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Anyone Can Play

The founders of Hi-Five sports camp create a citified--and multiethnic--version of their North Shore original.

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By Ben Joravsky

For the last eight summers, the upscale Hi-Five sports day camp in Northfield has had North Shore residents elbowing one another out of the way to get their kids accepted. But in June the camp's operators are bringing a six-week program to Whitney Young High School--a program designed not to make big bucks but to make a big difference. They want to use their camp as a hammer to break down the walls of segregation.

"We're looking to bring all kids of all races and backgrounds together--whites, Hispanics, and African-Americans," says Marv Tuchman, cofounder of the camp. "We're looking to use sports as the magnet to draw kids from all over the city and all backgrounds. That's our dream, that's our goal. It's the great challenge."

If Tuchman and his partner, Stanton Miller, have a model, it's the recreational programs at the Jewish social centers they attended growing up in Chicago in the 50s and 60s. In 1955, when Tuchman was eight, his family moved to a one-bedroom apartment just down the street from the Max Straus Community Center, which was on Wilson near Lawndale. He went to Haugan Elementary and Roosevelt High School, but he and his friends spent most of their free time at Max Straus.

"It was so much different back then," says Tuchman. "Parents weren't around us all the time. A lot of them, like my parents, were immigrants. My dad was a baker. He baked bagels from morning until night. He was a hardworking man trying to provide for his family. He didn't have time to go to our games. The only adult at Max Straus was Manny Weincord, the sports director. You'd go to the gym and there was Manny. He ran all the activities--football, basketball, softball. God, it was a blast."

Tuchman says the kids back then joined social clubs. "Each club had a name and an identity. I was an Anaconda. There was a bond--I still treasure my Anaconda jacket. You played together as a team, and then when the game was over you practiced or talked or just hung around. So much of the play was spontaneous, controlled by the kids. It was our own little universe. It seems like another world from what it's like today."

After Tuchman graduated from high school, he drifted in and out of college, joined the marines, and went to work as a salesman for Levi's jeans. By 1970 he'd married and moved to the suburbs. "I was making the great Jewish migration--from the west side to Albany Park and to the suburbs," he says. "I sometimes wish I had stayed in the city. But I moved to Des Plaines, then to Glenview, because I wanted to be near the tollway. I did a lot of traveling for the Levi's job--my territory was the south suburbs and Lake County, Indiana. I figured it would be best just to hop on the tollway and take off."

In 1981 he took a job as a trader in the treasury-bond pit at the Board of Trade. That's where he got to know Miller, who was also a trader. "We hit it off right away," says Miller. "We had a lot in common." Over the years they traded together, making a good living, though not a fortune.

Miller had been a member of a youth social club affiliated with the Jewish Community Center on Touhy Avenue. "I grew up in West Rogers Park and graduated from Sullivan High School," he says. "I was in a club called the Rockets."

Years later, Miller's and Tuchman's children played in sports leagues in the Glenview area. Both men marveled at the vast playing fields and glitzy gyms, a stark contrast to the facilities at the old social centers. They also came to realize that something was missing. "I don't want to sound like an old-timer going on and on about the good old days," says Tuchman, "but I have to say, there was something special about the past. I think it's the club spirit. You don't have the club culture in the suburbs. There is no spontaneous play--it's so much more organized."

Instead of parents opening the door and letting the kids out to head over to the social center, there are scheduled lessons and scheduled games. Parents are intimately involved, as coaches or as chauffeurs schlepping kids from one field to the next. Some upscale parents, looking to turn their kids into stars, hire sports trainers. These trainers, usually ex-jocks, make as much as $75 an hour for one-on-one coaching on how to shoot a basketball or swing a bat. Some of the tutors are a little embarrassed by the fees they charge. One prominent basketball instructor who has a lot of Gold Coast clients says, "With wealthier people I've discovered that they're not really happy if they're not paying top dollar for the kid's lesson."

"Overall, I think it's a good thing to have parents involved," says Tuchman, "but it can also have its drawbacks." He says the problems start when parents care too much, when they get too personally involved in the performance of their children, who become extensions of themselves. Basketball, baseball, soccer--the obsessive behavior is the same. The parents sit in the stands tracking how many minutes or innings their kids have played or how many points or runs they've scored, and they dash down after the game to hector the coaches or badger their kids.

Tuchman understands why it happens. "Parents have free time that my father didn't have," he says. "There's the car culture--kids need to be driven around. People are afraid to let their kids out alone. But there are things from the past that would be nice to see return. I think it's good that we're taking the time to teach the kids the fundamentals and skills, but I also think we should try to use sports for more socialization, so kids can have time to play with their peers."

Tuchman and Miller organized a youth basketball team in Glenview in the early 1990s and soon became well versed in the sociology of upscale suburban sports. By 1993 they were both ready to get out of trading and start their own sports camp.

"Trading's a tough business," says Tuchman. "You get up at two, get there at three, run in and get your spot on the trading floor, and stay buying and selling orders until the market closes. I loved the contact--it was like a game or a sport. But for me, the emotional part was very draining. There was no reward other than money. You ask yourself, what have I accomplished in my life? It's a pretty important question to answer."

He and Miller decided they wanted to run a 90s-style camp that was heavy on skills classes but that also harked back to the social clubs of their youth. Digging into their savings, they opened Hi-Five in Lake Forest. The first summer they had 80 kids, boys and girls aged 6 to 13; then, as now, most of the campers came from the northern suburbs.

The kids were divided into coed teams that were as equal in ability as possible. As Miller says, "We don't want all the really talented kids on one team." The camp, which has moved to the old Marillac High School on Waukegan Road in Northfield, features lots of games--basketball, baseball, soccer, flag football, volleyball, and floor hockey. "Part of the day is reserved for skills," says Tuchman, "part is for events."

Gradually enrollment grew to more than 400, with kids coming from as far north as Lake Forest and as far south as Evanston. Then last year Miller and Tuchman decided to start a branch in the city. Miller says, "We already had a connection to the city when we organized a small-fry basketball league for kids at Whitney Young High School." Tuchman adds, "We see this as an opportunity to do something far more beneficial than just teach kids the basketball or baseball skills."

The challenge will be enormous, because youth sports in Chicago remain largely segregated. Generally, black kids play basketball but not soccer. Whites and Hispanics play soccer, but not together. The lakefront youth soccer league is still largely all white, even though hundreds of Hispanic kids live within a few blocks of the playing fields.

Part of the reason is self-segregation--kids learn from parents who make no effort to break down their own walls of social segregation. Go to an integrated Little League game and you'll most likely see the families divided into their own little clumps--blacks here, whites there, and Hispanics somewhere else.

Tuchman and Miller say they'll battle self-segregation by giving the kids little choice as to what teams they'll play on. "We will honor requests to keep kids together," says Tuchman, "but we'd rather not."

Instead, they plan to divide the kids up by ability while putting kids from the south side on teams with north-siders and west-siders. The teams will be given the names of college clubs, and they'll be led by counselors--college students and recent grads. Every morning there will be skill classes led by coaches from Young; Lamont Bryant, for example, will teach basketball skills. Afterward there will be games.

To find campers, Tuchman and Miller have sent brochures to private schools, where the parents can write checks for the $1,395 six-week fee without batting an eye. But the two men will also offer scholarships to less-well-off kids, recruiting them through their contacts in small-fry basketball.

"The early results are very encouraging," says Tuchman. "We have 80 kids already signed up. We could probably go as high as 300. We're getting more girls than we expected, and so far we're very diverse. This will be a challenge for everyone--not just us but the kids. I believe, however, that it can work. I believe that there should be no barriers for kids at that age. The only barriers have been created by the parents. When the kids get there it's all about being with your friends and your buddies. If we can create that environment, it will be something special."

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

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