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February 29, 2008
Torrance, Calif. -- The game of basketball is usually without controversy. Regardless of the strategies employed, offenses ran or substitution patterns used to gain a competitive edge, one team ends up with more points than the other on the scoreboard, no matter how long it takes. There is always a winner and a loser in the end.???
When it comes to selecting the game's best teams or players, that's when the controversy and debate usually begins.
Back in 1967, legendary coach Will Robinson had two of the finest players in the country on his Pershing High basketball team. The Doughboys from Detroit featured 6-foot-8 Spencer Haywood and 6-foot-5 junior transfer Ralph Simpson. With Simpson moving over from Southeastern high to compliment an already potent lineup, Pershing was expected to battle for the Class A state title.
Detroit Northwestern, however, was the city's No. 1 ranked team throughout the regular season and both teams were unbeaten entering the city league title game. Despite a team-high 19 points from Simpson and 18 points and 14 rebounds from Haywood, the Doughboys lost, 63-61, on a jump shot from the top of the key by Northwestern star guard Curtis Jones. Jones is regarded as the finest schoolyard legend in Motown's storied roundball history, but he never shined on a bigger stage than the one that memorable night at Osborn High School. Simpson and Haywood not only left their marks on the higher levels of the game, but became Motown legends later on that same season.
Pershing simply took its game to another level after that loss, rolling team after team on its way to the Class A state title game against Flint Central. In the semifinal game, Haywood lit up Detroit Catholic Central for 35 points and Flint Central's game plan was to obviously stop Pershing's athletic center. Who could blame them, as the Pershing dynamo blocked eight shots a game, averaged 27 points and 20 rebounds per game, including three games over 30 with a high of 34 against Detroit Southeastern. The two-time All-PSL, All-City and All-American selection was retroactively chosen as the EA SPORTS National Player of the Year.
With Flint Central constantly double-teaming or fouling Haywood in the championship game, Simpson went off. He set a then state championship game record by scoring 43 points in the 90-66 win with Haywood canning 14 of 18 free throws and grabbing 17 rebounds. The Doughboys finished with a 22-1 record and became the first Public School League team to win the state tournament in 31 years.?
Haywood was the first African-American schoolboy to sign with the University of Tennessee, but academic shortcomings sent him to Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado the next season. As a senior, Simpson had no peer in the PSL and in the state of Michigan. The only reason he didn't earn All-PSL honors by the Detroit Free Press was a newspaper strike but he obviously would have been the top selection.?
Many felt Simpson had no peer nationally, but there was a schoolboy in Redondo Beach, California that was scoring points at a record pace. Six-foot-2, 170 pound Paul Westphal from Aviation High School (now closed) had a season for the ages. He became the first California prep player to score over 1,000 points in a season, netting 1,040 in 32 games while leading his team to a 28-4 record. He didn't just jack up shots, either, he was a complete player and highly respected by coaches and media scribes.
"You know how Westphal became so good?" lamented panel member Dinos Trigonis. "He went to Inglewood and South Central (Los Angeles) to look for competition, he didn't just stay by the beach. He was always trying to improve his game."
Not only did he average 32.5 points per game, he led the team in assists, was named most valuable player in all four pre-league tournaments Aviation competed in and set scoring records in three of them. He was not only named Mr. Basketball in the state of California by Cal-Hi Sports, but he narrowly edged Simpson, the only prep player invited to try out for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team later that summer, for national player of the year honors.
"We went with Westphal because of the significance of what he did in a state with the talent level you'll find nearly every year in California," explained panel member Doug Huff, who lends a big hand in selecting the EA SPORTS All-American teams each season. "Obviously, Simpson would have been a strong choice as well but you can only pick one."
Ironically, it was 19-year old Haywood, Simpson's former prep teammate with the Doughboys, that was the leading scorer on the United States basketball team that won the 1968 Olympic Gold Medal in Mexico City. Haywood was the first junior college player ever to play on an Olympic team and after one fine season at the University of Detroit, he eventually won a bittersweet legal battle to become the first collegiate underclassmen to play in the NBA.
Twenty years later, another junior college player and prep player tried out for the U.S. Olympic team but both were cut by head coach John Thompson Jr. of Georgetown University. Alonzo Mourning, the 1988 EA SPORTS National Player of the Year out of Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, impressed but didn't make the roster. Neither did Larry Johnson from Odessa (Texas) Junior College one year removed from Skyline High in Dallas.
Johnson was clearly a special talent and was the national JUCO player of the year both his seasons at Odessa. He transition to the Div. I ranks was nearly effortless, as he led UNLV to the NCAA title in 1990 and was the national player of the year in 1991 before becoming the first pick of the NBA draft. Similar to Simpson and Westphal two decades earlier, there was some debate in 1987 whether he was the nation's best schoolboy player.
Sports Illustrated tabbed 6-foot-8 forward Marcus Liberty from King of Chicago as the nation's No. 1 senior recruit in its 1986-1987 college basketball preview issue. He was coming off a junior season in which he lead the Jaguars to an Illinois Class 2A state title, 32-1 record and No. 3 final raking in USA Today's national poll. As a senior Liberty led King to a 28-5 mark, but the team lost in the state title game, 79-62, to Lincoln High of East St. Louis.
Many tabbed Liberty as the best schoolboy player ever from the Windy City, which is obviously high praise, but Johnson was just as talented, some feel even more talented. Coming from football-crazed Texas, he didn't have the national following Liberty did but was our choice for national player of the year by a slim margin over Liberty.?
"Larry Johnson was my player of the year," remarked panel member Bob Gibbons, the publisher and editor of All-Star Sports. "Johnson always had the talent, he just didn't get the exposure. I remember their coach (J.D. Mayo) kept calling me and telling me I had to see him play. I went on my own volition and he was so smooth yet overpowering. Physically, Liberty was no match for Larry Johnson. Liberty had talent but look who turned out the be the better player. Johnson was the closest thing to a Lebron James type in his era."
Johnson wasn't just a prospect or physical specimen, either. He produced for his high school team, which is the key factor in selecting the EA SPORTS National Player of the Year. The Raiders never lost a home game in his four-year prep career and he averaged 29 points, 19.1 rebounds and 5.2 blocks per game his senior season. He was also the top vote getter on the Class 5A All-State team with 235 out of 250 votes from the Texas Sports Writers Association.
This week's EA SPORTS National Player of the Year Tracker is a reflection of the selection criteria. While there is some debate whether or not Brandon Jennings is the nation's top prospect, there is no denying he is having a standout season so far for Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. The left-handed point guard, headed for the University of Arizona, has set a multitude of school scoring records and racked up 96 out of a possible 100 points this week while appearing on all 10 ballots. Another guard, Campbell Hall's Jrue Holiday was the only other consensus player of the year candidate this week, as the UCLA commit tied for second place with 76 points while appearing on all ten ballots for the second consecutive week.
Only two panelists dissented and currently have another cager besides Jennings as their top player of the year choice, but for some of the top candidates there are two more weeks to impress and possibly bring home a state title. On the other hand, Jennings' season ends this Saturday against national power Montrose Christian of Maryland. Can the other top candidates make up ground in the weeks to come heading into the national all-star game circuit?
As with the Johnson and Liberty debate, time will reveal.
Read on to see the voting results in this week's EA SPORTS National Player of the Year Tracker. Make sure to stay logged in to StudentSportsBasketball.com all season long to track the progress of the top individual players as well as the top teams in the Rivals.com FAB 50.??????????????
Each week, StudentSportsBasketball.com's panel of ten experts, which includes two active McDonald's All-American selection committee members, casts its votes for the top EA SPORTS Player of the Year candidates.
Each panelist is asked to list his top seven EA SPORTS Player of the Year candidates regardless of class, and the votes are tabulated on a 10-point scoring system with a first place vote equaling ten points, a second place vote equaling nine points and down to four points for a seventh place vote. The number in parenthesis ( ) before the player's name refers to his ranking on the previous week's tracker and the second number in parenthesis ( ) refers to the number of ballots a player appeared on this week.
By Jerry Meyer -- Rivals.com National Basketball Recruiting Analyst
Next week we'll hear from Mark Tennis, StudentSportsBasketball.com Executive Editor.