In 1954 Shelly Stark graduated from South Shore High School, and last year he came back. The 67-year-old retired marketing executive–who’s a legend among local basketball aficionados for the summertime hoop tournaments he once ran–has taken an unpaid job as a one-man booster for his alma mater. “This is my mission, my love, my life,” says Stark. “This is where I want to be.”
There are, of course, other Public League grads who’ve returned to their former schools with similar missions. But few schools have been as cut off from their graduates as South Shore. Most of the graduates of Stark’s generation moved far away from the community when it changed from white to black in the late 1960s. But Stark says he never gave up his allegiance to his high school even after he moved out of South Shore in the early 1970s. “I always thought of the school as my home–my base,” he says.
His father, William, was a Jewish immigrant who came to Chicago from Lithuania and made a living selling groceries wholesale to various mom-and-pop stores in the steel mill towns of northwest Indiana. His mother, Esther, was a housewife. The family, which also includes Stark’s older brother, B.J., lived in a two-bedroom apartment on Kingston near 76th, just a few blocks east of the school, at 7529 S. Constance.
“I was one of those kids with a limitless passion for sports. I could play all day and all night if you let me,” says Stark. “The greatest thing that ever happened to me was that I lived near a vacant lot on Kingston. I grew up across the street from the O’Connell boys, Tommy and his brother, Leo. I was fortunate to be their neighbor. Their father put up a basket on that empty lot and we played basketball all the time. I learned the game on that vacant lot.”
In his senior year at South Shore, Stark was the starting guard on a basketball team that won its division. “My greatest thrill in high school sports came on my last game in the old gym,” he says. “We beat CVS by one point, 50-49. I had one of my best games. I scored 12 points. The student body carried me off the court.”
After high school, he served in the army and then graduated from Roosevelt University with a business degree. “In the 60s and 70s a lot of the old South Shore guys moved north or to the suburbs when the neighborhood changed,” says Stark. “I stayed for a long time, then I moved out. But I stayed on the south side. I moved to Prairie Shores [the housing complex] on 29th Street. I’m a south-sider–I wouldn’t really feel right living anywhere else.”
He got married, had a daughter, got divorced, went to work for various real estate companies managing south-side properties, and eventually took a job writing catalogs and promotional material for a jewelry business. He also stayed active in basketball. “I wasn’t a player–I quit playing long ago–so much as a coach and a fan and just a lover of the game,” he says.
Through the 1960s and ’70s, Stark was one of the few white faces at west- and south-side gyms for high school or summer-league games. “Look, I’m not naive–I know that some black guys might not see past the fact that I’m white,” he says. “But that’s just a few people, and I can’t worry about them. You have to realize–sports changed my life. It opened up new worlds. Mostly I don’t think about black or white. These guys I meet–the coaches, the players–are my friends. We watch the games and then we hang out. I fit in like a glove. I was myself. I never tried to be black. I was just a south-side Jewish guy. That’s good enough.”
There are former basketball players throughout the city who recall the times they spent with Stark 30 or 40 years ago. “Shelly used to come to all of my games,” says Lloyd Batts, a standout guard at Thornton Township High School in the late 60s. “Shelly was just one of those guys who never had any problems wherever he went. Know why? Because Shelly’s just Shelly. He’s not putting on any show or front. He’s just who he is. He’s probably the only white guy who can walk into a gym and no one will say, ‘Hey, who’s that white guy?’ And if someone does say that, everyone else’s gonna say, ‘You don’t know who Shelly is?'”
In 1968 Stark got a gig coaching in a summer pro-amateur league at the Martin Luther King Boys Club on the west side. “That was just about the greatest time I ever had,” he says. “Nobody gets paid, it’s all love of the game. We had playground legends going up against NBA guys. Everyone who was anyone played in that league. A lot of the Bulls from back then–Norm Van Lier, Bob Love, Flynn Robinson–stayed around in the summer to play there. They wanted to stay sharp and they knew this was a tough place to play. I remember [former Bulls coach] Dick Motta called me up. He said, ‘Shelly, we have a number one draft choice who’s never been around black guys. Can you take him on your team?’ That was Tom Boerwinkle. I’ll never forget when he showed up. He looked around the gym, and then he came up to me and said, ‘Shelly, where are the whites?’ I said, ‘Tom, this is it.’ But he got along fine.”
Stark coached in the Martin Luther King league for ten years. In 1978, after it folded, he and a friend, Greg Carney, formed a new pro-am league. “We ran that league out of different schools over the years,” says Stark. “We had eight teams and played for nine weeks and we had some great coaches–Jimmy Collins, Bo Ellis, Lloyd Batts, Robert Collins, Sonny Cox, Don Pittman. In 1988 Michael Jordan played. We were at IIT back then.”
Jordan played three seasons in the summer league, says Stark. “MJ’s last game was a classic shoot-out against a team with Tim Hardaway. This was before Tim had made it in the pros. He was just coming out of college and a lot of people didn’t know him. But on the south side Tim was huge, and, man, you should have been there for that game. The place was packed. We had people coming in from all over, lining up outside the door, to see MJ and Hardaway free of charge.”
According to Stark, Jordan’s team won by two points, as both players scored 45 points. “Here’s the kicker. About 13 years later I’m over at Hoops the Gym and I hear Michael’s in the locker room. So I go in and there he is. I said, ‘MJ, remember me?’ He looks at me, but he doesn’t see it. Let’s face it, the guy meets a million people, he can’t remember them all. I said, ‘Come on, MJ, how can you forget this face?’ He said, ‘Give me a hint.’ I said, ‘Summer, pro-am league–IIT.’ He breaks into a big smile and says, ‘Shelly!'”
In 1993 Stark stopped running the tournament. In 2002 he retired from the jewelry business. He was looking for something special to do in retirement when Billy Gerstein, an old friend who now works at South Shore, suggested he start an alumni club. “I bounced the idea off of Don Pittman, who used to coach basketball here and is now one of the top administrators in the central office,” says Stark. “Don talked with [school CEO] Arne Duncan. They thought it was a great idea. So here I am.”
To his delight, he’s discovered a few familiar faces in the school, including Batts, who’s now a gym teacher and the boys varsity basketball coach. “It’s like old times for me and Shelly,” says Batts.
Of course, a lot has changed at the school since he went there. In the 70s a second building was built just north of the original school to help ease overcrowding. In the last few years South Shore’s been divided into four small schools within one school. A new principal, Leonard Kenebrew, was brought in by Duncan to oversee all four schools. “Shelly’s been a great addition,” says Kenebrew. “We need guys like him. He’s got energy and love for the school. It’s contagious.”
Stark’s “office,” as he jokingly calls it, is a storage room adjoining the library in the new building. “It’s got everything I need–a desk, a chair, a phone, and a copy machine,” he says. He comes there four or five days a week, sitting amid stacks of old yearbooks and textbooks. Over time it’s become the place to be, as teachers, coaches, and kids drop by to make a call, copy a piece of paper, or trade wisecracks with Stark.
I visited him there one day last week. “I call my group the South Shore Tars Alumni Club,” he explains. “Why the Tars? ‘Cause that’s the school nickname. What do I do? I go to reunions, I call old graduates. I get mailing lists. I send out letters. I want to raise money for a scholarship fund for the kids. I want to buy uniforms and supplies. I want to have a big annual dinner. Put up some banners in the gym. Retire some uniforms. Let these kids feel connected to the great school and its past.”
As he talks, Tommy Gray, a senior on the football team, walks in and slumps against the wall.
“What’sa matter, Tommy?” asks Stark. “You’re sniffling.”
“I got a cold, Shelly,” Gray says.
“Gotta drink some tea,” says Stark.
A girl comes in to use the telephone. Batts comes in to use the copy machine. “Did I tell you Lloyd played on my pro-am team at the Martin Luther King Boys Club?” asks Stark. “I didn’t have to worry about calling plays with shooters like Batts. At the end of the game I’d call time-out and say, ‘Get the ball to Lloyd and let him shoot.’ That man could shoot.”
“Hey, Shelly, why’s the phone not working?” the girl interrupts.
“It’s not working ’cause you’re not using it right. You gotta dial nine,” says Stark.
A chubby freshman wanders in, as Stark launches into a story about Don Pittman. “I was at a pro-am league and this guy comes in and says, ‘Shelly, how can I be a coach in this league?’ I said, ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I’m Don Pittman–I just got the coaching job at South Shore High School.’ I said, ‘South Shore High School! I love that school. You can start coaching right now.'”
The freshman clears his throat. “I need a book,” he says. Stark shakes his head. “Wrong guy. You need Tommy McDonald, the librarian.”
The kid looks confused.
“You know, the short white guy,” Stark says. “The other white guy!”
Stark turns back to me. “Let’s visit the old gym.” He walks out of the new building and heads south along Constance to the original school. He enters through the front door, slips through the metal detectors, and says hello to the guards. The gym’s on the second floor, just off the stairs. A class is in session. “Hey, Shelly,” a kid calls out.
Stark waves and grabs a basketball. His first shot caroms off the rim, the second slips in. “I didn’t know you could shoot, Shelly,” says Donald Grayson, a sophomore.
“Ah, this is nothing,” says Stark. “You should have seen me in my day.”
Grayson and the class head outside, but Stark stays to take a few last shots. “This is the gym where they carried me out on their shoulders,” he says. “I love this gym. I love this school. Being here’s the best thing I can do–not just for these kids but for me. This will add 20 years to my life.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.