CHICAGO — Once a point of intense civic pride, the boys and girls city basketball title games have become almost an afterthought.
Part of that stems from reforms in the Illinois High School Association statewide playoffs.
Where once the city was limited to a single entry among the so-called elite eight downstate in the IHSA basketball quarterfinals, thus making the Public League championship a state super-sectional matchup, now the statewide tournament, underway in Peoria and Normal, is a completely different event open to all.
That's been good for city schools, which can now send multiple teams downstate. But it's taken the luster off the city championships, which have been moved up to February, before the statewide playoffs get started.
"I don't think it's been beneficial to the city tournament," acknowledged Dorothy Gaters, longtime girls basketball coach at Marshall High School and now athletic director there. "There was so much energy built into that game, because you knew that that was going to be the [team] that was going to represent the city."
The changeover came a decade ago, and in the years leading up to that the Public League boys' basketball championship drew packed-house crowds of 20,000 to the United Center. It drew 15,000 to the UC in 2002 even as it was airing on WTTW-TV Channel 11, as Westinghouse headed to the state title following a spirited win over Farragut.
Arne Duncan pushed for additional Chicago schools to be allowed in the IHSA state playoffs when he was chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools in 2002. By the next year, the city championship was no longer providing an automatic berth downstate, and it began to pass into inconsequence.
By contrast, the boys title game has been jettisoned to Chicago State University the last couple of years and has been averaging 3,500 to 4,000 fans. Similarly, the TV rights have gone not to Channel 11, the city's leading public television station, but to WWME-TV Channel 23.
"Because the city championship no longer determines who gets a bid to the state finals, there is less interest in the contest and thus fewer attendees," said CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler. "It was much more popular and meaningful — and well-attended — when only one school had the opportunity to go downstate by winning the city championship."
Yet is it an either-or proposition? Could the city promote its boys and girls hoops championships and regain some major paydays for CPS with the semifinals at DePaul and the finals at the UC or University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion, the way they used to be?
As recently as 2006 and 2007, when Derrick Rose was leading Simeon to consecutive state crowns, the city championship was still drawing decent crowds to those arenas. And the city had similar marquee talents this season in Jabari Parker of Simeon and Jahlil Okafor of Whitney Young.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promoted high-school hoops, for instance publicizing the Chicago Elite Basketball Classic at the Pavilion in December, but he has not shown the same interest in pumping the city titles back up to a place of prominence. His press office did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.
"I don't know how much the city can do, because it's up to the people who attend the games, the stature that they place on that," Gaters said. "If they think this is something they really need to see, then it is."
Ziegler said the lower attendance has in part dictated the shift to Chicago State, adding, "We need to be conscious of how we spend our dollars and find savings everywhere we can so that those dollars saved can be returned to the classroom for students learning." She said that booking a night at the UC may not pay off in added attendance.
Gaters said the players also, both boys and girls, are placing less emphasis on the city crown. "Most of the kids now are not even familiar with the way the system worked before," Gaters added. "This is all they know."
Gaters said she is "between a rock and a hard place" in weighing the two systems. She likes the opportunity to send multiple city teams downstate, but misses the old energy and pressure of the city playoffs.
"The city championship was it," she recalled. "That's it, that's all, your season was over.
"But now, if you lose that, you've got new life," Gaters added. "You can still go to the state tournament."
Simeon and Parker lost to Morgan Park in the city semis at Chicago State last month, when Whitney Young went on to claim the city crown. The only city schools remaining in post-season play are Simeon in the IHSA 4A playoffs, and Morgan Park at the 3A level.
"I don't know if it can be revived," Gaters said of the city title prestige and popularity. "Sometimes you just can't go back."