon had to learn to respect each other's games," said King coach Landon Cox, whose team has won 17 in a row. "Once they started doing that, we came together and got tired of losing."

It's the third time King has had two players named to the All-State first team. Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton were selected in 1993 and Marcus Liberty and Levertis Robinson made it in '86. In both of those years, King went on to win the state championship.

Sawyer changed his game before the current win streak began.

"Imari has sacrificed a lot of his scoring and is looking for assists now," Cox said. "He averaged 14 a game during the Public League playoffs."

Smith, who talked of transferring to a school in California before the season, also has undergone a few changes.

"Everybody matures at a certain point, and I guess it was just my time," Smith, said. "The game has helped me grow up and put guidance in my life. Going through all the struggles and little controversies has helped me become a stronger person.

"I want my high school career to be prolonged to the last day, and I want to win a state championship before I leave."

Where is he headed after King?

"The NBA is on my list as well as college," Smith said. " Right now, I'm leaning toward college. I'm very interested in DePaul if they're still interested in me. There's also Fresno State and Rhode Island, and I am still open for other offers."

Lincoln's 6-10 Brian Cook, who has led his team to the Elite Eight, had only one offer in mind.

"Illinois was the only school I considered," Cook said. "Lon Kruger is a great coach, and I wanted to stay close to home so my mom could watch me play.

"Those Manual guys (Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and Frank Williams) won four state championships, and that's another reason I chose Illinois. I wanted to play with winners."

Cook brings the ball upcourt against presses and steps out to shoot the three-pointer to neutralize double- and triple-team attention inside.

"He's got such a beautiful shot," Lincoln coach Neil Alexander said. "He also creates matchup problems with his size and versatility."

Cook, the son of former Kansas and Boston Celtic forward Norm Cook, became one of the nation's top-rated seniors after an NBA exposure camp last summer in New Jersey. He's also the lone Illinois player in next week's McDonald's All-American Game.

Elgin's Sean Harrington could wind up playing with either Smith or Cook since DePaul and Illinois are among his final choices. He's also considering Illinois State. But moving on won't be easy for the 6-3 point guard since his father, Jim, has coached him the last four years.

"These have been the best years of my life," Jim Harrington said. "I wouldn't trade them for the opportunity to be the head coach at Duke."

Sean Harrington led Elgin to the sectional finals and finished his career setting 62 school records, among them most career points (2,119).

His numbers this season are impressive on and off the court. He averaged 24.5 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds and shot 40 percent from three-point range. He also carries a 5.03 grade-point average on a 5.0 scale.

"It's an incredible accomplishment and a great honor to be put up there with the other four All-Staters," he said. "The other great memory I'll take with me is going Downstate with my dad last year and playing against Young in the quarterfinals."

He had nine games of more than 30 points this season and hit six three-pointers (and totaled 22 points) in sparking Elgin's upset of King in mid-January.

The southern part of the state had its own scoring machine in guard Kent Williams, who led Mt. Vernon on a 28-game winning streak that was snapped by East St. Louis in the supersectionals. Williams set a single-game scoring record at last December's St. Louis Shootout with 48 points against Seattle Rainier Beach, and he lit up Carbondale for 49.

"There's not much competition around here, so I just played in my driveway all my life," said Williams, who has signed a letter of intent with Southern Illinois.

As a 3-year-old, he would shoot a rubber ball at a 6-foot hoop in the family room. "My mom didn't mind as long as I didn't break anything," Williams said.

"He can shoot the three from NBA range and has one of the best shot-fakes I've ever seen," Mt. Vernon coach Doug Creel said. "He can hit the pull-up shot and is also a great finisher going to the basket. He is the total package."

FIRST TEAMLeon Smith, King
Year: Senior
Height: 6-10
Position: Center
The numbers: Averaging 27 points, 15 rebounds, 6 blocked shots for No. 1-ranked team that won the Public League title and advanced to the Class AA quarterfinals.
The scoop: The state's most dominant big man has been named to the Parade Magazine All-American team while attracting the attention of NBA scouts all season.
College choice: Undecided

Imari Sawyer, King
Year: Junior
Height: 6-2
Position: Guard
The numbers: Averaging 22 points, 12 assists, 6 steals. Credited with 30 assists in 133-46 playoff victory over Richards Academy.
The scoop: Innovative scorer and most creative passer in the state. His speed and ballhandling make him virtually impossible to cover one-on-one. Consensus pick as one of the top 10 juniors in the country.
College choice: Undecided

Brian Cook, Lincoln
Year: Senior
Height: 6-10
Position: Center
The numbers: Averaging 22 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks for Elite Eight qualifier despite facing double- and triple-team defenses.
The scoop: The state's lone representative in the McDonald's All-American Game, the son of ex-Kansas and Boston Celtics forward Norman Cook was the top recruiting priority for Illinois.
College choice: Illinois

Kent Williams, Mt. Vernon
Year: Senior
Height: 6-2
Position: Guard
The numbers: Averaging 24.2 points, four assists and shooting 45 percent from three-point range for Mt. Vernon, which lost its lone game of the season in the supersectional.
The scoop: Mt. Vernon's all-time leading scorer--with almost 2,200 career points--was recruited by Utah, Northwestern, St. Louis and Evansville. Also an outstanding shortstop who figures to be a two-sport athlete in college.
College choice: Southern Illinois

Sean Harrington, Elgin
Year: Senior
Height: 6-3
Position: Guard
The numbers: Averaged 24.5 points, 6.1 assists, 4.2 rebounds and shot 84 percent from the free-throw line for sectional finalist. Also carries a 5.03 grade-point average on a 5.0 scale.
The scoop: Elgin's all-time leading scorer--with 2,119 points--Harrington set 62 school records in his four-year career and led the Maroons to an Elite Eight berth last season.
College choice: Undecided

SECOND TEAMName School Ht. Pos. Yr.
David Bailey Westinghouse 5-8 G Sr.
Andre Brown Leo 6-9 C Jr.
Dan Lytle Edwardsville 6-11 C Sr.
Darius Miles East St. Louis 6-9 F Jr.
Joe Tulley Rockford Boylan 6-2 G Sr.

SPECIAL MENTIONJamar Avant, Murphysboro; Martell Bailey and Cedrick Banks, Westinghouse; Marlon Brooks, Peoria Manual; T.J. Cummings, Homewood-Flossmoor; Eddy Curry, Thornwood; Cameron Echols, Simeon; Najeeb Echols, Young; Rob Garnes, Rolling Meadows; Jeremy Hunter and Kelvin Smallwood, Dunbar; Brad Korn, Plano; Matt Lottich, New Trier; Brett Melton, Mahomet-Seymour; Les Norman, Lebanon; JerellParker, St. Francis de Sales; Marque Perry, Prosser; Joe Scott, Stagg; Dwayne Wade, Richards; Brandon Watkins, St. Joseph.

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