Shooting Stars

Tommie Liddell plays tortoise to Darius Milesí hare in the annals of East Side High basketball lore

You'd think it would be the former who's happier in his present situation. Think again.

Ain't no pep band to be found at East Side on Tuesday night, just the looping thump of Atlanta rap group Trillville and its underground hit single, "Neva Eva." The track gets the Flyers pumped during warm-ups; a glance at their half of the floor reveals virtually the entire team gyrating to the beat, cranked at full volume on the school's substantial, rafter-suspended sound system.

East Side coach Dennis Brooks wants Liddell to be 
more selfish on offense, lest his Flyers lose a shot at 
the championship.
Jennifer Silverberg
East Side coach Dennis Brooks wants Liddell to be more selfish on offense, lest his Flyers lose a shot at the championship.
Diane Rhodes supervises her stove-slaying son, the 
Wolfgang Puck of East St. Louis' Samuel Gompers 
housing complex.
Jennifer Silverberg
Diane Rhodes supervises her stove-slaying son, the Wolfgang Puck of East St. Louis' Samuel Gompers housing complex.

The entire team, that is, except for an expressionless Tommie Liddell, who, as always, looks as though he's about ready to slip into his jammies and count sheep, even as he ascends to rim level during a lay-in drill.

After the music cuts and starting lineups are announced, Liddell and his teammates huddle near center court and begin to sway in unison.

"Whose side? East Side! Whose side? East Side!"

If the Flyers' opponents are rattled come opening tip, that's the idea. When you play for the only high school in the most distressed little city in the nation, you find ways to turn that to your advantage.

"It's a cultural divide," says McCluer High School coach Erwin Claggett, the ex-Venice (Illinois) High and Saint Louis University great who coached Liddell this past summer in the Amateur Athletic Union, where Liddell and an all-star cast of area schoolboy ballers known as the St. Louis Eagles had the chance to tour the nation and test their skills against AAU squads in other states. "The mentality of players is different in Illinois. Where we at, it's almost like the country. Where I came from, where Tommie comes from, basketball is everything. Kids from Illinois have a me-against-the-world mentality."

On this January night in the East Side gym, Liddell will do no more than is necessary to lead the Flyers to a nail-biting, 51-49 victory over conference rival Belleville East. His final stats: sixteen points, nine rebounds, five assists. Impressive, but hardly dominating. In short, it's just the sort of preciously passive performance that causes the blood pressure of coach Dennis Brooks to rise.

"He likes to get the other kids involved," explains Brooks, who played at East Side in the 1960s and took over for legendary coach Bennie Lewis Sr. after the 1999-2000 season, the same year Darius Miles graduated. "But I'm looking for him to be a little more selfish."

High above the action on the floor sits a solitary Coach Lewis, retired from the helm but still an East Side constant, his excuse being the inclusion of his grandson, Bennie Lewis III, on Brooks' roster. Lewis won 519 games and four state titles, all in the 1980s, at now-defunct Lincoln High and then assumed the head job at East Side when the two schools consolidated into one after the 1997-98 campaign. Like just about every other Lincoln player, Darius Miles followed Lewis to East Side, where coach and superstar would close out their high school careers with a third-place finish in the 2000 Illinois state championships.

"That's gonna always be a thorn in Darius' side: He went there twice and didn't make it," Lewis reflects. "That's how they'll be judging around here. They'll say, 'You went pro and everything, but you didn't win the state championship,' which is our Super Bowl or NCAA championship."

Most observers give East Side a remote shot at making the Illinois Class AA state finals next month in Peoria. The favorite to win it all is hometown defending state champion Peoria High, led by Duke University-bound six-foot-seven point guard Shaun Livingston, who played in the two most recent KMOX Shootouts at the Savvis Center and has drawn comparisons to Magic Johnson.

If East Side is to make it, Liddell will have to assert himself more consistently on offense, a fact the eighteen-year-old is well aware of.

"When I'm walking the streets, people tell me to shoot more," says Liddell. "I just change the subject. I don't like taking a lot of bad shots."

In November Liddell signed a letter of intent to attend St. Louis University on a full basketball scholarship, eschewing offers from bigger, more established programs. Unlike the athletically freakish Miles, going straight to the pros was not a serious consideration for Liddell. While his all-around talents and athletic ability are prodigious, he's still a work in progress, and he knows it.

Lewis thinks Tommie needs to get faster. Claggett says he needs to get stronger. National high school talent scout Bob Gibbons thinks he needs to play harder. Mark Melvin of Illinois-based Cutting Edge Recruiting says his outside shot needs work. Brad Soderberg, who will be Liddell's head coach at Saint Louis U. next fall, thinks he needs to shoot more often. And Miles, an acquaintance of Liddell who comes back to visit East Side a couple of times a year, thinks he needs to get tougher.

"He don't got no killer instinct," Miles says of his alma mater's current go-to guy.

Three individuals who are certain Liddell has what it takes to make the NBA are SLU alum Claggett ("No question in my mind"), SLU coach Soderberg and Lidell himself, who offers a terse, confident "Yep" when asked if he's got the juice to go pro one day.

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