By Grant Miller
Soft is a four-letter word and toughness is the standard in Chicago basketball, especially if you’re a guard from the West Side. That’s why Illinois Institute of Technology’s Anthony Mosley talked trash with the opposing bench during his team’s loss to Oberlin College on Monday.
Mosley grew up on Chicago’s West Side, and he said he refuses to back down from an opponent because in Chicago, you must answer all challenges or risk losing the respect of your peers.
“Growing up playing on the playground, when someone calls you out, you have to go at them,” Mosley said. “You have to defend your name and not let anyone walk over you.”
Chicago has earned a reputation for producing gritty guards who seldom shy away from competition, but while toughness is the main ingredient, the South and West Sides serve it in different flavors. The West Side promotes defense while the South Side celebrates offense, but Chicagoans respect resilience.
Chicago’s tough guard tradition dates back to Isiah Thomas, who grew up in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side and won two NBA Championships with the Detroit “Bad Boy” Pistons in 1989 and 1990. The Pistons were known for their physical defense, and Thomas led the charge.
Gene Pingatore, who has coached St. Joseph High School boys’ basketball in Westchester for 56 years, said Thomas was his best guard because he exceeded his expectations with excellent intangibles, but he always expects greatness from his guards.
“My point guards need to be defensive stoppers,” Pingatore said. “They need to be able to score when they have to score, they have to run the floor, they need to be my brain on the floor. Just because they can run, jump, and shoot doesn’t mean they’ll be great. The ones who have the intelligence and decision-making will be the greatest.”
With his philosophy that great guards are necessary for a team to succeed, Thomas was not Pingatore’s only dominant guard. His other top players were Chicago legends Tony Freeman, Tony Freeman Jr., Demetri McCamey, Glen Watson and Evan Turner.
“I’m always looking for the next Isiah Thomas,” Pingatore said. “Tony Freeman came close.”
St. Joseph has also played against elite Chicago guards who were later drafted into the NBA, and Pingatore said Glen “Doc” Rivers, Dee Brown and Derrick Rose were his team’s toughest opponents. Now Morgan Park’s Charlie Moore joins that list after scoring 25 points on St. Joseph on Dec. 29.
IIT coach Todd Kelly, who grew up on the South Side and played guard for St. Martin de Porres Academy against South Side standout Janero Pargo before playing for Milikin University, said a Chicago guard must be a good ball-handler who can finish at the basket with contact.
Kelly hired two assistant coaches who were Chicago area guards-Roy Ramos who played and coached under Pingatore and Ebenezer Noonoo who played for Loyola Academy- and they all preach grittiness.
“You can’t back down,” Kelly said. “I’ve seen guys get told they can’t say they’re from Chicago anymore when they back down.”
But that competitive nature can have a downside. Kelly said he sees Chicago’s tough culture backfire at times because athletes often seek out challenges instead of waiting to answer them. Many Chicago players like Mosley are proficient in trash-talk, even in organized environments.
“Sometimes it spills over from the playground to the organized games,” Kelly said.
But Mosley prefers to limit his jawing to his opponents, not the officials. IIT guard Jason Morris, who played for Lincoln Park High School, said Mosley plays with the grit of a Chicago guard because he plays through fouls without complaining.
“You don’t expect a call,” Morris said of the toughness standard. “Keep playing until you hear the whistle.”
Mosley played for Providence St. Mel School before he transferred to Whitney Young Magnet High School, and he recalled opposing teams trying to “manhandle” him during his underclass years.
“We had this stigma that we were privileged kids,” Mosley said. “But we were all from the West Side.”
Growing up on the West Side has a heavy influence on a guard’s defensive game. Mosley praised West Side guards as pesky, tenacious defenders who frustrate and intimidate their opponents, and he named Thomas as the toughest of them all. But Thomas wasn’t the only West Side guard to make an impact in the NBA.
“Patrick Beverly[who plays for the Houston Rockets] is a perfect example,” Mosley said. “He’s from K-Town and went to Marshall. He plays just like a [Public League] Red-West guard. He’s more intimidating than Rose. Tony Allen too.”
Kobe Bryant said Allen, a shooting guard for the Memphis Grizzlies, was the closest to being “the Kobe-stopper” in his 20-season career during a Dec.3 interview with TNT’s Ernie Johnson.
Mosley said South Side guards play a different game. He described Rose as a typical South Side guard with great offense but lackluster defense who “doesn’t make the game hard for his man.” While West Side guards cling to their opponents with suffocating man-to-man defense, Rose attended Simeon Career Academy on the South Side, a school known for its 2-3 zone.
“We view South Siders as being just soft,” Mosley said with a slight grin.
Mosley said the difference between the Chicago Public League Red-West and Red-South is the Red-West’s merciless physicality and expectations. He recalled hand-checking as a normal part of the game, and fans berating any player they deemed too soft, even if he played for the home team.
“When you play North Lawndale, there’s a menacing feel to it,” Mosley said. “If a player gets dunked on, he won’t hear the end of it. But if you destroy them, they give you credit.”
When asked if South Side guards were softer than West Siders, Kelly said, “absolutely not,” but South Side guards are more offensive oriented while West Side guards are “more grimy,” meaning they use physical play to get in their opponent’s heads.
Kelly named South Side guards Tim Hardaway and Rose as examples of tough, offensive-oriented players. Hardaway popularized the “UTEP two-step” crossover dribble that many NBA guards use today. During his MVP season in 2011, Rose led the Bulls in points and assists with an aggressive, slashing style of play that utilized his speed and strength to either score or get fouled.
“Hardaway’s a borderline Hall-of-Famer,” Kelly said. “And Rose has been through two almost career-ending injuries, and he’s battled back.”
Carlos Wilson, IIT’s scorekeeper who played for Mt. Carmel High School on the South Side in the late 80s, said Chicago guards are fundamentally sound leaders who command respect from their teams. He said guards like Mosley specialize in driving to the hoop and passing to the open man regardless of which side of the city they’re from.
“Chicago breeds ballplayers,” Wilson said. “That West Side, South Side thing is just inner-city rivalry.”
Wilson said he believes today’s Chicago guards aren’t as good as those from the past, naming Thomas and Farragut Academy legend Ronnie Fields, who was a McDonald’s All-American in the mid-90s, as examples. He recalled Fields, whose injuries and off-court issues prevented him from making the NBA, once jumping barefoot “off the vert” and touching the top of the backboard.
Kelly blames the decrease in talented players on the lack of opportunity for kids to play.
“When I was a kid, there were a lot more outdoor courts,” Kelly said. “Today they’re dwindling in low-income neighborhoods…It lowers the number of good players.”
But Mosley heard none of that and used as an example his close friend Tevin King, who played for Providence St. Mel before attending St. John’s Northwestern Military School in Milwaukee. King now plays for South Dakota State, and Mosley smiled and nodded before he paid him the ultimate compliment from one West Side guard to another.
“He’s easily the best defender I know,” he said.