Simeon players were tucked into their seats aboard an airplane flying from Dallas to Memphis when a flight attendant spoke over the intercom to welcome one of the best high school teams in the country. A round of applause followed for the Wolverines' players, the tallest of whom were specially accommodated in the plane's exit-row seats.
Such greetings were common during Simeon's five-day trip to play DeSoto (Texas) and Arlington (Tenn.), and that made me think about a conversation I had with coach Robert Smith about the local and national treatment of the Wolverines.
I was working on my story about how Simeon handles studies on the road, and I was addressing with him questions from some readers — probably about half of the emails I have received thus far — about his players' academic standing, which Smith has said is up to par but for one suspended varsity player. Smith began talking about stereotypes of his team in the Chicago area, swaying toward that "us-versus-them" mentality some coaches use to motivate their teams.
"You can tell the difference how they treat us every place we've been and how they treat us in Chicago. It's a total difference," Smith said. "They respect what we have going on (at these tournaments), and they don't stereotype us and look different at the school and the players.
"We understand (people questioning Simeon). When you're winning, that's what comes with it. There are some schools that aren't winning and nobody's saying nothing about them."
To be fair, he wasn't saying everyone in the area treats Simeon badly, just answering a question about why so many people question his team's studies. I haven't been around the team long enough to know whether they're treated poorly by some in Chicago, though I've received my fair share of skeptical emails — some intelligent, some not. The team did receive a short-lived "overrated" chant from DeSoto fans toward the end of Thursday's game, but from my perspective the Wolverines otherwise seemed to be treated well on the road.
There were the usual autograph seekers, including one BYU fan who flashed his ID for reasons unknown and didn't give up until Jabari Parker de-boarded a departing bus to take a photo. And there were the curious bystanders, who couldn't help but inquire about a group of towering teenagers wearing matching warm-ups, backpacks and headphones everywhere they went.
In Texas, Simeon had its own escort, from the marketing company hired by ESPN for its high school showcases, to guide the team to practices, restaurants and a Dallas field trip. The treatment probably wasn't as royal as some college teams receive — much of the food was of the fast variety — but it's safe to say the Wolverines were taken care of.
I was curious to see how Parker felt about continuing his return from a fractured foot on the road in front of national fans' expectations versus Chicago fans' expectations. He wavered back and forth, saying Chicago would have been fine but that he liked the road.
"I think it was easier out here," he said. "I like getting away from Chicago. I like playing on the road, playing away."