By Luke Elder
The atmosphere in Clemente high’s old, noisy gym is different now that the regular season comes to a close. The incessant turmoil, arguing and whistleblowing is nowhere to be found. Instead, assistant coach “Cheese” Onuselogu purposefully misses three pointers, so his players can focus on box-outs for rebounding. Players laugh and poke fun at each other, but quickly focus as soon as the basketball hits the rim. If the white jerseys get three rebounds, the blue team has to run. A player in white gnashes and grabs the ball from his teammate, completing their third. The blue team readies themselves for down and backs, without any fuss or complaint. They take long strides, and in two short sprints, return to the drill. Though the air is light, Clemente’s effort is evident.
The regional playoffs are fast approaching for Clemente high as they prepare to face off against Holy Trinity on Saturday night. There is no time to waste anymore.
“I told the seniors man, it's win and go home. This could be the end of your high school career–it could end like that, or you can keep it going. So it's going to be up to Lawrence and Jacob, they have to figure it out.” Head coach Greg Fleming said. “They’ve got to come play big, a lot of minutes. I'm expecting them to play tough and lead the team, this younger group. It’s in their hands.”
Clemente’s team began the season with four seniors, but due to incidents beyond basketball, are left now with just two: the huge, yet soft spoken Lawrence Roval and tenacious defender Jacob Perez. Though their team enters the regional tournament with a record of just 4-21, their expectations are high.
“I feel great. I feel like we can take this region by storm. Make Clemente history.” Roval said. “Bring back Humboldt Park.”
“I wouldn't say I'm nervous. I want my guys to be ready because I can't be ready if they're not, too.” Perez said. “We all have to be on the same page. So, I would say come Saturday, I'm not nervous, I'm not scared. I’m a competitor. We’ll bring the intensity.”
Though Perez and his teammates must travel for their first regional matchup, he actually considers it an advantage. During an early October scrimmage, Clemente fell to Holy Trinity by just three, with a missed chance at a game winner.
“I think we’ll be more comfortable playing there because we’ve played there before. We know the feeling, the atmosphere.” Perez said. “We weren't composed [during their October scrimmage versus Holy Trinity] and we just weren't the same team as we are now. We’re ready.”
Roval and Perez have a great deal on their plates, with hopes of leading their underdog team through a string of tough playoff upsets. What comes after is a more concerning question.
The jump from Winter to Spring is imminent, as Chicago’s snow becomes slush, and frozen dirt sinks back into mud. This means graduation for Clemente’s small senior class, and questions towards the future.
Saturday could prove to be Roval’s last basketball game for Clemente high, or maybe ever.
“I’m Nervous, man. This is my first year actually playing a lot—my first year I didn't get to play that much. I was just riding the bench. Even on J.V., I barely played. It took me a long ways just to get on the court.” Roval said. “A lot of these games I was nervous because I didn't wanna mess up, like, it's my first year of starting. My first year playing the entire game, back to back to back. It's my last year of high school, I'm trying to make history. Have my jersey retired or something.”
Roval, unlike many of his teammates, is not centered entirely on basketball. He’s also an avid and talented cook. Though he doesn’t have a favorite dish, he says he can perfect most any recipe in two or three tries. Culinary arts is a space where Lawrence Roval is very confident.
“Both cooking and basketball are my passion, I don't know which [is more important].” Roval said. ”They both weigh the same in my mind. So hopefully, basketball can pay for everything. If I don't go pro, I’ll say “hey, I have cooking.”
Lawrence Roval prepares for a finish during Clemente practice.
Courtesy of Luke Elder/The Elder Sportsman
Roval doesn’t just want to be a head chef. Clemente’s kindest player hopes that his broad shoulders and 6-foot-6 frame will work well on camera as a cooking show superstar. Though he isn’t an angry Englishman, his gentle demeanor and tall hair could bode well for the silver screen. His layups might translate well to whisking.
“I wanna be like somebody big, like Gordon Ramsey. Or even bigger than that. I feel that I have a lot of potential to be a great cook.” Roval said. “Coach Greg came to my cookout and enjoyed the food. He had, like, five plates and took home two to his wife. He wants me to cook for the team now.”
For the time being, Roval’s focus is cooking up a different recipe: big playoff wins. Not only is Roval the team’s quietest player, but also one of the most intense. His demeanor has changed tremendously since the season's start. You might not hear it, but the feeling is palpable. Roval is coming off his first double-double in last Friday’s win over Mather after many struggles to find his stride. His coaches see the spark in confidence they’ve been hoping for.
“Lawrence is a good kid. Very, very respectful and always wants to get better,” Assistant coach Tony Lumpkin said. “He’s turned it up a lot the past three games. He’s really ready for it now, he talks about playoffs all the time. He wants his senior season to go his way. He sees what he can do.”
Continual encouragement and challenge from his coaches, alongside long-awaited on-court success is enough to give Roval confidence heading into regionals. Definitely more than he’s ever had on the floor, and maybe as much confidence as he has in his cooking.
“A lot of these teams don’t have bigs, so it’s my time to shine.” Roval said. “I’m trying to have a double double in every game from now on. I’ve got to put more points up. Handle the ball, reload my shooters, do what I gotta do.”
Jacob Perez poses for the team's photoshoot.
Courtesy of Jacob Perez/RCCA
Roval’s fellow senior, Jacob Perez, has no interest in cooking. He isn’t torn between two passions. Instead, he’s entranced by just one: basketball.
“I want my future to be basketball.” Perez said. “I have a few schools that are interested in me, places pushing for a new wave--young culture, guys that are hungry.”
Often quiet on the stat sheet, Perez is a scrappy and tenacious defender, rebounder and passer. His own description is apt; he's hungry. Despite plenty of shooting ability, Perez is content being the unsung hero.
“I'm not focused on scoring. My job is to lock down defensively, give the ball to the next guy in front of me and execute plays, not only for myself but for others.” Perez said. “I'm fine with the other guys scoring 20 and I just have four points, because if it gives us the win, then I get to continue on with my senior year. That’s what every senior wants. It doesn't matter. Every senior doesn't care about scoring every point, it's just about continuing this year and making history for their schools. That’s what I want to do for Clemente.”
Perez’s coaches have been emphasizing selfless play since early in the season, but it truly required the reality of the season’s end to drive home their point. Assistant Tony Lumpkin shouts for an extra pass as Perez pivots during practice. Where an errant three would’ve been shot six weeks ago, two extra passes make for an easy layup. If you repeat things often enough, they tend to stick.
“It's a different atmosphere here now. The guys really wanna play with each other. You still have a few bumps, but they're really starting to see what they can do, finally.” Lumpkin said. “It’s really started coming together; they see what we want, and you can see the intensity in practice and training. I’m really happy about that.”
Lumpkin has been begging his players to step into positions of leadership all season.
“Now, especially now with state playoffs coming, it's not about your stats, it's not about getting yours. It's about winning. Do what you need to do to make a run.” Lumpkin said. “Jacob has finally stepped into a leadership role. Last game he didn’t have many points, but he was really talking and playing tough defense. Our senior leaders have been carrying us.”
Though both Roval and Perez have a lot to consider come graduation, Clemente's seniors have only focus for now, Saturday's game. The cap and gown, the decisions ahead. They’ll all have to wait. The sole focus is bringing their team a regional championship. One game at a time.
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Luke is a Master's student at DePaul, and a fan of all things sports.