Paul Bunch, a 6’11” junior at North Lawndale College Prep Charter School, blocks a lot of shots for the city’s top basketball team. The trouble is, he’s rarely on the court.
“Paul is our main guy that struggles academically,” says his coach, Lewis Thorpe, who considers it part of the job to keep Paul on track whether he’s playing or not. Thorpe once found his starting center lounging at home just before a game—Paul had failed to get his school work in order that week and, knowing he would be benched because of the school’s strict guidelines on athletic eligibility, had decided to settle in for a nap. In Thorpe’s view, Paul was shirking his duty, and he roused the young man out of bed and into his best street clothes so he could support the team from the sidelines.
Going the extra mile with his players is par for the course for Thorpe, even if it means pulling a player out of bed, housing him when the boy’s home is in chaos or working diligently with a teacher to head off a team member’s behavioral and academic problems before they go viral.
Researchers say coaches like Thorpe can have dramatically positive effects on the lives of student-athletes, especially young men who live in gritty urban neighborhoods like North Lawndale, where life is too often marred by fatherless families, violence and economic decline.
And organized athletics can provide a sense of structure and discipline for youngsters. “There’s a point when you realize that stability is really the beginning point of academic achievement,” says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sports in Society, a Boston-based sports research and advocacy group.
Zillijan Jones, one of the better students on Thorpe’s squad, wrote his senior thesis on how extracurricular activities keep students engaged in school. Describing his thesis, he says: “It gives you more of a social status. And when you have a social status, you don’t mind coming to school. Extracurricular activities make you popular, and kids don’t want to miss school when they’re popular.”
As mentors and, in some cases, surrogate fathers, coaches like Thorpe can play a key role in motivating black boys to work hard in the classroom as well as on the basketball court or football field.
But finding effective coaches isn’t easy. (In March, reports surfaced of the widespread use of corporal punishment in the city’s sports programs. Despite hundreds of allegations, CPS officials reported firing just 26 staff members for hitting, paddling or otherwise physically abusing students between 2003 and 2008.)
The district’s top sports administrator, Calvin Davis, wants to beef up training for current coaches and attract high-caliber newcomers with better pay. Coaches make $22 an hour in addition to their salary as teachers or other staff, but have a cap on their working hours, an arrangement that can cut into pay if a coach works beyond the cap. Instead, Davis faces the prospect of severe budget cuts.
Davis says the district hopes to finalize funding for a professional development program to teach coaches how to work on players’ character development. Overall, however, too few teachers are among the coaching ranks—roughly half, with the rest security guards and other school personnel. Davis notes that it’s easier for a teacher who coaches to fully grasp the link between academics and sports, and schoolwork is more likely to top the priority list.
Many of North Lawndale’s players, including Paul Bunch, hardly know their fathers, and they look to Thorpe—“Pops,” as they call him—for much more than basketball instruction.
The ability to earn the trust of young black men, as Thorpe does, is an important factor in closing the achievement gap because trust paves the way for teaching to take a foothold, according to experts.
David Stovall, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that effective teaching of young black men begins with trust. Only then, he says, will they respect and take advice from a teacher.
Teenagers like Paul—a soft-spoken, reflective and ultra-polite young man who kept largely quiet during a team interview with Catalyst—do not trust adults easily. Largely estranged from his mother and father, he was raised by his grandparents in Austin, says Paul’s favorite teacher, Misuzu Miyashita, who teaches English and classical literature. The young man was hit with a series of troubles. After his grandfather and grandmother died—his grandfather three years ago, and his grandmother during Paul’s freshman year—his aunt took custody of Paul and moved the family to Oak Park. But the long commute to school hurt Paul’s attendance and the family moved again to North Lawndale. It was a chaotic year, and Thorpe brought Paul into his home temporarily, giving him a much-needed dose of structure and discipline. It’s an extreme example of how Thorpe keeps his players afloat academically, says Miyashita.
“He spends so much time with the students,” she says. “He is vigilant about checking on them. He is on top of the grades. If I have problems with a student, I’ll send a quick email and it’s usually taken care of within 48 hours.”
Paul is bright and inquisitive, Miyashita says, but his motivation to attend school follows a dangerous cycle: Every month or so, he misses several days of school because of a slight injury or illness. His grades slip, and it’s time to alert Thorpe.
“I’m just lazy,” Paul says, admitting that school simply bores him. But the support of teachers like Miyashita, Thorpe’s extra attention and the pressure to keep up his grades for basketball keeps Paul coming to school. Even though he has been benched more than any of his teammates, Paul nevertheless says the school’s eligibility guidelines are fair. “It’s OK, because they keep us in check,” he says.
Still, the close personal ties between Thorpe and his players can create complications for the coach when school officials consider yanking a player’s eligibility.
“It is very difficult when the administration wants you to kind of step back and let the kid do the work,” says Thorpe. “But what they must understand is that we have a lot of students with low self-esteem. They’re from single-parent homes, and they don’t have that ability or the self-confidence to go ask for the extra help.
“They’ve been hurt so many times in their lives that it’s difficult to open up and ask for help, because they’ve been rejected so much,” he adds.
Thorpe understands the community and its challenges intimately. Originally from downstate Macomb, his family moved to North Lawndale when he was a toddler, and Thorpe eventually became a standout defensive player at Providence St. Mel. He credits his coach there for inspiring him to join the coaching ranks himself.
“I’ve always had a love for the game, beyond the physical play,” Thorpe says. “I wanted to look at the psychology of the game. Providence St. Mel taught me so much, because, as a player, I had to go through what the young men here go through. You had to get the grades in order to play. And I’ll tell you, when I was playing, basketball was so important to me it didn’t matter what they asked for, I was going to get it.”
Before Thorpe came to North Lawndale—as basketball coach, athletic director and health teacher—he coached for a variety of teams, including his high school alma mater. Thorpe had played at Kendall College, but quit basketball his junior year because he felt distracted from his schoolwork.
That commitment to academics permeates the Thorpe household. Thorpe’s own sons, both of whom play on North Lawndale’s team, are top students. They’re encouraged to compete academically as well as in the game, and the refrigerator is a stockpile of report cards and ‘A’ papers. Thorpe and his wife, both of whom are college graduates, also demand that homework is completed every night.
North Lawndale administrators take a strict line on academics and athletics. Daily study hall is mandatory, and in order to play, team members must get four out of five of their teachers to sign off weekly on a performance review. When players fall short academically or behaviorally, Thorpe works with teachers to hammer out an individual study plan or other corrective action.
The rules are similar across CPS, which requires athletes to have a minimum 2.0 grade-point average in the previous academic quarter and earn passing marks in four classes each week.
Thorpe takes up a sometimes uncomfortable middle ground as both an advocate and a disciplinarian for his players. This year, he notes, has been especially trying on that front, although the Phoenix ended the season winning the city championship and placing third in the state tournament. In one very public blowup, all-state power forward Jonathan Mills sued the school after missing games for allegedly cheating on a math test.
“It’s been the most difficult season of my career,” Thorpe says flatly. In one incident, player Jermaine Winfield was shot in the leg during a post-game scuffle in January. “We’ve been through so much in one season. That’s something you go through in a career.”
In one of the biggest heartbreaks of the season, John Taylor, one of the team’s most dynamic scorers, was forced to miss action in a key game when he failed to get all of his teachers to sign off on his eligibility forms on time. The Phoenix had flown to Tampa Bay, Florida for a tournament that was heavily attended by top college scouts.
John, who has struggled with a troubled home life and also lived with Thorpe for a time, was passing enough courses at the time, but his online grades did not reflect that and, in an unfortunate confluence of events, his teacher—whose wife had just given birth—did not submit grades for the week and could not be immediately contacted to verify John’s eligibility.
In the unfolding controversy, Thorpe tried to manage perceptions and told scouts that John was suffering from a minor injury. Either way, scouts would question John’s potential and he missed a chance to prove his talent by playing in front of basketball powerhouses such as Georgetown and the University of Florida.
“Everybody was asking why I’m not playing,” John said later. “I said it’s the coach’s decision because I didn’t want to say I was ineligible.”
The Jonathan Mills scandal erupted later in the season. The 6’5” senior, headed to Midland Junior College in Texas in the fall, lost his eligibility for allegedly cheating on a math test. His family sued North Lawndale, and just hours before tip-off in a key game on March 10, Cook County Circuit Court issued the family a partial victory and granted a temporary restraining order that cleared Jonathan for action in the rest of the state tournament. The lawsuit is still pending and the school will not discuss the case.
Smart and gregarious, Jonathan has struggled with eligibility. He scored a 23 on the ACT, but his GPA fell during a rudderless freshman year that began at Crane Tech, and he has yet to bring his GPA above 2.0. Jonathan is energetic and craves hands-on learning activities, and admits his mind wanders during long lectures.
Still, his academic drift might well have been worse if not for his basketball prowess and passion to play. Thorpe calls Jonathan one of his all-time favorite athletes, tenacious and hardworking.
Thorpe and his team obviously want to win, although Thorpe insists academics come first. Meanwhile, John Taylor says he’s heard that prospective players are turned off when they see North Lawndale’s stars sitting for poor grades. Yet, he adds, these younger prospects need to know “so that they’re prepared.”
John wants the 8th-graders who play basketball at North Lawndale during open gym hours to spend more time with his coach. John has not yet picked a college to attend next fall, but he says his coach has worked hard to find him a scholarship opportunity. His grades have improved dramatically this year, and he credits Thorpe with pushing him on that front. As for missing games for being ineligible, he says, “It hurts, but it’s fair.”
His teammates sound a similar refrain about the importance of Thorpe’s influence. Says Jonathan of his coach, “We’re his kids. We’re his sons.