GARY | The thick, sticky air was still hot, even though the sun was still minutes away from peeking over the eastern horizon. A slow-dance of pain and gain awaited for the music to begin.
Then, the cars pulled into the parking lot at Aetna Elementary School.
Ten young men got out and walked to the Gary beach last summer.
It was 4 a.m.
A history of poor play and a loss to Kouts in last year's sectional drove the members of the Gary 21st Century boys basketball team.
Some might call what they did child abuse. Others would call it the making of a champion.
“Oh man, it was bad,” said junior Dantrell Hurt. “We'd end up on the ground (throwing up).”
“We called the big hill 'the Fourth Quarter,'” senior Louis Brown said. “It got us ready for what we wanted to accomplish.”
From June through August, the Cougars went to the beach at Marquette Park before the birds started singing. The workout would have made Walter Payton nod his head in agreement.
A 16-minute jog started the agony. The time reflected the first half of a basketball game. Ten 100-yard sprints followed. Four were with a 60-pound sled. Four used a wind-resistant parachute. Two were all natural.
Then, as the sweat poured down, came eight defensive slide drills.
And finally, 10 sprints up a 350-foot sand dune with a 70-degree angle. Two with a 10-pound medicine ball. Two with a 15-pound cast iron dumbbell held above the head. Two more followed with a 25-pound dumbbell, two with a 30-pound dumb bell, two with a 50-pounder and two more without any equipment.
“It killed us,” Hurt said on Monday. “Our lungs were on fire, we couldn't breathe. It still hurts thinking about it now.”
“The sand got all over us,” Brown added. “It ruined our shoes and socks. But it got us ready to do what we needed to do.”
The 62-53 loss to Kouts in last year's Class A sectional championship game brought about this work ethic. The Cougars had done it two summers ago. They started at 9 a.m. But with so many players having summer jobs, the numbers dwindled.
“That's why we started at 4 a.m.,” 21st Century coach Rodney Williams said. “That's where we became a team.”
Alan Gaines led the summer workouts. He saw a change in the program in those morning mournings.
“The guys at the top of the hill saw their teammates on their knees halfway down,” Gaines said. “They ran down, helped them to their feet and encouraged them to get to the top.”
For Brown and Hurt, this ethic perfectly describes themselves and their program.
Brown never played organized basketball until his freshman year. He came out for the team. It was ugly. They gave up over 100 twice and got pounded many other times.
“I was awful,” Brown said. “We were awful. But we didn't stop working or believing.”
Hurt has flunked off the team two of the last three years. His work ethic in the classroom was not there. His father let him know that was unacceptable.
Basketball success gave him another reason to hit the books harder.
“Working hard got us where we are,” Hurt said. “After our summer it didn't get any easier. (Williams) told us don't even think about playing basketball if we don't run cross country. So we all ran cross country. That's why we don't lose in the fourth quarter.”
The three wins at Kouts last week were by seven, six and three points. The same kind of close games will be played on Saturday at the Triton Regional, where the Cougars play Pioneer.
At 21st Century's first practice, Williams brought a ladder out and had his team climb up with scissors and cut down the net. He wanted them to know what the goal was.
They did it for real at Kouts last week and want to do it again.
“Pioneer is a great shooting team,” Williams said. “We have to be ready. They have a winning tradition. It's going to be tough. We have to get our defensive pressure going. I think we can give them some trouble.”