Quintessential quintet: The 1994-5 Tribune All-State boys basketball first team

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There was no way Gary Bell was going to maintain a straight face while awaiting his appearance on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" last month.

That's because sitting right behind him was this 6-foot-11-inch, all crazy and happy, loosey-goosey teenager cracking jokes in Bell's ear like some combination of Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy.

Bell and his newfound friend, Kevin Garnett, were among Winfrey's examples of young people with star potential. With the stage already filled with prodigies from the entertainment field, the high school basketball stars sat in the audience awaiting Winfrey's introduction.

"Kevin and I were joking the whole time," Bell said. "I told him: `You're the man! They should be calling this the Oprah & Kevin Garnett Show.' Kevin kept me laughing the whole time."

Winfrey could have invited the Tribune's entire first-team, All-State basketball squad to Harpo Studio because each of this fanciful five is blessed with star potential.

What separates this year's dream team from others in the past is that star quality. Besides their obvious basketball talent, these guys were also highly entertaining.

  • Garnett also was filmed on ESPN and became the top drawing card in the state after averaging 26 points, 18 rebounds, six assists and seven blocks while earning plaudits as arguably the No. 1 player in the country. His animated facial expressions and overall exuberance were popular with the kids who mobbed him for autographs.
  • Bell was the top "in-state" prospect (Garnett transferred from South Carolina.) averaging 22 points and eight rebounds while leading Joliet to 103 victories in four years.
  • Peoria Manual guard Willie Coleman joined Ivan Watson in forming the best state championship backcourt since Simeon's Tim Bankston and Bobby Tribble in 1984. They were the impetus behind the Rams' repeat.
  • Farragut's 6-3 Ronnie Fields and Peoria Richwoods' 6-6 Mike Robinson already are known nationally, rated among the 10 best juniors in the country. Fields attracted a large following with his unmatched hang time and all the acrobatic moves in midair.

"Being mentioned in the same breath with Kevin Garnett, I was really proud of that," said Bell, who will be playing for Notre Dame next season. "I mean, he's 6-11 and all that, maybe the greatest high school player ever-he's awesome.

"When he first came here, I kind of resented the fact he took away my chances of being Mr. Basketball and player of the year. But, Kevin is such a great guy. He told me when he was younger, he was a nobody because people thought he was too weak. I told him about some of my attitude problems as a freshman and sophomore."

All the joking ceased when Winfrey called upon them to discuss their star potential.

"After the show, Oprah talked to me about handling the pressures of life," Bell said. "I'll never forget her shaking my hand and telling me to keep my head on straight. She said that hopefully she will call me back on her show after I start on my NBA career."

That league's top talent evaluators figure Garnett could begin his career sometime in June. A recent survery of NBA general managers penciled in Garnett as the 17th pick of the first round of this summer's draft if he made himself available.

Garnett, who appears to be leaning toward attending Michigan, would rather play NCAA ball first before signing with the pros. He has the necessary grades in his core curriculum and is awaiting his ACT score to see if he qualifies next season for Division I eligibility.

College wouldn't be his best move financially, according to Chicago State coach Craig Hodges. The former Bulls' guard said it is almost certain this will be the final draft without a rookie salary cap. The difference, Hodges estimated, in coming out now and waiting a year or two could be as much as $30 million.

"Garnett is just tremendous," said Rock Island coach Duncan Reid, who watched the Admirals center rack up 23 points, 20 rebounds and seven blocked shots in his team's 69-57 loss to Farragut at DePaul in mid-January. And this against his front line considered the best in Illinois. "Garnett is the best high school big man I have ever seen."

Bell wants to be an Irish beast when Notre Dame enters the Big East next season. Coleman will be deciding between Miami, Minnesota and Wisconsin sometime in the next few weeks. Fields and Garnett made plans earlier to be reunited at the same university, and DePaul is on Fields' list.

Just missing the first team were Glenbrook North's Billy Donlon and Centralia's Ricky Garrett. Donlon and Westinghouse's Jimmy Sanders, a third-team selection, were the best point guards in the Chicago area with Donlon the better outside shooter.

"Billy Donlon is the best point guard in the state of Illinois," said Glenbrook North coach Brian James. "Anytime he got double-teamed, he found the open man. And, he is an excellent shooter with three-point range."

Colleges have shown a surprising lack of interest in the Northbrook senior who honed his ballhandling and passing skills as the first white player to compete in the rugged Cabrini-Green spring league. The nationally respected "Hoop Scoop" scouting service calls Donlon the most overlooked recruit in the state.

Boston College was interested at one time, but decided to offer a scholarship to another point guard. Loyola has come into the recruiting picture of late as Donlon keeps his options open.

Garrett was recognized as the top player in southern Illinois after averaging 24.5 points and almost nine rebounds a game for a Centralia team that was upset by Edwardsville in the supersectionals.

Of the 10 players selected as first or second-team All-Staters, seven led their teams to the Sweet 16 and Bell, Coleman, Fields, Garnett, Donlon and Tai Streets of Thornton competed in the state finals last week in Champaign.

Streets is a strong contender to become the Tribune's Athlete of the Year. The 6-4, 177-pound Wildcat was an All-State selection in football and rated among the top wide receivers in the country while being named to a couple of All-America teams. He will be looking to repeat as the state's long-jump champion in the spring before he lines up at wide receiver for Michigan in the fall.

The youngest of the Tribune's 15-player team is Carver sophomore Nick Irvin, already a 6-1 scoring machine who has legitimate shooting range out to 25 feet.

FIRST TEAMGary Bell, Joliet
Willy Coleman, Peoria Manual
Ronnie Fields, Farragut
Kevin Garnett, Farragut
Mike Robinson, Peoria Richwoods

SECOND TEAMBill Donlon, Glenbrook North
Ricky Garrett, Centralia
J.R. Koch, Morton (Ill.)
Matt Moran, Pekin
Tai Streets, Thornton

THIRD TEAMKyle Cartmill, Quincy
Rico Hill, Brother Rice
Nick Irvin, Carver
Monte Jenkins, Rock Island
Jimmy Sanders, Westinghouse

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