Bears

High schools, club sports battling for kids

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High schools, club sports battling for kids

A few years ago, when asked what was the most important issue that needed to be addressed in high school sports, administrators and coaches singled out the proliferation of drugs, emphasis on transfers and the controversy over the PublicCatholicmultiplier debate.

Surprisingly, in a recent survey, those issues weren't even mentioned. Today, school officials are more concerned with the exploitation of high school athletes by colleges and shoe companies, the rise of individualism, over-publicizing of athletes by the media and influence of club sports.

"The biggest problem is maintaining perspective of the high school experience, when we don't get carried away with club teams and travel teams and spend thousands of dollars to go all over the country and get special training," said Marty Hickman, executive director of the Illinois High School Association.

"The high school experience is supposed to be fun and competitive and losing that perspective has caused those other problems, the proliferation of clubs and prep schools and the emphasis on college scholarships."

Jim Woodward of Anna-Jonesboro, president of the IHSA's board of directors, points out how club teams that once were only an issue in the Chicago area have spread throughout southern Illinois, not only in basketball but also volleyball, softball, baseball and soccer. In the Chicago area, tennis and gymnastics clubs also are wooing athletes away from their high school programs.

"About 15 years ago, I sat on a committee dealing with summer contact periods. At that time, 90 percent of the people were ready to shut down schools in the summer and let the kids be kids," Woodward said.

"Then southern Illinois schools said we need to do more for our coaches to keep the kids away from club sports and AAU coaches. We didn't have a problem in southern Illinois but we do now--and we have for the last few years.

"It used to be that we (the high schools) had the only ball in town. Now with all different club and AAU teams, they have pulled kids away and caused them to specialize in one sport. Parents are willing to spend a lot of money to move so their kids get more exposure, pay for personal trainers and play for elite clubs."

Woodward said the definition of high school sports is to sell sports as part of the curriculum or the educational process. "It is an extension of what we do in the day. But the summer people sell Division I scholarships and an opportunity to play at the next level and the level beyond that," he said.

"The emphasis is all about winning. We want to win in high school, too, but it isn't the main emphasis. We have created a monster. Kids don't want to sit on the bench anymore. Everybody in high school has a role, from the kid who averages 20 points per game to the kid who just plays in practice. High school sports help to prepare a kid for life."

Jim Prunty, athletic director at St. Ignatius and a member of the IHSA's legislative commission, also cites the "ever-growing conflict between club sports and interscholastic athletics in terms of how it is now spilling over into basketball, soccer and volleyball."

Prunty said players, not just elite players, are going to clubs to play a style that is not in conjunction with their high school program. "They pick up bad habits and change personality based on their experience at the club level," he said.

What is the solution to the problem? "Because it is financially better for college coaches to evaluate kids in the summer rather than when they play with their high school teams, the NCAA must limit contact between club coaches and college coaches. If it means eliminating contact altogether in the summer, I would be in favor of it," Prunty said.

"But it won't happen because it is easier for the NCAA to operate the way they do now. All club and travel programs are lumped into the same bag. But there are good people who teach the way we do. I am aware of it."

If something isn't done, however, Prunty fears for the future of high school sports. Parents have gotten out of control and specialization is ruining high school sports.

"Parents have club coaches fawning over their sons and daughters from an early age and expect that attention to be there throughout their careers. Yes, they are coddled, made to feel they are more important at an early age. That isn't healthy for kids," Prunty said.

"Specialization is part of the club dilemma. Kids are told if they play basketball and devote all their time, they can make it to the NBA. At St. Ignatius, we encourage kids to be multi-sport athletes. We have no inter-departmental struggles like other schools.

"But we're getting to the point--I hope I have to eat these words--that I wouldn't be shocked that in 15 to 20 years there are no more high school sports. Basketball, for example, will take a complete backseat to the AAU."

Steve Goers of Rockford Boylan and Gene Pingatore of St. Joseph, the two winningest boys basketball coaches in state history, are concerned by a rising lack of loyalty, increasing number of transfers and an emphasis on individualism, all influenced by the athletes' relationships with summer coaches and club sports.

"Individuals are putting themselves ahead of teams," Goers said. "For there to be team success, individuals have to put the team ahead of their personal success. They can't worry about their own accomplishments. You receive your due recognition based on how well the team will do.

"College coaches want to know if a kid is a team player, a good teammate, a good person. You read every day about kids being suspended for disciplinary or even more serious reasons and it jeopardizes the coach's job. There are so many more influences outside the coach and his staff today. It takes away from the idea that team is first. If a coach tries to discipline kids, they blame the coach rather than accept blame."

Pingatore is offended by the lack of loyalty displayed by many kids today, transferring from school to school. He blames the influence of the AAU. Twenty-five years ago, he said he had control of his program. That is no longer the case. Now he sees that many kids have better relationships with their summer coaches than their high school coaches.

"People move on a whim. It happens so much. We lost four starters on the football team. They went to programs where they felt they could win," he said. "Maybe this is the tip of the iceberg. Maybe the transfer thing is a sign of something else that isn't good in high school sports--outside influences.

"I don't know who is talking to my kids. I used to be in control of my program. Now I have to start all over again. I have to teach a kid all over again. I don't know who he is listening to, what someone is teaching him, who is telling kids to go to other schools.

"High schools need more control in all sports. The NCAA has control. They should talk about eliminating the summer evaluation period. Then AAU coaches can't say that kids have to follow them so they will get exposure to college coaches.

"Also, part of the problem is parents are obsessed with their kids getting Division I scholarships. They don't know how difficult it is. They fear if their kid doesn't go to a camp he will miss out. There are so many outside influences. High school coaches just don't have control as they once did."

Jim Antos, principal at Brother Rice and a member of the IHSA's legislative commission, has one issue that bothers him more than anything else--how local newspapers make kids feel they are a special class of citizen.

"It troubles me when kids think they can get away with things because they are athletes," Antos said. "I know kids should be covered (in the media) and people are making a living. But too much is being made of making kids untouchable. They are being turned into rock stars. If I could wave a magic wand, I would tell them: 'If a kid doesn't smile, don't put his picture in the paper.' It perpetuates an 'I'm too good for the world'
attitude that I really can't get my arms around."

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”