Talen Horton-Tucker, the 2018 Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year, wasn’t an eighth grade sensation or even an immediate varsity star for Simeon.
Horton-Tucker took a more unconventional route, attending a Catholic elementary school that he says “could care less about basketball.”
The 6-5, do-it-all basketball octopus needed a few years for his body to catch up to his brain.
“I always knew what I could do, always knew how good I could be,” Horton-Tucker said. “I felt like I knew basketball like the back of my hand. My body wouldn’t let me do things that my mind wanted to do.”
That changed near the end of his freshman year.
“I started dunking and my whole mindset change,” Horton-Tucker said. “I felt that I could do anything.”
Horton-Tucker is only 17, but his life has been rocked by several significant tragedies the past two years. His father, Marlin Tucker, died of a heart-attack at the age of 42. One of Horton-Tucker’s best friends and mentors, former North Side star basketball player Greg Tucker, was shot and killed just over a year ago.
“He just did some things he wasn’t supposed to do and it messed up his heart,” Horton-Tucker said. “My dad went through a lot. He was shot in the head when he was younger, it was mistaken identity. That is when he realized he had to start taking his health seriously.”
Greg Tucker, who played at Young, Lincoln Park and Chicago State, was shot in the head in October of 2016 while driving in Uptown.
“Both of us have the Tucker name so we always used to say we were cousins,” Horton-Tucker said. “I knew him my whole life.”
Those losses molded Horton-Tucker into an uncommonly focused teenager, which is so often the case with an elite talent. He played in a major club basketball event in Indianapolis the day after his father died.
“I lost my grandmother back before high school too,” Horton-Tucker said. “I realized early how important life was. And I realized that I had to take everything seriously. I understood it was going to be a process and I try to play carefree, but I know what I am playing for.”
Horton-Tucker is Simeon’s first player from the North Side in Robert Smith’s 14-year tenure as head coach. Smith isn’t afraid to put Horton-Tucker’s name in an elite class of Chicago high school basketball royalty.
“When we have had great teams it was because Derrick [Rose] wasn’t selfish and Jabari [Parker] wasn’t selfish. It wasn’t about them, it was about the team. Talen is about the team. This team is tremendous because he is not selfish.”
Simeon was expected to be one of the best teams in the state this season, but it has been even better than that. Smith thinks it could be the best team he’s ever coached.
“It’s been a little bit different with Talen, just the things I’ve allowed him to do offensively,” Smith said. “He’s had more freedom than [Rose or Parker].”
Horton-Tucker averaged 20.1 points, nine rebounds and five assists this season.
His season started in a cloud of controversy. Illinois pulled his scholarship offer at the last minute, just hours before he was going to commit to the school.
The shock of it rattled Horton-Tucker briefly, but never impacted him on the court. He’s been through much worse. Horton-Tucker ended up signing with Iowa State and now thinks the Cyclones are a better fit.
“He’s been incredibly business-like all season,” Smith said.
A state title is what he needs to secure his legacy and that is what the business-like focus is all about.
“A state title would be everything for our legacy,” Horton-Tucker said. “Simeon hasn’t won it since Jabari Parker. I can’t be in that category unless we win state.”
Horton-Tucker is Simeon’s sixth player of the year, following in the footsteps of Jabari Parker, Derrick Rose, Calvin Brock, Deon Thomas and Nick Anderson.
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
2018—Talen Horton-Tucker, Simeon
2017—Alonzo Verge, Thornton
2016—Charlie Moore, Morgan Park
2015—Jalen Brunson, Stevenson
2014—Cliff Alexander, Curie
2013—Jahlil Okafor, Young
2012—Jabari Parker, Simeon
2011—Wayne Blackshear, Morgan Park
2010—Jereme Richmond, Waukegan
2009—Jereme Richmond, Waukegan
2008—Kevin Dillard, Homewood-Flossmoor
2007—Derrick Rose, Simeon
2006—Jon Scheyer, Glenbrook North
2005—DeAndre Thomas, Westinghouse
2004–Calvin Brock, Simeon
2003—Shannon Brown, Proviso East
2002—Sean Dockery, Julian
2001—Eddy Curry, Thornwood
2000—Cedrick Banks, Westinghouse
1999—Leon Smith, King
1998—Quentin Richardson, Young
1997—Melvin Ely, Thornton
1996—Ronnie Fields, Farragut
1995—Kevin Garnett, Farragut
1994—Jerry Gee, St. Martin de Porres
1993—Rashard Griffith, King
1992—Chris Collins, Glenbrook North
1991—Sherell Ford, Proviso East
1990—Jamie Brandon, King
1989—Deon Thomas, Simeon
1988—Eric Anderson, de Sales
1987—Marcus Liberty, King
1986—Nick Anderson, Simeon
1985—Michael Ingram, Proviso West
1984—Hersey Hawkins, Westinghouse
1983—Len Bertolini, St. Patrick
1982—Bernard Jackson, Phillips
1981—Walter Downing, Providence
1980—Glenn Rivers, Proviso East
1979—Isiah Thomas, St. Joseph
1978—Mark Aguirre, Westinghouse
1977—Eddie Johnson, Westinghouse
1976—Glen Grunwald, East Leyden
1975—Pete Boesen, Maine South
1974—Audie Matthews, Bloom
1973—Mark Vitali, St. Charles
1972—Quinn Buckner, Thornridge
1971—Quinn Buckner, Thornridge
1970—Lloyd Batts, Thornton
1969—Jim Brewer, Proviso East
1968—Jeff Hickman, Lockport
1967—Rick Howat, Downers Grove
1966—Rich Bradshaw, Marshall
1965—Terry Hurley, Steinmetz
1964—Eugene Ford, Crane
1963—Joe Allen, Carver
1962—Cazzie Russell, Carver
1961—Bob Caress, Thornton
1960—George Wilson, Marshall