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Chicago Catholic League Basketball

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Tom Kleinschmidt’s presence on the Gordon Tech sideline speaks to the enduring, emotional and deep-rooted popularity of Chicago Catholic League basketball.

One of the most decorated and highly recruited players in CCL history as a rugged guard/forward at Gordon Tech from 1987-91, Kleinschmidt enjoyed a standout career at DePaul, then played professional ball overseas for more than a decade.

He got a taste of coaching as an aide to Jerry Wainwright while completing his degree at DePaul after retiring as a player, and he led York High School of Elmhurst to a 20-win season in his first year as a head coach.

When the Gordon Tech position opened before the 2012-13 school year, Kleinschmidt couldn’t turn down an opportunity to come “home.” “My dream job,” he called it. In completing the player-to-coach career circle, Kleinschmidt is extending a tradition nearly as old as the Catholic League itself.

Bill Shay, a St. Philip grad, coached the Gaels, De La Salle and Fenwick to Catholic League championships. Ron Feieriesel returned to coach at DePaul Academy after a distinguished playing career at DePaul University and a stint in the early-era NBA.

Jim Arneberg, Jim Lamkin, Tom O’Malley and Jack Fitzgerald won Catholic League titles as Leo coaches after stellar playing careers for the Lions. Jerry Tokars was a three sport standout at De La Salle and later won 452 games over 22 seasons as the Meteors’ coach.

Mendel grad Mike Sheahan, the future Cook County Sheriff, coached the Monarchs before embarking on a life in politics, and Howie Fagan and Bob Frasor coached at Mt. Carmel after their exemplary playing careers for the Caravan.

There are dozens of similar examples. In addition, Tony Barone played at St. George, graduated from Duke and coached his way into the NBA after starting out at the high school level at Mt. Carmel and St. Rita.

Brother Rice great John Tracy, who played at Notre Dame, coached St. Ignatius to its first Catholic League title in 40 years after a lengthy coaching tenure at Marquette High School in Michigan City, Ind.

Kleinschmidt knows that two of his predecessors, Dick Versace and Bob Ociepka, used the Gordon Tech job as a launching pad to college positions and eventual NBA work. But for the moment, his personal ambition does not extend beyond California and Addison. The Rams have won 12 Catholic League championships in their history, but none since 2000. He’s working to help Gordon revisit the success it enjoyed in the days of Mark Zubor, Leartha Scott, Kirk Vidas and Jitim Young…..not to mention Tom Kleinschmidt.

Catholic League basketball sits somewhere beneath Catholic League football on the prestige scale, and it’s often overshadowed by the Chicago Public League, where basketball has long been the signature sport.

But that’s not to say Catholic League hoops isn’t played at a premier level. Dozens of professional players, in the U.S. and overseas, trace their roots to Catholic League competition, and a traditional emphasis on solid fundamentals and tough, smart play makes CCL grads attractive to college coaches on all levels.

Basketball was on the original menu of sports offerings when the Catholic League formed in 1912, and the Jesuit schools were among the first to embrace it, with Loyola Academy and St. Ignatius winning four early titles apiece.

De La Salle’s emergence as a force began in the ‘20s, with Ed “Moose” Krause, a future three sport star, basketball AllAmerican, coach and athletic director at Notre Dame, the star center on three of the Meteors’ four title teams.

St. Mel was the dominant team of the ‘30s, with three CCL championships, and the balance of power shifted southward in the ‘40s, with South Side schools Leo (four), Mt. Carmel (three) and St. Rita (one) accounting for eight titles among them.

In 1945, the Catholic League saw its hoops prestige boosted with the arrival of a city championship game, a Catholic League vs. Public League showdown modeled after the highly popular Prep Bowl title game in football. St. Philip and Mt. Carmel won the first two games, played before turnaway crowds at the old Chicago Stadium, and after the Public League squared the series with victories in 1947and 48, CCL teams reeled off eight wins in the next nine years.

Memorable among them: Fenwick’s whipping of a Tilden squad that featured future Illinois AllAmerican and longtime NBA mainstay Johnny “Red” Kerr in 1950. St. George (1953) and St. Mel (1954) registered upset wins over the Du Sable Panthers, the storied team of Paxton Lumpkin and Sweet Charlie Brown that in 1954 became the first Public League squad to qualify for the state tournament in Champaign.

St. Elizabeth’s back-to-back victories over Dunbar (‘56) and Crane (‘57) showcased the talents of Art Hicks, a 6foot4 leaper with agility, strength and a deft shooting touch. Hicks averaged 22 points per game over his St. Elizabeth’s career and is rightfully included on any short list of the Catholic League’s greatest players.

By the late ‘50s, the Public League had placed a new emphasis on basketball and started producing stronger teams. Marshall, coached by Isadore “Spin” Salario, and two Larry Hawkins coached Carver squads laid claim to six straight city championships, beating De La Salle twice, as well as DePaul, St. Elizabeth, Gordon Tech and St. Rita in the title games.

In 1972, a Dick Versace-coached Gordon Tech team led by Leartha Scott blasted Crane 85-69 for the city title.

Perhaps wary of a similar outcome, state champion Hirsch refused to play Leo in the city game one year later, Coach Charles Stimpson declaring his team had nothing more to prove after beating New Trier in the ‘73 Class AA state final in Champaign.

The Tom O’Malley-coached Lions were a strong 27-3 that season with Tony Parker Sr. in a starring role. Public champ Morgan Park agreed to play Hales in 1974 and took a 63-51 beating for its troubles.

When Wendell Phillips returned to Chicago with the Class AA title trophy in 1975, it refused to play CCL co-champions St. Laurence and Mt. Carmel for the same reason Hirsch cited, and just like that the city championship game was no more.

The series ended with the Catholic League holding 15-14 advantage. By then the Chicago Catholic League was IHSA-affiliated and eligible for competition at the state level, which some coaches and administrators had advocated for years.

A desire for state tournament exposure was one reason four schools bolted the CCL to form the Chicagoland Prep League in 1961. IHSA membership also meant the end of the Catholic League’s highly popular “lightweight” program, a separate varsity league for players 5 feet 9 and under where such diminutive CCL stars as Hales’ Sam Puckett and Mt. Carmel’s Lloyd Walton first flashed their talent.

Meanwhile, some “be careful what you wish for” sheepishness has characterized the CCL’s state tournament history; although Hales (2003, 2011), Leo (2004) and Seton (2009) have won four state tournaments in the lower divisions, the 1985 Mt. Carmel Caravan of Mel McCants, Derek Boyd, James Farr and Coach Ed McQuillan claims the Catholic League’s only bigschool state championship.

That’s not to say the CCL hasn’t continued to play good ball and produce outstanding players. Coach Chuck Schwarz turned out a succession of Division I recruits such as Steve Puidokas, Jim Stack, Kevin Boyle and Steve Krafcisin while molding St. Laurence into a powerhouse in the ‘70s.

De La Salle (five conference titles), Gordon Tech (four) and Leo (three) waged a spirited battle for Catholic League supremacy in the ‘80s.

Brother Rice has won or shared nine Catholic League crowns since 1990, as Coach Pat Richardson built winning teams around skilled shooters often named Harrigan or Telander.

If Catholic League schools weren’t winning state titles themselves, they were doing a pretty good job of denying others.

A great St. Joe’s team featuring Isiah Thomas was deprived of a trip downstate when De La Salle’s Albert “Moochie” Williams threw in a 22footer at the buzzer to pin a 59-58 defeat on the Chargers in a 1979 supersectional. Thomas still refers to the game as the most painful loss of his career.

And the second longest winning streak in Illinois prep history came to an end at 64 games in 1982 when Mendel’s Mike Hampton drilled a 25-footer with three seconds left to lift the Monarchs past defending state champion Quincy 53-52 in the Class AA semifinals in Champaign.

Mendel became the first Catholic League team to play for a state championship, losing to East St. Louis Lincoln 56-50 in the title game.

Mt. Carmel was the second CCL title game participant, and the only big schools winner, edging Springfield Lamphier 46-44 in double overtime three years later.

In 1988, state Player of the Year Eric Anderson got St. Francis de Sales to the title game almost singlehandedly, but the Pioneers lost to LaPhonso Ellis and East St. Louis Lincoln. Despite 27 points by Kleinschmidt, Gordon Tech fell to King 65-55 in an all Chicago final two years later.

The Catholic League’s five appearances in subsequent state finals have occurred at the Class A or 2A level since the IHSA went to a four class format in 2008.

Hales (2A) beat Murphysboro in 2011 and Mt. Carroll (Class A) in 2003 after losing to Staunton (Class A) in 1993. Leo (Class A) beat Winnebago in the Class A title game in 2004, and Seton topped Metropolis for the 2A championship in 2009.

State tournament results aside, the Catholic League strengthened itself immeasurably in 2011 by adding St. Joe’s as a member, 15 years after Providence Catholic came aboard.

Providence’s Celtics were ClassA state champions in 1979, while St. Joe’s Chargers boast one of the state’s proudest basketball legacies, featuring Coach Gene Pingatore and his 900 career victories and a succession of great players ranging from Isiah Thomas (‘79) to Evan Turner (‘07), the national Player of the Year at Ohio State in 2010.

Thomas may have been denied a state championship at St. Joe’s, but he won two NBA titles with the Detroit Pistons and the NCAA tournament with Indiana in 1981.

Fellow St. Joe’s grad Daryl Thomas was the starting power forward on an Indiana team that won it all again in 1987, and de Sales’ Anderson started for Bob Knight’s last Final Four team at Indiana in 1992.

The Catholic League has been well represented on NCAA title teams since 1963, when Johnny Egan (St. Rita ‘60) started at point guard for his hometown Loyola Ramblers.

Antoine Walker (Mt. Carmel ‘94) helped Kentucky win it all in 1996, and Bobby Frasor (Brother Rice ‘05) was the backup point guard on North Carolina’s 2009 national champions.

Marquette fell short against North Carolina State in 1974, but two Catholic Leaguers were teammates on Al McGuire’s first Final Four team: Lloyd Walton (Mt. Carmel ‘71) and Rick Campbell (Gordon Tech ‘71).

Speaking of Duke, the man most responsible for making the Blue Devils synonymous with college basketball excellence traces his roots to the Catholic League.

Mike Krzyzewski (Weber ‘64) was a tough, smart, slick-shooting high school guard. He never played on a CCL title team, but his 900plus career victories, four national championships and two Olympic gold medals at Duke make him the Catholic League’s most distinguished basketball alumnus, by far.

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