It would be too good to be true if Harlan basketball coach Ervin Bryant is related to Tim Bryant, who led Harlan to Public League championships in 1970 and 1971 and was the best player the late Harlan coach Lee Umbles ever produced. It would be. But he isn't.
"Just say he's my uncle," Ervin Bryant said.
But he knows who Tim Bryant was. And he knows all about the tradition that Lee Umbles built at the South Side school in the late 1960s and 1970s. Even though he is a Simeon graduate of 1984 who played football rather than basketball.
"I tried to play basketball in college," said Ervin Bryant, who attended a junior college in Texas and later enrolled at Arizona. "I knew I wanted to coach. But I wasn't sure if I wanted to coach football or basketball."
It turned out to be basketball. When he returned to Chicago, he joined the late Mac Irvin's AAU organization. "Mac has been a very impressionable person in my life," Bryant said. Irvin led him to Hales Franciscan, where he coached for four years. Then Bryant went to Louisiana-Lafayette, Mount Carmel and Providence-St. Mel before landing at Robeson.
He assisted Charles Redmond, whom he describes as "my mentor," then became head coach at Robeson for three years before being hired at Harlan. In his fifth year, Bryant is determined to restore the glory that Harlan enjoyed when Umbles coached the Falcons to three city titles in five years.
"I'm aware of coach Umbles and the tradition at Harlan," Bryant said. "The first thing I wanted to do when I got this job was to honor him. He came to so many high school games and I got to know him. He told me about the things he did. He was like Bob Hambric (at Simeon) and Landon Cox (at King) and I wanted to respect what he had done. I'd be happy if I did half of what he did."
Bryant is off to a good start. He helped to arrange for the ceremony in December that renamed the gym after Umbles and dedicated the new floor in his name. The uniforms have LU printed on them, for Lee Umbles. And he has persuaded alumni, including Tim Bryant and Henry Thomas, to come back and speak to the team and get involved in the program.
Thomas, a 1970 graduate, is a well-known sports agent who represents several prominent NBA players. His personal donation paid for the new playing surface in gym.
"The kids listen to Henry because he represents Dwyane Wade and they know who Wade is," Bryant said. "Some of these kids might not have a change to play in college but they can go to college to get an education that will prepare them for another job."
That's one reason why Bryant scheduled an appearance in the Boulder Creek High School Holiday Hoopfest in Phoenix, Arizona. Harlan defeated two Arizona teams -- Hamilton of Chandler 53-45, Kellis of Glendale 68-63 -- but lost to a third, Desert Mountain of Goodyear, 42-39 in overtime in the championship game.
The Falcons will carry a 9-2 record into Saturday's game against Leo in the Bob Hambric Shootout at Thornton Fractional North in Calumet City. They have a date with top-rated Simeon on Jan. 27 at Harlan.
Against Hamilton, Torian Pearson scored 14 points, Deonte Johnson 12, Andre Hogan 11 and Anthony Knight had 10 points and 10 rebounds. Against Kellis, Johnson had 20 points, 10 steals and five assists, Pearson scored 17 points, Knight had 15 points and 12 rebounds and Michael Bowdery had 11 rebounds. Against Desert Mountain, Johnson scored 18, Hogan 13. Both were named to the all-tournament team.
"It was a great trip, a great experience for the kids," Bryant said. "We paid for it by selling candy and with alumni donations. I think it opened their eyes. We had a chance to see some colleges. Some of them hadn't been off 95th Street in their lives or even been on an airplane."
Johnson has been on an airplane before. But he was looking forward to experiencing the warmer weather in Arizona. The 5-8 senior point guard is Harlan's floor leader. He averages 12.8 points, six assists and eight steals per game. Last year, he scored 31 points against Simeon.
"He is as good a player in the city that nobody knows about," Bryant said. "He is flying under the radar because he is so small, that's what I tell him. I call them the 'no-name kids.' They are getting Division II looks. John Calipari (Kentucky) or Rick Pitino (Louisville) or Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) aren't in the gym. But I tell them that if you play had, somebody will recognize your talent and recruit you."
That is Johnson's motivation and inspiration. He is one of three returning starters from last year's 18-14 team. Last year's team was taller and maybe more talented, he admits, but this year's squad is quicker and plays better defense.
"I like this team better," Johnson said. "We work together on and off the court. We're a running team. We learned a lesson in our loss to Neuqua Valley. We started off lazy, we missed two wide-open lay-ups, our defense wasn't hyped enough and we weren't motivated enough. Ever since, we realized we have to play hard all the time and can't take any team for granted."
Johnson and his teammates have taken time to learn about Harlan's tradition. The other starters are the 6-4 senior Knight (12.2 ppg, 10 rpg), 5-11 senior guard Blaine Goodall, the 6-4 junior Pearson (12.4 ppg) and 6-6 senior Bowdery (4 ppg, 6 rpg).
The bench is headed by 5-10 sophomore guard Hogan (10 ppg) and 6-9 sophomore Lamous Brown, who is only 15 years old and weighs only 170 pounds but demonstrates great potential as a shot blocker and post player.
"We are very proud of what Henry Thomas did for us," Johnson said about the new floor. "I look at the trophies every day and want to win state and bring another trophy home. We want to do something that hasn't been done before at our school."
Johnson would like to accomplish something else that never has been done by a Harlan player -- earn a scholarship to Syracuse or Kentucky. "I feel I can fit in with their programs," he said. At the moment, he has attracted interest from Chicago State, Ferris State and Grand Valley State.
"When I see Syracuse and Kentucky play on TV, they run some offensive sets that we run. I feel I can be a point guard on those teams. Height doesn't mean anything; heart does. You have to look at how I play. I play hard, very aggressive, I do everything. I'm willing to do anything to play on a Division I team. If you have any doubts, come and look at how I play. I feel I am talented enough to play for those teams."
And what about Harlan? How far can the Falcons go in a conference that includes Simeon, Bogan, Morgan Park, Brooks and Vocational?
"We are good enough to compete with all of them because we are quicker than all of them," Johnson said. "Our quickness gives us an edge. Every time we use our feet, it pays off for us."