Leon Smith and Imari Sawyer were playing basketball in their own little worlds, even though each had "King" emblazoned across the front of his jersey.
The 6-foot-10-inch Smith was the lord of anything near the basket, dunking with impunity and intimidating those who dared to challenge his authority.
Sawyer was a backcourt artisan, deploying a crossover and stutter-step dribble to create openings for his repertoire of innovative moves to the hoop.
Once they learned that each could dominate within a team concept, King (25-6) began living up to its preseason hype as one of the top teams in the country.
Smith and Sawyer head the Tribune 1998-99 All-State Boys Basketball team and have led No. 1 King to the Class AA quarterfinals Friday in Peoria.
"Imari and Leon had to learn to respect each other's games," said King coach Landon Cox, whose team has won 17 in a row. "Once they started doing that, we came together and got tired of losing."
It's the third time King has had two players named to the All-State first team. Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton were selected in 1993 and Marcus Liberty and Levertis Robinson made it in '86. In both of those years, King went on to win the state championship.
Sawyer changed his game before the current win streak began.
"Imari has sacrificed a lot of his scoring and is looking for assists now," Cox said. "He averaged 14 a game during the Public League playoffs."
Smith, who talked of transferring to a school in California before the season, also has undergone a few changes.
"Everybody matures at a certain point, and I guess it was just my time," Smith, said. "The game has helped me grow up and put guidance in my life. Going through all the struggles and little controversies has helped me become a stronger person.
"I want my high school career to be prolonged to the last day, and I want to win a state championship before I leave."
Where is he headed after King?
"The NBA is on my list as well as college," Smith said. " Right now, I'm leaning toward college. I'm very interested in DePaul if they're still interested in me. There's also Fresno State and Rhode Island, and I am still open for other offers."
Lincoln's 6-10 Brian Cook, who has led his team to the Elite Eight, had only one offer in mind.
"Illinois was the only school I considered," Cook said. "Lon Kruger is a great coach, and I wanted to stay close to home so my mom could watch me play.
"Those Manual guys (Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and Frank Williams) won four state championships, and that's another reason I chose Illinois. I wanted to play with winners."
Cook brings the ball upcourt against presses and steps out to shoot the three-pointer to neutralize double- and triple-team attention inside.
"He's got such a beautiful shot," Lincoln coach Neil Alexander said. "He also creates matchup problems with his size and versatility."
It's all about respect: The 1998-9 Tribune All-State boys basketball first team
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