It almost felt like a time warp last month as Kendrick Nunn strolled through Simeon’s locker-lined corridors and past the trophy case, where the nets he helped cut down are draped over the four pieces of hardware he helped win.
He can’t believe how much time has passed.
“It doesn’t even feel like 10 years to be honest,” Nunn told the Sun-Times in a phone interview this week. “Maybe like five, but not 10.”
Nunn, a budding NBA rookie this season, was by no means a star on Simeon’s 2009-10 team, which won the Wolverine’s first of four consecutive Class 4A state titles. He was more so a role player, stepping in when needed. The same goes for his buddy and fellow freshman that season, Jabari Parker.
No, the star of the first team, who might get overlooked now, is Brandon Spearman, who was one of only two seniors at the time.
And Parker made sure to emphasize the impact Spearman had on him and the team that season.
“To be honest with you, Brandon Spearman, he carried us that whole year,” Parker said. “He played the majority of minutes and we were just there just to try to help him because he carried us so much and that trophy definitely go to him.”
In Nunn and Parker’s first season, the two teenagers were still growing into their own. Nunn was as slim as a toothpick, but had already exhibited an elite level of athleticism. Parker was pudgy and tall, but the raw talent was undeniable.
Spearman, who has known the two guys since childhood, took on a leadership role on the team.
Still, Simeon struggled for most of that season. The Wolverines couldn’t find cohesion and lost nine games that season. Coach Rob Smith called it the “was the worst season I’ve ever had record-wise.”
“It didn’t seem like we could do it,” Smith said of winning the state title. “We thought we had the personnel to do it but we just didn’t think Jabari and Kendrick were old enough to help us push over at the time.”
That was until Simeon met up with Benet in super sectionals.
Down three with only seconds remaining, Parker grabbed the rebound and passed it to Spearman who took a deep off-balanced shot at the buzzer. He made it and sent the game into overtime. Then, Spearman hit two free throws to send the game into double overtime.
Simeon ultimately won, 55-50, in what was arguably the biggest defining moment of the season.
After another close win against O’Fallon in the semifinals, Simeon was set to go against Young, who was arguably the best team in the state all season.
“We knew that Whitney Young was so far ahead of us, they had a great team, they had a group of guys who were returning, they were the defending champs,” Parker said. “[At first, we] were just trying to figure out, ‘OK, how do we play against them?’ But that [Benet] game was really the preparation for that. And as soon as we got to the championship, it was like, ‘OK, it’s a whole different team that they’re going to face and we have the confidence to play them.'”
Simeon knocked off Young 51-36 for the first Class 4A title. From there, the Wolverines went on to be unstoppable over the next three years.
“They were the No. 1 team,” said former Warren coach Chuck Ramsey, whose team lost to Simeon in the 2011 Class 4A title game. “They just kept putting championship teams together.”
Simeon ultimately had the most dominant eight-year run in IHSA basketball history. During that time, the Wolverines won three Public League titles and a record-tying six titles — two of each came in the latter half of Derrick Rose’s tenure.
“They were the gold standard,” Ramsey said. “They were what everyone was aspiring to be and to do what they did.”
That run led by Parker and Nunn only further cemented Simeon’s legacy as a Public League powerhouse.
“It just put a stamp on it,” Nunn said. “No other schools are doing that. It definitely put a stamp on Simeon and let them know what we’re about. And that’s forever.”
“It actually took us to another level,” Smith said. “We were on the map pretty much with Derrick and those guys — and of course Ben [Wilson] — but with Jabari and Kendrick it kind of took us over to make us a national program.”
And that’s not an exaggeration.
Parker and Nunn developed a reputation as Batman and Robin. They were a dual threat in Simeon’s stacked lineup. They were also best friends. During the summer, they could be spotted in Parker’s driveway, matching up one-on-one over and over and over again.
By the 2012-13 season, Parker was a household name. He was also the consensus No. 1 prep player in the country before a foot injury temporarily sidelined him. Simeon started that season as ESPN’s top high school team in the nation.
The Wolverines were rockstars in the prep world. They traveled more than an AAU basketball team. It wasn’t unusual for fans in the stands to ask players for their autographs. And at the Pontiac Holiday Basketball Tournament, Smith said the demand was so high that his team was set up in an auditorium to meet fans and sign autographs.
“It kind of just came with [the territory],” Nunn said. “It didn’t feel out of the norm, it felt normal for all of us because we were going through it, and it was awesome. We were just having fun and in the moment. So it just felt right, everything felt right.”
Simeon’s program is built on years of tradition and striving for greatness. Still, to this day, Smith shows his players highlights of the late Ben Wilson, a basketball phenom who was shot and killed at age 17 in 1984.
“[Smith] would play these games for us and he would show us the way, how to win, how to play the Simeon way,” Spearman recalled. “He would show us and he would tell us and he would coach us on the court very hard and let us know how he would want us to play and do things and it worked as you see.”
Simeon retired Wilson’s No. 25 jersey in 2009. But players like Nunn and Rose where his number now in honor of him.
After winning their fourth and final title, the group split up to their respective schools. Parker was Duke bound. Nunn and Jaylon Tate went to Illinois. They all embarked on their separate journeys, though they agreed they were forever bonded from their time at Simeon.
We all know the story of what happened next for Parker. After one season at Duke, he declared for the 2014 NBA draft, where he was selected second overall. Parker was destined for greatness and almost became an All-Star one season.
But two knee injuries sidelined him and he hasn’t been able to return to the level some believe he could’ve been. He signed a two-year, $40 million deal with his hometown team. However, his Bulls stint lasted only six months before he was traded to the Wizards.
Parker doesn’t have any ill feelings about how things have gone over the last few seasons.
“I don’t think it’s negative,” he said. “The things that happened in my life were meant to happen in my life because life is not about the road being smooth. … Everything that we’re involved with has challenges, I’m grateful for those challenges and most importantly I’m grateful that I overcame those challenges and whatever is in my life, I have to deal with.”
Meanwhile, Nunn took a very different route to the NBA.
Nunn played three seasons at Illinois before he was dismissed after accusations of domestic violence in 2016. (Nunn pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery in 2016, the Sun-Times reported at the time.) He sat out the following season due to NCAA transfer rules before playing his final year of eligibility at Oakland. He averaged 25.9 points, second in the nation to only Trae Young.
But come draft night in 2018, Nunn didn’t receive a call with good news.
“My dream was to get drafted, but at the time, I knew there was a chance I was not going to get drafted so it was a reality [of the situation],” Nunn said. “I had to accept that. So going undrafted, I just knew I was going to have to take another route.”
He signed a contract with the Warriors and spent the entire season in the G League, where he averaged 23.9 points on 47.3 percent shooting.
Looking back, Nunn believes that season might’ve been the best for the sake of his development.
“It helped my game a lot because I was playing with other professionals and my game developed and the pace of my game changed,” he said. “I kept working and kept working, learning new things.”
When the Heat signed him in April, Nunn knew he had a lot to prove. And in one year, he’s shown tremendous growth on the court. He’s third in the league among rookies in scoring, averaging 15.6 points. And last month, he appeared in the NBA’s Rising Stars game at the United Center.
“My first year, playing back at home in Chicago, that’s huge,” Nunn said. “I mean, that’s when I really noticed how big everything was, that I’m actually here, that’s when it really hit me at All-Star and when I attended that [event].”
“It’s no coincidence,” Parker said. “Kendrick was supposed to be in this situation two years ago, three years ago, but like I say, everybody’s journey is different, it’s a part of life.
“What Kendrick has been able to do so far is the same things he’s been able to do for a long time. Like, he was a top-50 player coming out of high school, and he was one of the top players out of college, he just had some things he had to deal with and I’m just happy that he’s where he’s supposed to be and without him, I wouldn’t have made it this far — as far as like the accomplishments that I’ve gained, along with other guys, but mostly him because we were always together those four years and we played USA together and yeah, he’s definitely a person that I needed.”
They have a saying at Simeon — “FINAO” or “Failure is not an option.” The motto came from former Simeon player Saieed Ivey, who was shot and killed in Los Angeles.
It’s a constant and sometimes painful reminder that many players hold close to their hearts and incorporate into their daily lives. For example, Tate often writes #FINAO in some of his Instagram captions and Donte Ingram wore custom “FINAO” kicks during Loyola’s Final Four run in 2018.
Nunn carried on the tradition of former players making their annual (and sometimes more often than that) trips back to the birthplace of their careers.
Nunn, in town for All-Star weekend, wanted to provide a motivational boost before Simeon competed for this year’s Public League title. He also came bearing gifts: custom white slides that had “FINAO” in blue font and “FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION” in yellow across the strap.
“It felt good [to be back] because that’s always something that I told myself I was gonna do,” Nunn said. “When I made it to the league, just to come back and have an impact on them.”
Nunn told them to “go on out there” and “come back with a championship.”
And in typical Simeon fashion, that’s just what the Wolverines did. They beat Morgan Park for their 10th city title.
One month later, though, the Mustangs eliminated them from state title contention one day before IHSA canceled the tournaments due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Simeon basketball is a brotherhood. And there’s a sense of pride among those who wear the uniforms and get to carry on the tradition.
“It was everything to me,” Nunn said of his time at Simeon. “We were the best in the city, we knew we were the best, we felt like the best and just representing that Simeon jersey, that felt great along that we knew that there were guys before us that were great as well, so we definitely felt a part of the family.”
Contributing: Michael O’Brien and Annie Costabile