After being out of coaching for three years, Lloyd Batts has returned to the profession he loves most of all. Batts, 59, has been named the head coach at South Shore High School in Chicago. He succeeds Lamont Bryant, who left to become the coach at Hyde Park.
I remember the first time I saw Batts. It was the opening night of the 1968-69 high school basketball season and Thornton, a perennial state power, was playing at Riverside-Brookfield, which at the time was being coached by my good friend Ron Nikcevich.
Before the game, I asked Thornton coach Bob Anderson about his team. "Watch Lloyd Batts," he said. "He is only a junior and this is his first game on the varsity. But I think he is going to be something special."
Anderson was right. Batts scored 28 points in his debut. Afterward, Nikcevich summed up Batts' performance: "Before the game, we didn't know who he was. But when the game was over, he was an All-Stater."
Batts went on to become a two-time All-Stater, one of the best players I saw in more than 40 years of covering and observing high school basketball in Illinois, one of the first 6-5 players who could play inside or outside, handle the ball like a point guard and shoot from three-point range.
Until I saw Kevin Garnett, Batts was the best pure player I had seen. Quinn Buckner always has been my favorite, the consummate leader and team player. But Batts, Buckner's boyhood idol, was the best player.
Later, Batts went on to play at Cincinnati. He became the second leading scorer in school history, behind Oscar Robertson. Then he played professionally for two years with the Virginia Squires of the ABA and eight years in Europe.
He returned to coach at Gage Park, South Suburban College, Eastern Illinois, back to South Suburban College, Waukegan, South Shore and Bowen. He also was a volunteer scout for Wayne State College in Nebraska. For the last six years, he has served as dean of students at South Shore. When the basketball position opened up, he leaped at another opportunity to get back into coaching.
Batts had applied at Brooks and Hyde Park. But alumni coordinator Shelly Stark and other colleagues encouraged him to apply for the South Shore job. He was chosen over former Thornton and Crete-Monee coach Rocky Hill, the only other applicant.
"I never had a bad experience with kids. They were always supportive and had a positive work ethic," Batts said. "My issues have always been with the administration. I didn't quit previously (at Waukegan and South Shore). I was taken out because they said I had coached long enough. They were saying I couldn't coach anymore. They wanted a younger coach.
"But I feel I can still coach. I have a passion for the game. I work out daily. I still play twice a week in Charlie Brown's 50-and-over league at Washington Park. We won the league title this year. It's an honor to be recognized by the school that let you go and then brought you back. One of the things I hope to do is bring prestige back to the school."
South Shore hasn't been a factor in the Public League playoff since 1990, when coach Don Pittman guided the Tars to the semifinals. In 2004, Batts' team advanced to the Final Four in the less prestigious Blue Division. He concedes that South Shore loses a lot of prospective players to Simeon, Hyde Park and Harlan.
"I want to reinstitute a new attitude, that winning isn't as important as academics, that a proven coach can build success with marginal players on and off the floor," Batts said. "Our goal is to get back to the Red Division. But I'm in education and working with kids on the disciplinary level. I'm developing them to be model citizens and productive student-athletes. I want to be sure that academics are their No. 1 priority."