It’s a chilly Thursday night in the Windy City.
The rebuilding Bulls are set to play tomorrow in the United Center against the Los Angeles Lakers in a battle of two teams ‘tanking’ for the 2018 NBA Draft. Despite the team’s obvious build-for-the-future plans, the Bulls are still leading the NBA in attendance and the games are consistently some of the hottest tickets in the city.
However on this particular night in January, the Bulls are receiving some competition from across the way. Over on the South Side, two of the best high school basketball teams in the city are ready to battle in front of a capacity crowd at Simeon Career Academy. Simeon fans are eager to see if the Wolverines can continue their dominance against the team’s upstart rivals from Curie Metropolitan High School.
Simeon is loaded with talent this season. Point guard Xavier Pinson is set to play next season at Missouri, guards Kenny Pittman and Zion Young will play at Oakland and Western Illinois respectively, and dominant forward Messiah Jones is on his way to Wofford.
Then there’s Talen Horton-Tucker…. A 6-foot-5 small forward that’s turning heads in Chicago.
From the moment Talen steps onto that historic hardwood at Simeon, the same court where Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Bobby Simmons and many others got their starts, you can tell that there’s something special about this 17-year old kid.
“I just worked hard… I let my game do the talking… I didn’t take the easy way out. I don’t wanna be looking through life and be like ‘I wish I would have did this,’” Talen said.
It’s the start of the fourth quarter, and Talen is well on his way to finishing with another triple-double while also leading Simeon to a decisive win over Curie.
That’s when it happens…
The future Iowa State Cyclone possesses the ball on a fast break and proceeds to slice through the entire Curie defense before reaching back and throwing down a monstrous one-handed tomahawk dunk. He’s done it so many times this season, that it’s actually starting to become a little routine.
When watching Talen-Horton Tucker compete, you get the sense that he’s a young man with a chip on his shoulder, a guy who has something to prove. Talen plays the game with a level of aggression that I’d compare to the killer instincts of past players like Kobe Bryant or Paul Pierce.
And you don’t have to look far before finding the circumstances that have fueled Talen Horton-Tucker’s fire.
On January 16th, rosters for the 41st annual McDonald’s All-American Game were released, Talen was not included.
On March 8th, rosters for the Jordan Brand Classic in New York City were released, Talen was not included.
Then again, Talen felt disrespected at the end of the recruiting period, when college scouts from ESPN and 247 Sports didn’t even list the Chicago star inside the Top 50 of the Class of 2018.
Talen felt as though he’d been overlooked considering the way he dominated at Simeon. He recorded an impressive 15 double-doubles as a senior and finished with 20-plus points in 18 different games. He especially seemed to thrive against some of the best high school teams in the country.
In December, he dropped 27 points and 7 rebounds in a win over perennial power Wesleyan Christian Academy led by Jaylen Hoard (Wake Forest signee) and Aaron Wiggins (Maryland signee). Two weeks later, Talen scored 24 points to lead Simeon in a massive win over Memphis East, coached by Penny Hardaway and highlighted by James Wiseman (the consensus top prospect in the Class of 2019).
However, perhaps Talen’s most impressive performance came in January at the HoopHall Classic in Massachusetts.
Talen rolled into the prestigious event with big aspirations of taking down the undefeated and No. 1-ranked Eagles from Montverde Academy. He went toe-to-toe with R.J. Barrett (the consensus top prospect in the Class of 2018) and nearly pulled off the upset of the season. He scored 26 points and hauled in 9 rebounds before coming just inches away from pouring-in a game-winning basket at the buzzer.
Yet despite all the highlights and star-studded performances, Talen still somehow flew under the radar compared to some of the other top players in the country. Maybe that’s why the city of Chicago has embraced him so much. They’ve seen the flashes, they know the potential and they can’t wait to watch him disrupt the college basketball world at Iowa State next season.
“He has a special gift,” said Simeon head coach Robert Smith. “I’ve been around guys who are professionals… and he has the same gifts that I saw in those guys at an early age. With him continuing to work, his chances are really high of being a really great NBA player.”
Looking back on Talen’s journey, it’s been far from easy.
After you get past the hard exterior and toughness that he displays on the court, you’ll find a fairly reserved young man that’s needed to grow up much faster than your average teenager.
At age 13, Talen lost his beloved grandmother, Paulette Horton, after a nearly year-long battle with colon cancer. Horton was a community staple on Chicago’s North Side.
“All of the young teenagers would come over to her house and then she would work with the homeless kids so [she was] a huge woman in the community,” said Talen’s aunt Eboni Horton.
She was also one of Talen’s biggest supporters.
“I played on Lakeside Court throughout my life playing basketball,” Talen said. “My whole family use to watch me, because our windows use to be right on the same side as the court… you could see everything that was going on out there… So my mom and my grandmother and my auntie use to watch me.”
Just one year later, tragedy struck again when his father, Marlin Tucker, died of a heart attack.
“Losing somebody else close to you… it hurts. Your father, I mean he made me, so losing him it just made me realize that life is kind of short.”
Two months after that, Talen’s childhood friend, Saieed Ivey, one of Talen’s biggest influences on his decision to attend Simeon, was killed in Los Angeles.
“Saieed was one of the guys from Simeon that made me want to come here,” Talen said. “He was just really positive… never was a negative dude. He was in Los Angeles and he was playing basketball in college and he was… set-up… and someone killed him…. Killed him on his birthday.”
Four months after that, Talen’s cousin and longtime mentor, Greg Tucker Jr, was killed in a drive-by shooting on the North Side.
“From [age] 13 to 16… that’s a lot,” Talen’s mother Shirley Horton said. “You know you experience life a little faster.”
Similar circumstances may have defeated others, but Talen kept fighting
“He’s able to understand life… that it affects you… but you’re going to learn something from it and do something with it,” said Shirley Horton.
One of those things that Talen has learned, and now acted upon, is to be an example for the youth of his community like his grandmother was before him.
“Basketball here in Chicago is our way out,” Robert Smith said. “Guns and drugs have hit our communities really hard. We want our young men and our young women get back to using the game of basketball to reach their goals… getting a free education and then be able to take care of our families when we get older.”
Through it all, standing by Talen’s side, has been his loving mother. And on October 26, 2017, when Talen committed to Iowa State University, there she was again… right by her son’s side.
The road has certainly been filled with heartache and pain, but Talen’s story is far from over. He’s already a Chicago legend and he’s ready to accomplish so much more.