Simeon All Access | The 1980s: Hambric begins building a powerhouse
Ben Wilson with Simeon coach Bob Hambric (left) in November of 1984. (Ed Wagner, Jr., Chicago Tribune / November 12, 2009)
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 Chatham YMCA.
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.