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McGRATH: Tom Kleinschmidt is back where he belongs at Gordon Tech

Tom Kleinschmidt legend GordTech has rung up 13 victories his first seasCatholic League school. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

Tom Kleinschmidt, a legend at Gordon Tech, has rung up 13 victories in his first season at the Catholic League school. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:50AM

There was something ­reassuring about Tom Kleinschmidt’s presence in the Gordon Tech High School gym on a chilly weekday ­afternoon.

He wore sweats rather than a uniform as he put an attentive young squad though practice, mixing instruction with encouragement and occasionally jumping in to demonstrate how we wanted something done. He was fully engaged, the antithesis of a ceremonial coach.

The gray sweats didn’t totally conceal the poundage Kleinschmidt has added in the 20-plus years since he willed and worked his way into becoming the most-storied performer this gym has produced.

But the face, the voice, the all-too-obvious passion … no doubt this was Tom Kleinschmidt, neighborhood guy turned basketball demigod, back where he belongs.

“This is home for me,” Kleinschmidt says. “I lived out of a suitcase for 13 years. This is perfect.”

Think of Kleinschmidt as the Jabari Parker of the early ’90s, a household basketball name around Chicago as a two-time all-stater and a McDonald’s All-American who carried underdog Gordon Tech to the finals of the state tournament, dropping 27 points on an imposing King team overrun with slick prospects and powerful 7-footers.

Gordon Tech lost, but the legend grew. A coast-to-coast recruiting derby brought the nation’s top-tier college coaches to Addison and California. Kleinschmidt stayed home to attend DePaul, where he was a four-year starter and the No. 5 scorer in school history with 1,837 points and a 16.3 average.

“Tom was an underrated player because he wasn’t off the charts athletically,” said Joey Meyer, his coach at DePaul. “He was strong, he was tough, he had range on his shot and he had a terrific basketball IQ. He was stereotyped in the eyes of the NBA — not quite quick enough, not quite this or that.”

A tour of NBA camps and a year in the Continental Basketball Association confirmed that notion, so Kleinschmidt went overseas to play pro ball. He embraced Japan after stops in Italy and Venezuela.

“The money was good, the people were nice and I had great teammates,” he says. “For a guy who’d never been out of Chicago, it was a good experience.”

But after 11 years of it, Chicago was calling him home. Kleinschmidt landed a job on Jerry Wainwright’s DePaul staff, with no illusions about its entry-level nature. He would fetch sandwiches for the coaching staff while they studied tapes or made recruiting calls.

“Jerry is my mentor, and he believes you work your way up in this business,” Kleinschmidt said.

Thus Kleinschmidt was not “above” taking a high school job when DePaul dismissed the Wainwright staff during the 2009-10 season. He spent two years at York in Elmhurst and left behind a 20-win team and a Kleinschmidt-like gym rat in guard David Cohn when Gordon Tech called last spring.

“Tom belongs here. He gives us credibility,” said Paul Chabura, the athletic director, interim principal and Gordon Tech alum who made the hire.

Like many working-class Catholic schools, Gordon Tech had fallen on hard times, a robust enrollment of nearly 3,000 boys dipping below 500 due to changing demographics and a bad economy. A decision to go coed and an ambitious marketing campaign are intended to spark a revival — enrollment is above 500, the freshman class is the largest of the school’s four and more than 200 eighth-graders took last month’s entrance exam.

Hiring Kleinschmidt and fellow Gordon great Carl Maniscalco to assist him is another part of that revival. The last of Gordon Tech’s 12 Catholic League titles came in 2000. The Rams were buried under a 30-game conference losing streak when Kleinschmidt arrived. It ended with an improbable victory over St. Joe’s. Saturday’s victory over UIC Prep was their 14th of the season.

The 41 points they managed represented a decent night for Kleinschmidt and Maniscalco in their playing days, but the Rams held Leo to 26 with good execution of a switch-and-trap defense they had practiced.

“It’s a process, and I have to be patient,” Kleinschmidt says. “They’re kids, and they can only do what they can do. Relationships are more important than technical stuff at this level. I’m trying to teach responsibility and accountability. If you’re a minute late, you’re late. If you get detention, you don’t practice. And if you don’t come with energy, effort and passion, you won’t see the floor.”

The Rams don’t have to look far to see energy, effort and passion personified.

“Tom’s going to be a better coach than he was a player,” Chabura says. “The way he communicates, how the kids respond to him — it’s really something.”

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