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Racial reunion: high-school hoopsters come back and play with a purpose

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In many ways it was appropriate that the second annual Hoops for a Better America basketball tournament came down to one last shot. The two teams in last month's final, the Peace Posse and the Fellas, consisted of outstanding players in their early to mid 20s who have been playing with and against one another for more than 12 years. With a few seconds left, the Fellas led by three, but Posse star Jonathan Speller, a former Continental Basketball Association player, was charging up court with the ball and a chance to tie the score.

Watching from the sidelines was 21-year-old Richard Lufrano, a 1988 graduate of Lane Tech High School and one of the finest public-league point guards to come out of the north side in recent years. Lufrano organized the tournament under the simple premise that high school friendships, particularly those between blacks and whites, should not be allowed to wither with the years.

"We started this tournament so old friends would have a chance to stay in touch," says Lufrano of the two-month-long summer tournament played at Anshe Emet Synagogue, 3760 N. Pine Grove. "It's our opportunity to go back to the old days of high school, when we could hang out and shoot the breeze and just be friends without realizing that in this world whites and blacks are supposed to go their separate ways."

Lufrano inherited his love for basketball from his father, Ned Lufrano, who was a star guard at Marshall High in the late 1940s and early '50s. As a kid, Rich spent hours practicing on courts near his family's north-side apartment. But he didn't reach his potential until he enrolled at Lane Tech. "I went to Anshe Emet for grade school because my parents wanted me to get a good Jewish education, but my parents realized that I needed to go to a public high school to experience a wide range of people," says Lufrano. "I was scared to death when I first got to Lane. The school had about 5,000 kids. I was overwhelmed."

His classmates remember Lufrano's first days at Lane a little differently. "Rich was just the way you want your point guard to be--cocky," says Ed "Scooter" Silas, who graduated from Lane in 1986. "I remember when he was a freshman he came up to a bunch of us upperclassmen in the hall and said, 'Hey, don't you guys have a class to be in?' He was just trying to be friendly, but one guy took it wrong and picked Rich up by the shirt and slammed him against the locker. We pulled the guy off, saying, 'Come on, man, he didn't mean anything.'"

In time, a strong friendship developed between Silas and Lufrano. "Rich was sort of my protege," says Silas, now 24, who was the starting point guard on the '86 team. "After practice I'd pull him aside for a game of one-on-one and say, 'Come on freshy, let's see what you can do.' He was only about five-foot-nine, if that, and he couldn't have weighed more than 150. I beat him every time, but Rich never stopped trying. After a while it got harder to beat him. In our own way we were carrying out part of the Lane tradition, where upperclassmen take the freshmen aside and prepare them to carry on the legacy." Athletically, Lane is known mainly for football, but the '86 basketball team was one of the city's finest, with Silas and Devin Smith at shooting guard, Tom Killen and Adrian Moore at forward, and Baron McLaughlin at center.

"Adrian was the star--he was one of the gifted players, quick and strong with a great shot. If he hadn't hurt his knee at Iowa State, he might have made it to the NBA," says Devin Smith. "We went 26-3 that year before getting eliminated by Marcus Liberty's King team, who went on to win the state title. We played them tough right up to the end, and I still think we could have won if a couple of calls had gone our way. That's the way it goes; we can talk about that game for the rest of our lives."

In the six years following graduation, Silas, Smith, and other members of the Lane team remained close. "Were like brothers, " says Smith. "We went to different colleges. We have different jobs. But we still stay together. I love these guys and I'm not ashamed to say it. Here we are already 24. We're getting old together. Our children will play together. The key is to never forget where you came from."

Lufrano's 1988 squad was not as successful, but the players remain in touch. "My basketball teammates were my best friends," says Lufrano. "At first some kids called me white boy, but that didn't last. There was a different culture as far as etiquette on the court that I was trying to learn; I had no clues. There are different rules you have to follow. If you dont follow them, you look stupid and you get the stereotype of being a white banger and unsmooth. There's an oncourt demeanor you have to have. You don't want to show a lot of emotion. You downplay everything like it's no big deal. Some of the black guys talked trash, but as a white guy that wasn't my place. I was just trying to fit in. I never really had any troubles. I went to their house. They went to mine. I had a black girlfriend. I listened to black music. Now that I look back I realize I even talked with a black accent. But it was never a big deal. We were lucky. We didn't know that whites and blacks were not supposed to get along in the real world. One time the fellas were talking about going to Jewtown--you know, Maxwell Street--to buy sneakers. I told my dad about it and he explained that was a derogatory term. I asked the guys not to use it, and they stopped. No big deal, we just didn't know different."

In 1988 Lufrano enrolled at Knox College, a small liberal-arts school in downstate Galesburg. "What a difference--there were only 1,200 students at Knox and only about 40 black Students," says Lufrano. "I had some good experiences at Knox, but I felt separated from my past. I was losing touch with my high school friends. Oh, you try to stay in contact by calling them during the summer, but it's hard. I really missed those high school days when you could hang out. with your friends and have not a care in the world. With blacks and whites going their separate ways I wanted some way to get those old days back."

The basketball league was his solution. "I brought the idea to Anshe Emet's rabbi, Michael Siegel," says Lufrano. "He was great about it; he gave us permission to use the gym." From there it was a matter of finding teams. "We started out by calling all of our high school buddies," says Michael Orlove, who played football at Lane and graduated in 1988. "Everyone was excited; we all wanted to see each other again."

Six teams competed in that first season. "It was a little primitive in those first few days," says Lufrano. "We refereed ourselves. But that didn't work. There was too much arguing and the games got out of control. So we had to hire some refs. The games were played on Sunday nights and the best part was hanging out afterwards in the parking lot, laughing and remembering old times. The rabbi got a little pressure. You know, people wanted to know why a bunch of a kids were hanging around the parking lot on a Sunday night. But the rabbi stuck with us. He explained that it was all for a good cause."

As word of the tournament spread, Orlove and Lufrano were barraged with calls from other would-be players. This year's tournament featured ten teams and more than 100 players.

"I knew Rich from when he played on a south-side playground team I organized a few years back," says Eric Wilkinson, a Hyde Park resident and starting point guard on the Peace Posse. "This is one of the better summer basketball leagues. I like the camaraderie and the fact that there's sort of a higher purpose to our playing--racial harmony. We need more of that."

This year Orlove and Lufrano were able to solicit $2,000 in contributions from Chernin's Shoes--enough money to supply each team with T-shirts. Each team came up with $75 to help hire a security guard and cover miscellaneous expenses. One of the high points of the season was a barbecue on August 23. "We held the barbecue in the parking lot for anyone who wanted to come--free of charge," says Orlove. "WGCI came out with a music van and the Jesse White Tumblers performed."

Orlove says that the league could expand to as many as 20 teams next year. "We may have to move to a larger gym, though we'd like to keep the games here; it's more intimate," says Orlove. "The interest is incredible. Word is getting out. Rich and I are out of college now, so we'll have more time to plan and raise money for next year's tournament."

As for this year's championship game, the Fellas were favorites. They featured Silas, Smith, and Moore as well as Indiana University star forward Eric Anderson. Despite the hoopla surrounding Anderson and Moore, Jonathan Speller, a 27-year-old former Kenwood High School star, proved to be the tournament's best player. The Fellas tried several different defenders, including Moore, but no one could stop Speller, who was effortlessly brilliant, bringing up the ball, driving the lane for lay-ups, or knocking down three-pointers. He scored 50 points, including 32 in the second half and would have sent the game into overtime had his last-second, high-arching three-pointer not deflected off the ropes that sagged from the ceiling. The Fellas won 106-102.

Speller and his teammates graciously congratulated their opponents. "I'd like to get the chance to try out for an NBA team or a pro team in Europe, though maybe it's time to settle down with my wife and daughter," Speller said after the game. "A tournament like this gives me a chance to keep up my skills, see some old friends, and have a good time."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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