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Off the Street Club

Skeet Horton's amateur youth basketball teams stay tru to an unbeatable game plan.

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By Ben Joravsky

It's a cold and dreary Sunday evening in February, and anyone with any sense is at home. But at the New City YMCA the Demons, a team of fifth- and sixth-graders, circle round their coach, Michael "Skeet" Horton, ready to play basketball.

"We've always been about more than the game," says Vince Carter, who founded the Demons. "Basketball's always been a tool we use to get something else." As he tells the story, the Demons were created out of desperation during the long teachers' strike in 1980. "I was just a young teacher at Disney Magnet back then," he says. "A parent called and said we should do something for the kids who live in or around Cabrini-Green while they're out of school."

So Carter created Project Education Plus, and within a few years it had grown into a year-round operation offering everything from tutoring to field trips to basketball. "We always had a team," he says. "We called them the Demons--it was a hook to bring in kids."

One of the kids was Horton, known as Skeet. "My aunt said I looked like a rabbit--Skeeter Rabbit--when I was born," he says. He was a scrawny little eighth-grader at Manierre Elementary when he found his way to the Demons. "I guess you can say I'm a Demons success story. Everything negative you read about in the paper--drugs, guns, murder, teenage pregnancy--all of that is in my family in one way or another. That stuff is in my head every day." Horton's parents never married. His mom was a teenager when he was born. For much of his childhood he was raised by his grandmother, who lived in the working-class neighborhood around Cleveland and Blackhawk. A younger brother's in jail.

"In those days I was more of a baseball player," he says. "I tried out for basketball at Manierre. The coach said, 'Do a layup.' I didn't know what a layup was. So I passed the ball to the next guy. Needless to say, I didn't make the team."

By the time he graduated from Manierre in 1984, basketball had become his favorite game. "Michael Jordan was on the scene then--everyone was playing," he says. "I enjoyed the action. It was more than a game. It was my freedom. My escape. When I'm playing, all that stuff with my family disappeared."

Most of the neighborhood kids went to Lincoln Park High School, but Horton and several friends found their way to Sullivan High in Rogers Park, where they played basketball for Gary Peckler. "Peck was a good coach," says Horton. "He instilled a lot of discipline. He taught us strategy. I was the point guard, but I wasn't the star."

Then came his senior year. "Things were happening fast. My girlfriend got pregnant. I didn't know what to do. I talked to her and my family. Even though we were about to have a son, I decided it was best for me to go to college."

He wound up at Moorhead State in Moorhead, Minnesota. "I'd never heard of Moorhead State, never even been to Minnesota. But they heard about me somehow and sent me a letter. I thought, 'This is a place to play basketball.' So I climbed aboard a Greyhound and went on up. That was September 4, 1988, two days after my 18th birthday."

It was, he says, an almost surreal experience. "Moorhead's way up north across the bridge from Fargo, North Dakota. It's cold and windy, and there's lots of snow. There were only about 20 blacks in the community. We kind of hung around together, trying to assimilate."

After a few months he left school and came back to Chicago. A year later he was at Concordia College, only a few miles from Moorhead. He graduated in 1993 with a major in sociology. "I was the first in my family to go to college," he says. "I played basketball at Concordia, but it was a small program and I had no illusions of becoming a pro. When people found out where I was from, the reaction was the same. They wanted to know, how did I survive? Was I in a gang? Things like that. I can understand their curiosity, because that's all you hear about when you hear about Cabrini. I think about these things all the time myself. I don't have a neat answer. I don't know how I avoided getting involved in negative things. I just decided I wasn't going to, and I stayed with it."

While he was at college, Project Education Plus kept growing. Carter began a mentoring program for the local kids who'd gone on to college. "I call it baby-sitting for men," says Carter, who's now dean of students at the Albany Park Multicultural Academy and coach of the boys' basketball team at Von Steuben Metropolitan High School. "A lot of these guys had never been away from home before. It's a shock. We take other high school kids to visit them. I remember visiting Skeet at Moorhead. It was during spring break. When we left it must have been 80 degrees, but the closer we got, the colder it got, until it was a snowstorm. We were touring campus in our spring jackets in a blizzard."

Over the years Carter also expanded the Demons. There are now teams for kids ages 10 through 18, and he figures several hundred kids have played on them. Among basketball aficionados they're known as one of the state's best amateur youth teams, right up there with the Hawks, the west-side club put together by Chris Head, who also coaches the boys' team at Westinghouse.

The Demons are so good they even get calls from suburban parents. "I remember getting a call from Bill Donlan, who was assistant coach at Northwestern University," says Carter. "He said his son Billy wanted to play. I said, 'Look, I have to tell you we're near Cabrini.' I didn't want him driving down and being shocked. He said, 'Don't worry, Billy's played around black kids all of his life.'

"Well, Billy played for us for four summers--played with Tadearl Pratt on one of our best teams. I used to take the kids out to watch him in Northbrook when he was playing for Glenbrook North. They'd watch us come into the gym like, 'What the hell are these black kids doing here?' Then they got used to us."

Horton returned to Chicago after he graduated from college and went to work for Project Education Plus. He immediately began coaching the Demons fifth- and sixth-graders. He also broke up with his girlfriend and got joint custody of their son. A few years ago he got married, then moved into an apartment near his grandmother's old house. In 1998 he became sports director for the New City YMCA.

In December Horton was the subject of a few articles in the mainstream press after the Amateur Athletic Union barred him from coaching in AAU tournaments because he let a fifth-grade girl, Tatiana Ortiz, play on the team--there's no Demons team for fifth- and sixth-grade girls. He's appealing the suspension.

His players speak of him in hushed, reverential tones and dutifully follow his commands. "He has a rule where you must do ten push-ups for missing a layup," says Ernie Tucker, whose son Travis plays for the Demons. "Travis missed a layup in a Park District game that had nothing to do with the Demons, and he still did ten push-ups. Skeet wasn't even there! That's how deep it goes."

Horton's coaching style isn't for everyone. He's stern, almost glowering, and very demanding. He runs two weekly practices and schedules games almost every weekend. The kids work on weaknesses as much as strengths. For example, he's constantly telling Ortiz, a natural lefty, to shoot with her right hand when the situation demands it. Players must present their report cards to him, and he suspends them from the team if they don't maintain at least a C average. "If I teach you something, that's what I expect you to do," says Horton. "If you get away from that it bothers me, and I let the kids know it. But I love these kids. I yell at them, but after that it's over.

"We play man to man. We get down and dirty. I don't teach zones. I want them to be out there running. In a zone you're standing around a lot. I want you to be aggressive. I want to force mistakes. That's why we press. I teach all the kids the same things. It's not separate stuff for different players. If you're a big kid you still have to learn how to dribble. If you're small you still have to learn how to box out. It's all part of basketball. You have to learn it. Besides, how do I know that little guy I got bringing up the ball's not gonna grow six inches over the summer? I have one kid, John [Johnson], he could probably score 50 points a game. But I tell him he has to pass the ball and get the other kids some shots. My son, Michael, plays for me. If he never scores I'm happy. Basketball gives us time together. I'm not in this to get something for my son. He may never even play the game after this. It's not about getting him in the NBA."

The Sunday night game against an all-star team from the northwest suburbs is all business. There are no player introductions or choreographed warm-ups. A handful of parents sit in the bleachers, while the Demons' ninth-grade coach and a Demon parent referee. Two other parents run the clock and keep score.

The Demons jump to a 15-point lead as the all-stars, for unfathomable reasons, stick to a zone, even though it allows John Johnson and Mikey Jones Herlo to shoot several uncontested three-pointers. In the final quarter the all-stars stage a comeback as they switch to a full-court press. But their effort falls one point short at crunch time, when Ortiz slips from behind her man to steal the ball and drive down the court for a layup.

After the game Horton chats with parents.

"Did you see which hand Tatiana scored with?" says Ortiz's mother, Rose. "Her right."

Horton doesn't even crack a smile. "I saw it," he says. "I expected it. That's how she's supposed to do it when she comes from that side."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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