While professional sports chokes on its riches, the city’s high school teams prevail in the face of poverty. Coaches are paid a pittance, and there’s little money for equipment or facilities. This year’s soccer team at Roosevelt High School, for instance, didn’t even have enough shorts for all of its players.

“I see some of the kids on my soccer team crying in the locker room after we lost in the playoff, it breaks my heart,” says Manny Weincord, a coach and gym teacher at Roosevelt. “I tell them, ‘Guys, there are no losers in this locker room. Anyone who plays with your kind of spirit is a winner.'”

High school may be a different place today than when Roosevelt’s legendary basketball squad of 1952 went all the way to win the city championship. Students now count on sports as their primary ticket to college, which wasn’t as true four decades ago. But the most common success stories involve athletes who are students first, able to use sports instead of being used by sports.

A good example of the student athlete is Danielle Green, captain of Roosevelt’s girls basketball team. Rather than attending a high school closer to her Englewood home, she enrolled at Roosevelt because of its computer program. But after a brilliant freshman basketball season, several high schools tried to recruit Green, luring her with promises of a prime spot on a high-profile team. It was a classic case of a teenager being pressured into believing that the only way to advance to college was by playing for a major high school powerhouse.

Green resisted the pressure and remained at Roosevelt. Her team never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs, and the downtown papers rarely mentioned her name. But Green was an honor student, her basketball skills progressed, and by the start of her senior year at least five colleges were hotly recruiting her. “I decided on Notre Dame,” Green says. “But I’m not going there just to play sports. I’m going there to get a degree.”

Inspiration stories in high school sports are not limited to students. Last January a 28-year-old lawyer named Lou Wool, feeling confined by his daily routine, called Weincord and asked if he could help him coach the boys basketball team. He spent one season as Weincord’s assistant and discovered that his true love was coaching and teaching. Over the summer he left law and applied for teaching jobs in high schools throughout the Chicago area. This year he’s teaching special education and coaching the sophomore boys basketball team at Evanston Township High School, his alma mater.

“I learned a lot about the need to have perspective from that season with Manny,” says Wool. “All during the games Manny would be hollering at the players, like most coaches do, but afterwards he’s telling jokes and making the kids laugh. He says to me, ‘Louie, I think you’ll agree, there’s a lot worse that can happen to you than losing a game.'”

Arnie Kamen, an options trader who graduated from Roosevelt with Weincord more than 40 years ago, has organized a benefit old-timers game this Friday with such legendary prep stars of the 50s as Jerry “Moose” Malitz, “Sweet” Charlie Brown, Howie Carl, Ed Rothenberg, Lou Landt, Fred Rosen, Abe Booker, and Harvey Babetch. The money raised will help pay for athletic equipment for the school and college scholarships for graduating seniors.

Many of the old-timers are on a team that regularly competes against other players over the age of 50. “We play in tournaments all over the country, and we’re pretty good,” says Mickey “No Nose” Rotman, a lawyer and member of the ’52 champs. “Somebody says sports builds character. But I believe sports brings out character. A schmuck is a schmuck, whether he plays basketball or not. You play ball for an hour, and you’ll figure a guy out.”

The highlight of the evening should be the halftime show, where Kamen will introduce Weincord and Moose Malitz, starting center on the ’52 championship squad. Malitz and Weincord are funnier roasters than Sullivan High School alum Shecky Greene. Weincord also plans to play in the game.

“I played regularly until my asthma started bothering me,” says Weincord. “But I think I’m going to give it a try. Like I say, with the exception of not being able to breathe, I feel wonderful.”

The game gets under way at 6:30 this Friday night in the gymnasium of Roosevelt High School, 3436 W. Wilson. Tickets cost $12. Call 708-432-2773 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.