Shared love of basketball unites students across economic divide

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A high school team from an affluent community and a championship team from one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago came together for a game of goodwill Monday.

The teams met on the campus of Lake Forest High School to play a little basketball, raise a little money and teach each other a thing or two about life. It took a church pastor, two very different schools and a local sports writer to make it happen.

Coach Lou Adams is the reason the group gathered. For the past two years in a row, he has produced a winning state championship team at Orr Academy High School and done it on a shoestring budget.  To his team, he’s their everything.

“He is more than a coach,” Pastor Tom Dickelman said.  “He is a father figure, mentor, he’s a game changer in their lives. … He is doing extraordinary things and we have to figure out a way to help them.”

In 2017, long before the Chicago Public School’s own Spartans captured everyone’s attention on the court, Rick Telander, a long time sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times tracked the team and wrote a five-part series for the paper titled, “A Season Under the Gun.” (Read the series from the beginning on the Sun-Times website)

“I had no idea they were going to win the state championship,” Telander said. “I had no idea when I started the series that they were any good at all.”

He was enamored by the tenacity and dedication of the team’s coach on the West Side.  In 2014, murder rates were higher there than anywhere else in the city. In 2016, the numbers continued to climb.

“The state championship pales in comparison to the things he’s done to help these kids,” Telander said.

“What they see is a man who cares. Not a woman. And it is very, very important in this area to see a man that is doing things to the right way,” Dickelman said. “If Lou yells at them, they know it’s only because he cares about them.”

“We didn’t start this mission to put NBA players out there. We started our mission to turn young men into grown men and we’ve been successful so far,” Adams said.

So successful that a group of grown men from suburban Lake Forest started a non-profit called Net Gain to help the championship team be the best these young men can be on the court. Last year, Net Gain hoped to raise a few thousand dollars with their first exhibition game between Orr and Lake Forest High School students. They raised over $40,000.

The money bought the team new uniforms, fitted players for new mouth guards, supplied water coolers for the bench and even delivered an entire weight room.

Last summer, the Orr team travelled north for the first time and visited the beaches of Lake Michigan. For many of them, it was a body of water they had never seen up close.  The Lake Forest team members were right there with them as they navigated uncharted waters together.

“I learned that if you’re from the North Shore or you’re from South or West side of Chicago, you’re still a high school kid and you still love basketball,” Sean Trkla, LFHS graduate said. “It was one of my favorite moments of my senior year.”

Adams said his lesson for his boys is about that simple. It’s all about love on his team.

“We are here to show people that we are real people.  That we need love, just love,” he said.

Adams said while he is tired, he is not burned out yet and will be back this fall leading his young team from the bench. Net Gain held one game last year. They held two this year. They would like to see the program grow where even more high schools participate in this type of exchange.

Orr beat Lake Forest last year. This year, the champs lost to Lake Forest by four points.