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Sports keeps these kids on straight path

Updated: March 18, 2013 2:15AM

Over the weekend, the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament took over the United Center to large jazzed crowds while the top high school teams descended on Peoria for the conclusion of the Illinois High School Association’s state tournament.

Meanwhile, I was the lone spectator sitting in the wooden bleachers at Maryville Academy in Des Plaines for a boys basketball game between Maryville’s Jen School, which houses and schools neglected boys classified as wards of the state, and Aspira, an alternative school from the city.

After a little while, Maryville’s communications director, John Gorman, joined me. In describing the children of Maryville, he said they are wounded by abandonment and hard times.

Aspira coach Claude Holmes said his players are teens who have faded into the system, considered too troubled for mainstream high school.

These are forgotten kids. You won’t read about them in the sports pages, though eventually some will make news for committing crimes.

While in alternative schools, they get a second chance — and for some it’s a last chance — to turn around their lives. Basketball offers one incentive to do so.

Once a week in the winter dozens of alternative schools from Cook and seven neighboring counties play basketball in the Chicago Area Alternative Education League. This weekend 25 teams will gather in Arlington Heights for CAAEL’s state tournament.

CAAEL was founded in 1977 by John Martin, a longtime Forest Park resident who then worked with special-education students. At 68, he still runs the organization full-time on a bare-bones budget from his home.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, news outlets, including the Sun-Times, wrote about the league bringing together kids with behavior and academic issues for basketball and flag football. It fell off the news radar, but in the following decades CAAEL grew to include as many as 40 teams, from four at the start. It also has leagues for volleyball, soccer, softball, bowling and chess. When funding allowed it, the organization sponsored an academic bowl similar to “Jeopardy!” and a spelling bee.

Students must remain eligible each week to play. Those who don’t do their schoolwork or behave in the classroom end up on the sidelines.

“Kids are lost in the system,” Martin Knuth, a special education teacher at Maryville and CAAEL board member, said. “CAAEL is a place where they can be found again. A lot of them find it to be a good place.”

Now and again a student uses CAAEL as a springboard to mainstream school. That happened for Kris Hill, who played for CAAEL while in an alternative program for a year at Oak Park-River Forest in the late 1980s. “It gave me a sense of worth,” Hill, now living in Utah, said of the opportunity to play.

Hill returned to his mainstream school, attended community college and earned a scholarship to play basketball at DePaul, where he became a captain.

CAAEL’s emphasis on sportsmanship hasn’t waned in 36 years. After a game, each team chooses two players from the opposing team to honor with a sportsmanship ribbon.

These are kids, remember, and a ribbon still means a lot to them.

“It’s amazing,” Jim LoGiurato of Joseph Academy in Des Plaines and a CAAEL board member, said. “These are tough kids. You’d be surprised how they walk around with their ribbons and big smiles on their faces.”

Their participation alone means they have won.

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