- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- With 7 seconds remaining in his high school career, Cliff Alexander put his jersey over his head and stood on the Curie sideline, unable to watch it end.
When those 7 seconds were over, and the unthinkable happened -- Curie Metropolitan High School had actually lost to middling DuSable, 88-85, in overtime of its first playoff game -- the 6-foot-9 power forward collapsed to the ground.
An unmovable force moved to tears.
Eleven days before his season ended in the 4A regional semifinals at King College Prep High School, Alexander was wearing a medal and holding a trophy, the champion of Chicago with a smile as wide as the Midway Plaisance.
Now, his high school career was over, ending on the bench, having fouled out for the best damn 0-26 team in the city's history.
As DuSable fans rushed the court, the 18-year-old man-child was inconsolable. Alexander's parents ran over, picked him up and walked him off the King College Prep court while a phalanx of TV cameras, interested in the team's eligibility scandal, followed him out the door.
Alexander, a Kansas recruit and the No. 2 big man in the nation and Chicago, ended his prep career with 25 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks, fouling out with 27 seconds left in regulation.
Most of his points came from the free throw line in an ugly, over-refereed game. The Condors did a better job of getting the ball into him in the paint to draw contact, whereas in previous games, Curie's usual top guards -- who were suspended for eligibility issues -- would ignore him for stretches as they hoisted 3-pointers.
Still, when he wasn't getting triple-teamed in the post, Alexander was transcendent in moments, skying for one-handed rebounds, slapping the backboard on block attempts, changing shots with his mere presence and converting a handful of highlight-reel dunks.
Big Cliff was the reason everyone in Chicago was talking about Curie Metropolitan, which is not a traditional city power.
"I thought we were going to win it all," sophomore Devin Gage said. "We were supposed to win it all."
Curie was the top seed in the Marist sectional of the Illinois High School Association 4A basketball playoffs, and the erstwhile No. 2 team in the entire country. But with the Chicago Public Schools ruling seven players academically ineligible for the entire season, the Condors were officially winless.
Alexander's season began with a minor but overplayed controversy when he angered emotional Illinois fans by deking them on his signing day and committing to coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks.
It ended in controversy as an undermanned Curie escaped procedural limbo only to be blasted into reality.
It's a story that would sound bizarre and unfair, but it's so very Chicago.
The last time the Condors left a basketball court, they were 24-1 and celebrating the school's first-ever Chicago Public League championship after outlasting Whitney Young in a four-overtime thriller on Feb. 21.
Curie was late to that game at Chicago State University because a tipster called CPS and alerted them to the academic snafu. The team was held up at its Southwest Side school until given the go-ahead to compete. The Condors were stripped of their title a week later in a wild, confusing story about eligibility, paperwork and kids paying for adults' mistakes.
Curie was found to have played with seven ineligible players all season. CPS athletes have to maintain a 2.0 cumulative GPA, or have an "individual study plan" in writing. Curie failed to get those ISPs done, according to CPS and Curie coach Mike Oliver.
The Illinois High School Association has different eligibility standards and asked CPS officials to verify eligibility for the state tournament. On Monday, after more than a week in limbo, two starters, brothers Josh and Joseph Stamps, and one top reserve were ruled ineligible. Another reserve was injured, leaving Curie with seven players and one Cliff Alexander.
Oliver, who was suspended for the playoffs and then reinstated, said it was the administration's fault for not getting the paperwork done and the players' fault for not getting achievable grades. The coach said the week-plus of uncertainty was tough on the kids. They are just kids, remember.
"If you don't learn nothing else, you learn life skills," he said after the game. "This was a life skill lesson that the kids got to understand: academics first. If you're not doing your academics, it doesn't matter how good you are on the basketball court. If we were doing what we were supposed to be doing from day one, we wouldn't be in the situation that we were in."
Did the players buy Oliver's life skill message?
"They bought it now, they bought it now," he said. "I could've sold it for a million dollars. Nothing like adversity and nothing like hurt. Sometimes you go through pain to get your goal in life. They understand that right now. I'm not talking about basketball. I'm talking about life skills on and off the court."
Life skills weren't enough to beat a hot-shooting DuSable (11-11), which led early but trailed by as many as 15 in the second half.
The Panthers made their last five field goals of regulation -- all 3-pointers. Dontrell Whitaker led them with 22 points and 14 rebounds. He sealed the game with free throws.
"DuSable came in with what I say was 'house money,'" Oliver said. "They had nothing to lose, just lay it on the line and play hard. They were the better team."
While it was clear Curie wasn't going far without its missing starters, it still looked like the Condors would win.
Alexander got fouled on a dunk attempt with under a minute left and Curie up by two, but he missed both free throws and committed two fouls in the next 20-some seconds to foul out.
In overtime, Alexander was so wound up, he jumped off the bench to protest a no-call under the basket. His coaches had to restrain him. Alexander wasn't thinking about Kansas or NBA riches. He just wanted to win this game.
After the game, he told a reporter, "I'm not talking."
Alexander's play did all the talking this season, and next year when he's at Kansas he'll thrill Jayhawk fans with eye-popping athleticism and a ceiling that has yet to be painted.
When he goes to the NBA, he could be a star. He's got the post-dunk roar down pat, anyway.
Perhaps, his coach wondered, this loss could be good for him in the long road.
"I always tell him you got to take the bitter with the sweet," Oliver said. "He's got to understand adversity is going to hit him again and you've got to be stronger next time around. But he's got to be the leader that everyone expects him to be."
Cliff Alexander's high school career came to an end in unexpected fashion as Curie High School was shocked in overtime by DuSable in the first round of the state tournament, Jon Greenberg writes.