Kenwood basketball. Heard of it?
The Kenwood neighborhood, along Lake Michigan just north of Hyde Park on Chicago's South Side, is likely recognizable. But Kenwood Academy basketball?
Aside from the fact current Chicago Bulls backup center Nazr Mohammed went to Kenwood Academy, the basketball program has rarely been mentioned. Chicago Public League basketball irrelevance.
But take notice as second-year coach Jim Maley is beginning to piece together a program that is climbing its way past respectability -- on and off the floor. Might Kenwood become a player in city hoops?
A year ago Kenwood went 16-9 overall, including 8-1 in the competitive Red-Central. Maley's boys even took division heavyweight Curie down to the wire in the Red-Central finale, leading by five points heading into the fourth quarter before falling and settling for second place.
Hardly earth-shattering, juggernaut talk. But we're talking a program that has bounced between the Chicago Public League's Blue and Red Divisions over the past couple of decades. There have been some winning seasons, sure, but those winning records all came with Kenwood playing in the city's inferior Blue Division. Prior to last season, Kenwood went 55-96 overall in the last six seasons it played in the Red Division.
Now Kenwood is fresh off a momentum and confidence-building season. It returns All-Red Central senior Remy Price, a jet-quick guard who averaged 12 points and 2.5 steals a game last season. And this fall when classes began, Kenwood welcomed one of the top freshmen players in the city, 6-4 Nick Robinson, who was courted by all the Public League powers. The fact a player the caliber of Robinson, who in time should be the best prospect to come out of Kenwood since Muhammed, ignored the city's big boys says a lot.
We're not talking a prep sports miracle here. We're not talking about a program ready to join the elite and bang heads with Simeon and Whitney Young. What we're talking about is a program that is making a complete metamorphosis, even possibly becoming a viable option for players in the city. Kenwood is combining modest success on the floor with a stable environment off of it.
The transformation didn't happen without a plan in place. Maley laid the groundwork immediately. He and his staff implemented a strict code of conduct the players in the program were expected to abide by with rules and regulations.
"We emphasized it daily, and our willingness to stick to it completely changed the culture of discipline and commitment of the athletes in our program," says Maley. "We followed it religiously, regardless of what it might do to our won-loss record."
Maley and his coaching staff enforced heavy sanctions for tardiness to class, disrespect to teachers and failure to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average (higher than the CPS' mandated 2.0). Maley sat his best player in the biggest game of the season due to two of his grades dropping and leaving him with a 2.2 grade-point average.
It wasn't exactly the epic turnaround Morgan Freeman turned in while playing Eastside High principal Joe Clark in the movie "Lean on Me," but you get the point. Maley's plan for success came quickly.
The change in the culture and success between the 2010-2011 season and Maley's first year as head coach in 2011-2012 was significant. The staff calculated a discipline and academic report and compared the two years.
During the 2010-2011 year the players on the team averaged 60 class tardies with seven total suspensions from school. The team's grade-point average was a 2.1. In one year with the Code of Conduct in place and an entirely new culture established, Maley saw the suspensions drop from seven to just one player suspension; the tardies dropped from 60 to seven; and the grade-point average rose from 2.1 to 2.7.
"What our kids began to realize was that our discipline off the court and in the classroom directly correlated with their on-court success," Maley pointed out. "The best part about it is that we did things the right way. Instead of allowing academically ineligible kids to play so we could win, we held our kids to a higher academic standard. The kids respected what we did and thrived as a result."
Maley soon had proof to show young players in the program going forward how things were going to work in the Kenwood basketball program. And parents who were considering sending their kids to Kenwood and playing for Maley are starting to take notice.
"If you hold the kids accountable, coach them, and are willing to lose a game instead of your integrity, your kids can have success on and off the court," says Maley.
Maybe it's a mantra other Public League programs could adapt, follow and execute. Although certainly not easy, discipline, values and the importance of showing respect can happen anywhere if the commitment to it is there and the carrot being used is basketball. If Maley can implement a successful plan at Kenwood, what's the excuse at some other programs?
"We still have a long way to go," says Maley. "But we are starting to see the fruits of our labor."
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