By Ben Joravsky
In all his years of coaching, Manny Weincord never imagined it would come down to this. But there he was in his last game of his last season at Roosevelt High School, his Rough Riders down by one with nine seconds left. The crowd was on its feet, roaring as Willie Hill, Weincord's star senior guard, wriggled free and launched a three.
If it went in, Roosevelt would move on to another playoff game in another gym. If it didn't everything was over. Not just the season, but Weincord's career. After 35 years, the dean of public-league coaches was slated to retire. It was up to Hill to keep his career going for at least another game.
Weincord, profiled here nine years ago, is a veteran at the Albany Park school. "I came here in 1946 as a freshman, about 19 years after it opened," he says. "It was a working-class Jewish school then. I've been here almost every day since."
Actually he didn't start teaching gym at Roosevelt until 1962. "It's the only job I ever really wanted--it just took me a while to get it. I always tell the kids, never give up. Look at me. I graduated in 1950, got drafted and sent over to Korea. I went to college part-time while I was working. It took me eight years to get that degree."
In 1968 he became the varsity basketball coach. By then most of the Jews had moved out of Albany Park, and the students had become an even mix of African-Americans and immigrants from every continent. "I've coached kids from Asia, Europe, Central America, the Middle East," he says. "They come from every corner of the world--escaping injustice, wars, and poverty--walk into the gym, and see me. It's enough to make them want to go back."
Over the years Weincord figures he's coached more than 500 players and more than 1,000 games, winning more than he lost. His strength was as a motivator. "I coach from my heart," he says. "I coach with emotion--I give it all I've got."
Among his peers, few if any coaches are more popular. "Manny is just a class, class guy," says Tom Horn, head coach of Lane Tech's varsity boys team. "He doesn't recruit. He doesn't believe in it. He just plays whoever walks in. He doesn't run up a score. He doesn't try to humiliate you. After every game he always shakes your hand. And he's funny--man, is he funny. If you're ever in the dumps Manny will cheer you up. You tell him, 'Manny, you wouldn't believe what happened.' And he's got two more anecdotes just like it--only he'll tell it to you funny, so you couldn't help but crack up."
At times many of his colleagues wonder how he lasted so long. Like most public schools, Roosevelt had suffered from years of neglect. Its gym was dark, almost gloomy; the lightbulbs needed replacing, the basketball nets were torn. The uniforms were ratty and sometimes tattered. For years Weincord coached alone because it was hard to find someone willing to volunteer the time as an assistant. And because he didn't recruit he never got to coach a great team. "During a game I'll rant and rave, but afterwards it's over," he says. "I hold no grudges. I tell the players, 'What the hell--it's only a game. I think you'll all agree there's things that are more important. So thanks for putting up with me.'"
"He's very loyal to his players," says Jose Diaz, a shooting guard on this year's team. "He gives so many guys second chances. He really has a huge heart. I remember the first time I saw him. He was already a legend. I thought he'd be here forever."
But this year Weincord decided "enough's enough." He let it be known that he wanted the longtime frosh-soph coach, Tarrie Blakely, to replace him as varsity coach after the season was over. And come June, he'll retire from teaching. "It's time," he says. "I told the kids the curtain rises and then it falls. Let Tarrie get a chance. He's done a great job with the frosh-soph."
As word of his decision spread, his phone started ringing. "I never knew I was so popular," he says. "You know what they say, the body looks great when it's lying in the coffin."
Barry Temkin did a write-up in the Tribune. Tim Weigel filmed a segment for Channel Two news. Opposing coaches such as Clemente's Jim Dagostino, Amundsen's John Barnes, and Ida Crown's Gary Peckler gave him plaques. "A lot of the coaches called me up and said, 'Manny, come coach with me next year,'" says Weincord. "It was very flattering." He decided he would do it and chose to go with Horn at Lane Tech. "I figure I can be like his Tex Winter. I'll give him advice. It will be fun. It will keep me close to the game without all the aggravation of being the head coach."
Coincidentally, Roosevelt opened this season at Lane. The team looked horrible, falling apart under the press and losing by more than 20 points. At times even Willie Hill looked helpless as he dribbled into double teams and traps. "But it's not just Willie's fault--the other guys have to help him out, they have to come to the ball," said Weincord afterward. "We won't win many games if we can't beat a press."
They lost eight of their first nine, and then a curious thing happened. They got better. They moved Samir Sakanovic, a deft shooter, up from the sophomore team, and Tony Williams, a slick dribbling guard, brought up his grades and was ruled eligible for the season's second half. Senior center Darren Collins and forward Verjaun Gordon grew more proficient. And most important, Hill steadily improved, growing cooler and wiser and calmer.
It seemed as though the school was growing stronger too. It installed new lightbulbs, fixed the nets, polished the floor. A security guard named Yuma Hayes volunteered to be Weincord's assistant. Two seniors, Amanda Calhoun and Jasna Karamehmedovic, jazzed up the pregame routine by playing music over a boom box. Arnie Kamen, an alum who raises money for the school, bought the team new uniforms. A science teacher, Aimee DesJardins, organized a cheerleading squad.
For the final home game of the regular season, school athletic director Joe Kail put together a tribute to Weincord that included 30 players representing teams from all of Weincord's decades at the school, from the 40s to the 90s. Before the game they gathered on the court--old, young, black, white, Hispanic, Jewish--to hear Weincord's remarks. "Roosevelt will always be in my heart," he said. "I love you all."
The team won six of their last seven games and found themselves at home against Lane Tech in round one of the playoffs. In the playoffs one defeat means elimination. The champion goes on to represent the city in the state tournament. Of course Roosevelt has no chance of making it that far. But avenging the opening-game loss and winning Weincord's last home game would be a highlight of the season.
"Let's win one for coach," Diaz urged his teammates during warm-ups. They stormed to an early lead, and at the half they led by nine. "You can make it happen," Weincord told them. "They never thought it could happen, but you can beat this team!"
Yet by the fourth quarter they were starting to wither. Their lead was sliced to seven, then six, then five, then three. With a minute left, Lane tied the game at 72. Collins, trying to catch the ensuing inbounds pass, stepped on the out-of-bounds line. The ball went to Lane. They scored a three-pointer. With 52 seconds left, Roosevelt was losing.
Hill hit two free throws to cut the lead to one. Back came Lane. They shot. They missed. Collins grabbed the rebound. Hill advanced the ball. The clock ticked down to 11 seconds. The students in the stands were on their feet, screaming. Two Lane defenders advanced toward Hill. He moved right, then cut left. The clock was at nine seconds. He launched the off-balance three.
It swished through the net.
Horn called for time, and the place went wild. Weincord was the first guy on the court to embrace Hill.
"It's not over," yelled Hayes. "It's not over!"
"Play defense," bellowed Blakely.
"Five more seconds," screamed Manny. "Play hard! No fouls! Make it the toughest five seconds of your life."
Lane couldn't even get off a shot as the Rough Riders swarmed over the would-be shooter. The ball was batted away. It was still bouncing when the final horn sounded.
The students raced onto the court to embrace Hill as Weincord walked over to the Lane bench. He held out his hand to Horn. "Ah, Tommy, great game. It could have gone either way."
After the game it was bedlam in Weincord's little office, with players, scorekeepers, boosters, referees, teachers, and friends crowding in. Terrell Redmond, the star guard from the 1992 team, was on hand. He and Weincord hugged. "God bless you for coming, Terrell," said Weincord, his voice cracking. "You'll never know how much it means to me."
Angela Volpe, a Roosevelt gym teacher, brought out two cakes.
"What's this for?" asked Hayes.
Weincord shrugged. "It's my birthday. I'm 68."
"Your birthday! Jesus, man, I see you every day and you never told me. Happy birthday. What a win--and on your birthday!"
Horn wandered over, still looking a little shaken.
"Come on, Tommy," said Weincord. "Have a piece of cake."
"No thanks," said Horn. "Oh, all right. For you, Manny."
Beating Lane means Roosevelt survives to play at Steinmetz, another heavily favored team. If they manage to pull an upset there they'll go on to play some powerhouse, maybe King or Simeon.
"Anyway you look at it, this is the highlight," says Weincord. "My last game at Roosevelt. What a way to go out!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.