Biddy Ball started it all.
Before building Chicago’s premier high school basketball program and imparting discipline on hundreds of South Side kids with his “my-way-or-the-highway” brand of leadership, Bob Hambric directed the children’s basketball program at the
Educated, principled and committed to the fundamentals of the game, Hambric had developed a strong reputation in the community when Simeon athletic director John Everett convinced him to become the school’s frosh-soph coach in 1973.
“Everybody knew what he was about,” said George Stanton, a grammar school coach at the time who later became Hambric’s sophomore coach before turning Young into a power in the 1990s.
“He didn’t change based on who he was talking to or what player he had. He was consistent. That’s why a lot of people respected him and trusted him, even if they didn’t always understand him.”
Many of his former Biddy Ballers followed Hambric to Simeon, and it wasn’t long before the Wolverines were perennial contenders for the city championship — on the frosh-soph level.
The success was not carrying over to varsity, and in January of 1980, Simeon’s administration decided to fire Lamont Bryant (no relation to the former Marshall, Young and Hyde Park coach) and promote Hambric.
Change came quickly and drastically. Simeon’s current gym was not built until 1988, and Hambric always resented having to leave the building to hold frosh-soph practice at Garrett Morgan Elementary School a few blocks away.
Hambric coached both teams for the rest of the season, but that wasn’t the only reason they immediately started practicing together — a tradition that continues to this day. That move also helped Hambric build a foundation for success.
“I went to one varsity practice, and other than that it was like they were separate programs,” said current Simeon assistant Marcus Alderson, a sophomore at the time of the coaching change.
“That was a very important change he made. You do everything the same for four years, by the time you’re a junior and a senior, you know the system and you know each other so well it is like waking up and brushing your teeth.”
'My way or the highway'
Hambric, who died of cancer at 69 in 2009, was all about routine.
Uninterested in being liked by his players or coaching colleagues, his goal was to set an example for young men who had yet to realize they were desperate for a positive male role model.
“Eighty or 85 percent of the guys I played with didn’t have fathers,” said hand-picked successor Robert Smith, who played at Simeon from 1986-90 and replaced his mentor as coach in 2004.
“It wasn’t an easy transition for me growing up without a father. At the beginning, I didn’t like him. I didn’t understand him at all, really until I was in college. I didn’t know what he was doing to me. He was making me a man.
“He cared more about discipline than championships. I’m pretty sure he could have won more championships if he loosened up a little, but it was ‘My way or the highway.’”
Hambric’s way was particularly unusual in the Public League.
He saw basketball as a tool to teach kids about discipline, and the playground style most kids grew up with was strictly prohibited.
He wanted his teams to be capable of playing any style, but mostly they ran half-court sets and took the air out of the ball for long stretches of time.
Distractions like college recruiters and girlfriends were off limits during the season.
“He caught me kissing a girl after a game one time,” Tim Bankston said. “Trust me, I paid for it.”
Hambric’s way worked.
The Wolverines — often referred to as the “Big Blue Machine” in those days — went 27-2 in Hambric’s first full season and, along with King, soon replaced Marshall, Manley and Westinghouse as the top dogs in the Public League.
Led by junior Ben Wilson and seniors Bankston, Rodney Hull, Bobby Tribble and Kenny Allen, Simeon won city and state for the first time in 1984.
Yet even those guys had a hard time grasping the larger lessons Hambric was teaching.
“He always said, ‘You won’t understand it until you’re grown,’” said Bankston, who was the star of Simeon’s 53-47 victory over Evanston in the Class AA final and has been the head coach at Thornton Fractional North in Calumet City since 2002.
“He would tell me that all the time, and I would say, ‘Whatever.’ To this day, those words hold true. I used to say I wouldn’t coach like him. He controlled everything. Now I find myself being so much like him it is ridiculous.”
The Simeon family
Tragedy struck on the eve of the 1984-85 season. The bullet that killed Wilson outside the school shook the entire city with such force that it’s still being felt today.
The basketball team managed to carry on, going 4-0 against good competition at a Thanksgiving tournament in Rockford a couple days later and winning its first 28 games and another city title before falling to Springfield Lanphier in the state quarterfinals.
“We were a family before it happened, so it wasn’t hard for us to stay together,” said Melvin Nunn, who was a sophomore at the time. “It brought us even closer. We didn’t let people in our inner circle. My only friends were guys on the team. We stood together as a team.”
, who transferred from Prosser to Simeon to play with Wilson but never got the chance, became the first of Simeon’s record four Illinois Mr. Basketball winners in 1986. Deon Thomas, who did not play organized basketball until high school, became No. 2 in 1989.
Both went on to star at Illinois and have long professional careers. Both credit Hambric.
“If you look at the majority of the kids he was with, we’re doing pretty well with our lives,” said Thomas, who is the coach and athletic director at Lewis and Clark Community College. “That is what Hambric was trying to do for us.”
Those who succeeded under Hambric are not the only ones still singing his praises.
Legendary King coach Landon “Sonny” Cox, who publicly feuded with Hambric over the transfer of Laurent Crawford from Simeon to King, calls Hambric “the toughest coach I ever coached against. He was the only coach I prepared for.”
Two of Chicago’s playground legends, Brian Leach and Carl Harris, were Simeon students in the early to mid-1980s.
Years later, Leach and Harris made names for themselves against NBA players, including
, in summer league games. But at Simeon, they couldn’t do it Hambric’s way.
“He would challenge you mentally to see if you would crack,” said Harris, who was banished to the bench as a senior after heaving up a shot from long range while the team was supposed to be running Hambric’s “passing game.”
“I didn’t have any discipline. I grew up watching (all-time streetball legend) Billy Harris play in the playground, and that’s all I knew. I learned everything I know about being a man from Coach Hambric.”