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The Evanston Pride, the feeder basketball program for Evanston Township High School, was formed in 2010, just after Mike Ellis became head basketball coach at ETHS. Coach Ellis, who came from Peoria, brought with him not only the knowledge of building a strong program, but also the philosophy that there is more to basketball than what happens on the court.

“At the core of my coaching philosophy is the responsibility I feel toward nurturing a sense of community,” said Coach Ellis when he was announced as head coach. “Good basketball teams have the understanding that it isn’t about individuals. It’s about teammates, the program, the school and the community.Great things can be accomplished, not just in basketball but in life, when players accept the responsibility to achieve for the greater good.”

Once Coach Ellis arrived it was “off and running from day one,” said Michael Johnson, Pride President. Mr. Johnson, a former coach in the FAAM basketball league, was quickly recruited by Coach Ellis to start a feeder program.Coach Johnson looked to his friend Andre Patrick, also an ETHS alum and former college player, and the three organized the Evanston Pride.

Instant Game-Changer

In the first year of the league’s existence, one of its star players, Daejae Coleman, was killed in an act of gun violence.”It was then I knew we had to do more for these kids,” said Coach Johnson. Both Coach Johnson and Coach Patrick helped Daejae’s teammates deal with his death. “The kids felt safe with us. Parents asked us for our help,” he said. From there, the focus became more on using basketball as the vehicle to help kids, said Coach Johnson. The league partnered with the Daejae Coleman Foundation (DC3F) to look for ways to provide more support for the players.

Grade Monitoring and Tutoring

By year two, the league had a tutoring program in place supported primarily by DC3F. Patty Barbato, a former teacher, helped start and currently runs the weekly tutoring program. Tutoring was always part of the program’s plan, but it “had to come sooner than expected,” said Coach Johnson.” We saw that kids were becoming ineligible to play in high school because of grades and we knew we needed to take an aggressive approach,” he added.

Players are required to bring a copy of their current grades to practice every Tuesday. If there are any Cs, players must attend tutoring instead of practice on Thursday. Students with As and Bs are also welcome to take advantage of tutoring. Not only have grades risen as a result of the tutoring program, but students – and parents – have learned how to better communicate with teachers about improving their grades.

Conversations on “Hot Topics”

Beginning this year, the Pride began another collaboration with DC3F to conduct monthly discussions with players on current topics and events. The goal is to give the young men an opportunity to open up and hear peer feedback on issues causing debate in the community.

The first session, held on Dec. 18, revolved around the topic of race in America and the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the decisions not to indict the police officers involved. DC3F and the Pride felt that an age-appropriate dialogue about what was happening in the country would be a good focus for the first DC3F-led session. The discussion explored the question, “What does it mean to speak up?” Players sat in a circle and took turns commenting – or not – on questions such as “Should athletes speak up?” “Have you ever spoken up?” and “Have you ever been treated differently?”

At first, the session began with some embarrassment, but quickly, the players opened up and spoke from the heart. “Sometimes kids just need to vent, get things out,” said Coach Johnson. The plan is for DC3F to lead two more sessions during the Pride season. The league is also considering expanding the discussions into parent forums. 

Mentoring

Another area of focus is mentoring. Both Coach Patrick and Coach Johnson say they are in a position to help some of the kids on their teams because they, too, had challenging childhoods.

“My story could have been like those on the news. That’s why I can catch some of these kids before things happen,” said Coach Johnson. “We do a lot of prevention.”

“We share our experiences with the kids. Basketball saved my life,” said Coach Patrick.

The coaches told a story of a player who stopped coming to practice. When they learned his brother had been shot, they went to the family’s house to visit the boy. He came back to practice.

“We’ve had parents ask us to call their kid who’s on the wrong path,” said Coach Johnson.

“We tell them they’ve got to help themselves first,” said Coach Patrick.

Coach Johnson said he’d like to see more members of the community involved in mentoring.

Future Plans

“I’d like to have a facility, a home base where kids could go,” said Coach Johnson. He said he would also like to help players learn more about college life and what it’s like to be a college athlete. Coach Johnson said he believes the league could play at a national level.

“We are really trying to change the community,” said Coach Johnson. “We are in this for the kids. Some stuff is tough in middle school. Basketball can be a vehicle for preparing kids for life.”