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Into the Great Wide Open

The spirit of the slain Northwestern basketball coach guides the adventuresome program at the Ricky Byrdsong Not Just Basketball Camp.

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The big doors of Anshe Emet Synagogue swung open on August 6, and 50 or so kids entered the sanctuary, their eyes wide. Most of them were black preteens from the south side who'd never seen the inside of a synagogue, and they were there as part of the weeklong Ricky Byrdsong Not Just Basketball Camp. "We use basketball to get the kids in the door, so to speak, but we're not really about basketball," says Carlton Evans, executive director of the Ricky Byrdsong Foundation, which sponsors the camp. "We take the kids to different ethnic museums and restaurants. We're trying to break down barriers and build tolerance."

The camp's guiding spirit was one of Evans's oldest, dearest friends--Ricky Byrdsong, the former head coach of the men's basketball team at Northwestern University. The two met more than 30 years ago when they were growing up in Georgia. "Ricky and I shared a love for basketball," says Evans. "We both had the same old dream a million kids have, then and now--we were gonna make it to the NBA."

In 1975 they were roommates at Iowa State, where they both played on the basketball team. "As good as we were, we were just not good enough to make it to the pros," says Evans. "But we did what we had to--we got our education and went on with our lives." For Evans that meant moving west with his wife, Karen, and taking a job as a social worker with the Arizona Boys Ranch, a school for delinquents near Phoenix. "We had kids doing time for all sorts of things--armed robbery, drug possession, you name it," he says. "I loved the challenge of working with those kids."

Byrdsong moved into the nomadic existence of college coaching, following jobs from town to town across the country. "For a time he was coaching in Arizona, and we got to see each other a lot," says Evans. "Ricky and [his wife] Sherialyn would come over for Thanksgiving. Our kids became friends. But you know how it goes in that business--he got another job and moved on."

In 1993 Byrdsong hit the big time when Northwestern hired him as its head coach. "Coaching in the Big Ten is about as high as you can go in that profession," says Evans. "I was so proud of him."

Byrdsong got off to a fast start: the team made the National Invitation Tournament. But then it staggered, and he discovered, as so many other coaches have, how difficult it is to build a winning basketball program at Northwestern. In early 1997 he was fired. "If he was down at first he didn't stay down long," says Evans. "He used to call from time to time out of the blue, telling me about all his dreams and endeavors."

In 1998 Byrdsong, who was working for Aon Corporation, got in touch with Gary Cowen, who owns and operates Hoops, the Gym, at 1380 W. Randolph. "He wanted to set up a basketball camp at our courts," says Cowen, adding that the idea was to use basketball to hook inner-city kids into getting other skills. "We called it the Ricky Byrdsong Not Just Basketball Camp because it was about more than the game."

The first session was in July 1998. "We had kids from the inner city," says Cowen. "We brought in all these computers, and they had computer training. They played basketball. We got a write-up by Rick Telander in the Sun-Times. We had a lot of guest speakers. Ricky took care of all that--he knew everyone in basketball. We were sort of a funny combination. I'm a very compulsive worrier, and Ricky's laid-back. I was worried. 'What's with this guy? Will he come through?' But everything Ricky said he was going to do he did."

The camp, says Cowen, was a success. "In the spring of 1999 Ricky stopped by to plan the next camp," he says. "He was really excited about it."

But on Friday, July 2, just a few weeks before that year's camp was supposed to start, Byrdsong was murdered by white supremacist Benjamin Smith. Smith, who killed another person and also injured eight other people, began a three-day shooting rampage by firing at Orthodox Jews as they walked home from Friday services in West Rogers Park. He then drove to Skokie, where he shot Byrdsong, who happened to be walking outside his house. Over the weekend Smith drove to Bloomington, Indiana, where he murdered Won-Joon Yoon, a 26-year-old Korean graduate student. Eventually police closed in on him, and after a high-speed chase he shot and killed himself.

"I was at a basketball camp with my oldest son, DeWayne, when I got the news," says Evans. "Karen called me. She said, 'Have you heard? Ricky was shot last night.' It was unbelievable. I still can hardly believe it. I mean, Ricky? Of all people, Ricky? How do I explain this man? How can I explain the loss? You had to know him--I wish everyone could have known him. He was just a big man with a big heart who wanted to help everyone. It makes you think about how precious life is and how random it is. Ricky didn't know [Smith]. He just happened to be walking down the street when he drove by."

Hundreds of people of all races and religions attended Byrdsong's funeral service in Evanston. Within a year Sherialyn Byrdsong had created the Ricky Byrdsong Foundation, which sponsors youth training programs intended to "arrest the growing epidemic of hate and violence in our society and against our youth." In 2001 she asked Evans to move to Chicago and become its executive director.

One of his first assignments was to get in touch with Cowen and revive the camp. "We made a point of having camp in '99, right after Ricky was shot," says Cowen. "But then we missed a year."

This time around Cowen and Evans decided to teach the campers about tolerance and diversity instead of computers. "We thought it would be important to take the kids to different communities--Jewish, Asian, Hispanic, African-American," says Cowen. "We thought that would be an important way to symbolize Ricky's life."

Most of this year's campers, for whom the camp is free, come from the Englewood Boys and Girls Club, the south-side Rebecca Crown Youth Center, and the Hyde Park Jewish Community Center. (Next year Evans hopes to bring in kids from Hispanic and Asian centers as well.) Each day of the one-week camp begins with diversity workshops led by two social workers, Barbara Belcore and Naisy Dolar. Afterward the kids play basketball--spirited games refereed by Brian Latman, sports director for the Hyde Park JCC; Patrick Pender, youth worker at the Crown Youth Center; and several teenage counselors Evans recruited from local high schools. Then the kids gather at center court for 30 minutes or so of motivational speeches.

Each day brings a talk by a different basketball player: Stephen Bardo, who played guard at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Staci Carney, who prepped at Whitney Young High School and went on to play for the Purdue University women's team; David Adelman, assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point; June Olkowski, head coach of the Northwestern women's team; and Juwan Howard, starting forward for the Denver Nuggets.

"I've been where you are," Howard told the campers one day in late July. "I grew up on the south side. I went to camps like this. I remember the speakers who talked to us. I remembered what they told us: study, work hard, stay away from drugs, stay in school. You know something? It's all true."

After the speech it's onto the buses and off to lunch. "Lunch is a big part of this camp," says Evans, laughing. "We all like to eat." Over the course of the week they'll go to neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Pilsen, eating egg rolls and enchiladas. One day they went south to the Soul Queen restaurant at 9031 S. Stony Island, where they were greeted by the

proprietor, Helen Maybell Anglin. On the walls are photographs of her taken with guests such as Harold Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Nelson Mandela, and Harry Belafonte.

"This is a buffet--you can eat what you want and as much as you want," Evans told the campers after they'd taken seats around the dining room. "I ask that you be respectful--don't waste food. If you take it, eat it. If you don't want to eat it, don't take it." They went up to the steam tables in an orderly procession and piled their plates with fried chicken, greens, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and stuffing.

Following lunch they'll tour a neighborhood or visit a museum, such as the DuSable or the Mexican Fine Arts Center.

On the day they went to Anshe Emet they lunched at Manny's delicatessen on Jefferson near Roosevelt Road, where they feasted on corned beef sandwiches and potato pancakes. Afterward they drove to Lakeview and entered the synagogue. Its youth director, Lisa Lieberman, gave a brief talk, pointing out the ark bearing the Torahs, the lamp hanging from the ceiling that never goes out, the stained-glass windows depicting Bible stories. Finally she asked, any questions?

Hands went up all over the room. Why is the Jewish flag blue and white? What's that star on the wall? Why does it have six points? What do you have to do to be a rabbi? Do you know anyone who died in the Holocaust? How much does a Torah cost to make? How many kinds of Jews are there? How do you keep the light in the eternal lamp going all the time?

Then the kids headed back to the gym. "I think this day was a success," said Evans. "I know Ricky would have loved it--especially Manny's. Ricky loved good food, you know. He'd have loved going to that synagogue. Did you hear all those questions those kids asked? That was a connection being made. They saw things they never saw before and thought about things they never thought about before. You have to figure only good things can come from this."

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

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