Watching his son Morgan compete for a spot on Evanston’s varsity basketball team over the summer planted the seed of an idea for Brian Brown, about making a connection between the past and the present.
“I saw the ability they had with the five transfers they had coming in, and I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to get it together and support and encourage them as much as we could this season,” Brown said.
Now he’s in charge of a family reunion. The members of the 1983-84 Wildkit team that set the school single-season record for victories and finished second in the state at the Illinois High School Association Class AA tournament will be recognized – and celebrated – on Friday, Feb. 3, at halftime of the New Trier High School vs. Evanston Township High School boys varsity game.
The return to Beardsley Gymnasium will feature more than a dozen players from that squad, plus former head coach Herb Williams, who is making the trip up from downstate Centralia.
It’s more than a family reunion, it’s an extended family reunion, and while many of the players from one of the best teams in school history don’t live in the city anymore, their passion for Evanston basketball and the family atmosphere that has surrounded the program for decades can’t be denied.
Once a Wildkit, always a Wildkit.
“The love we still have for each other is unique, I think,” said Brown, who was a sophomore during that memorable 32-1 season that ended with a 53-47 loss to Chicago Simeon Career Academy in the championship game.
“We know we’re a family. We had 16 guys on that team who were all winners in different ways. Striving to try to get better every day with them was one of the greatest times of my life.
“We had a great coach who was always encouraging us to better ourselves and the seniors set a great example for us. Those guys were serious, and they supported each other. I think the leadership we had at Evanston really made the difference for us that season.”
A starting lineup that featured All-Stater Everette Stephens (18 points per game), Derrick Brown (no relation to Brian), 6-foot-9 Steve Kling, Lou Wool (11.8 ppg) and Tony Mason (10.5 ppg) was backed by a strong bench that included Brian Brown, Kevin Ackles, Francois Jean-Paul, Mike Cobb and Jim Finucane among others.
That unit reeled off 32 consecutive victories before losing on the final day of the season, a total that was later matched by the 2018-19 ETHS team that also earned runner-up honors at the state tournament.
Following the ’83-’84 Evanston team wasn’t for the faint of heart if you were a fan. Williams’ team won a remarkable 11 games by four points or fewer during that run, including close calls in the supersectional (71-67 over Buffalo Grove), state quarterfinals (65-63 in overtime against Benton) and state semifinals (58-56 over Saint Joseph).
Talk about a team that simply refused to lose. ETHS fans haven’t seen a unit quite like this one, before or since.
“We were a really close team, with a lot of guys who had a lot of integrity,” recalled Stephens, who later starred at Purdue University and played professional basketball for two years with the Indiana Pacers and the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA. “When we walked onto a court it wasn’t like we were more talented than all the teams we played against. But we had so much confidence in ourselves, and in each other, and if I wasn’t having a particularly good game, or someone was injured, people stepped up.
“Everyone on the team knew their roles and accepted them. We dominated teams when we played in the summer and I thought we could make some noise. I felt the chemistry that we had together.”
“Those guys took care of business – and we had fun too,” said Williams. “The seniors took the others under their wings and it’s their brotherhood that really sticks in my mind today. They really cared for each other.”
The season was just as life-changing for the head coach as it was for the players. The notoriety gained from an unbeaten regular season (and 184 victories in his tenure at ETHS) helped Williams land a job as an assistant coach at Michigan State University after the season ended. He later returned to his roots and was elected mayor of his hometown, Centralia.
“To be honest, we did a lot of good things in the summer [going undefeated in both spring and summer competition prior to the ’83-’84 season] but I didn’t think we could go all year without a loss. I just knew we’d be pretty good,” said Williams. “We had two really great leaders in [co-captains] Lou Wool and Tony Mason. When they said something, everyone listened, and we just continued to grow and build as a team during the season.
“There was no jealousy and they all worked together. It all just fell into place for us.”
Backup center Jean-Paul, who also excelled in football and track for the Orange and Blue, recalled Williams’ emphasis on good free throw shooting as one reason the Kits won so many close encounters.
“You had to make your free throws in practice, or you were going to run,” he said. “I did more running for Coach Williams than I ever did in track.
“Coach never let you get the impression that he liked you. He was very strict about how we should play the game, and there was no messing around. He might throw a basketball at you if you told a joke on the bench. But he was a very caring person. I really looked up to him as someone who knew how to connect with people.
“I have a son who plays for the [Evanston] feeder team now and my wish for him is that he could experience the thrill of winning one of those last-minute games. It’s such a rush to win like we always did at the wire.”
Evanston was ranked No. 1 in the state for most of the year and climbed as high as a No. 12 ranking in the country, according to the newspaper USA Today. The Kits captured the Niles West Thanksgiving tournament title and at Christmastime conquered four south suburban teams – Bremen, Eisenhower, Bloom and Bloom Trail – to rule the Rich South Big Dipper tourney.
While Williams treated his players equally – “I got on Everette as much as I got on anyone else” – there was no question that Stephens was the team’s prime time player.
“I remember I was sitting on the bus after one of the games at Christmas and Lou Wool was [standing up] next to me,” said Stephens. “All of a sudden I got one of those really bad charley horses [leg cramps], the kind where it hurts so much you have to stand up. When I did, we slammed our heads together and he went down.”
The punch line to that story? “I needed a standing 8-count because I was almost knocked unconscious,” Wool remembered. “But when it happened, everyone rushed over to Everette to see if HE was OK!
“That team that year played the game the right way. There was no showboating, we didn’t talk trash. Everybody knew their roles and our goal was just to win. We really, really enjoyed each other and we played unbelievable team offense and team defense. We always figured out a way to win and we weren’t going to beat ourselves.
“I remember as a group when we were growing up we’d talk about going to the state championship game. As soon as the season ended our junior year, we couldn’t wait for next year.”
Evanston’s signature win that year came in February at the Rosemont Horizon. Shootout events were just starting to gain popularity and a matchup with a Thornton team that reached the Elite Eight three years in a row was a chance for the Wildkits to prove themselves to any remaining skeptics.
And they weren’t intimidated by the most intimidating player in the state – 6-foot-9, 270-pound Thornton center Darren Guest – as they eased to a 64-52 triumph.
“I remember at one point Guest blocked one of our shots and waved that Dikembe Mutombo finger at us,” said Williams. “And Everette ran down the sideline and said, ‘We’ll be back’ [in the paint]. A couple of minutes later he went in and dunked – right over Guest!”
Of course, this story didn’t have a completely happy ending. The Wildkits were so banged up by the time they reached the state championship game that they had trainer Bruce Romain working overtime. And Stephens had to sit out much of the second half with foul trouble in the season-ending defeat.
“We had guys with bad knees, bad ankles, but there were no excuses for them. They gritted it out and kept playing,” Williams said.
“After the game I remember that their heads were down. So I asked them why. I said, ‘Do you realize you just won second place in the state of Illinois? Get your heads up and smile. It’s something you’re going to remember for the rest of your life.’ This was a team that brought all of the elements together and set a standard for years to come.”
That’s the way Wool sees it too. But first the senior captain had to view it through some tears.
“The emotion just poured out of me and I cried in the locker room after we lost to Simeon,” Wool said. “We wanted to win so bad. But I also knew that this was it, that this was the end for this group of brothers.”
The memories – and friendship and pride – are part of a bond that will never break.