Imagine this: you are a 16-year-old kid and you walk into a local YMCA during weekend youth basketball games. It happens all of the time. And it is no big deal, right?
Well what if, as soon as you step through the door, the vast majority of eyes turn your way? It would scare the skin off most of us. Or it could be just another day in the life of Keion Brooks Jr. It happens because Brooks is a North Side Legends basketball player. And if you didn't know, the Legends are like rockstars.
This frog has seen a lot of basketball, a lot of teams in Fort Wayne just chugging along on the hype train, maybe believing in their own hype more than their skills. And then there are the state bound Legends, a team that everyone wants to see. It dawned on me that this group had something special about the time they dispatched Homestead for the first time, in December's Summit Athletic Conference Holiday Tournament final. I had seen them in front of big crowds before but this city packed Wayne High School and no knock on the Spartans, but I have a feeling that a vast majority of the fans were there to see Brooks or Jaylen Butz throw down a slam or two.
“We call in our environment. Everywhere we go; we were in Huntington last weekend and it was wall to wall. This is our environment, we created it and its here because of us and we focus on that,” said coach North Side Shabaz Khaliq. “If you are in your own element, you should feel very comfortable.”
Preparing for a trip on Saturday to play for the school's first state basketball championship — hype and press, autographs and pictures — it is nothing new for this group. More than any group of kids in memory, near or far, celebrity status has hit the Legends hard. Three straight championship celebrations on Saturday night have been made deeper by hoards of camera (or cell phone) flashes and signature after signature. Even Shooter's own tadpole had to get a shot in with Jaylen Butz after that SAC Tournament game.
For North Side, it is not just because of the fact they will play for a state title or that they have already compiled four titles this season. Instead, their game has spoken volumes, drawing out fans who see the close bond of the program and what it has translated to on the court. Shooter personally thinks that this expanding and rambunctious fanbase is far from about those Brooks dunks and more about the effort that is clearly put in to translate on game day.
“It's really awesome actually. It's almost like we are famous because so many people want to see us play. So many people are attached to us because of how we play,” said senior Juan Quarles.
“I think it is a testament of how hard we work. People wouldn't want to come out and watch us if we weren't able to show our abilities. It's a testament to how hard we work in practice and in our down time,” Brooks Jr. added.
Part of it too is the way society bends today, where even high school athletes are put on a pedestal. Drain a big three, block a big shot, slam home a nasty jam and instantly it is on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and some more social networks that probably don't even exist yet. Instant celebrity status.
But in a world where that instant status can fall on plenty of belligerent guys, like the recent mind boggling hype of basketball dad LaVar Ball, the Legend players have simply basked in the love they get from fans and kids who look up to them, but they never overhype it themselves. Quarles himself shied away from saying that kids look up to the players even though there was one standing just a few feet away waiting patiently for an autograph at the time.
So I will say: kids look up to these players because they work hard and are modest. And that is as important as any on court accomplishment if you ask this amphibian.
“The one thing that gets overlooked throughout this whole process is that our kids are very humble. They are a group that never gets caught up in their own self hype or the hype that other people put on them,” Khaliq said. “They are so grounded and focused on one another that situations that involve pictures or signing autographs, it never goes above their head.”
The hard hard work and humbleness has paid off for the Legend players, perhaps laying down a blueprint for future area teams. After all, North Side will attempt to become Fort Wayne Community Schools' first boys basketball state champion since 1974.
“We didn't ask for anybody to come out and support us so it is nice to see people come around and support us as a team,” said Butz. “We just want to leave a name for ourselves and a legacy. Baz had all these great teams and they weren't able to get down to Bankers Life. He's done a good job with us, there are no egos and he's worked with us and prepared us for this moment these past couple of years.”
This column is the commentary of the writer and doesn't necessarily reflect the views of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Shooter at firstname.lastname@example.org
Class 4A state title game
Tipoff: North Side vs. Ben Davis, 8:15 p.m. Saturday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
TV: Fox Sports Indiana