Oak Forest graduate Larry Gorman still wonders if his high school career could’ve ended differently nearly 25 years later.
In the midst of a history-making season in 1987, Oak Forest boys basketball coach Ken Connor was suspended for the remainder of the year just a week before the postseason began by then-principal Edward Roberts for what he called conduct detrimental to the overall athletic program.
The Bengals still managed to earn the program’s first and only state berth before losing to eventual champion East St. Louis Lincoln 64-58 in the quarterfinals.
Oak Forest (28-3) actually led 24-6 after one quarter and 32-16 midway through the second quarter before the Tigers rallied for the win and went on to capture the first of two straight championships, led by former NBA player LaPhonso Ellis.
“It was Coach Connor’s dream team,” said Gorman, an all-state performer who went on to play at Northwestern. “He pushed us hard because he knew what we were capable of doing. I think our conditioning changed and it showed at state.
“It was a weird situation. I was upset by it. Thinking back, I wonder if I should’ve protested it and not played. I had a scholarship to Northwestern and didn’t want to put that in jeopardy. I didn’t want to come off as not being a team player. I always think back and wonder what could’ve been. If coach hadn’t been fired, maybe we could’ve won it all.”
Denman Called to Serve as Bengals' Coach
Denny Denman, who served as Connor’s assistant after a long career at Bremen, was put in the awkward position of taking over the team.
“It was a strange set of circumstances,” Denman said. “I still don’t know everything about it to this day. I felt bad for Ken because that was his dream team and he couldn’t be part of it. It was a shock to everyone.
"I found out when we were getting ready to go on the bus to play Tinley Park and (Roberts) called me in and said I’m the coach. I told him this isn’t right and I don’t think I’ll do it. He said the sophomore coach will then, but the players came to me and said I was their coach.
"One good thing was, it didn’t affect the kids. They still kept their heads on and marched along. They banded together and made it easy for me.”
Connor still earned District 8 Coach of the Year honors by the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association that season, while Oak Forest posted a 3-93 record in the four seasons after the state appearance, including finishing 0-24 in 1988.
Despite the circumstances, Gorman still relishes the state experience.
Playing with a broken finger, the 6-foot-8 forward capped his high school career with 21 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks in the loss to East. St. Louis.
“State was a great experience,” said Gorman, who was a four-year varsity starter. “Unfortunately we lost, so that left a sour taste in our mouths. We played together for so long. When we were juniors, there were no seniors on the team. We were a tight-knit group and really good friends. We just really gelled and had a great team.”
Bengals' Shooter Delaney Ahead of his Time
Jeff Delaney, an all-state guard for the Bengals, is considered one of the state’s best-ever outside shooters, but the three-point line wasn’t instituted in high school until the year after he graduated.
He did set three-point records at Rich South’s Big Dipper Tournament, which featured a three-point line and shot clock. Delaney still owns the tournament record for three-pointers with 19 in four games, including seven in one contest.
“Jeff Delaney was a tremendous outside shooter,” Denman said. “Watching films, probably 65 to 70 percent of his shots would’ve been threes. He had eight baskets in the state quarterfinals and they all would’ve been threes.”
Delaney scored 16 points and 6-8 Troy Agler added 14 in the loss to East St. Louis.
Gorman averaged 21.3 points and 12.1 rebounds as a senior and also led the team in blocks (91) and dunks (72). He averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds as a junior when the Bengals finished 20-5, but were upset by Sandburg in the regionals.
“After we got knocked out in the regional junior year, we were bound and determined to go down state,” said Gorman, who is the program’s all-time leading scorer (1,836 points) and rebounder (1,225). “Jeff Delaney, Troy Agler, Casey Brennan and my teammates made me better and, hopefully, I made them better players. I’m proud of what we did at Oak Forest.”