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By Sridhar Pappu
At 6:45 on a Monday morning in the last week of September, Phil Gary, head basketball coach at Chicago State University, walks into the assistant coaches’ office, where one of his two paid assistants, Joe Boyd, is sitting on the desk. Their team, mostly newcomers from various junior colleges, is supposed to be in the gym practicing jump shots and free throws, but six players–including Jermaine “Squirt” Hicks, slated to be the team’s new starting point guard as well as its leader–haven’t yet arrived. Given the time of day, it’s reasonable to assume that they’re fast asleep in their dorm rooms.
By National Collegiate Athletic Association rule, no coach is supposed to watch players practice before the official start of the season, October 17. But they can check who’s there. Gary hands Boyd some Chicago State stationery and a list of the no-shows. “Have it say, ‘The following players are in violation of such-and-such team rule.’ Have ’em sign it–first warning–and then come see me.”
“OK,” Boyd says.
“What time you got to leave?”
“About 7:10, 7:15.”
“Why don’t you go over to the dorms?”
“See if they’re over there?”
“Yeah,” Gary says. “Matter of fact, tell them to get over here. Tell ’em to bring their stuff. They’re gonna run.”
Thirty minutes later Squirt arrives, his gym bag flung over his shoulder. Five-six and 155 pounds, he has a thin goatee, an almost triangular smile, and sharp features. He’s wearing a look that says, “I know I’m only five six, but I’m gonna outrun you to the basket, break up your passes, and let you know about it later.” Two years ago he was a star, averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 assists a game in his senior season for Thornridge High School. Topflight Division I schools such as the universities of Colorado and Illinois were interested in him, as were most of the schools in the Missouri Valley and Mid-Continent conferences. In 1995 basketball talent scout Larry Butler called him the most exciting as well as the quickest player in Illinois. But in the middle of his senior season Squirt got into a fight with another student in the locker room. “My mama always told me to defend myself,” he says, “so I defended myself.” He was suspended from school and returned to find that only four schools were still interested in him–Chicago State, Western Michigan, Southern Illinois, and Weber State in Ogden, Utah.
Chicago State never really had a chance. Gary, then the top assistant, had known Squirt since he was a 13-year-old in basketball camp. But Weber State had won more than 20 games in each of the three previous seasons, and that March it had beaten Michigan State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Squirt wanted to be where the winning was, and he was sold when he saw the lush campus in the hills of Ogden. It didn’t hurt that it was more than 15 minutes from home.
But in his freshman year Squirt fought with his coaches, and his playing minutes declined. He told head coach Ron Abegglen to play him or he’d leave. A few weeks before the start of his sophomore year he learned that Mark Coffman, the assistant coach who’d recruited him, had been fired. Squirt believed he’d just lost the only person who would stick up for him, the only one who was interested in seeing him succeed. Most schools were already in session and most scholarships spoken for, so he wound up at Chicago State.
Gary knew right away that he had a starter, a player with legitimate Division I skill–one who could lead a team, maybe even draw other players into the program. He knew he’d have to wait to see Squirt play–according to NCAA rules any scholarship player transferring from one four-year NCAA school to another must sit out an entire season. But he offered a scholarship, and Squirt accepted.
Now the waiting is over, and Squirt is testing his coach’s patience by being late for practice.
“What time do you got class?” Gary asks him.
“Eight o’clock,” Squirt says.
“You owe me two miles.”
“All right,” Squirt replies. “But ain’t nobody tell us around the dorm.”
“When I gave you your sweats I told you six o’clock.”
“You told me?”
“Yeah. You all are supposed to be getting each other up. Now everybody’s gotta run, because everybody’s supposed to be knocking on everyone’s door–especially in the dorms.”
Squirt nods and heads out to take his laps on the track.
Chicago State’s small, neatly planned campus of angular taupe buildings, its home since the school moved south from Englewood in 1972, is located well within the city limits, at 95th Street and King Drive, but it’s bordered to the west by a small stretch of woods and a long stream of bungalows and to the east by the Metra tracks and a Jays potato chip factory. It feels like an island. You can stand at the center of campus at midmorning and hear and see nothing–no groups of students rushing off to class, no one even avoiding class by sitting in the quad. There are 9,500 students at Chicago State, but only about 300 live on campus. Thirty-three percent of undergraduate and 85 percent of graduate students attend part-time–they go to class, then find their cars in the parking lot and drive back home.
Chicago State is on the bottom rung of area colleges, yet there’s a belief among the students that hard work and dedication can pay off–that from here there’s nowhere to go but up. The same sense of possibility has long surrounded the basketball team–if the school could just find the right coach, one who could persuade some of the city’s high school talent to stay close to home instead of going to Michigan or Syracuse or even Ball State, it could become a perennial power, just as Cleveland State once was and the University of Cincinnati is now.
That dream began back in 1984, when Chicago State left its secure and successful position in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics–where it averaged 25 wins over its last seven years–for the exposure, prestige, and heightened competition of the NCAA’s Division I. At first it seemed like a good idea. Bob Hallberg, the coach who brought the team through the transition, posted 16-11 and 22-6 records in the first two years. Then he did what a Chicago State coach is supposed to do–move on to a real coaching job with a real recruiting budget. He went to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he spent nine marginally successful years as head coach. Chicago State’s next coach, Tommy Suitts, turned in 26 wins and 58 losses between 1987 and 1990. Rick Pryor followed by winning 19 games in four seasons, a record nearly matched by his successor, former Chicago Bull Craig Hodges, who went 8-51. Before the 1994-’95 season Chicago State joined the Mid-Continent Conference, a second-tier league whose members now include the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Missouri at Kansas City, Northeastern Illinois, Oral Roberts, Southern Utah, Valparaiso, and Western Illinois. Chicago State has never recorded a winning season in the league.
Hodges was Phil Gary’s best friend, and in June 1995 he made Gary assistant coach, his first Division I job. Last fall Gary, now 37, became head coach, and the team again had a sense of possibility. “Hopefully, if I can win on the college level,” he says, “maybe I can get on as, you know, an assistant or scout in the NBA. You have to go on like everyone else. A lot of people use Chicago State as a springboard as far as education goes. You go to Chicago State for two and a half, three years, then boom. You get the classes you need, the grade point average, you transfer to UIC, Loyola, De Paul, Northwestern, then you get your degree from there. Me, I’m trying to use this as a springboard. But in another sense, if I can make this into a powerhouse, then, you know, I’m in it to win it.”
Until the age of 13, Gary says, he was a city boy whose view of the world was through the windows of the west side’s Rockwell Gardens and various south-side CHA projects. That changed one morning in seventh grade, when some gang members approached him about joining them. There were 12 or 15 of them, he remembers. He decked one, hit another with a garbage-can lid, and took off up Drexel to the 26th Street apartment he shared with his mother. He called her at work and within hours found himself in his grandmother’s car, heading to the south suburbs. There with his cousins, in their four-bedroom house in Dixmoor, Gary found a new life–quiet summer evenings and wide-open windows and unlocked front doors and bicycles. “You couldn’t do that in the projects, man,” Gary says. “You couldn’t leave your bicycle in the front yard. My cousin woke me up one morning, talking about how we had to cut grass. I was like, ‘Man, where are the janitors, you know, the maintenance guys?'”
A few months later his mother, a telephone operator, was transferred, and she and her son moved into a small apartment in a three-unit building in Harvey.
Gary had already established his basketball skills in park leagues and boys’ clubs, playing against a lot of regular kids and a few special ones who would one day wind up in NBA arenas. Friendships became deep because they saw one another so much, playing one-on-one, then in teams–so often that they began to feel like they could count on one another in times good and bad. That was how Gary became friends with Mark Aguirre, Isiah Thomas, and his best friend, Craig Hodges.
He and Hodges first met as junior high competitors, when Gary played for Dixmoor’s Martin Luther King and Hodges starred for Chicago Heights’s Washington. They stayed friends through high school, Gary at Thornton Township and Hodges at Rich East. As high school seniors, both were sought after by recruiters, until Tex Winter, then head coach at California State-Long Beach, approached the two after an all-star practice outside De Paul’s Alumni Hall in April 1978. Winter, author of the vaunted “triangle offense,” which he would later bring to the Chicago Bulls, told them he’d left his head-coaching job at Northwestern and offered them a chance to play together in California.
Only one other school had offered that chance, the University of Wyoming. “That was an experience,” Gary says, “driving through a town of about five people.” He went to Long Beach for a visit. The school put him up in the dry-docked Queen Mary, had a trainer measure him for a uniform, and sent him with a few team members to see Parliament in concert. He was a six-four-and-a-half, 18-year-old “funkateer,” and he saw a big happy family listening to “Flash Light” together, instead of a 48-hour fantasy almost scripted to be the best hours he would ever spend on campus.
After coming back from his own trip, Hodges called to say he wanted to go to Long Beach. Gary thought about it for a couple of days. He thought about the warm winters, the opportunity to play against top-caliber teams. He thought about his high school teammates Art Williams, who’d gone to Cal State-Fresno, and Rod Higgins, who would be there that fall. “So Art made a big name for himself out there,” he told himself. “If it was good enough for Art to go out west, why couldn’t I?”
When Gary and Hodges went to Long Beach in the fall of 1978, Gary was considered the program’s top recruit, and he planned to use the school as his entry into the NBA. But during his sophomore season Winter began decreasing his playing time and using him only sporadically–25 minutes one night, none the next. Hodges was flourishing under Winter’s triangle, shooting 49.9 percent from the field and averaging 12.5 points a game, and Gary could look in the papers and see friends like Mark Aguirre at De Paul drawing closer to their NBA dreams.
But the dream wasn’t coming true for Gary. He says, “I wasn’t really jealous. I was just like, man, I thought I could put up those same type of numbers.”
Gary learned of plans to move him from guard to forward, and before the start of his junior year he told Winter he intended to transfer. Winter and Hodges both believed he would come back. Gary says, “I was basically spoiled, a spoiled brat. Craig said, ‘Oh, you ain’t going nowhere. You’re coming back.'” But Gary went to Phoenix, where his mother had moved, and earned a junior college degree. Then he moved on to Quincy College, a small NAIA school in Illinois. Quincy was the only school that had recruited him with serious talk about his education. He also believed that the lower level of competition would allow him to score 50 points a game. “But man, to be able to miss a class and have an instructor and two students that barely know you come to bring you notes? ‘Hey Phil, you all right? You sick?’ That meant a lot that these people cared more for me as an individual and not an athlete. These people could care less if I scored 20, 30, or 18 or no points at all.” He earned two degrees, in criminology and social work, and graduated cum laude.
The closest Gary ever came to the NBA was a 1983 tryout with the Kansas City (now Sacramento) Kings. Two days later that dream was gone, and he was on a plane headed to the island of Malta to play for a team in the European leagues. He was leaving behind not just the NBA but a baby daughter from a relationship that hadn’t worked out; he had custody, and his mother would take care of the baby while he was gone.
The first things Gary noticed when he arrived were the Uzis–Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was moving through the airport–and the people staring up at him as if they’d never seen a six-foot-four black man. “My great-aunt said, ‘Well, you said you wanted to be a professional. You didn’t say where,'” he remembers.
He scored 57 points in his first game, and before the season was out he’d turned his team into a group of make-believe NBA stars. He called the shooting guard who resented foreigners Andrew Toney. He christened the seven-foot center Kareem and another player George Gervin. Fans of rival teams had a name for Gary, referring to him as “the black.” “When they said that I used to wave.”
Gary would take 200 to 300 shots on off days to lull his boredom, and one day he went to Stellamaris, a Maltese prep school for boys, to get some shooting in. The soccer coach, who was also the basketball coach, asked Gary to watch the basketball team for a day, then to work with it for a couple of days, then to coach it. “I looked at some of their scores,” Gary says. “They were getting beat 70-9. They didn’t care. All they cared about was soccer. The thing that caught me, you’d throw a kid a bounce pass–he’d catch it, bounce it off his chest. Or the ball’s rolling. I’d be like, ‘Man, get the ball.’ And they’d kick it to you. The first seven games, schools just knew they were going to beat us–but we just blew them away. They didn’t want to play us. So I just started challenging everybody.” In the end they went 31-1 and won the league championship.
Gary played three years with different teams in Malta, trying to move up through the European leagues. But by 1986 he was tired of watching taped NBA games dubbed into Italian, tired of eating lasagna and spaghetti for months at a time, tired of missing his daughter, tired of the endless mandatory scrimmages played outdoors on asphalt or concrete, and tired of the physical effort and politics required to advance to the NBA.
One afternoon when he and his teammates were in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, he went to cross the street and saw tanks and soldiers coming both ways. “I don’t need this,” he said to himself. The next day he took the 17-hour plane ride home.
Having seen the larger world, having had a three-bedroom condo on the Mediterranean, Gary came back to the world he’d come out of. He didn’t want to leave it again, so he found work as a bus driver for the CTA, where he stayed eight years. He and his daughter Loretta shared a one-bedroom apartment in Blue Island, but he didn’t mind sleeping on the couch while she took the bed.
Soon he began working on the side as a phys ed substitute teacher; eventually he taught full-time. He also coached the freshman and sophomore teams at two high schools and teams at two elementary schools and at Rosa Parks, a junior high in Harvey. His teams won everywhere.
Gary had watched his friend Craig Hodges average 17.5 points a game his senior season at Long Beach, then go on to the NBA, playing for four different teams in ten years, including the Bulls, whom he’d helped win their first two championships. He’d become a long-range specialist: twice he led the league in three-point shooting, and for three consecutive years–1990 through 1992–he came home from the league’s All-Star weekend with the three-point-shooting crown. But he’d been forced out of the NBA in 1992, having missed 26 games his last year because of injuries and averaged just 4.3 points a game when he did play. In 1994 Chicago State hired him to rebuild its team.
Hodges wanted Gary to come along. Gary’s coaching success had attracted the attention of Ball State and Wisconsin, both of which had hinted at offers of assistant-coaching jobs. “Everybody knew that Craig and I were best friends,” says Gary. “Once Craig got the job, everybody started backing off, because they basically knew I was gonna come.”
He finally agreed to go to Chicago State in June 1995, before the start of Hodges’s second season, taking the job “basically for the exposure.” He says he didn’t want to leave his team at Rosa Parks–a perennial playoff contender whose stars he’d worked with in elementary school–and he knew he would miss teaching. “With coaching the money’s cool,” he said one day after reading to a group of first-graders at Kich Elementary School in west Harvey, where he’d once taught. “But there’s nothing like catching somebody at a young age and teaching them something they’ll never forget, or teaching somebody the basic fundamentals of basketball and having them go out on the court and do it and be like, ‘This is what Mr. G taught me.'” Later he added, “First and foremost are my children. I want to open up all the doors that were closed to me.”
On paper Hodges seemed the ideal choice for Chicago State–a well-spoken community advocate, a man who could link the school to Michael Jordan and NBA glory and to the pool of south-suburban talent from which he’d come. But he was also a man who’d never been anything but a player–he’d never coached on any level before.
“I used to always tell Craig that a guy with his background, he should be able to recruit,” says Charles Smith, who became Chicago State’s athletic director 16 months after Hodges was hired. “Because all you got to do is look at ’em and say, ‘I know Chicago State’s been at the bottom, but I’ve got a vision, a new outlook. C’mon out. I’ll do whatever I can.’ Craig could walk into a mother’s house and say, ‘Look, if your son comes up with me, I got the contacts, I got the skill. I’m going to teach him.’ But we were getting jammed by the conference because all the coaches knew Craig wasn’t recruiting. So they used to pencil us in as two wins–they came in with the attitude that they would beat us.”
And they did. The team slipped from 6-20 in Hodges’s first season to 2-27 in his second. Worse, it seemed to Smith that Hodges made no effort to do anything about it. He was never on campus, he wasn’t recruiting, he came late to practice. It became apparent that something else was on his mind. “I can’t find a substitute [for the NBA] at all,” Hodges confessed to the Tribune in February 1996, as the team he was supposedly guiding fell to 304th out of 305 Division I schools. “That’s why I need to play, why I have to play.”
That March, after Chicago State ended its season by losing to Valparaiso 118-83 in the first round of the Mid-Continent Conference tournament, Smith got a call from Hodges. He told Smith he had an offer to play the last two weeks of the season with the Rockford Lightning in the Continental Basketball Association, the best minor league showcase for unheralded young players and veterans past their prime. Hodges, now 37, said he had to take this opportunity to display what he still had left and possibly parlay it into another shot with an NBA team.
Smith says, “I told him, ‘Look, you’re the coach. You know what your responsibilities are. But you’ve got to make a decision about your own life.’ But he just called me so if anyone asked he could say that he checked with me. The reason that hurt us–again it told coaches in our conference, ‘This guy ain’t serious.’ And it said that to other people, because I had some parents who called. ‘Well, your coach can’t be serious about coaching if he’s trying to play. So why should I send my kid up there?’ And Craig didn’t understand, or maybe he did, how that hurt.”
Asked if Hodges’s departure hurt the team, Gary says, “Yes and no. On one hand, you have other coaches saying, ‘Well, the head coach is off playing while his assistant’s recruiting.’ But you have to know Craig. He wanted to do both. He’s the kind of person that wants to do it all. He’ll give you the shirt off his back. That’s just the type of person he is.”
A couple of hours after sending Squirt out to take his laps, Gary is visited in his office by Hezzie Edwards and by Arliss Jones, who once coached Gary on a Pro-Am team and is now president of the Washington Park Small Fry basketball league for boys and girls ages 12 and under. Edwards and Jones have come at Gary’s request to talk about shoe discounts and uniform sales and the possibility of bringing some of their teams to Chicago State for a clinic or jamboree.
It’s hard to imagine De Paul coach Pat Kennedy, much less somebody like Indiana’s Bobby Knight, needing help from basketball’s equivalent of Little League, but their schools don’t have the game-attendance problems of Chicago State, which usually has trouble filling even half of its 2,500 seats. Part of Gary’s job is to promote the Chicago State program by speaking to church groups, reading to elementary school kids, and handing out schedules to everyone he sees. But the truth of the matter is that he likes bringing groups of kids to the games, just as he liked teaching elementary school and working in the area’s basketball camps, where he built lifelong friendships with players like Squirt and NBA superstars Juwan Howard and Antoine Walker.
Today Gary is preoccupied not with the players of the future but with those of the present–Squirt and the other five who were late this morning. He asks his old coach how to handle his stars, how to make them work. “All the guys that were on our team, how was it dealing with our egos?”
“You know what?” Jones responds. “I’ve always felt that you handle everyone differently. There are some guys, you holler at ’em.”
“That’s true,” Edwards says.
“Some guys, walk up with your arms around them–something like that,” Jones continues. “You’ve got to learn each individual and how to handle them.”
“That’s true too.”
“It’s up to you to learn the business,” Jones says. “I had a guy named Reggie. Reggie was a thug, a real thug, man. But he was a good ballplayer. I had to make Reggie captain. So now I got to tell him, ‘Hey, how are you going to tell somebody how to act if you act that way?'”
“Reverse psycho,” Edwards says.
“You just keep telling him that,” Jones says. “He really believed that shit.”
Over breakfast the conversation turns mostly to business. “What would be better,” says Gary, “a clinic or–”
Jones interrupts. “A clinic would be nice–especially if you could get anybody with any kind of name. I suppose you could get Craig to come, couldn’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Gary says softly, looking into his lap.
“OK,” Jones says, laughing. “All right.”
“I imagine Craig isn’t too anxious to come over here,” Edwards says.
“I can understand that,” Jones says. “Now let me ask you something. When you say Converse will sponsor, the kids will play ball, eh? You gonna get us some shoes at low prices?”
“Oh yeah,” Gary says, “definitely.”
“Our kids are poor, man,” Jones says. “I ain’t gonna lie to you.”
“When I went to Converse,” Gary says, “that’s what I told them. So like I say, you all helping me, I’ll be helping you. What I want to do with Small Fry is have a tournament, start from the bottom up.”
“Let me tell you, Phil,” Jones says toward the end of the conversation. “You help people out, Phil. Because later you don’t know, you don’t have any idea who’s going to end up doing something about it.”
By the third of October Gary has begun to hear complaints from Joe Boyd and the other assistant coach that Squirt has fallen behind in his preseason conditioning and isn’t taking his weight-training regimen as seriously as he should. They say the little hard work Squirt is doing comes in bursts–in Gary’s presence.
Gary decides that if Squirt is to become a leader, he might have to be made an example of. Sitting in the office of Larry Holmes, the seventh-grade basketball coach at Gwendolyn Brooks Junior High in Harvey who had Squirt as a point guard, Gary says, “I’m about to suspend Squirt.”
Holmes says, “Tell me about it. No practice? Not going to class?”
“Nah, he’s taking care of his books. It’s his attitude. They’re saying when I’m not there he don’t work.”
“Well, you have to sit down and talk with him.”
“I have to break him down.”
“No problem with that,” Holmes says. “But at the same time you don’t want to lose him. He’s got a close relationship with you.”
“But it’s like I tell him–this is a business.”
Driving back to Chicago State, Gary says, “His whole thing is going to be, he’s only here because of me. But Squirt can’t have a chip on his shoulder. You can’t go through life with a chip on your shoulder. It’s all right to have that cocky attitude, but it’s only going to take you so far. I learned that firsthand.”
Gary stands in a corner of the quad and watches Squirt come up from the south parking lot. “There’s the man I wanted to see,” he says when Squirt gets close enough.
“They dropped me from my English class,” Squirt says. “They say I can’t be in English 271 without having taken the placement test. I took the placement test a long time ago, coach. I passed.”
Gary has to deal with similar minicrises almost daily. There was a player the school’s NCAA compliance officer thought was ineligible, but wasn’t. There was a player the university police accused of stealing, even though he hadn’t stolen anything. At other schools the professor or the police officer might receive a visit from an assistant coach. At Chicago State they get Gary.
“I need you,” Gary says as he walks with Squirt to the business administration building to get the matter resolved. “You’re the only player that’s been in a big-time program, who’s seen what it’s like to be successful.”
“I want you, me, and Joe to sit down so we can define our roles,” Squirt says. “I’m busting my tail, coach. I’m lifting on my own as well as with y’all.”
“Joe doesn’t think you’re putting out your all.”
“I am putting out my all, coach!” Squirt says. “I’m knocking on everybody’s doors! I’m getting in the gym! I think Joe’s got a problem with me from the summer–that’s how I see it, coach! Joe’s taking everything I do and is trying to put it all negative to get me in trouble.” He points to his chest. “But I ain’t doing nothing wrong!”
Later that day the English 271 problem has been resolved, and Squirt is sitting in the hallway outside Phil’s office. Joe Boyd opens the door and walks past him with only a hint of recognition. Squirt smiles, shakes his head, then stares at his lap.
Gary comes out and waves Squirt into Boyd’s office. As he closes the door on them, Gary says, “You two settle this.”
Gary coached his first game for Chicago State on December 2, 1996, a 94-44 road-game thrashing at the hands of the University of Maryland–the team’s 15th straight loss.
Hodges, who wasn’t able to turn his two weeks in the CBA into a tryout with the NBA, had come back to coaching that fall, but two nights before the Maryland game Smith received a phone call from him. “Craig did not tell me that he needed to be off or that he needed a couple of vacation days or whatever. Craig said that he needed an indefinite leave of absence. So it wasn’t like he said, ‘I need a week off, doc’ or ‘three days off’ or ‘My wife’s ill, I need to take some time.’ Because that wouldn’t have been an issue. But when you’re saying you’re taking an indefinite leave of absence–you’re saying what? I don’t know what’s going on.”
Smith knew that Hodges had filed a racial discrimination suit on November 18, charging that his NBA career had ended not because of his diminishing basketball skills but because of his Afrocentric views. Smith and other CSU officials assumed it was because Hodges was busy with the suit that he couldn’t make the Maryland game. But later Hodges told them it was because he and his family had had a car accident coming back from CSU’s November 30 game at Bradley.
When the team went to Maryland, Smith traveled with them for the first time. He saw three players with laundry bags flung over their shoulders, their uniforms stuffed inside. Another had a gym bag so worn and damaged the airline was afraid to place it in the baggage hold. When Smith asked where their travel bags were he was told that they hadn’t been ordered. “We looked like a rag-doll group,” Smith says. “I was so embarrassed.”
After they arrived in College Park, Smith got another call from Hodges, who said he’d changed his mind about coming but couldn’t get a flight until Monday, the day of the game. “I said, ‘Craig, don’t come then. Why do you want to show up the day of the game? And you’re the coach! Because psychologically, we’re going to have a worse mess than we’ve got. You’re not here with the guys, you didn’t get here tonight–but you’re going to show up tomorrow morning or in time for the game? There’s gonna be confusion.’ But if I were the coach, I’d show up. I’d say, ‘Look, this is my team, and until you fire me this is my team.’ But Craig didn’t do anything.”
During the game Smith sat on the bench with Gary and the team. Most of Smith’s family was sitting in the stands directly behind him. He’d been born in Virginia, had worked for George Mason University before coming to Chicago State, and had cousins who were Maryland alumni. This was supposed to be a reunion of sorts, and he’d wanted to show them just how far the CSU program had come.
But when Gary sent freshman Jaamal Johnson into the game, Smith could feel his relatives trying not to laugh. “All of a sudden the whole place starts going off and groaning. I was like, ‘What the devil?’ And I look out on the court–we got a player on the court with a different pair of shorts. One person behind us jumped up and said, ‘What the devil are you all doing? He’s got on a different pair of shorts! You all ain’t a team!’ I was so embarrassed.”
Hodges returned as coach after the Maryland game and promptly lost the next two games to Loyola (107-82) and the University of Illinois at Chicago (77-66). Three days after a third loss, to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Smith gave Hodges’s job to Gary.
“I had every confidence that Phil could do the job,” Smith says. “Because Phil had a different level of hunger. At practice Phil always seemed to be the guy there on time. The guys seemed to respect Phil. And we had gone to other schools and a lot of the guys that were playing for other teams knew Phil. I was like, ‘How do you know these guys?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, I used to coach him in junior high’ or ‘I used to coach him in camp.’ I was like, ‘Dang. Well, if you know all these guys, how come we ain’t getting any of them?’ We needed someone who had a good rapport within the city in terms of other coaches and some good rapport with players who had grown up playing basketball here. We were at a crisis point. We don’t have the dollars to put any coach on an airplane and send him to Croatia. I thought Phil could help.
“I knew that he was going to get ribbed or bothered by people saying that he backstabbed Craig or whatever. But it was nothing like that. I told him he was just gonna have to let people know. Because Phil was always there for Craig. I mean, he was trying to shore up the ship when Craig didn’t show up for practice. He would get guys in the gym.”
“It was awkward,” Gary says. “Here my friend gave me the opportunity, brought me into the program, and boom. All of a sudden he’s gone. But this job right here isn’t about friendship. You either put up or shut up. That’s one thing you learn about the college level. It’s a business. You have to put friendships aside and treat it like a business.”
Gary managed to take Western Michigan to overtime in his first game, and he won on the road, beating Central Connecticut and stopping the losing streak at 23. He also won three more games that season. He might have done better if he’d had more players, but by the season’s end there were only six. He’d lost two to academic suspensions and one to injuries; another player had got in a fight with Gary and quit before Gary’s first month was over.
“He was trying to teach,” Squirt says. “But there’s only so much you can do with five, six guys.”
The team ended the season by losing to the State University of New York at Buffalo in the first round of the Mid-Continent tournament. Gary released three more players from their scholarships and began to try to find himself a new team.
He had $2,000–the lowest recruiting budget of any Division I school. “My budget was gone as soon as I started out,” he says. “But we were going to get as many as possible. When we lost to Buffalo we started right after the game. I was back at the hotel and I started calling.”
He began with a list of a hundred players, most of them from junior colleges. To a coach intent on building a team, a junior college player has two valuable assets: two years of competitive experience and instant eligibility. Unlike a transfer from another four-year school, a junior college graduate can play as soon as he arrives. Bigger-name programs shy away from them, but Gary knew a school like Chicago State wasn’t going to be able to attract top high school players and had to look to the junior college players if it wanted to win. That strategy had worked beautifully for the University of Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins, who’d built an overnight powerhouse–though his players have a poor graduation rate and the team is now undergoing an NCAA investigation for, among other things, recruiting violations.
Gary recruited nine new players, including Federico Carlotta, a lanky, blue-eyed freshman from Argentina he learned about from an old teammate in Malta and quickly saw as his Toni Kukoc. He also recruited Demetrius and Demont Payton, twins he’d first seen at a tournament in Terre Haute. Not having a respected program to sell, he sold himself. He was, he told his recruits, the man who’d done what they wanted to do–go to California in search of women and sunshine and the promise of the west–only to come right back. He was the person who could help them graduate, the coach who could help make them famous as storybook heroes who turned a disaster into a successful program.
The pitch worked on some of the players, including John “Big John” Smith, a six-eight center from Wabash Valley Community College. His first choice had been UIC, where his old junior college coach, Mark Coomes, had become an assistant coach. “Me and him were damn near friends,” says Big John. “He’d come down to school to see me. He’d call my mother every day–every day. Take her to lunch, call her job. I mean he really, really was on us. Oh, there was a whole bunch of shit that I didn’t buy there. They had guys that were seniors, and they said I could be starting, no problem. But I knew all the guys, so I was talking to the guys on the phone, and they told me what the game plan was. You know, here I’m dealing with the man, I’m dealing with Coach Phil. He’s not a showboat. He’s gonna tell you how it is.”
On the evening of October 20, the second day of practice, Joe Boyd is sitting on his desk talking to Squirt, who’s hugging the edge of the doorway, only his face and part of his shoulder visible. Their feud is only three weeks behind them, but their respect for each other makes it seem years ago.
They’re talking about the failure of last year’s campaign. “If you think about it,” Boyd says, “most of the great teams end up struggling against somebody that they should blow away. They start playing them, their level drops. They’re kind of nervous. Then they relax, say, ‘We’re champions,’ and bring it back up. That’s why we were in some games right there with people. Indiana State, we had them on the ropes. Then they said, ‘We’re champions,’ and got it done.”
“I don’t see it that way,” Squirt says. “The way I see it, y’all just ran out of guys.”
“That too,” Boyd says. “But you’re the point guard, and you’ve had championship experience. You’ve had major D one experience, right?”
“I’m with you there.”
“So you have to keep us at a level, so as a team if we get them on the ropes we’ve got to finish them.”
During a two-ball, three-man passing drill, Federico Carlotta begins to lose his teammates. Gary says it’s because they’ve never seen a big man who can deliver a no-look pass. “That’s the way they play in Europe,” he says. Big John works on improving his figure-eight hook shots, while Squirt shows everyone who’s master of one-on-one, clinging to his man, judging each step as if the other player’s foot were his own. “Did you see how Squirt was going at his opponent?” Gary asks, his voice rising enthusiastically. “A real basketball player’s gonna get the job done.”
By mid-December the team has lost eight straight games. Big John left after the opening 105-59 loss to Iowa, telling Gary simply that he didn’t want to play basketball anymore. That left the team without a starting player taller than six seven. After they lost to Loyola by six points, Gary was quoted in the Tribune saying, “Our guys gave the best they have, but we have no big men. We’re midgets.”
Buffalo 90, Chicago State 83. Gary started Allen Watts, who’s only six four, at center. Remarkably, Chicago State out-rebounded Buffalo, which had six players taller than six seven, 57-44. Yet the CSU players shot only 37.6 percent from the field and made just 13 of their 21 free throws.
The December 6 Buffalo game, like most of the season, belonged to Squirt. He made the team’s first three-pointer with less than 17 minutes left in the first half, and he helped erase a 16-point deficit with assist after assist–seven in all. He led the team in scoring, with 21 points, and with his team down two and 54 seconds left, double teamed going to the basket, he turned away from his defenders and fired a pass to Demont Patton, who was standing just inside the three-point line. “If I give you this pass you’d better not miss,” his scrunched-up face seemed to say. Demont didn’t, putting the game into overtime, but CSU was outscored 11-4.
“I’m proud of y’all,” Gary says in a soft voice to the team gathered around him in the locker room afterward. “They didn’t expect it to be this close.”
He turns away and begins to write in capital letters on the blackboard. “This is our new motto right here,” he says. “Read this shit here. This is what we’re going to go by.”
The team read in unison, “WE CANNOT GO BACK AND MAKE A NEW START, BUT WE CAN NOW START AND MAKE A NEW BEGINNING.”
The next day Gary says, “If I had one person, one man that could give us ten rebounds, ten points…” His voice trails off. Asked if he regrets not going to work under Jimmy Collins at UIC or Steve Fisher at the University of Michigan–both of whom, it was rumored, wanted Gary to leave his head coaching job to be their top assistant–he says, “Naw, man,” though he knows that the man Fisher ended up choosing, Brian Ellerbe, became Michigan’s head coach after Fisher was fired. “‘Cause I’m still up for the challenge. If I don’t win at Chicago State it won’t be for lack of effort. And it would be more of a challenge to win here, because people don’t expect you to win. And if you don’t win, people’ll say, ‘Well, I told you so.’ I don’t regret it. Once I step forward I’m gonna go all out. That’s just like I tell the kids on defense, ‘When you think about double teaming, when you make that step, you got to follow through with it.'”
Chicago State would lose five more games before beating the University of Missouri at Kansas City 79-69–their first win of the year. On January 15, with 11 more games left in the season, they play Northeastern Illinois, which has lost eight in a row and won’t even exist next year because the school has decided to drop Division I athletics altogether. But the CSU team, playing before only 144 people, falls behind early, trailing by ten with five minutes and 36 seconds left in the first half.
Again the game belongs to Squirt, because nobody else seems to want it. He scores 30 points and hits nine of his ten free throws. He plays 42 minutes and delivers nine assists–the most crucial of which comes with only ten seconds left in the game. With Chicago State down 72-69, Squirt drives to the basket and finds his teammate Rahsaan Mitchell alone and unguarded, waiting outside the three-point line. Squirt flashes the ball to Rahsaan, expressing confidence in his ability to make the three-pointer. And he does.
But overtime is highlighted by Squirt’s first missed free throw and Northeastern guard Brad Bestor’s five points–his first of the game. Chicago State loses 85-82.
In the locker room afterward there’s a sickly silence. Then Gary, the whole team around him, explodes. “One and 15! North fucking eastern! I’ve had it! I’ve had it!” he screams. “Y’all better get better at your math. I’ve got ten scholarships. Whoever don’t want to be here next year, whoever don’t want to work, let me know, and I’ll find somewhere else for you to play!”
Later in the hallway Squirt paces, recounting his one mistake. “Damn. I should have made that free throw. I mean, I’m not saying I lost the game, but man.”
Upstairs Gary walks slowly into his office, shaking his head. He slouches against his desk. “I can’t believe it,” he says in a quiet voice. “I just can’t believe it.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Jim Alexander Newberry.