Life is filled with ironies. Last week, I talked to legendary basketball star Cazzie Russell about a story I was doing on his alma mater, Carver High School, the subject of the Sun-Times' School of the Week series on Feb. 4. And I wrote a column on his former coach, Larry Hawkins, for the current issue of Scott Powers' Ill. Hoops newsletter.
Now Hawkins is gone. He died on Jan. 30. He was 77. I knew he was ill. He looked very frail when I last saw him in December at the Institute for Athletics and Education's annual awards banquet at the University of Chicago. But Larry always a very private person. He never talked about himself.
As basketball coach at Carver from 1959 to 1977, he produced one state runnerup (1962) and one state champion (1963) and developed many outstanding players such as Russell, Darius "Pete" Cunningham, Joe Allen, Gerry Jones and Ken Maxey.
As director of the University of Chicago's Office of Special Programs and founder of the IAE, he annually taught, tutored and counseled hundreds of African-American students from South Side schools and helped them to obtain college educations.
He was the first coach/educator I can recall who openly preached the importance of athletics in the educational process. When he began in the 1960s, most teachers and administrators ignored his philosophy. Now his sermon is almost universally accepted and advocated, especially in Chicago.
"If you counted up the number of people he impacted and directed to college, there would be more than anyone else in Chicago--and there were more non-athletes than athletes," said Maxey, who starred on the 1963 championship team, later played at Michigan and now is a career counselor at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles.
"He was before his time in talking about athletics being an important part of education. He always emphasized academics. You had to go to class and do your homework or you couldn't play. He set kids to black colleges but he also sent them to such schools as Illinois, Michigan, Harvard, Yale and Cornell.
"He was a man's man. Most of his teaching wasn't about basketball, it was about teaching about life. He taught us a way to deal with the cruel world at a time when we were coming out of Altgeld Gardens. He taught us a sense of striving for excellence, to put your heart into whatever you did."
Anyone who met him was immediately struck by his warmth and charm, even though you got the feeling that nobody ever really got too close to him. He liked music, jazz, folk dancing, salsa, lemon drop soup and red wine. But mostly he was into helping poor kids get opportunities to succeed in life.
One of his crusades was trying to attract more young men and women into the coaching profession, then finding ways to properly train them to develop boys and girls. He insisted that many coaches were only trained to teach X's and O's, not such things as discipline, values, priorities and sportsmanship.
His philosophy was simple and to the point: "It is important for kids to have a chance in life. Generally, families do that. But sometimes they need help," he said.
"I like most of what I have done," he once told me. "I have been able to get done what I though I'd like to get done. I never thought we'd win the war but we have won some pretty good skirmishes. What I see that is gratifying is more people are talking about it in a lot of ways."