By Ben Joravsky

Manny Weincord coached the boys’ basketball team at Roosevelt High School for so many years folks joked that the team would vanish if he ever left. Well, Weincord retired after last season, having spent almost 40 years as a gym teacher, and there’s still a team. It even has a coach.

His name is Tarrie Blakely, and on the surface he couldn’t be less like the legend who preceded him. Weincord is a 68-year-old Jewish man with the wiry leanness of a bantamweight boxer, and he was born and raised in Albany Park, graduating from Roosevelt in 1950. Blakely is a 42-year-old black man with the size and strength of a heavyweight boxer, and he came to Chicago by way of Mississippi.

In more important ways they’re like brothers–two underdogs fighting the good fight. “You know how it is at Roosevelt–you don’t get the city’s best players, that’s for sure,” says Blakely. “You take what you get and try to get the best out of them. I’ll tell you what–I believe in the kids. We’ve got a long way to go, but eventually we’re gonna get there. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that.”

He wouldn’t be here at all if he hadn’t straightened himself out about 20 years ago. He was born in Sunflower–“a little town in the Delta”–the baby in a family of 11 children. His father died when he was young, and his mother supported the family by clerking in a store. His life was sports–football, baseball, and basketball. Everything else he just let slide.

“I could play,” he says. “I was pretty good. But you know something? The dreams I had, they screwed me up. I didn’t think about nothing else but sports. I was a knucklehead. That’s why I can relate to so many of the kids–I see a lot of me in them.”

He attended three different colleges in his first few years out of high school. “I started at Mississippi Valley State University on a basketball scholarship. I stayed there for a year. Then I went to Delta State. I stayed there for a semester. Then I went to Chicago. I had family up here. I didn’t go to college. I didn’t do nothing but hang around on the street. I got tired of that and went to Stillman College–it’s in Alabama. I played basketball a year. At Stillman they made me do my studies. The other schools gave me basket-weaving courses to bide my time in between games and practices. I should have stayed at Stillman, but I didn’t. Here’s what happened. I went home for a week or two, and I never went back. Something happened to my car, and I had to get some money to fix it. So I got a job and said, forget about school. Isn’t that something? I was young and I was dumb.”

In 1980 he joined the marines. “It was the best thing I ever did–it gave me discipline. Up early, stick to assignments, learn to get something done.” He stayed in the marines for three years, then moved to Boston, where he took a job making tires “in a tire company right by Fenway Park. I just got tired of Boston. You could say I was a roustabout anyway–city to city, that sort of thing. I’ve had an interesting life, no doubt about that. I decided to go west and give Chicago a try. That was in 1987.”

He got a job as a youth worker with Cycle, a social-service program in Cabrini-Green, and found a second job as a security guard at a nearby community center. It was there that he met several energetic young social workers and teachers, including Vince Carter, who runs the Demons, a youth basketball team. (Carter’s also coach of the boys’ basketball team at Von Steuben High School.)

“I guess you can say that changed my life,” says Blakely. “I saw the kids playing basketball, and I knew it’s what I wanted to be involved in. I’ve been around this game so long. I feel I know it about as well as I know anything else. And I want to teach it.”

In 1994 the Board of Education hired him as a security guard and sent him to Roosevelt, at Wilson and Kimball, on the near-northwest side. He was a formidable presence–one look at his imposing six-foot-four frame and even the toughest kids backed away.

“It’s been great here–the kids know me, and I know them,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot. There are so many different cultures. You got kids from Asia and Africa and Central America and the Middle East and Europe. I’ve had to break up a few fights, but nothing serious. The kids call me ‘boss.’ They started calling me that the second I was here. It’s a street thing. Some kids were messing around, and I broke it up. They said, ‘OK, boss.’ I said, ‘Stop it with that stuff. It’s Mr. Blakely.’ But you know how kids are.”

As far as city basketball goes, Roosevelt is a distant outpost. The public-league schools are put into divisions (Red’s the best, Blue’s not as good) and regions (north, central, west, and south). Roosevelt’s in Blue North, where the competition isn’t top-notch. Over the years, Weincord’s teams won more than they lost, but they always seemed at least two players shy of greatness. He learned to diminish the disappointment with jokes and perspective. “I learned a long time ago,” he said at his retirement party, “there are worse things in life than losing a game.”

Blakely saw Roosevelt as a great place to start coaching. “The frosh-soph coach job was open soon, and I went to Manny and asked for the job,” he says. “At first he hesitated and said he had one of his ex-players asking about it. But I guess that didn’t work out, because I got the job in 1996. I told him to give me a chance and I’d send him some good players.”

He soon discovered that there are few jobs more maddening than running a frosh-soph team. Many of the kids still believe they have what it takes to be great. As unrealistic as it sounds, many of them–no matter how short, round, or slow–see it as their first step toward the NBA. It’s chaos on the first day of tryouts. Fifty to 75 teenagers race about the gym, wrestling, throwing basketballs at each other, and rattling the rims–an unceasing din.

It’s up to the frosh-soph coach to make sense of the madness. “You have to cut a lot of kids,” says Blakely. “Some of your best players don’t have the grades to be eligible–that’s always frustrating. Other kids get hurt, or they just don’t want to play. I saw one big fellow in the hall, and I said, ‘Son, you have to come out for the team.’ But his family had him baby-sitting for a cousin or something. Then he got into this music thing, and I’d see him walking around with a big tuba. I guess he just didn’t have the heart for the game.”

The harshest fact of frosh-soph coaching is that as soon as a player gets really good, he’s promoted to varsity. “You’ve got to move them up,” says Blakely. “It’s not gonna do the kid any good to be wasting his time in the smaller leagues. I had one kid back in 1997–Maurice Hopkins. He could do it all. He played center on defense, and he brought up the ball. But halfway through the season he went up to varsity–and man, he was good up there.

“I didn’t mind letting Maurice go though. I told Manny I’d send him some good players, and I did. It was the least I could do for Manny. I learned a lot from him. Manny’s got a lot of wisdom. I learned about patience from watching Manny run his practices. So many coaches want to change the world in one practice. You got to take it one day at a time. Manny taught me that. He’s a funny man too–cracks me up. Seems like whenever you’re feeling down he has something funny to say that will make you laugh.”

After last season Weincord decided it was time to move on and give someone else a chance to coach. So he retired and recommended to Roosevelt’s principal, Miguel Trujillo, that he give the job to Blakely. “He deserves it,” said Weincord. “He knows the kids. He works hard. If they gave it to anyone else it wouldn’t be right.”

But Weincord wasn’t ready to retire completely. He decided to assist the head coach at Lane, Tom Horn, and do a little substitute teaching. It just so happened that Roosevelt’s first game of the season was against Lane. “You gotta love Tarrie’s spirit,” says Weincord. “At my retirement party he came up to me and said, ‘I’ll see you in November.’ I said, ‘OK.’ Then he said, ‘I gotta tell you something, coach–we ain’t comin’ to lose.'”

Sure enough, the season opened for both teams on November 20, when Roosevelt came to Lane for the Thanksgiving tournament. It was like old times with a confusing twist. Weincord greeted his former players, then sat on the Lane Tech bench.

His old high school classmate, Arnie Kamen, a retired Merc trader who raises money for Roosevelt, jokingly called him a traitor. “Good luck,” Kamen told Blakely, loud enough for Weincord to hear. “Thank goodness we finally have a coach who knows the game.”

Weincord ignored Kamen’s wisecracks, then made a few of his own. “Sometimes I don’t feel like sitting at home, so I do a little substitute teaching,” he said. “They send me to Lane. It always seems like I have a class on the fifth floor. I feel like a mountain goat climbing those stairs. The other day I had a French class. I told the kids, ‘I’m Dr. Zhivago. I speak 75 different languages. But unfortunately the only one I don’t speak is French.’ They’re looking at me like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?'”

The game itself went about as expected. Lane, a powerhouse in the Red North, has a quick little point guard, a tall, hulking center, and bunch of fine shooters. Roosevelt has an outstanding forward, Tony Williams, and a bunch of scrappers who come from all over the world–including Somalia, Haiti, and the Philippines–and are still learning the basics. They hung tough for a quarter, then cracked under Lane’s press. They wound up losing by 30-odd points.

“Hang in there, coach,” Weincord said to Blakely after the game. “You’re doing great.”

Blakely says he’s not too disappointed: “We’re gonna get better–just watch. I’ve got some pretty good freshmen that are working their way up. I’ll have the kids start working with the weights–bunch of skinny little kids right now. I saw Carter. He’s got some thoroughbreds over there with the Demons. I told him, ‘You’re taking all the players over to Von Steuben and sending me the knuckleheads.’ He said, ‘I’ll send you some.’ Yeah, right. I know no one’s going out of their way to help me. I’m not naive. But I’ll get it done. I’ve waited a long time for this chance. A few losses won’t get me down.”

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