Leo's Martez Hampton (5) drives toward the basket as Joliet Central's Jailen Jones (35) and Jaylen McGee (20) defend, December 26, 2013. | Allen Cunningham/For Sun-Times Media
I’d hoped to begin this screed with a PEORIA dateline and would have if the Leo Lions had reached the Class 2A state finals, but the slightly older, bigger and better Hales team we ran into last week in the Robeson Sectional final put an end to our season.
Disappointing, sure, but the kids I work with at Leo shouldn’t hang their heads. Our win total improved by 13 over the previous season, and let’s not delude ourselves — winning games is what matters in high school basketball, right? Why would a coach play an entire season with more than half a roster of academically ineligible kids if there were any other objective? Why else would a school hire a coach who promises to deliver a ready-made state contender with girls from outside the district?
Integrity? Play by the rules? Are you nuts? Just win, baby.
We won our share despite starting four sophomores most nights, so we have a chance to be good for a while if we can keep this group together. That’s an important qualifier. We brought four starters back from a team that lost in the 2A sectional finals two years ago, only to have two of them leave us for Public League powerhouse Simeon shortly before school resumed in the fall, for reasons that remain unexplained.
The same mom whom we could rarely reach to discuss her son’s classroom performance told a reporter they were making the move for academic reasons. We rolled our eyes at that claim. The father of the other boy wouldn’t return a phone call. I’d sat with him at games for two years, and not once had he voiced concern over how things were done at our school.
We could have contested the transfers but chose not to — we didn’t want to deprive the kids of their senior season. One of them helped Jabari Parker win yet another state title for Simeon. The other didn’t play a minute. The IHSA disallowed his transfer because he didn’t have a valid Chicago address, so he was deprived of his senior season anyway, a victim of his father’s misguided ambition.
It happens, and it’s not always the dads.
My first week on the job at Leo, a kid showed up with his mother’s boyfriend seeking to re-enroll after his mother removed him the previous spring, upset over an academic matter. The kid, a junior, had sprouted to 6-5 over the summer, and the boyfriend let us know that he’d made a splash on the AAU circuit.
He wanted to come back, and he was a good kid who’d made his grades and never caused trouble. He was welcome to return, but the boyfriend declared the issue of back tuition a deal-breaker when we raised it.
‘‘We were hoping you’d forgive that debt and give us a little more help going forward,’’ he said. ‘‘Otherwise we might have to go with one of the other schools that are after him.’’
We don’t do extortion, so go with God was our counter-offer. I haven’t seen or heard from them since they left the office. I felt badly for the boy.
A friend who loves basketball nearly as much as he loves kids was serving as a volunteer academic adviser at the West Side school where he taught a few years ago when he caught a star player cheating on a math test. After much agonizing, he turned him in. The kid was suspended from the team before the state tournament, in accordance with school rules. His mother got a lawyer, who got an injunction allowing him to play, on grounds that the suspension interfered with his ‘‘right’’ to earn a college scholarship.
The kid went Downstate. But my friend didn’t — he’d been threatened. He also changed jobs.
I grew up mesmerized by high school basketball — was it really 51 years ago that Anthony Smedley stole the ball and hit that buzzer-beater to lift Carver over Centralia in the state championship game? We’d sneak into the gym at Morgan Park to watch Mo Reddick start firing up and connecting on jumpers two dribbles past halfcourt. The DuSable Panthers visited Leo my senior year, and from my seat on the bench, I wondered how Kevin Porter and Tom ‘‘the Horse” Cowart could be our age, yet so much better. At a memorial for Dunbar great Billy ‘‘the Kid’’ Harris a few years back, I felt privileged to be among basketball royalty.
The talent today might be better. The game is not. We’ve corrupted it and stolen its soul.