Manny's Mission

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Manny Weincord is the dean of Chicago’s public school basketball coaches. For more than 30 years, he has coached and taught gym at his alma mater, Roosevelt High School in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago. Chicago Reader staff writer Ben Joravsky has been hanging with Manny and his Rough Riders for almost a decade. What follows took place in the 1991-92 season. It is adapted from Joravsky’s recently completed book manuscript, Tomorrow’s Still Sunday and Other Tales from Manny’s Gym.

No one was sure how the tradition started—Manny knew someone who knew someone who knew the Spartans' athletic director.

Every year, Roosevelt made a 30-mile pilgrimage to the suburb of Northbrook for an exhibition against Glenbrook North High School. No one was sure how the tradition started—Manny knew someone who knew someone who knew the Spartans’ athletic director—but the game had become a high point of the Rough Riders’ schedule, if only because of the large and enthusiastic crowd. Northbrook is home to many Roosevelt graduates of the ’50s and ’60s, prosperous professionals who left the city years ago for bigger houses and better schools. They came out for the game each year, filling several rows in the bleachers and turning the event into an unofficial reunion.

Beyond that, there was the thrill of playing the Spartans, a carefully assembled and groomed powerhouse perennially ranked among the state’s best teams. This year’s squad was even better than usual, as it featured Chris Collins, the son of NBA great Doug Collins and an All-American guard who would go on to Duke University and a standout college career.

On the day of the game, I joined the team as it assembled at Roosevelt to meet the bus. The streets were quiet for a Saturday night, and we zipped up to Northbrook in no time at all, the bus rattling with the happy shrieks of the players and a few of their friends. No one had to be told that this was a special night. Without prompting from Manny, the players had dressed well, many wearing jackets and ties. We sliced through the city, cut along the expressway, and entered a world of shopping malls and subdivisions.

Manny sat at the front of the bus, the warm-up basketballs in a sack at his feet. He knew his team would probably be outmatched tonight. Roosevelt belonged to one of the country’s best high school basketball conferences, the Chicago Public League, but the Rough Riders played in the weakest division of its weakest region. Even among these also-rans, they weren’t the favorites. For every strength, the team had a glaring weakness. The center was overweight, the point guard slow. The best player, a whippet-thin guard named Terrell, was the most exciting practice player I’d ever seen. He could catch the ball in mid-air, turn 180 degrees, and dunk. But in games, Terrell was plagued by self-doubt, often seeming to disappear on the court for minutes at a time, as if he was hiding from the ball.

Still, Manny was optimistic. The previous night, he had kept the team at practice a little longer than usual, calling them together at the workout’s end for a talk. He stood at center court, a short man who at 60 was lithe and lean, like a leathery old boxer, with long, sinewy arms and a flat nose that looked as though it had been broken a few times. A freshman poked his head into the gym, looked around, then backed out. The door slammed shut. The room fell quiet.

Pointing to the blue-and-gold banners on the wall of the gym, Manny told the players about the 1952 team, the only Roosevelt squad to win a city title. “I know the guys on that team. We grew up in this neighborhood together. Let me tell you, no one thought they were gonna win. There were other teams bigger and stronger. They won because they played with heart and hustle. That’s the key—heart and hustle.”

His gravelly voice had a working-class edge, and he turned “these” into “dese” and “thing” into “ting.” Pausing, he looked at the ground, then back at his players: “A lotta people don’t think we can win. Fine. Let ’em think that. But I know how good you are. I know how good you can be.”

Albany Park in the 1930s and ’40s was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of working-class families. Manny lived with his father, Louis, and his mother, Lillian, in a two-and-one-half-room apartment above a bowling alley on Montrose, a bustling commercial street that forms the southern edge of Albany Park. Louis was a streetcar conductor who entertained his passengers by barking out the stops in Yiddish; Lillian looked after Manny and kept house.

About his early life, Manny has many stories, funny and sad. “Our apartment was so small,” he once told me, “you walked in the front door and out the front window. I shared a bed with my parents. My father would roll over and fall on me. No wonder they never had any other children.”

The centerpiece of Albany Park was Roosevelt High, an enormous, red-brick building with tawny gold terra cotta tiles. Parapets and towers rose high into the air, as though the school’s architect wanted to wrap his creation in ancient academia, a bit of ye olde Oxford for the working-class kids on the city’s northwest side. Roosevelt was considered one of the finest high schools in Chicago, a launching pad for the bright and ambitious sons and daughters of the immigrants who lived nearby. “All the time we were growing up, we talked about going to Roosevelt,” says Manny. “It was like going to a university. Except it was a university in our neighborhood.”

Basketball games were a big event at Roosevelt in those days. The stands filled, and the crowd was loud; everyone knew the school fight song, a rousing anthem composed by a Roosevelt student who went on to become a Hollywood composer and musical director. The team’s coach, Sam Edelcup, was a legend in the neighborhood. “I was in awe of him,” says Manny. “Everyone was. We’d heard about him from the older kids when we were in 8th grade, before we even got to Roosevelt. ‘Don’t cross Edelcup; don’t mess with him.’ I don’t remember him being such a yeller. Actually, he was a quiet man—a great ballroom dancer, by the way. But he had a presence, a command.”

Manny played on the team. He had a serviceable set shot (he can still drain eight of 10 free throws in practice) and was a relentless defender. But his best sport was track. He was fast as a bullet, first or second in almost every race. His buddies envied his grace, strength, speed, and V-shaped physique. Yet for all his talents, Manny was shy and self-conscious. Among friends, he was a natural comedian, deft at imitations and quick to tell a joke. But with others, he was the awkward wallflower, the boy who thinks he’ll never get the girl.

Manny’s insecurities were his motivation in sports. As a teen, he adopted the wisecracking, underdog persona that would be the trademark of the teams he later coached: “You shoulda seen me on the track team. I had no money for track shoes or athletic socks. I ran in my argyles. They told me, ‘We don’t have any money to buy you starting blocks, so we’ll dig you a hole.’ The other runners would look at me and laugh. I said, ‘When the race is over, all you’ll see of me are my argyles and my ass—then we’ll see who’s laughing.’ ”

Glenbrook North High School, rising out of the foggy night, looked liked a pile of bricks stacked in a cornfield. The bus driver pulled into the front driveway and stopped.

“Where’s the gym?” he asked.

Manny shrugged. The school’s campus was so big that even after Roosevelt’s many games here, he still wasn’t sure. “I’ll find it,” he sighed, then climbed off the bus and disappeared into the fog. Within a few minutes, he was back: The gym was around the bend.

Actually, it wasn’t one gym but five (or six—I lost count), housed in a sprawling athletic complex. The Roosevelt players hushed as they entered. They tried not to gawk. The building was like a museum or a sports hall of fame. The floors were carpeted, the hallways lined with glass trophy cases, lit from the inside. On the walls hung photos of celebrated graduates: baseball players Scott Sanderson and Doug Radar; Olympic ice skaters Leah Poulos and Anne Henning. We passed security guards, janitors, ticket takers, and concession-stand operators. Someone handed me a one- page, computer-printed letter written by Glenbrook North head coach Brian James. It was called “The View From the Bench” and featured up-to-date statistics on the Spartans.

In the main gym, the Glenbrook frosh-soph squad was warming up. They stopped their shooting to watch our advance across the glistening floor. Twenty rows of bleachers surrounded the court, as well as a concrete plateau on which rested a line of television cameras. (Glenbrook games aired on a local cable station.) A sound system blared a hard-rock song.

A school security guard appeared to lead the Rough Riders to the visitors’ locker room. It was freshly scrubbed. No graffiti. No banged-up lockers. No broken lights. The players entered cautiously, as if worried that they might disturb something. Then it dawned on them: These deluxe accommodations were theirs for the night. They grew giddy as they changed from street clothes to their uniforms, and they bragged about who had the biggest muscles. Kevin flexed his biceps. “This is what the ladies want,” he said. “No, no, I’m the ladies’ man,” said Ronnie. To prove it, he pulled from his wallet a condom, which he waved in the air.

“How ’bout this?” called out Mario. He made his stomach shake and roll like a belly dancer’s. His buddies laughed and begged him to do it again. He did, and they laughed some more.

Then they began their elaborate pregame rituals. Anthony lathered his legs with a creamy lotion. Herman adjusted his socks to look just right. Sylvester did pull-ups on a pipe that ran across the ceiling. Terrell jogged in place. Through the walls came the brassy sounds of a marching band playing old songs by the group Chicago, songs like “Color My World” and “Make Me Smile.”

This year’s version of the Rough Riders bore little resemblance to the teams of Manny’s day. Those squads had been filled with Jewish boys from the neighborhood, the sons of salesmen and streetcar drivers and fruit vendors. As much as they loved to play, they never saw basketball as more than a game.

But the 1952 Roosevelt team was the last all-white squad to win the city title. Thirty years later, most Chicago teams, including the Rough Riders, were predominantly black. All of Manny’s kids—no matter how slow, fat, short, or soft—thought they were headed for the NBA. He often tried to set them straight—making the pros, he told them, was a one-in-a-million long shot. But the kids didn’t listen. Within minutes, they were daydreaming again about the cars, houses, and jewelry they’d buy with all the money they would make.

When the players’ game prep was nearly done, Terrell shouted, “Prayer.” Maceo gathered them in a semicircle. They dropped to their knees and rested their heads in their hands. “I thank you, Lord, for allowing us to be tighter one more time as a team,” Maceo said. “And I just want to say, ‘Amen.’ ”

In unison, the others echoed, “Amen.”

Maceo got up and walked over to Terrell. “Ready, man?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Terrell.

“This is your chance.”

Terrell nodded.

“These boys see you dunk on Collins’ ass, and everyone be talking about you tomorrow.”

At age 20, Manny was drafted, sent to Korea, and stationed for nearly 14 months with an artillery unit near the 38th parallel. Standing next to booming howitzers day after day, he lost most of his hearing in one ear. Once, enemy troops overran his outfit, and Manny saw one of his buddies get his arms and legs blown off.

Profoundly homesick, he devoured letters from family and friends. One day, he got unbelievable news: The Rough Riders had won the city championship! Manny couldn’t get over it. These were kids he knew, kids he used to play with at the Jewish Federation’s Max Straus Center: Moose Malitz, Mookie Miller, Eddie Rothenberg, Roy Roe, Louie Landt, and Mort Gellman. “Someone sent me clippings; they had their pictures in the paper,” Manny remembers. “I wished I could have been there to see it. I was so proud. I wanted to tell everyone. But who was there to tell? Who would care? I was way the hell across the world fighting a war I knew nothing about.”

Upon his return from Korea, Manny got a job at the Max Straus Center as a cloak-room attendant. Eventually, he worked his way up to athletic director and married a neighborhood girl, Joan Collingwood. They rented an apartment in Albany Park and had three daughters: Maureen, Jackie, and Linda.

Manny enjoyed his work at Max Straus. He taught the younger kids how to throw and catch, and he coached the junior high basketball team. The teaching gave him a sense of kovid, the Yiddish word for honor. He became well-known in his community. Even today, stooped and gray-haired men and women stop him on the street and say, “Manny, God bless you. You remember me? You taught me how to play ping-pong back at the Max Straus.”

Still, Manny had bigger ambitions. He wanted to teach gym at Roosevelt; to him, the school was still the center of the universe. But he had no degree. So he enrolled in a local college, taking classes part time while working at Max Straus. It took him eight years to get that degree. Another two years passed before a teaching post opened at Roosevelt. But finally, he got what he wanted. It was 1964. He was 32 years old. “I was so proud when I got that job. A gym teacher at Roosevelt—it’s the only job I ever really wanted.”

As soon as Manny went to work at Roosevelt, he made it known that he wanted to coach basketball, his favorite team sport. But he wasn’t about to lobby for the job. It still belonged to Sam Edelcup. So Manny bided his time, coaching football, tennis, baseball, and track. Finally, in 1968, Edelcup retired. And the job was his.

When the news broke, his old high school friends were astonished. To most, it was inconceivable that little Manny Weincord, the shy boy hugging the radiator at dances, would replace a giant like Edelcup. It was, they knew, a sign of passing time and their generation’s coming of age. Friends phoned in their taunting brand of congratulations: “Hey, Weincord, you putz, tell me, How did a big schmuck get to be head coach? From Edelcup to you? Geez, standards are falling. You’d better not screw up.”

For Manny, it was the proudest time of his life. He was young, driven by ambition, and filled with idealism. He wanted to bring kovid to his school, and he had something to prove. He wanted to show the world that the kid who had lost two years in Korea, who struggled through eight years of college, who spent so much time at Max Straus, had something big to offer, something valuable buried deep inside.

In the Glenbrook gym, it looked like homecoming, what with all the old Roosevelt alums in their blue-and-gold sweaters. At least 40 of them were already in the stands, though the game’s opening whistle was still a long way off. They exchanged hugs, patted each other’s bellies, joked about receding hairlines, boasted about summer homes in Michigan, and consoled one another over divorces, deaths, and other sorrows.

Mostly they reminisced. About football coach Al Klein (who had retired) and Morrie’s Hot Dog Stand (which closed years ago) and sock hops and old social clubs (the Senecas, the Ovikitahs) and whatever happened to the star players on the ’52 team. They laughed, sometimes so hard they had tears in their eyes. Those were the days. They hadn’t had any money. Or cars. They rode the trolleys and buses. They worked in their fathers’ stores. They listened to George Burns and Gracie Allen on the radio. They were young.

“I’d take the starting five from the ’52 champs over any of these teams any day,” someone said.

“They couldn’t jump like kids today, but they could hit the set shot,” said another.

“They were disciplined. . . .”

“Coach Edelcup was a genius. . . .”

“They knew how to run an offense. . . .”

“And tough. . . .”

“Any kid made a crack about Jews, and Moose would flatten his
face. . . .”

Manny left his team in the locker room and joined the alums in the stands. He was wearing his best suit, gray, double-breasted, a little long in the pants. The alums gathered around him. Many of them had set out from Albany Park years ago with big dreams to conquer the world. Children of the Depression era, they were now wealthy and influential, having built successful careers in law, business, and other distinguished professions. But on this night, Manny was the leader. He was the one continuing the Roosevelt tradition, and to at least a few of them, he was the one leading the good life.

They talked and laughed and told more stories. As game time approached and Manny prepared to return to his team, one of the alums slung an arm around him. “Mandel,” he said, “I envy you. I always wanted to be a coach.”

The greatest team that Manny ever coached made it to the conference championship final in 1970. The game was at Roosevelt, and hours before tip-off, every seat in the gym was filled. Scalpers outside hawked $2 tickets for as much as $15. The opponents were the Panthers of Von Steuben High, the Rough Riders archrival. Von Steuben fans sat on one side of the gym, Roosevelt’s on the other.

It was an emotional, hard-fought game. Von Steuben led throughout, but Roosevelt stormed back after half time. On the sidelines, Manny was a whirling dervish, rocketing up and down from his seat, barking and bellowing, trying to turn the tide through rage and insistence.

With seconds left in the game and Von Steuben ahead by five points, one of Roosevelt’s players was called for a foul. A fight broke out on the court, and students poured onto the floor. Chairs were tossed, bottles thrown. The police cleared students from the gym and arrested a few. The referees declared Von Steuben the winner.

The fight wasn’t his fault, but Manny was so devastated by the brawl that he quit his job as coach. He had wanted to honor the legacy of his school, but instead he felt as though he had tarnished it.

He came back, of course. He couldn’t stay away. Two seasons after the Von Steuben game, he returned to the Rough Riders. Though he never again had a team as good as the one that broke his heart, he had been on the bench for more than 600 games by the time I met him. He won more than he lost, but he didn’t cheat or run up the score. And win or lose, he always shook the other coach’s hand. “What the hell? It’s not war. It’s a basketball game. Why shouldn’t I shake hands? Listen, I know what war’s like. These coaches who tell their kids a game’s like war, they probably never served in the army.”

In his 30 years at Roosevelt, much had changed, of course. High school teams were no longer random collections of neighborhood boys. The city had adopted an open-enrollment policy, so students could attend virtually any high school they wanted. Most coaches seized on this, scouring the playgrounds, trying to woo the city’s best players.

Manny refused to go along. Every year, he opened the gym door for tryouts, and whoever walked in got a chance to play. To Manny, the coaches who recruited were ruining the game—and the kids. “I ain’t kissing no kid’s ass!” he said once. “I’ll lose a hundred games before I do that. That spoils them. That pampers them. That gets them thinking they’re better than they are. And you know something else? That hurts them. It limits them. They shouldn’t be playing basketball morning, noon, and night. Forget the summer tournaments and the fall tournaments. There’s football and track and baseball—wrestling, swimming, tennis. For cry Pete, there’s more to a kid’s life than basketball!”

Roosevelt had changed over the years, as well. It was still safe and clean, but its glory days were long gone. Academically, it was neither the best nor the worst school in the city, just somewhere in between. With open enrollment, the brightest students in any neighborhood rarely attended their nearby high schools anymore. Like the good basketball players, they were recruited and drawn away to magnet, private, or parochial high schools.

Sports also had lost its prominence at Roosevelt. The gym was dim and dingy, suffering from years of neglect. Like most city schools, Roosevelt was so cash-strapped that games were played in the afternoons rather than at night. Attendance was spotty: Parents were working, so maybe 20 or 30 fans were usually scattered throughout the stands. The school had no cheerleaders or pom pom girls or bands. For one or two big games, the students might show up and rattle the walls with cheers. But mostly, the games lacked spirit or spunk: The bouncing ball echoed loudly throughout the gym.

From time to time, Manny’s old friends came to games. They saw the run-down gym and advised him to coach somewhere else. “Go to the suburbs. You should see their facilities—it’s like a health club. You deserve better than this.”

But Manny waved them off. He still had something to offer. The Roosevelt kids he coached weren’t all that different from those he grew up with. They were just working-class kids looking for a break. To leave Roosevelt now would be desertion. “I’m the man who never left,” he wisecracked to his friends. “They’ll carry me out.”

In the moments before the game, Manny joined his team in the locker room. “Play Collins like you’re playing anyone else,” he told them. “The idea is to deny him the ball. No one man can beat you; no one man is that good.”

A security guard poked his head through the door. “It’s time, coach.”

Manny nodded. He turned back to his team. “I really, honestly enjoyed working with you guys over the last month. I enjoy you guys. Let’s win.”

The Rough Riders burst from the locker room and circled the gym floor. The air crackled with the hum of a hundred voices. The stands filled with high schoolers and parents, dozens of them wearing turtlenecks and green sweaters. There were children, too, lots of children, mostly little boys, fists clutching pencils, paper in their laps, ready to keep score.

The band kicked into Glenbrook North’s fight song, and the Spartans took the floor. They wore green- and-yellow satin warm-ups, green-and-white sneakers, white anklets stenciled with the monogram GNS, and long, baggy shorts. Each jersey had a little American flag stitched to it. There was one black guy on the team—a seven-foot center.

The lights dimmed, and the courtside announcer introduced the Roosevelt starters. When the time came to introduce the Spartans, he jacked up his enthusiasm: “And now, the starting lineup for your Glenbrook North Spartans.” A spotlight picked up the first Spartan as he ran between two rows of pom-pom girls and cheerleaders and through a paper hoop held at center court by the team mascot. The last player out was Collins. The crowd rose, and cheers swelled to the rafters as he jogged to center court.

“Please remain standing and honor America by singing the national anthem,” the announcer said. A deep-voiced man led the song and, yes, the crowd sang along, eyes on the flag on the wall. In the last row of the bleachers stood NBA star Doug Collins, the proud father, his hand to his heart.

The game began with a flourish. Ronnie swiped the ball from Collins, just smacked it away in the open court. After that, it was downhill, the emotion of the evening having exhausted the Rough Riders. This wasn’t five-on- five, skins against shirts. This was the main event, and Roosevelt was overwhelmed.

On his first drive to the basket, Terrell banged into Glenbrook’s center. The foul could have gone either way, but the ref called Terrell for the charge. After that, he avoided the lane and passed up open shots. You could almost see him thinking, Don’t take a stupid shot; don’t make another foul. The fans at Glenbrook North would never see him slip along the baseline, they’d never see him soar to the basket. They’d never know what they were missing.

Collins was quietly brilliant. He dribbled up the court, drilled a shot if he had it, ran a play if not. That’s it. Effortless, confident, flawless, deceptively quick.

It was 9-0 before Roosevelt scored. At half time the Spartans led 50 to 28. The cheerleaders danced, the band played, and the janitors swept the floor. The final was 80 to 53. Collins scored 27, even though he sat out the final quarter.

In the locker room afterward, Maceo sat with his head in his hands. Ronnie stared at his locker. Manny consoled the team. “Fellows, I’m proud of you. You could have died, but you hustled to the end. All these people who came—win or lose, they still love you, and they love your school. There’s something special going on here. You’re lucky you go to Roosevelt. There will always be people who love you. So don’t get down.”

“That’s right,” called Terrell. “We gotta take it one game at a time.”

“Okay, fellas, no tears,” said Manny. “Forget about it. No matter what happened today, tomorrow’s still Sunday.”

On the bus home, Manny was subdued. “I don’t think I’ll sleep much tonight. I’ll be thinking about the game. Ah, the older you get the less you want to sleep anyway. It’s because you’re afraid you might not wake up.”

Manny consoled the team. “Fellows, I’m proud of you.”

We watched the cars slip by on the highway. “My mother’s in the hospital again,” he continued. “She’s over 80, and I think she has dementia. I’m visiting her one night, and she tells me, ‘There’s a man sitting in that chair in the corner.’ I said, ‘Ma, that’s no man. It’s me.’ ”

The bus turned off the expressway and onto Lawrence Avenue; we passed a line of Korean grocery stores. “It used to be all Jewish, this street—a deli, a hot dog stand, a kosher butcher,” Manny observed. “Then the Jews started moving north to Rogers Park, then Skokie, then Northbrook. Now, that’s not good enough; now they’re moving into little towns way up by the Wisconsin border. What the hell are they looking for, would you tell me? Pretty soon they’ll be at the North Pole. It won’t be Santa Claus anymore. It will be Santa Klutz.”

I laughed, and Manny cracked a smile. “What the hell. Can’t stay sad forever.”

We were two blocks from the school when Herman bolted for the front door. “Let me off,” he shouted. “I gotta get off.” Apparently, there was someone on the corner he needed to see. The driver, startled, screeched to a halt in the middle of the street, opening the door just in time to prevent Herman from plowing through it. Suddenly, the whole team was rumbling down the aisle and out the door. The last I saw they were running down an alley.

It happened so fast that there was little Manny could do to stop them. Thirty years ago, he might have dashed after them. But at 60, he was not about to dart down alleys after a bunch of knuckleheads. He wouldn’t let it pass, though. Probably give them hell on Monday.

The bus left us at Roosevelt. Manny was still carrying that sack of basketballs as he headed for his car.

I returned to the intersection where Herman had vaulted from the bus. The streets were empty. The stores were shuttered. The fog had lifted. A cold wind stirred bits of trash. On the corner stood Amthal, one of the frosh-soph players, a gym bag slung across his back. He was waiting for a city bus that would take him east to California Avenue, where he would have to wait for another bus that would take him home. It was almost 11 o’clock. With luck, he’d be home by midnight.

Vol. 11, Issue 5, Pages 36-43

Published in Print: February 1, 2000, as Manny's Mission
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