By Colleen Kane
Chicago Tribune reporter
February 16, 2013
The paragraph, taken from a 1992 Tribune story, is humorous with hindsight.
Simeon, the 1980s power that produced a Class AA championship and two Illinois Mr. Basketball winners, had just lost back-to-back December games to Mount Carmel and Young, a team the Wolverines "used to feast upon in their glory days."
"But times change and only the strongest programs — the Kings, the Proviso Easts — remain on top year after year. After going (20-6) last season, Simeon already has four defeats," the article stated.
It seems silly now while examining one of the most successful programs in state history, but the lament was not totally off base at the time. The 1990s at Simeon did not produce any of the program's record six state championships or record four Mr. Basketball winners. The Wolverines did not win any city championships during the decade, and therefore did not make an appearance in the state tournament with the Public League's automatic bid.
"It was kind of down for us because we pride ourselves on winning city championships, and getting downstate was huge for us," said Simeon coach Robert Smith, who served as the book ends for the decade, first as a player and then as an assistant coach. "For us not to get down there for those 10 years was disappointing."
During an ultra-competitive time for the Public League, successes often were measured instead in city triumphs, and Simeon had enough of those to string together 10 seasons with at least 18 wins, according to Illinois High School Association records. Ultimately, the era set the table for the future of the program with consistency, a series of good teams that carried on Bob Hambric's legacy as one of the most important Chicago high school basketball coaches of all time.
"You can't forget about the forefathers that laid the foundation," said Bryant Notree, a 1994 Simeon graduate. "(The 1984 state championship team) are the guys that laid the foundation for the '90s, and the '90s laid the foundation for the Jabari Parkers and the Derrick Roses."
A model of consistency
Hambric, who died of cancer in 2009, didn't soften his ways as the years progressed. He used the same stubborn brand of discipline and teamwork that launched the program to prominence to develop players like Notree and Bobby Simmons, a 1998 graduate who went on to DePaul and the NBA.
"He didn't take no for an answer," Simmons said. "He always pushed you. It was very structured, to the point where what he says goes."
Hambric was so consistent that even after having surgery to remove a brain aneurysm in July 1993 he returned to coach and led future Illinois players Notree and Kevin Turner to a 20-5 season.
He was always in good shape — even ran with his players on a training route near the Dan Ryan Expressway — so the only noticeable difference upon his return was a scar on his head, Notree said.
"He didn't disclose a lot of personal things about himself. We always knew him as a strong power figure," Notree said. "To see him go through that situation and see him bounce back 100 percent motivated us more. It showed us the guy that he was."
The guy also was a winner, a point driven home to 1990 graduate Cyrus McGinnis when he saw Hambric break the 1989 city runner-up plaque outside of the arena because he was so upset about the loss to King. Hambric expressed his share of frustrations with teams during the era in Tribune articles, but the program rarely fell out of the conversation as a contender in the Public League.
"They were still a team to be reckoned with," said George Stanton, former Simeon assistant and Young head coach. "They were always there."
King remained a thorn in Hambric's side throughout the '90s, knocking the Wolverines from the Public League playoffs three times in the decade.
But new rivals emerged.
For Notree, Young joined King on the list of enemies. For Simmons, Julian. For 1991 graduate Ed Richardson, Vocational.
There were many solid city teams, and the fact that the 64-team Public League tournament was their only path to state increased the games' intensity — and the value of those victories when placed in a historical context. Simeon made the semifinals three times in the decade.
"With as much talent as we had in Chicago, it was a hell of a ticket to make it to the city championship," Simmons said. "Getting downstate was very tough."
Since the IHSA removed the league's automatic state bid and integrated the teams into the playoffs in 2002-03, 16 Public League teams have made the state semifinals and eight have won state championships.
"Winning the city championship was huge because you're the only team representing the city of Chicago (at state)," said McGinnis, now the coach and athletic director at Tilden. "If we were to have these (current) rules in the 80s and 90s, there's no telling how many state championships we would have had because of the class system we have now. ... There's no telling how many titles Hambric would have won in this system."
Among the most currently relevant rivalries to emerge in the era was with Young, an annual neutral-site meeting with a family feel. Stanton asked Hambric for the game to help raise money for his Young program, which he eventually turned into a power that won its first state title in 1998 behind Quentin Richardson and Cordell Henry. Young beat Simeon three times during the junior and senior seasons of Richardson and Simmons.
"It helped my program in terms of showing the kids, if this is going to be a top program, this is how we have to play," Stanton said.
McGinnis and Smith, former teammates, joined the Young and Simeon staffs to add to the intrigue.
"It became a rivalry because all of us were going against each other," McGinnis said. "It was a family atmosphere where everybody got a chance to see us come together."
A coach is born
McGinnis and Richardson could see it coming when Smith was a senior in high school in 1989-90.
Smith would find McGinnis in the locker room and let him know why he missed certain shots, and Richardson thought Hambric seemed to discern something special in the guard.
"You could see the leadership that he was going to be a superb coach," Richardson said.
Hambric saw it again when Smith's sophomore team at Curie beat Simeon in the sophomore city championship in the late '90s. He asked Smith to join his staff, and after Smith finished his college degree, he started his first full season in 1998-99.
"It was great to really get to know him as an adult, after knowing him as a kid and not understanding how he was trying to make us men," Smith said. "He was a little bit more laidback than he was when I was a kid."
Unbeknownst at the time, Smith's return to his roots became one of the most significant developments of the decade, positioning Simeon for the record-breaking era to come.
Coming Sunday: The 2000s and beyond
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