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Three longtime friends could have a big say in which boys basketball team reigns supreme within the Upstate Eight Conference this season.
Not only are talented seniors Lance Whitaker of Bartlett, Kendall Stephens of St. Charles East and Arie Williams of Elgin the dominant players on their respective teams entering the 2012-13 campaign, they rank among the most talented players in the suburbs.
Stephens is a Purdue-bound guard who averaged 17.7 points and 7.5 rebounds last year en route to his second straight all-UEC nod.
Whitaker, who committed this fall to Illinois-Chicago, is hungry to return to the court after an ACL tear sidelined him for the entire 2011-12 season. He led Bartlett in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots as a sophomore, and he was a key contributor to the Hawks' Elite Eight team as a freshman.
Williams is one of the area's most dynamic point guards. A four-year varsity player who started every game for Elgin's 26-4 sectional finalist last season, the 5-10 playmaker can create shots for others or sink deep -- sometimes breathtakingly deep -- 3-point shots. He enters his senior campaign with 701 career points.
It should come as no shock that standouts of their caliber began playing organized travel basketball as tykes. Williams and Whitaker joined coach John Maestranzi's AAU team when they were in second grade and quickly bonded.
"Arie has always been a goofy kid," Whitaker said with a laugh. "He's truly funny. There's never a dull moment with him. We still act the same way we did in second grade. That's the kind of relationship we have."
Stephens joined the team the following season. Maestranzi set a lifelong friendship in motion when he paired Whitaker with Stephens to bring the newcomer up to speed on the team's plays and practice drills.
"Ever since, me and Lance always had a bond," Stephens said. "He's always been my wingman. And I remember seeing how Arie was so quick and had such good hands for being so small. No one around here had such handles."
Together they played at the highest levels of AAU basketball. Through the years they competed at multiple tournaments in Orlando and Las Vegas as well as Houston, Milwaukee and Charlotte, N.C.
The highlight of the trio's youth basketball experience was winning a national championship in Lexington, Ky., when they were fifth graders.
"It was so much fun," Williams said of securing a national title with his friends at the tender age of 10. "That was probably one of the best all-around years we had as far as having fun with the team. We were all so energetic and we just loved playing basketball. It was just fun back then to be out of town, out of state. It was a pretty good deal."
While the bonds of friendship were formed partly as teammates on the court, the more important bonding took place on planes, in hotel rooms, at team lunches and dinners. They traveled together, ate together and bunked together.
"At that age all you do is spend time together, so we all know each other better than anyone else," Whitaker said. "All that time in hotels or in groups going places ... it's something you'll always remember."
The three remained AAU teammates until they were sophomores in high school. That's when Williams shifted to the Chicago Diablos AAU team, which was a better fit for him at that point, he said. By then their friendship was already tighter than size 34 jeans on a 270-pound man.
Those once-little tykes have grown into explosive basketball players as young men. Stephens is 6-6, Whitaker is 6-4 and Williams has grown a full foot since his freshman year to push 5-10. He enters his senior year with less body fat than a starved model.
No matter how mature they may look, the third-grader in each comes out in each when it's time to play each other. So how many texts are sent between them before a head-to-head matchup?
"Well," Williams said with a pause and a laugh, "let's just say a lot. With the basketball season coming we've been talking a lot of trash."
Hopefully, Williams has a cellular plan with unlimited texting. He and Whitaker will square off when Elgin hosts Bartlett in a UEC crossover on Nov. 29. Whitaker and Stephens will not play head to head unless Bartlett and St. Charles East play one another in the UEC crossover matchup at season's end. Elgin is scheduled to face Stephens and St. Charles East twice in UEC River Division games on Dec. 21 and Feb. 15.
However, it was unclear at press time for this article whether Stephens will be able to play at all this season due to a labrum injury suffered in practice last Saturday. A decision on his playing status was to be made Thursday after the Stephens family consulted with doctors and the Purdue staff.
Stephens said he enjoys playing against Williams and Whitaker because he admires the quality of play his old teammates exhibit in each game.
"I respect them in the sense of how much work they've put in," he said. "Not many people know how much Arie and Lance get into the gym before and after the game. They learned the basics from coach Maestranzi and they've improved by putting the work in. It's a testament to their character and the dedication they have."
Admiration aside, Stephens still wants to win those games. Especially those games.
"It's natural as competitors to not want to lose," he said. "When you're playing against your boys it's on the line every play. You're looking at the scoreboard to see who has the advantage. It's fun. It's all about bragging rights."
Whether one of their teams attains eternal bragging righs by winning a division title or not, the trio will remain close for the rest of their lives.
"They are like brothers to me," Williams said. "The stuff we've been through over the years is kind of crazy. It's just nice to see us all making it in our own ways and being successful. That's the most important thing."