PEORIA — The game that made Illinois high school basketball history 16 years ago was "a toss-up" in Sergio McClain's estimation.
The crowd of 11,700 at the Peoria Civic Center was in suspense until the final seconds about whether the 1997 Class AA state championship would roll in favor of hometown Peoria Manual or West Aurora.
"They were fighting us the whole way through, and it came to the point where it was all on the line," McClain said. "You had to suck it up and give your all, and that's what we did."
Manual trailed West Aurora by five points heading into the fourth quarter. Then McClain and Frank Williams — back-to-back Mr. Basketball of Illinois winners and future Illini teammates — took over, imprinting their names and Manual in the Illinois High School Association record books with a 47-44 victory and an unprecedented fourth consecutive state title.
West Aurora coach Gordon Kerkman still thinks of it as the game that got away.
"I've always felt we could have possibly had a state championship there," Kerkman said. "I guess it was our fate and their destiny to get that fourth state championship."
Simeon's Jabari Parker said he's thought about a similar destiny since he was a freshman, and the three-time defending state champion Wolverines will have the chance to fulfill it this weekend at Carver Arena. Simeon continues its quest to tie Manual's record with a Class 4A semifinal against Proviso East at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Parker would join McClain as the only player to start on four state championship teams. In the final week of his high school career, the 6-foot-8 Duke-bound forward was ready to talk about what it would mean to secure that place in history along with senior teammate Kendrick Nunn, who also is trying for his fourth title.
"That's the reason I picked Simeon, because I knew it was going to be possible to reach four state championships," Parker said. "Me and Kendrick talk about it almost all the time. That came into our mind after last year's (championship) victory over Proviso East, that we have to get four. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it."
McClain and Marcus Griffin, who also played on all four Manual teams, are two of the few people who understand the pressure that goes with fulfilling such a goal.
McClain, a 6-4 forward, was a role player on the 1994 team that sent coach Dick Van Scyoc into retirement with a 61-60 victory over Carbondale. He also played a supporting role during the 1995 championship team that topped Thornton 65-53 and was coached by his father, Wayne McClain. And in his junior season in 1996 — one he said was the toughest of the bunch — he adjusted to being the leader as the team beat Thornton 57-51 in the final and tied East St. Louis Lincoln (1987-89) with three straight titles.
"Everything you did was looked at through a magnifying glass," McClain said. "You were expected to win every time you got on the court. Nobody understood you're human. At the end of the day, you're human, but they're expecting you to do something nobody has done before. That's a lot of pressure on a teenage kid, not to mention on an African-American coach in his first couple of years of coaching."
McClain said he didn't want to disrespect the run Simeon has made, but he wonders whether the accomplishments can be properly compared considering Manual did it in the two-class system. He wondered what a Morgan Park-Simeon state championship game would look like, should the schools take the titles in 3A and 4A this season.
"No disrespect to the IHSA, but it's watered down now," McClain said. "They give four teams an opportunity to win a championship. We can say we were the last team to win four in a row when it was at its toughest.
"Nothing to take away from Simeon; that's just the new way. It's hard (to do) either way it goes."
Kerkman's Blackhawks won't have another shot at preventing a record after bowing out to Proviso East in a supersectional Tuesday. But West Aurora met Simeon in a Pontiac Tournament final loss in December, and Kerkman said the teams' championship runs have been "very much the same."
"(Manual) played some very good competition on the way to four state championships, and I think Simeon has done the same," Kerkman said. "It's really pretty tough. We've experienced this. After you've been to the state tournament a few times, people think you should get there every year. It's really not that easy. You certainly have to be a good team and you have to be lucky."
Lincoln's Bennie Lewis and Wayne McClain, a Kansas State assistant who was unavailable for an interview this week as the Wildcats readied for the Big 12 Tournament, are the only coaches to win three in a row. Simeon coach Robert Smith could become the first to win four straight.
The ninth-year Simeon coach, who has a state-record five titles and a second-place finish to his credit, wasn't ready to talk about the significance of the Wolverines' run.
"If we can win four," Smith said, "then we can start talking about history."