Eyes on the prize
Simeon's Smith focused on winning fourth consecutive state championship
Now he's going for No. 6. This to complete a historic four-peat, something no high school basketball coach in the state has ever done -- Peoria Manual won four straight state titles from 1994-97, but it was done by two coaches -- and something no coach from the city has ever come close to accomplishing.
Still, Simeon's Robert Smith somehow hasn't gotten the credit for being one of the greatest ever to lead Chicago high school kids to basketball's mountaintop. Even if he wins another one before he leaves, he probably never will. He had Derrick Rose. He has Jabari Parker. He's supposed to walk away with a net around the trophy.
Viewed more as the high school John Calipari than the high school Phil Jackson, Smith has had to deal with obstacles this season that haven't haunted him in the past.
Yet here he is, still standing, still holding down the throne while everyone else watches from afar.
As he prepares for the state sectional final against intercity rival and city champs Whitney Young for the chance to advance to the Chicago State supersectional, and then perhaps to Carver Arena in Peoria, Smith sat down to discuss the anatomy of a legacy slept on and his beautiful, dark and twisted relationship with Chicago basketball.
Has this been the most challenging season ever for you as a coach?
Robert Smith: Yes. Talent-wise. Not concept-wise and understanding the program and the system, but from the standpoint of talent, this has been the most talented team we've had and it has been a challenge.
Coaching hasn't been a challenge? I mean, teams came at you this season because you came into the season with the No. 1 ranking in the country, which is a little different than before.
RS: The biggest difference between this year and last is that Jabari was hurt at the beginning of this season. Had he been healthy, I think we would have gotten off to a better start. But you know that didn't do anything but help us grow later on in this season. Guys had to step up and do some different stuff for us.
At the same time, you know Chicago, you know the Public League, the way this works. Didn't all of the national attention make it feel this season like the spotlight was bigger?
RS: Nah. Remember, we were No. 1 [in the country] last year. This is our second year being the No. 1 high school team in the country, so it wasn't that big of a difference in the spotlight -- just the expectations were higher. Because everybody thought, and we thought, that this was our opportunity to be the national champions; if not, go undefeated.
Since that's not going to happen, this hasn't been a disappointing season?
RS: Ah, no. Not at all. We are still where we want to be. Our whole thing is [winning] state. We're still at this point again, where we've been every year since I've been the coach. We've never been any less than in the sectional championship.
Let's say you don't win this time; let's say you don't four-peat and win state. What blame are you going to place on yourself?
RS: I can't say. I know we are going to be prepared. Strategy-wise, there could be something. But I won't put blame on anyone until the game is played. After the game is played, I can look and see if I could have done some things different for us to win or if the kids could have done something different. But we're all going to take the blame; it's not going to be just one person.
What did you learn about this team, and yourself for that matter, this season?
RS: Adversity and how we handle it. With all of the high profile stuff that was said about us that was negative ... you know this was the first time since I've been at this program at Simeon that any of the things that came up about us came up. Then again, I don't want to call it negative because there really wasn't a negative part. I'll just say there was a miscommunication on some adults' parts, and some kids got penalized for it. [Note: Leo president Dan McGrath accused Simeon of a recruiting violation of two players. Russell Woods and Sean Moore Jr. left Leo to attend Simeon.] That's the part that I hate, and that's what I wasn't used to. I learned that winning does bring on everything -- all different types of challenges. I listened to Kobe Bryant say that for many years, about how when you start winning you'll start seeing things around you begin to change. We went from being this great program with great people to "There's gotta be something wrong," and "They gotta be cheating or something over there." But as people have seen and been around here, there's nothing wrong. We haven't been cheating. At the beginning of the season when they ruled those young men ineligible, we would have forfeited those games. Easily. And we didn't forfeit those games. That let everybody know, if they really understood what was going on.
Is that part of the reason you did the All-Access diary with the Chicago Tribune this season, to be more transparent?
RS: Yeah, just to show people and let them know that we aren't over here cheating. I don't have anything to hide; the kids don't have anything to hide. That was our main purpose for doing it. Everyone had their own opinion of what was going on over here. And now that they [the Tribune] are over here, people still have their own opinion. There's no pleasing the people here in Chicago. [Laughs.] So we just have to go about our stuff day-to-day.
Doesn't that bother you, though? Do you think that's a hit against you and the program and goes against you being unilaterally recognized for what you've been able to build here over the last nine years?
RS: Man, that's just Chicago. That's just understanding Chicago. When we go out of town and go to other places to play, the people respect what we do and what we are doing. So I know it's not all over the country. If I felt it was that way all over [the country], that would be something totally different. But I've been living in Chicago my entire life. This is just a part of Chicago basketball.
Speaking of Chicago, if you win the state title again this year, is this it for you? Are you done with CPS and the city?
RS: It's a toss-up. The situation has to be right. You know me, I don't think there's a better job in the country than being right here. Leaving this, you know, to be somewhere else just to say I'm a college coach is something I'm not looking into. The situation definitely has to be right for me to make a move. Money is not an issue. I like turning young men into men. When the season is over with, I'll sit down with my wife and family and some of my close friends and see what's going to be the best thing for me.
Do you ever look at or think about your place in Chicago high school basketball history? You know, look back at what you've really been able to accomplish in a short period of time?
RS: I'm really still going through the moment, per se. That's just how I am. I think once I'm gone and stop doing this, then maybe. But I'm always just thinking about the next game. Or when the season is over, I'm just thinking about the next season. I've never really given myself the chance to sit down to think about what I've accomplished at this point.
You hear about the [former Simeon coach Bob] Hambrics and the [former King High School coach Landon Cox] "Sonnys" and what Frank [Lollino] did over at Westinghouse and the Mount Rushmore of coaches in this city. Then you hear your name ...
RS: Those guys paved the way for me, and I still respect that, you know. I think without them there is no me. Period. What my goal was when I came here was to be the best coach to have ever coached in the state of Illinois. I wanted to have the most state championships of any other high school coach. Am I going to be able to beat [legendary St. Joseph High School coach] Gene Pingatore and have 900 wins? [Laughs.] I don't think I'll be around long enough to do that. But just for people to say that I was one of the best or the best ... That's what I wanted to have said about me when I first came here.
At the end of the day, do you think you'll get that said? Do you think you get the credit that you deserve?
RS: No. Everyone always says we only win because we have talent. "Simeon gets all of the talent, so they always win." I always go back to Ronnie Fields, Kevin Garnett, Michael Wright and the [Farragut High School] team, and they didn't even win state. I remember other great teams: Those King teams with Tracy Dildy and Marcus Liberty, and they go and lose, and they were the No. 1 team in the country. So I look at those teams that had talent that didn't win. I also understand that it is harder to coach talent and keep these egos together versus coaching guys that really couldn't play because they are going to listen and buy into everything that you tell them. These guys? Man, I gotta get a Jabari Parker to say, "OK, I'll average 18 if we are going to win." He's the No. 3 player in the country, and he's only taking 12 shots per game. You can't find another kid in the top 10 in the country that's only taking 12 shots a game. And he doesn't have a problem with it at all. As long as we win, that's all he cares about. I gotta get a Kendrick Nunn to say, "I'll average 12-13 if that's what it takes for us to win."
As opposed to dropping 30 somewhere else every night and not playing for a championship.
RS: Yeah, but all these kids want to do is win and be successful. And that's a hard thing to do when you have players as talented as we do. So that's the thing I don't like is when people say that we only win because we have all of the talent. These kids didn't come in here being this great. We had to work them; we had to get them to believe in us, believe what we say and believe in what we are trying to do. And make them see that it's going to work. We don't play or teach the typical Chicago-style of basketball here. We play a five-man game. Everyone on the court knows what's going on. We don't have guys that go out of character and just break off in the offense. We don't do that, and that's not easy to do -- to teach them that that's not what we do.
But winning state championships takes care of that.
RS: That's the biggest thing. One thing I learned: Less talent wins because they play harder and they often play together more. And I get my guys to play together.