By Jeremy Mullman

The west side playground is a wasteland of crannied asphalt, discarded bottle caps, and broken glass. It’s flanked on one side by the enormous rust-brick edifice of Delano Elementary School, on the other by a torn fence, a slew of loiterers, and the occasional police car. The evening is chilly, but the playground isn’t deserted. A skinny cornrowed kid wearing a stretched-out orange T-shirt and baggy black sweatpants holds court at the top of the basketball key, pounding a worn-out ball into the blacktop while two friends try to take it from him.

Watching them, Jitim Young laughs. “Yeah, that’s how it is sometimes. Like 11, 11:30 at night we’d be out here playing. And that’s when I was like their age. I mean, when I was trying to play they wouldn’t even let me because I was too little.”

Young no longer has that problem. In February the Gordon Tech senior led his school to the Catholic North division title, and this fall the skills he honed on this dismal playground in West Garfield Park will carry him to Northwestern University. The distance seems modest enough–only 16 miles–but it’s been years since anyone traveled it.

Young is already wearing Northwest-ern’s colors, a baggy purple-and-black parka covering his six-one, 180-pound frame, an Adidas Big Ten gym bag at his feet. He’s the first black Chicago high schooler to accept a basketball scholarship to Northwestern since Art Aaron of Saint Ignatius in 1980. In two decades Northwestern has landed only five basketball players from Chicago, three white and two black. The black players were both second-generation Northwestern students, one of whom had attended a Virginia boarding school.

Young is many things, but a Northwestern “legacy” isn’t one of them. When he was four years old the state took him from his mother and put him in a foster home. Eventually his grandmother won custody of him. She sent him to Delano Elementary and made him study. At Delano he earned a scholarship to Gordon Tech, where he earned a spot in the National Honor Society and the basketball scholarship to Northwestern. He wants to study business or computer science–maybe both. Then he wants to play in the NBA.

“I think I can make it if I continue to work hard,” he says. “But you know, if not, with a degree from Northwestern, I think doors just open up.” He laughs. “Just like that. Good jobs or something. Raise a family. Everything.”

Melda Potts, Northwestern’s coordinator of African-American outreach, has been waiting for someone like Jitim Young to come along ever since she got to Northwestern a year ago. She plans to ask him to participate in the school’s “ambassadors” program, which sends successful students back to their high schools for recruiting. “[If Young succeeds at Northwestern,] NU wouldn’t be something foreign,” she explains. “Sometimes I go out to schools where people don’t know where we are, or if they can afford to come here. But it is obtainable, and he could show them that.”

Her one-year-old position exists because the school she works for has needed a figure like Young for a long time. During Northwestern’s 1996-’97 academic year, black enrollment fell to 6 percent; Latino enrollment was at 3 percent. Minority students, angered by decades of dwindling enrollment, erupted. There were rallies and protests. The African-American student group For Members Only sponsored a campus speech by Khallid Mohammed, whom Louis Farrakhan dismissed from the Nation of Islam for being too inflammatory. University president Henry Bienen convened a task force of students, faculty, and administrators to examine the school’s minority recruitment. A report issued the following fall concluded that in recruiting Chicago-area blacks and Hispanics, the elite Evanston university “was more active in the 1970s than it has been in the last ten years. Indeed, one member of the Task Force has spoken eloquently about the ‘loss of our franchise’ in Chicago with respect to the African-American community.”

Potts’s mission is to rebuild the bridges between Northwestern and minority students in Chicago, especially those at Catholic schools, who tend to be better prepared for college. Many of the high school students she meets think of Northwestern as “an excellent school, hard to get into, and really expensive.” But that’s only if they think of it at all.

“At Northwestern there is always a tension between reaching out to Chicago and reaching out to the country and the world,” says Eugene Lowe, assistant to the president. “But you have to build up your critical mass in the city so you can build up your competitiveness on the national front.” An African-American, Lowe chaired the 1997 task force that urged Northwestern to reassert itself in Chicago, the city touted as an asset in the university’s glossy recruiting brochures. He fears that in its quest to join the elite ranks of schools like Stanford, Duke, and Georgetown, Northwestern has allowed itself to become all but invisible in Chicago.

The most tangible result of the task force’s “Greater Chicago Initiative” is the hiring of Potts and Beatrice Figueroa, who coordinates Latino recruitment. Yet Potts says she spends as much time working in the student affairs department as in admissions, where her duties include not only recruiting but advising students, planning campus events, reading applications, and even helping to run the campus’s new multicultural center. “I don’t feel overwhelmed,” she says. “Could I use more support staff? Sure. But the biggest challenge for this position is time. The relationships we’re trying to build don’t develop in one visit. Not in a month or a year either.”

Potts might be willing to grin and bear it, but Maria Perez Laubhan, the school’s first Hispanic-outreach coordinator, resigned last spring after less than a year, complaining in the Daily Northwestern of “minimal support.” Northwestern tried to entice her to stay with the promise of part-time help, but Laubhan felt the job of improving NU’s relationship with Latino students in Chicago still would have been too much. “Although the restructured position was more feasible, it was certainly still at least a job and a half,” she said. “The only option was to cut back on the work I was doing. I would have preferred to do more rather than less, adding another position rather than just abandoning some of the efforts and projects I had started.”

Lowe and Potts will be happy to see Jitim Young arrive in the fall, but no one will be happier than Kevin O’Neill. Young says the Northwestern basketball coach offered him a scholarship during their first conversation the summer before Young’s junior year. For more than a year after that, says Young, he received countless letters from O’Neill, and during a summer league game in Chicago he looked up and saw the entire Northwestern roster sitting in the bleachers, rooting him on.

O’Neill courted him with doctored videotapes. “I’d get a movie, and he’d put his face in it and be saying, ‘Jitim, we need you,’ or something like that,” Young recalls. “There was one where he was James Bond–but with Coach O’Neill’s head, right? I mean, he had a suit on and a couple of girls.” In another sequence, cribbed from the Chris O’Donnell comedy The Bachelor, O’Neill was a tuxedo-clad groom being chased through the streets of San Francisco by thousands of screaming women.

In reality, of course, Young is the groom and O’Neill one of the many would-be brides. Young was also being sought by Michigan State, which offered him a full scholarship. He chose the school that went winless in the Big Ten season over the team that won the national championship. “No other coach recruited me as hard as [O’Neill] did,” says Young. “And Northwestern is a good school, it’s in the Big Ten, and it’s in Chicago. Why not go there?”

Yet Northwestern remains a tough sell to other Chicago players. “Our problem comes down to having no basketball tradition whatsoever,” says O’Neill. “I mean, who in their right mind grows up wanting to be a Northwestern basketball player?”

Young could change all that, and he knows it. He also knows (and says he spoke to O’Neill about) six-seven scoring machine Najeeb Echols from Whitney Young and explosive six-two Luther Head from Manley, two local stars who could revitalize the Wildcats just as three Chicago stars helped DePaul’s Blue Demons go from 3-25 in 1998 to the NCAA tournament this year.

“We knew about all of the guys Jitim mentioned already, but maybe he can help us with some of them,” says O’Neill. “There are certainly guys in the city who could come to school here and play at this level. And if a guy like Jitim comes here and has success, well that obviously opens some doors for people.”

Scott Bogumil, Young’s head coach at Gordon Tech, can’t understand why the Wildcats aren’t a winning team. “Coaches around here have always seen Northwestern as this diamond in the rough,” he says. “Every time we go to the team camps, the coaches sit around and talk about it, and we’re just baffled by it. I think it’s just a matter of breaking through there, and then that will become one of the best jobs in the country.”

Bogumil thinks Young is the right person to lead the breakthrough at Northwestern, just as he led a Gordon Tech team that was “not that talented” to Catholic North and regional championships last season, averaging 18.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals a game. Last summer, in the fabled-but-fading Five-Star Basketball Camp, Young took MVP in the top league’s all-star game. The camp’s codirector, longtime recruiting guru Howard Garfinkel, called Young “without question one of the five best defensive guards in the country.” Other rankings are more modest: the Sporting News called him the number 49 guard in the nation, while the Recruiter Online has him listed as the number 14 senior in Illinois.

But O’Neill and Bogumil say Young’s greatest gifts are intangible. Bogumil recalls that when Young was a sophomore, he begged for a chance to guard Fenwick star Corey Maggette, a future Duke star and NBA first-round pick who’s five inches taller than he is. When Fenwick took a 27-point lead, Young got his chance, and Gordon Tech cut the lead down to six points. O’Neill considers Young’s most unusual trait to be “his toughness, his character.”

Toughness, of course, has become a necessity for O’Neill’s recruits. Like Bobby Knight, O’Neill has been known to publicly berate his players. “My practices aren’t that different,” O’Neill recently told the Indianapolis Star when asked about the recent allegations that Knight assaulted one of his players. “I’ve grabbed players by the jersey, and I’ve put my hands on players.”

Perhaps there’s no connection, but in the past year O’Neill has lost six team members. Starting center Aaron Molnar and sharpshooting reserve guard Sean Wink, the only two upperclassmen in his rotation, quit in the fall. Without a serviceable senior or junior on the roster, the Wildcats turned into a train wreck, going 5-25 overall and winless in the Big Ten and dropping most of its games by embarrassing margins. When the smoke cleared, four of O’Neill’s handpicked recruits were gone, including his best shooter (Steve Lepore, who transferred to Wake Forest), his part-time point guard (David Newman, who transferred to Drake), and one of his most valuable front-court reserves (Brody Deren).

Young, Northwestern’s headline newcomer in a year of departures, never wavered in his commitment. “He understood that we were getting better players than we were losing,” says O’Neill. For his part, Young isn’t bothered by O’Neill’s reputation. “He’s tough, yeah. But, coming from around here–I mean, it doesn’t get any tougher. I’m not used to having things given to me, you know. I’m a pretty tough kid myself.”

Talk to Jitim Young long enough and you get the impression he’s seen Hoop Dreams about 400 times. “I used to really look up to Arthur Agee from the movie,” he recalls, surveying the court he learned to play on. “But my coach would tell me, Yeah, Arthur made it out of here, but you can do something bigger than what he’s done. And I just felt like, Yeah, I can. So I went to high school with that attitude. Because, as you know, during the movie Arthur struggled in school a little bit, and he had to go to a junior college.”

It’s one reason Young studies so hard. And now he’s headed for Northwestern to play for Kevin O’Neill (who coached William Gates, the other aspiring ballplayer in the film). Young figures that if he can make it from West Garfield Park to Northwestern, anyone can. “People can see where I come from: Jitim Young from the west side of Chicago, one of the toughest neighborhoods in America, comes out of here, goes through high school, and gets a scholarship to Northwestern. And those kids around here, I’m trying to be a role model for them, so they see you can live around here, have fun, and still make good grades and go to college and play sports or do whatever you want to do. Hopefully, you know, they look at me as an example of what they can do.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kristina Krug.