West Side directs high school basketball stars to achieve greatness
Basketball has always been a haven for the black community in this city for several decades; especially on the West Side. It’s a sport and activity that kids can automatically gravitate to in any Chicago neighborhood. Most young African-American high school students in the city are looking for a huge outlet to release their aggression.
Former standout at both Foreman High School and Curie High School, Marcus Gatlin believes high school basketball to be a life-changing and very humbling experience. “I would describe Chicago high school basketball to be something so special that it takes you places you’ve never been in life before,” Gatlin said.
Marcus Jordan, Ahmad Starks, and Julian Kenner, star athletes from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School who led the Dolphins to the 2009 Class 4A championship, contributed to the respectable reputation of their team in the Chicago Public League. Whitney Young established itself as a basketball powerhouse when they went on to capture two more state titles in 2014 and 2017.
“I think being a standard of excellence inspires everyone,” said Starks, who started playing in 2008. “Having athletes that work hard on and off the court inspires everyone to do the same.”
These accolades are not easy to attain in Chicago’s competitive basketball leagues. Recent Hope Academy graduate Javion May explains that during his four years as a varsity competitor, his high school program grew talent because of the intensity of its defense training.
“You have to be able to play defense,” said May. “Defense is really important in Chicago high school basketball. If you play defense, you’re most likely to win.”
May was a Chicago Prep All-Conference player and made the Fourth All-State team this past season.
Hope Academy coach Antwon Johnson also describes the intensity and grind that most high school players sustain throughout a whole season. “Chicago high school basketball is tough, gritty, and in your face,” he said. “It’s an old school style of play where nobody’s backing down.” A native from Chatham, Johnson played basketball at Hyde Park Academy High School a few decades ago.
Johnson said that high school coaches take all their practices and training systems seriously to fully prepare the athletes for the competition. “During a season, we would play two games a week, but we would practice pretty much every day during the week,” he said.
Johnson organizes a strict schedule for his players to follow, as he prepares to push them relentlessly. Athletes practice everyday except certain Sundays and start their pre-season conditioning as early as August. Athletes are encouraged to run for the school’s cross country team.
May, who is set to attend Colby Community College in Kansas this coming fall, is a testament to the rewards that this hard work yields. “Basketball has gotten me into a nice junior college that I’m going to attend,” he said. “This sport helps kids to get scholarships, so they don’t have to pay for college.”
He also explains that it encourages a healthy balance between athleticism and academics. “It makes them focus more on academics. If I don’t have good grades, then I can’t play,” said May.
Aside from this, May has seen the game bring his high school community together in a unique way after playing at the 2017 Illinois High School Association Class 1A state tournament.
“That excitement brought the whole school together, because everyone from Hope came to Peoria to watch us play,” he said. “And that moment changed the atmosphere around this school, because Hope showed a lot of support.”
Starks believes that these programs help teenagers accomplish success in both academics and athletics, allowing them to achieve greatness on and off the court. “It teaches excellence to the person, student and athlete,” he said.
Whiney Young principal Joyce Kenner explains that the goal is to get students in these neighborhoods to college. “African-American kids need college degrees,” she said.
Kenner sees a unique opportunity for young basketball players to follow in the footsteps of Chicago basketball legends that preceded them. “If you talk about this city nationally, that’s what we’re known for,” she said.