Monday, February 20, 2006

My City Conference Night

As I noted last week, I’ve got a myriad of thoughts following my attendance of Tuesday night’s Milwaukee King vs. Milwaukee Juneau game. I had figured that it would be a pretty standard game update at first, but as it happened, my first evening of taking in a City Conference game coincided with a brawl outside of another City Conference game at Milwaukee Vincent. As I’ve been collected my thoughts on the evening, I’ve got three things that I want to comment about. First, I’ve got some comments on security at City Conference games. Second, I’ve got a few notes on the stark contrasts between the high school games that I attended on Monday and Tuesday night of last week. Finally, I suppose since I actually saw top-ranked Milwaukee King, I should say a few words about them. So don’t worry–things will get lighter as I progress. And by tomorrow I’ll be back to making fun of mascots. But for today, let’s begin:

Security Notes
If I was running Milwaukee Public Schools right now, I’d be really frustrated at having another occurrence of violence outside of a high school basketball game. I’d be frustrated at the foolishness of the people involved in these incidents, I’d be frustrated that lots of people now view City Conference games as unsafe events, and most of all, I’d be frustrated at the fact that a pretty good security system that’s in place can’t seem to stop the problems.

Indeed, I think Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) has actually done a pretty admirable job of trying to control security problems at games. Earlier in the season when MPS decided to up their security and set up new policies for game attendance (including ending ticket sales at the door of games, limiting ticket sales to 75% of capacity and banning cell phones, electronic devices and beverages from being carried into games), I actually thought that the measures were overkill. On some level, I still fail to understand how banning cell phones from high school gyms makes everyone safer (I’ve always felt that cell phones have gotten a bad rap due to the stigma attached to them during the days when only wealthy business tycoons, Zack Morris, and drug dealers carried cell phones. Aren’t we past this point?). But that’s not the point. I commend MPS for trying something to tighten security, even if the dividends from the changes might not be huge. As was noted in articles about the security changes, the alternative is closing games to the public. And I don’t think anyone who likes basketball wants to see that.

Aside from the new policies referenced above, though, what is security like at City Conference games? Well, I don’t get to lots of City Conference games, but I’ve been to a handful in my day, and I can tell you that going to a game at Milwaukee Vincent is a bit different than going to a game at, say, Cedarburg. There are two big security differences that I see between the city and suburban high school basketball fan experience. First, and most obvious, is the entrance to the games. At your average suburban game, you walk up to a table or booth and hand over your $3 before going into the game. At a City Conference game, you buy your ticket, and are then greeted at the security station by two workers who direct you through a metal detector, and perhaps use the metal detecting wand on you if you set off the main detector. As I have noted in the past, the metal detectors at City Conference games are legendary in their sensitivity. My favorite tale from a few years back is the time that I set off the metal detector at Milwaukee Vincent and eventually figured out that a stray gum wrapper in my coat pocket was what was setting the thing off. Indeed, airport security has nothing on the City Conference.

The second difference between the city and suburban experiences has to do with the crowd-control staffing involved. At the typical suburban game, you’ve got a couple of administrators or other school employees wandering around in their daily attire watching over things. Your average suburban staffer is dressed no differently than the average fan, and they’re tough to pick out. At the City Conference games that I’ve been to, staff is denoted very clearly with shirts that label them as such. They’re easy to pick out. And though I know that this isn’t the case at every game, a fair number of the few City Conference games that I’ve seen have had some really huge men walking around in those security shirts. They’re not the kind of guys that you’d want to mess with (and I mean that in a good way).

Between metal detectors that can root out paper clips, and hulking security guards who have a clear presence, I have to be pretty honest–I’ve never felt anything but safe at the City Conference games that I have been to. Undoubtedly, some of this is me being selective what games I attend, but it’s not all attributable to that. After all, I’ve attended more games at Milwaukee Vincent than any other City Conference school, and Vincent’s been home to some of the more severe incidents over the past couple of years. While I’m rapidly being proved wrong, Vincent has never felt like an unsafe place to me.

Of course, a good number of these incidents seem to be taking place just outside of games. This makes sense to me, because as I allude to above, in my limited experiences the security once you’re inside the building for a City Conference gym is very solid. Even if security is good, though, it can’t be everywhere. My prediction for how things will work going forward? I expect Milwaukee Public Schools to look into seeing what they can do to tighten security outside of high school basketball venues. And I hope that they come up with a worthwhile plan, because I fully believe that if there’s one more major incident, then it will be time to look more seriously at more drastic measures, such as holding games during the day on weekends or closing games to the public. No one deserves that, and MPS doesn’t deserve the backlash that would occur over such an action. Like I said, the conference is dealing with a difficult situation to resolve, and at least in my eyes, is being fairly proactive in its attempts to resolve the problem in a reasonable manner. Let’s just hope that there is a reasonable way to resolve the problem.

Contrast Notes

What a difference a night makes. On Tuesday night I had my first opportunity to take a look at Milwaukee King, the top ranked high school basketball team in the state, as they took on Milwaukee Juneau at Juneau. The game itself was interesting enough to watch. Between King’s entire team, and Juneau’s Curtis Mitchell, last night was one of the better collections of talent that I’ve seen on one floor in some time. But what was slightly more interesting to me was the experience of the game, which was remarkably different than my trip to Milwaukee Pius on Monday night.

You see, while part of the reason that I went to last night’s game was that I really wanted to see Milwaukee King, part of my attendance was due to the fact that Milwaukee Juneau, much like Milwaukee Pius, is really close to my apartment. In fact, both schools are probably no more than a mile from one another. In terms of atmosphere, though, they’re light years apart. Pius is a private Catholic school which just built a new state-of-the art fieldhouse. Juneau is an older Milwaukee Public School that looks unpleasing to the eye, and is set to close at the end of the year as MPS looks to streamline its budget. Remarkably, despite their short distance apart, they're about the most different places to watch a game that I can think of. Contrast the following elements of my game experience:

Ticket Purchase
Pius: Buy tickets from what appeared to be Pius teachers or parents sitting at folding tables at the door as I arrive at the game.
Juneau: In light of new Milwaukee Schools security policy that doesn’t allow ticket sales at games, call school to find out how to buy tickets. Drive to the school before going to work, check in at the security desk, and go to the window where tickets are being sold throughout the day.

Walk between the two ticket-selling tables and saunter into the gym.
Juneau: Remove keys from my pocket and walk through metal detector.

The game is played in a gorgeous fieldhouse in only its second year of use. The fieldhouse includes an indoor track, a climbing wall, and numerous conference championship banners.
Juneau: The game is played in a gym that is sunken below the seating. A run-down, six-foot concrete wall surrounds the court, and leaves little room for error if one is running out of bounds. The basketball court is marked with lines for a myriad of other games, making the actual basketball lines blend in with the rest of the floor.

Well-designed plastic bleachers allow for ample leg room, and a good view from just about anywhere in the house.
Juneau: Pillars in the gym block just about every view. Based on my prior trips to Juneau, I choose what I believe to be the best seat in the house. I still can’t see more than 75% of the court at any time, and at no time am I ever able to see the benches or scorer’s table.

So yes, it is still sort of astounding to me that perhaps the most posh high school basketball venue that I’ve been to in the area sits only one mile from the most run down, poorly laid out venue that I’ve been to. Yet for all of the differences, I’m not sure that there’s one place that I prefer over the other. Sure, Pius offers a more comfortable place to sit, but watching a game at Juneau as you try to peek over beams to see the floor gives you a feeling like you’re in on some sort of unique secret place to watch a game. And for all the differences, there's always a few things that are the same, from the concession stand that I always ignore, to the fans complaining about the refs. That’s what’s great about high school basketball–wherever you go on any given night, it’s not going to be exaclty the same experience, but odds are that it’s going to be a good one.

Powerhouse Team Notes
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat–Milwaukee King’s the best team that I’ve seen all year. I’d talk about the team, but since the talent involved makes King sort of like an all-star team, it’s probably best to go player-by-player. Here’s the starting five from Tuesday night:

Leneal Harris: A UWM recruit. Impressed me more than anyone else during the only King game that I saw last year. He’s a solid, heady guard who just seems like one of those players that silently holds a team together. On just about any other team, he’d be the featured guy, but at King, he’s one of many talented bodies. Doesn’t blow you away with any one skill, but can do just about everything fairly well.

Jared Jenkins: The only junior in the starting line-up, I didn’t really keep much of an eye on Jenkins, since he’s not one of the big-name guys on the team, and this was my first look at the Generals. But he’s starting in front of some solid guys, so that’s all I need to know about his game.

Troy Cotton: A UW-Green Bay recruit. Need someone who can shoot the ball? Cotton’s your man. I wasn’t keeping track, but I would have to guess that he hit at least six three-pointers against Juneau, and was the most impressive player on the floor. That sounds all well and good, but then I checked the Saturday morning box scores, and it seems that Mr. Cotton dropped 12 three-pointers on Milwaukee Pulaski on Friday night. So I guess you could say that he’s peaking at the right time.

James Pruitt: Poor James Pruitt. He’s got some of the widest shoulders that I’ve ever seen, can battle in the lane with the best of them, and sadly, he’s never grown beyond 6'2". If this guy was 6'8", he might be the most heavily recruited member of King’s stellar senior class. Instead, Pruitt, a four year starter for King, will likely be a guy that I talk about for years as the best high school player I ever saw who didn’t go on to a big-name school. Genetics can be cruel sometimes.

Mitchell Carter: A South Carolina recruit. It’s always nice to have a seven foot center on your team. I only got the chance to see King play once last year, and came away unimpressed with Carter. This year, however, is a different story. His hands have improved, and he generally looks more comfortable on the floor. He’s still got plenty of things to improve, but whereas last year I thought South Carolina was nuts for recruiting him, now I think with a couple of years under Dave Odom, we could have a player on our hands.

King’s starting five is obviously ridiculously good. But their bench is even scarier, since in my opinion, their two sophomores may actually be their two best players (though I’m willing to concede that Troy Cotton’s 12 three-pointer performance might be proof to the contrary). Here’s three of their key guys:

Eric O’Neil: See that guy in warm-ups who looks more athletic than anyone on the team. Yeah, that’s O’Neil. No, he doesn’t start. Yes, that’s just because of who he’s behind.

Korie Lucious: Widely considered to be one of the best sophomores in the nation, Lucious didn’t start on the night that I saw King play. I’m not sure if this is the norm, and maybe it’s just deference to the seniors, but if you’ve got one of the best high school point guards in the country coming off the bench, your team is fairly good. Lucious’s frame looks much more mature than it did a year ago, and his shot looked improved to me, as well. He can already do things with the ball that boggle your mind.

Bryan Brown: King’s "other" super sophomore is listed at 6'6", but looked bigger than that to me. He was also the most talented and most skilled of King’s big men, in my estimation. Like Lucious, he’s start on any other team in the state. You’d never guess that he’s a sophomore just from looking at him, either.


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