Brunson's gesture biggest story at state finals
PEORIA -- Stevenson star point guard Jalen Brunson finished Saturday's third-place game against Edwardsville with 18 points, helping his team to a 70-63 win.
For a few hours Saturday, though, it appeared Brunson wouldn't play all.
During Friday's night's semifinal, a game in which Brunson scored a state finals record 56 points in a loss to powerhouse Whitney Young, he appeared to make an obscene gesture toward the Whitney Young crowd with both hands.
The drama was fanned by a photo published online by the Peoria Journal Star. Several videos posted online of the sequence of events made the gesture no clearer, and rumors flew that Brunson would be ruled ineligible for Saturday's game.
Ultimately, Brunson was allowed to play after the Illinois High School Association Board decided the evidence wasn't conclusive enough to act so fast, reversing an earlier decision by its executive director.
"When I'm on the basketball court I feel at home. I'm just really thankful to be able to play," Brunson said after Saturday's third-place game.
The IHSA released a statement Saturday night that said Executive Director Marty Hickman initially ruled Brunson ineligible, but that the IHSA board overturned the ruling after hearing an appeal.
"The Board respects Dr. Hickman's initial decision and believe it was the correct decision based on the resources he had at the time," said IHSA Board President and Wauconda High School Principal Dan Klett.
"There is precedence for individuals being suspended from IHSA State Final contests for this type of conduct. This was a unique situation in terms of how the gesture was brought to our attention via social media. As a Board, we wanted the opportunity to hear from the student-athlete and review additional materials. After doing so, the Board agreed that the gesture could have been inappropriate. However, without additional supporting evidence, we could not make the determination that the gesture was intended as an unsportsmanlike action and chose to overturn the ruling."
As for rumors swirling that the entire Stevenson team was ready to forfeit Saturday's game if Brunson was ruled ineligible, Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said his team contemplated not taking the court up until five minutes remained on the warm-up clock, which is when the IHSA board's overruling came down.
"Five minutes before tip-off, and these guys can change," Ambrose said. "I've never seen them change that fast."
The Peoria Journal Star photographer who took the photo, Ron Johnson, said he doesn't have frame-by-frame images of the incident, just the one shot. But he described the sequence of events that led to the alleged gesture as follows:
"He was walking toward the Whitney Young crowd and I saw him raise his hands up," Johnson said. "I didn't notice it at first. It was something in the editing process, going back and looking at it. Doing a double take and saying, 'Hey, he was actually flipping off the fans from the other team.'
"I looked at it again, just to make sure that it wasn't a different finger, and it was the middle finger on both hands. And in the picture he's looking directly at the Whitney Young crowd. I think out of frustration. The must have been making some noise about the call or whatever. He started his hand gesture in a different way but it still turned into the middle finger on both hands."
The IHSA said it would have no further comment on the issue Saturday because of the board's wish to keep the focus on the student-athletes, coaches and communities who have worked so hard to reach the state final tournament.
Brunson said the incident was pretty much taken out of context and wouldn't divulge what really happened Friday night.
"I think it's best to be kept between me and the coaching staff and the people that were involved," he said.