Chicago — Even before he ceremoniously grabbed an Illinois hat off a table, then dropped it and declared himself a Jayhawk, Cliff Alexander spoke openly about his one-and-done intention to help his family financially.
On the same day Kansas University freshman Andrew Wiggins declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft, the next big thing changed his tune following McDonald’s All-American Games practice Monday morning.
“I wouldn’t mind staying two years,” Alexander said. “Stay and get better. I’ve been talking to my parents about it. Some guys leave, and they aren’t ready. They rush in, and they’re rushed out. I just want to take my time.”
Four years of college might not be long enough to equal the number of highs and lows the 6-foot-8 power forward experienced in his senior season at Chicago’s Curie Metropolitan High.
It started with the hat-fake that thrilled Kansas but enraged Illini faithful, and the negativity continued in Curie’s first game.
Two technical fouls — the second for hanging on the rim in traffic — triggered an automatic one-game suspension which received a lot of attention because Curie’s next game was an out-of-state showcase.
Alexander then turned the criticism into praise with his spectacular play.
A dunk machine who impacts the game on both ends of the floor, Alexander led Curie to its first title at the prestigious Pontiac Holiday Tournament, its first No. 1 ranking in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times and an ESPNU-televised victory over the nation’s top team, Montverde Academy (Fla.).
Curie also beat four-time defending Illinois state champion Simeon twice and outlasted Young, led by Duke-bound center Jahlil Okafor, in four overtimes to win its first Chicago Public League championship.
Alexander averaged 24 points, 15 rebounds and six assists and was named Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year over Okafor, who garnered the Illinois Mr. Basketball and McDonald’s National Player of the Year awards.
The only game Curie lost heading into the state tournament was the one in which Alexander did not play, yet the record will forever show a 0-26 season.
Three days before the start of the state tournament, a Chicago Public Schools investigation revealed that several Curie players — Alexander not among them — had been academically ineligible all season.
Curie had to forfeit 24 victories and the city championship, but because the Illinois High School Association has different eligibility standards, the Condors were allowed to participate in the state tournament.
The roller coaster came to an abrupt and dramatic end as Curie blew a 15-point third-quarter lead and was upended by DuSable at the overtime buzzer, 88-85, in the biggest postseason upset Chicago has witnessed in years.
A devastated Alexander collapsed to the floor, hid his face in his jersey and had to be helped off by his parents.
“I’m over it now,” he said. “It took me like two weeks to get over it, but I’m over it now. It was amazing how our team came out and played this year. It was crazy how we were doing so good and it came to an end so quick. I’ve got to grow from it one step at a time.
Alexander was not aware Wiggins’ announcement was expected later in the day, and he greeted the news with indifference.
Wiggins and Alexander did not really establish a rapport during Big Cliff’s visits to Lawrence, Alexander said, but Alexander and Joel Embiid did.
Alexander said he has talked to Embiid about his looming decision whether to enter the NBA Draft. Like Wiggins, Embiid is projected as a high lottery pick.
“I talk to JoJo sometimes,” Alexander said. “He said he hasn’t made up his mind. I told him to do what’s best for him. Hopefully he stays. I think nobody could stop us next year if he does.”