By John Gillis
In the storied history of Indiana high school boys basketball, there have been only three teams that have won three consecutive Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) state titles.
Nearly a century ago, coach Ernest “Griz” Wagner coached the Franklin High School Wonder Five to state titles in 1920, 1921 and 1922.
Behind the stellar guard play of Jay Edwards and Lyndon Jones, and coach Bill Jones’ masterful coaching, Marion High School won three in a row in 1985, 1986 and 1987.
However, the lone New Millennium team to accomplish that rare feat was the Indianapolis Lawrence North High School team that won IHSAA Class 4A state titles in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Under the direction of coach Jack Keefer, the Wildcats were anchored by dominating 7-0, 255-pound center Greg Oden and quick and crafty 6-1, 175-pound guard Mike Conley Jr.
Together, they helped lead the Wildcats to a 103-7 win-loss record during that three-year span, which was punctuated by a 45-game winning streak at the end. In the process, Lawrence North tied Indianapolis Crispus Attucks’ winning streak of 1954-55 and 1955-56. The 2005-06 squad became the 10th team in Indiana history to go undefeated (29-0), and the team's average margin of victory was more than 21 points a game.
As sophomores in 2003-04, Oden and Conley helped lead Lawrence North to the first of its three consecutive state titles with a 50-29 win over Columbia City. The Wildcats finished 29-2 that year.
The following season, Lawrence North (24-2) defeated Muncie Central, 63-52, to claim the 2005 state championship.
As seniors in 2005-06, Oden scored 26 points and grabbed 16 rebounds and Conley had 21 points to lead Lawrence North to an 80-56 title game win over Muncie Central. That game was played before 18,000 fans at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
As a senior, Oden averaged 23.7 points and 10.8 rebounds a game. He was deadly from the floor as he connected on 73 percent of his field-goal attempts. Following his junior season, Oden was named Parade’s High School Co-Player of the Year and 2005 Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year. He repeated as Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year in 2006, and was also named MaxPreps’ 2006 National Player of the Year. In addition, he was chosen 2006 Indiana Mr. Basketball, and was named to the 2006 McDonald’s All-American team.
As a senior, Conley averaged 16.5 points and four assists a game. He made 54.9 percent of his field-goal attempts (178-of-324), including 39.1 percent of his three-point field-goal attempts (45-of-115). Following the season, Conley was named Parade All-American, played for the East squad in the McDonald’s All-American Game, and dished out a game-high 13 assists in the Roundball Classic game.
Conley earned Associated Press second-team all-state honors as a junior and first-team as a senior. Following his senior year, he finished second to Oden in the voting for the Indiana Mr. Basketball award.
Directing the Wildcats’ cage fortunes was Keefer, who started his coaching career at Frankfort (Indiana) High School before going to Oak Hill (Indiana) High School and then Lawrence North. During his career, Keefer led teams to four state titles (1989, 2004, 2005 and 2006), four semi-states, six regionals and 13 sectionals. He was named national coach of the year following the 2005-06 season.
Oden and Conley played college basketball for one season at Ohio State University, where they led the Buckeyes to the 2007 NCAA men’s basketball tournament runner-up spot behind national champion Florida. Oden was the first pick in the 2007 National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft, but has experienced an injury-plagued professional career. Conley was selected No. 4 in that same draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. Now in his sixth season, he is averaging 13.4 points, 5.9 assists and 2.5 rebounds a game for the Grizzlies this year.
Seven years later, Oden and Conley can reflect on their high school experiences from a historical perspective.
“Winning the state titles was great, but the journey getting there is what I remember,” Oden said. “The 6 a.m. workouts and coach Keefer yelling at us the whole time. At the time it seemed so hard, but winning the championships made it all worth it. The lessons we learned there are the true accomplishments.
“After we won the first two state titles, we didn’t have as a goal winning three in a row. Coach Keefer made us take it year by year. It was all about that particular season. Each year, it was like starting over from the ground up. Coach Keefer just started each year like it was a new year.”
“The first state championship was the best memory, followed by riding on the fire truck back to the high school,” Conley recalled. “There is definitely no bigger accomplishment than winning the state title in high school; that’s the biggest thing you can do at that level. Playing for the NCAA championship and in the NBA playoffs are obviously bigger, but that high school state title is so special.”
Oden and Conley agreed that the Lawrence North teams possessed a good chemistry and a sense of closeness both on and off the court.
“We were very loose (laughs),” Oden said. “We had a lot of different personalities and a lot of jokesters on the team. Everybody got along very well, and yes, we were also very close outside of basketball.”
“No question – it was like a family, very close,” Conley said. “We took our play very seriously, but as a group we were loose and we had a lot of fun.”
While most high school teams would love to have either a talented big man or a skilled point guard, Lawrence North had both. The duo complemented each other well and helped make each a better player.
“The reason why we won was because of Mike Conley - it was his team,” Oden said. “It was the same as you see now with him in the NBA and his team doing so well – it all starts with the point guard. He got me to where I was.”
“Being able to be on the same team with Greg made me such a better player,” Conley said. “He is so dominant offensively and defensively, he just changed the game - it was a blessing. He allowed me and the rest of the guys to be so much better.
“Greg cares about his teammates more than himself. He made it so easy for all of us. Having a big man made it so much easier for me to make plays. Greg is just such a great teammate and such a great person.”
According to coach Keefer, there were several reasons why Lawrence North enjoyed the success it did during that three-year span.
“Our kids were exceptional kids,” Keefer said. “Conley ran the show and Greg played with him so well. Although the three kids around them changed each year, they were talented players and were such good kids. They were excellent students and citizens, and their parents were very good too. That is what made it click.
“Those teams were very goal-driven, team-oriented and community-oriented. I’d be nervous and Mike would come say to me, ‘Coach, don’t be nervous. We’re going to win.’ They were so focused and confident, yet loose too. Just a pleasure to coach.”
With the passage of time, Keefer can further appreciate the magnitude of Oden and Conley ‑ both as basketball players and individuals.
“They are just special people and special players,” Keefer said. “When you have that combination of things, it just makes a very special team. You have those two and you can put some other kids with them.
“When they went No. 1 and No. 4 in the 2007 NBA Draft, it shows just how good they were … no other high school has had two kids go that high. That gives a good indication of the star power of those two players.”
“I keep in touch with a lot of the guys from those teams,” Conley said. “I have a lot of weddings coming up shortly.
“Looking back now, I do think it [the accomplishment of winning three consecutive state titles] seems bigger. Living in the moment at the time, we didn’t realize just how rare that was. Looking back now, you have a sense of what your accomplishment was and what it meant to basketball ‑ just what an honor it was to be a part of those teams.”
John Gillis is the associate director of publications and communications of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at firstname.lastname@example.org