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The Real Story of Simeon Basketball Coach Robert Smith

On the morning of Simeon Career Academy’s opening game of the Public League playoffs, coach Robert Smith sat behind the desk in his office and reflected on an eventful season.

His team, led by Duke-bound Jabari Parker, was 20-2 at the time, but it had been a trying year. Three of Smith’s transfer students were ruled ineligible by the IHSA; Smith received a four-game suspension for Simeon’s postgame fight with Morgan Park High School; and after the game, in an incident unrelated to the fight on the court, a 17-year-old was shot and killed outside the gym. Smith did not sound like a man who will soon begin his quest for a fourth consecutive state title—his sixth in eight years as the varsity coach. He looked tired as he leaned back in his swivel chair, a state championship ring the size of a cherry tomato gleaming on his right ring finger.

“A lot of people think I’m nothing but a crooked coach,” he said, hands behind his head. Then he paused and smiled. The life returned to his face. “But they don’t know me,” he said. “They don’t know Simeon.”

Smith may be the most successful boys basketball coach in Illinois high school history, and he surely is if championships are the measuring stick. Only 41 years old, his five state titles are already a record. Simeon has won 21 straight state tournament games, its last loss coming in the 2009 sectionals to Hyde Park. In his seven-plus seasons, Smith has compiled a record of 252-40, a winning percentage of .863.

Under Smith, Simeon has become a local and national phenomenon, thanks in large part to the two all-world stars he has coached: Derrick Rose, an NBA Most Valuable Player, and Parker, who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated last year. The Wolverines travel the country competing against America’s best teams, sometimes on national television. Smith’s phone rings with college coaches recruiting his players, and parents begging for him to let their kids to play for Simeon. Comcast had a television crew follow his team last year, and the Chicago Tribune has had a reporter trailing him all season.

The rise has been quick—almost too quick, Smith said. “It’s not something you expect when you start, to win five of seven,” he said.

This year, though, has been different. Smith, who graduated from Simeon in 1990, has been tested—some of his troubles his own doing and some of them, he said, the results of success. Soul searching has left him with two very different thoughts. He speaks both of motivation, but also, perhaps, of a new beginning.

“I want this one more than I’ve ever wanted any other state championship,” Smith said. “I don’t think that was true in November.”

In his next breath, he continued: “I know I can’t stay at Simeon forever.”

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Smith looks more like a former running back than the ex-point guard he is. He is six feet tall, stocky, and shuffles rather than walks, his feet slightly pigeon-toed. He does not exude the gravitas of so many big-time high school and college coaches. He is not a schmoozer, and there is no steady stream of syrupy sales pitches. He is a workman, preferring to remain in the shadow of his superstars. During one of our interviews, Smith asked, “Why would someone want to write a story about me?”

He lives in a bungalow in Calumet Heights. He drives a Dodge Charger. He went on his first date with his wife to Baskin-Robbins. For a night out, the Smith family, which includes a one-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter, likes to go to Red Lobster.

“It might seem strange with how much publicity Simeon gets, but it’s an old-school mentality,” said Cyrus McGinnis, the coach at Tilden Career Community Academy High School and a longtime friend and former high school and college teammate of Smith’s.

Added Joe Henricksen, who writes the City/Suburban Hoops Report: “Rob isn’t a mouthpiece. He’s not going to ramble for headlines and notoriety.”

In the Public League, so long defined by what is perceived as its run-and-gun style, described by Curie Metropolitan High School coach Mike Oliver as “ragtag basketball,” Smith stands out. His teams reflect their coach’s disciplined approach.

Simeon plays defense. The Wolverines hustle. They are regarded, even by opponents, as well coached. “When you play for Rob, you are going to play hard on the court and you are going to do what you’re supposed to off it,” said former King High coach Landon Cox. “Everyone knows it.”

This season, hype swirled around Whitney Young as the Dolphins were anointed the area’s top team ahead of their January meeting with Simeon, which, despite is strong record, had failed to impress some observers, especially after losing one game by 29 points. But in one of the most anticipated Chicagoland high school games in recent memory, Simeon used a combination of suffocating defense, balanced offense, and hard-nosed play to win a grind-it-out, physical game.

Smith was suspended for the contest and he watched from the front row at Chicago State, clenching his fists and stamping his feet. But his players displayed the traits he instilled in them.

“It’s two D’s,” Jabari Parker said. “Coach Smith tells us defense and discipline.”

Smith attributes his style and attitude to Bob Hambric, the man whose likeness is painted in a mural outside the Simeon gym next to Rose and Ben Wilson, the Wolverines’ star who was murdered in 1984. Smith played for Hambric and then coached the sophomore team under him for seven years before taking over for his mentor.

Hambric, who passed away in 2009, was a legendary disciplinarian. Smith said he missed a Christmas Day practice in a snow storm his senior year, and was benched the next game.

“Coach Hambric was the only guy I knew who had a paddle hanging on the wall behind his desk,” said John Morrison, the father of former NBA player Adam Morrison, who coached Smith at Casper Junior College in Wyoming. The reference is to what used to be an accepted form of punishment: spanking players with a long wooden paddle.

McGinnis recalled riding home in a van after Simeon had won a summer league tournament. He and Smith were squirting water guns at each other in the back seat and Hambric found himself in the line of fire. Hambric pulled over and chewed them out.

“We got the paddle for a little bit of water,” McGinnis said. “That’s how he was.”

Smith doesn’t say how often he was paddled, but he pointed out it was only a small part of Hambric’s methods.

“He taught me how to work hard, what it meant to be a man,” Smith said. “He told me discipline controls your life, whether it’s getting up to work in the morning or playing a basketball game.”

Smith thought of Hambric when he was in his office in January and received an email informing him that three of his transfers—Donte Ingram from Danville, Jaycee Hillsman from Champaign St. Thomas More, and Sean Moore from Leo Catholic High School—were ruled ineligible (Ingram was recently reinstated). The complaints centered on residency issues. Simeon accepts students from across Chicago, but they must live in the city. Moore is sitting for the rest of his senior season, which will no doubt hurt his chances at being recruited for a college team.

“It burns me up more than anything,” Smith said of the decision. “They are messing with kids’ lives.”

The IHSA did not force Simeon to forfeit any victories, and cleared the school of any recruiting violations. But it was not the first time Simeon and Smith have come under scrutiny. There was national intrigue surrounding Rose’s grades when the Sun-Times reported in 2009 that his transcript was altered during his college recruitment. Memphis was later stripped of a Final Four appearance because the NCAA ruled Rose did not take his own SAT. Smith pled ignorance and maintains the truth is a mystery to him.

One day after the eligibility ruling, Simeon met Morgan Park at Chicago State University for one of the city’s great rivalry games. The Wolverines emerged with a heart-stopping win, but the action after the game overshadowed it.

As Smith tells the story, he was through the handshake line and headed to do an interview when he turned back and saw the pushing, shoving, and shouting between the two teams. The bad blood and heightened tensions surrounding the game were blamed at least in part on the rivalry between Smith and Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin. “He’s usually a one game at a time coach,” Smith’s wife, Shaquetta, said. “But before Morgan Park, he said he can’t lose to Nick.”

Several eyewitnesses fingered Morgan Park as the team instigating aggressions and Michael O’Brien of the Sun-Times heard Smith yell, “That’s how bad they want to beat us,” during the altercation. O’Brien added: “What happened after the game wasn’t all that notable until what happened afterward.”

As security guards broke up the melee, players and coaches were escorted to their locker rooms, where they were informed there had been a shooting outside the arena. Smith sat with his team around him.

“My first thought was I hope the person lives,” Smith said.” My second was I hope it’s not a student and then I hoped it wasn’t a family member who was here to watch the game.”

Seventeen-year-old Tyrone Lawson was later pronounced dead, and while police said the homicide was unrelated to the basketball scrum, Smith and Irvin were each suspended for four games. Simeon athletic director Reginald Brock said Smith at first wanted to appeal the suspension, but he changed his mind.

Smith called the penalty fair, and said he apologized to his team, but would not speak extensively about the incident. “I think I’m disciplined 99 percent of the time,” he said. “But I’m not perfect and that’s all I’m going to say about me and Nick.”

In Smith’s office there are no pictures of Hambric, just a series of posters taped to the wall (one is of Rose), an honorary license plate presented to Smith by Secretary of State Jesse White, and a few photos of children from a summer camp at Simeon.

Asked why he does not keep a photo of his mentor, Smith reached his right index finger to his right temple and said, “Everyday, I see him.”

“I wish he was here,” Smith went on. “There’s a lot of people coming after me. I know that’s a product of having success, but I still want to ask him why all this is happening.”

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Smith grew up in a home next to the LeClaire Courts public housing unit at 47th and Cicero. His mother supported Smith and his three brothers and sister by working as a telephone operator for Illinois Bell. His parents separated when he was in middle school and his father left Smith’s life for good when Smith was in high school.

Smith’s mother, Sharon Smith, wanted her son to go to Simeon because of Hambric, and the strong influence he could have on a boy with no father at home. For his first day of orientation, Smith took the 47th Street bus east before transferring and heading south. He said his mother told him to sit next to the bus driver and ask where to get off, because “I didn’t know where I was going.”

One of his most formative experiences at Simeon came on a basketball trip to Amsterdam before his junior year. Smith took the flight across the Atlantic listening to Slick Rick on his Walkman. It was the first time, he said, that he realized sports could take him places in life.

Smith played his junior and senior seasons for Hambric on the varsity team and, though not a superstar, he was good enough to earn a scholarship to play for Morrison at Casper, one of the top junior college programs in the country.

“He was a hard-nosed kid,” Morrison recalled. “I have a picture of him diving for a loose ball, he’s got his elbow in the other guy’s neck and he’s laying out. That’s the kind of player he was.”

Smith earned All-America honors his sophomore year and led the Thunderbirds to the Junior College national tournament. After losing the first game, Morrison remembered Smith gathering his teammates and delivering a fiery speech that propelled them to a win in their next game.

From Casper, Smith transferred to Baylor for his junior season, but the coach who recruited him was fired before he arrived. Smith never clicked with his replacement, Darrel Johnson, who was later indicted for wire and mail fraud, and suffered through an up and down campaign, seeing the court sporadically.

For his senior season, Smith moved to the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, an NAIA school, and rejoined McGinnis, with whom he had spent two years at Casper after Simeon. Following a successful season, he returned to Chicago to prepare for a pro career without graduating. “I thought I was going to the NBA,” he said with a chuckle.

During that first summer at home, in a pickup game at his childhood court at LeClaire-Hearst Park, Smith tore his ACL, effectively ending his professional aspirations. As Smith sat at home unsure of his next move, Mike Oliver, an old friend from LeClaire Courts, who was coaching at Curie, asked him to help out with the freshman team.

At his first practice, Smith, who said he had no interest in coaching then, hobbled on crutches and watched Oliver work with kids on dribbling drills and three-man weaves. He went back again, and then again. Eventually he took over the freshman team, a volunteer position, and won a city championship. He coached the sophomore team the next year, at a salary of $2,800, to another city title. Oliver likes to point out that Smith did it with his tallest player standing just 6-foot-1.

“He always knew the game,” Oliver said. “I didn’t know it would turn out like this, but I always thought he had a good sense for the game, even when we were kids on the playground.”

In 1997, Smith moved to Simeon to coach the sophomore team at his alma mater, but not before Hambric sent him back to Oklahoma to finish his degree, a prerequisite for coaching with Hambric.

“We all knew Hambric wanted someone in the Simeon family to take over, but we didn’t know who,” McGinnis said.

To this day, Smith is unsure why Hambric chose him to be his sophomore coach, and then his successor. “I think I’d like to ask him that, too,” Smith said.

When Smith replaced the retiring Hambric in 2005, Rose, a sophomore, made the jump to varsity with him. The Wolverines won the school’s second state championship that season. Hambric never allowed freshmen on the varsity team, and Smith insists if Rose had played varsity as a freshman, there would be another trophy at Simeon.

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This, though, is the essence of Smith as a coach: his willingness to both embrace and adapt Hambric’s nails-tough approach with the realities of modern basketball—on and off the court. At first, he continued the Hambric tradition of not allowing his players to speak to the media, but he has loosened it in recent years.

“He doesn’t want us running around like crazy, but we have freedom,” Parker, who played varsity as a freshman, said. “Even compared to my first year, he’s given us more space to work.”

As for whether Smith is simply the two-time benefactor of rare talent, his track record suggests he is more than lucky. Smith said every player he has graduated from Simeon has received a scholarship offer, be it to a Division I, II, NAIA or junior college.

For every Derrick Rose at the University of Memphis there is a Tim Flowers, who graduated with Rose and went to the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin and then Kennedy-King College. For every Parker, there is a Kendall Pollard, a senior this year who has evolved from an unpolished freshman into a key contributor and earned a scholarship to the University of Dayton.

Pollard put it simply: “He coaches all of us.”

With all the attention, accolades, and travel, Smith understands the perception that his job is glamorous; that his pockets are stuffed with cash by Nike, Simeon’s apparel sponsor, and recruiters and seedy colleges. He was adamant about setting the record straight.

“I get a pair of gym shoes and a track suit from Nike,” Smith said. “Not one red cent.”

Rather, Smith said, if there is an overlooked aspect of his job it is coaching young men in a community ravaged by violence. Smith, who is also the Dean of Students at Simeon, talks often with his players about the conditions in their neighborhood. The story of Ben Wilson reminds them that it only takes one bad decision to lose everything. He also speaks of his own life: growing up in LeClaire without a father, running home from the bus stop most afternoons, and not crossing Cicero at the wrong time of night.

He, too, has been affected by gun violence. In 2006 his stepbrother was shot in the head and killed, although Smith attributes the tragedy to his lifestyle. “It affected me, but it didn’t shock me,” Smith said.

Pointing to his phone, Smith said, “When this rings early in the morning or late at night, I get scared. My worst nightmare is getting that call about one of my players.”

Last week, Simeon lost in the Public League semifinals in a rematch with Morgan Park. Down big early, the Wolverines fought back slowly but steadily to eventually tie the game late in the fourth quarter before losing in overtime. In the locker room at halftime, in front of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Smith pointed to his heart and his head, as he told his team: “It’s gonna come from here and up here. Let’s go play Simeon basketball.”

“Rob coaches values, as well as positions,” Jackson later said.

Smith was considered for an assistant coaching job at the University of Illinois last year and his name will come up again as job openings arise. Smith won’t call this season his last, as his team begins its title defense in the state tournament next week as a co-favorite with Whitney Young (Simeon’s run of state titles has also been aided by the IHSA’s move from two classes to four in 2008). Smith said he relishes the opportunity to come back next year without Parker and work with a team of youngsters. But his legacy is on his mind.

“I could take a job any day,” Smith said. “So I’ve got to enjoy my time here. This is a special place for me and that would be something special to leave behind.”

At a recent practice, Smith sat in a folding chair along the sideline while his team shot and stretched. His one-year-old son, affectionately called Little Rob, was doing his best to dribble a basketball. Smith alternated between bouncing it for him and playing defense, poking it away.

Smith was asked what position his son might play, whether he would be a point guard like his father or a shooter and a scorer. Smith looked at his son, lifted him into his lap, and squeezed him tight.

“I want him to be a doctor or an engineer,” he said.

STORY ART: Photos by Ben Strauss

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