Once again, history and fate are at Bloom’s door this season. In fact, the 2012 Trojans are at the door that has not been visited for 37 years.
The Trojans are in a place that they have not been in since the mid-'70s. Some of you may remember the '70s. You know, the giant afros, stack shoes, wide-collar shirts, the Bee Gees, disco and, for some of you truly die-hard Bloom basketball fans, “Bloom’s Braided Bunch.”
In fact, the history of the Thornton-Bloom rivalry will show a decade in which Bloom narrowed the gap in win and losses to Thornton for the first time in modern history.
The '70s also brought current assistant basketball coach and Bloom resident basketball historian Pete McGuire to Bloom. He started his coaching career in 1970-71. McGuire is arguably one of the most knowledgeable basketball historians of Chicago south suburbs basketball players since John E. Myers (The Star News Sports Editor).
“He was instrumental in me coming out for basketball,” says Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy played on the last Bloom team to go to the Final Four and eventually played college ball at Quincy University.
The year was 1975, and like this year’s Trojans, the ’75 Trojans won their supersectional game and earned the right to play in the “Final Four” for a state title shot. Like the 2012 team which was highly ranked early, the ’75 team had just come off the previous year as runner-up state champions. That ’74 basketball squad had Emir Hardy, Audie Mathews, Derrick Mays and Robert McCoy.
They were arguably one of the best inside teams in the state. In addition, they had a player named Alvin Higgins. Legend has it that if stealing and harassing people on the court were illegal, Alvin Higgins would have gone straight to prison from high school and given extra years for “excessive force.”
“If I had to pick one player to play in a two-on-two tourney, out of all the players I played with, it would be Higgins," said Robert McCoy. "He was a force on the court. Opposing players would not want to handle the ball when he guarded them, and these were their star players."
Like the 2012 team’s force of Donald Moore, Higgins was '74s Donald Moore and more. McCoy played on both state runnerup squads. He went on to play at Illinois State University along with Larry Lowe.
But that is as similar as it got, relative to the two respective team’s paths to the Final Four. The '75 team and this year’s team could not be more different. This year’s Trojans were ranked as one of the top teams in the area for most of the season. They won the Chicago Heights Classic. They won the holiday McDipper. They beat highly touted teams such as Hillcrest, which is in a position to win another 3A state crown. They beat their historical nemesis, Thornton, several times and even took out perennial area favorite Homewood Flossmoor to win the sectional championship.
To date, the Blazing Trojans have lost only three games. The ’75 team had a state record that held for years as having the most losses for any team ever reaching the Final Four (or championship game). The only other team going into the state finals with more than 10 losses was Hales Franciscan with a 23-11 record in all of Illinois high school basketball history.
The ’75 team was a team of contradictions. After coming off a season (1974) in which the Trojans were state runnerup champs to Proviso East, the 1975 Trojans lost a total of 10 games. In fact, that team lost to Thornridge (twice), Homewood-Flossmoor (twice) and lost to Sandburg and a number of teams they should have beaten. They would beat their arch nemesis Thornton (twice), which was one of the top teams in the state that year, and lose to sub-par teams.
Ironically, for a team that made it to the state championship game, they finished no higher than 3rd place in their own conference that year.
As this season unfolded, and it was confirmed last Tuesday that Bloom would be in this year’s Final Four, the obvious questions and comparisons of past Trojans and the last time the Trojans made it to the Final Four, was the topic of some former players and fans.
The question that kept coming up was, how could a team that made it to the 1975 Illinois basketball championship game get there after a season in which they could only manage a 3rd place conference finish? I asked that question to two former teammates who played on that ’75 team.
“It was after the Sandburg game in which we lost (68-65) that we had a meeting called by head coach Wes Mason,” says Anthony Kennedy, a starting member of that 1975 team. "Coach Mason, now firmly frustrated by the team’s inconsistent play and fan’s criticism of his team’s 'Jekyll and Hyde' results, called a team meeting.
"I remember a big chalkboard in which he turned around and began talking to us about a challenge. He basically told us that if we wanted to play together and smart, we could win, but if not, we could be sitting next to him and he would finish the season with his freshmen and sophomore players.”
Coach Mason was not known for his gentle touch, but rather, in your face motivational talks.
“Coach basically got in our butts and we responded,” says Kennedy.
As in the classic comeback 'Rocky' movie (imagine the music), Bloom lost its next game to (oh, no) H-F (62-57). But as Mason's venomous motivation started to take effect, the '75 team went on to win every single game it played leading up to the state final. Despite being sidelined by a diagnosed stress fracture that sat him out for the reminder of the season, Kennedy says it “was a magical season”.
“What I remembered was the ’74 team being remarkable (30-3). I started as a sophomore along with 4 other primary seniors," he said. "We lost only 2 games coming into the state championship and eventually lost to Proviso East. My teammates were monsters.
"The strength of that team was its experienced players. But the next year (’75), all of the experienced players had graduated. Therefore, we started the ’75 season with the same strategies and plays of the successful ’74 team, but with different players who had little or very limited varsity playing experience. The reason we lost so many games in the start of the ’75 season was that we tried to do what we did the season before. It was a disaster.”
Robert McCoy remarked, “In what has to be described as brilliant, Mason called up two sophomores, named David Barba and Ernie Harper. They provided the stability and defensive presence reminiscent of the ’74 team. David was a tall, good shooting guard, great passer, and he made minimal mistakes out front. Ernie Harper added the speed and quickness needed to fuel and complement our still dominate inside game. He was reminiscent of ’75s Higgins. That adjustment was THE reason we turned into a totally different team. We won every single game after that because of the personnel adjustments made by Mason.”
I asked these two players the same question, “What would you tell the young Trojans as they head down the path you were on to the Final Four first game?”
McCoy’s advice was, “Just like we had to make major adjustments in our game, I would tell the young Trojans as well as their coaches, be prepared to 'go outside your box' show them something that they are unaccustomed to seeing. Once we adjusted our team, we changed our defense and pressed teams like never before in the fourth quarter and forced their big men to tire down the stretch.”
Kennedy remarked, “I would tell them to really understand the importance of this game. Most likely, you may never get there again in your life.”
Like the past Trojans in their state quests, the current Trojans will have to face a nationally ranked team (Simeon) to get to the championship game. The ’74 and ’75 Trojans met that challenge of winning their first game of the Final Four.
"You can too," say McCoy and Kennedy.
From an 'old school" Trojan, my advice to the current 2012 Trojans is, "No pressure."
In Bloom basketball lore, you have already placed yourself in the elite history of Bloom basketball. Do yourself proud, and know that we are proud of you.
Bloom Nation: Special thanks for this article goes out to Bloom Trail's special education teachers, Ms. Young, Ms. Muse, Ms. Fulka and Alexia Lopez.