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Kadner: Winning is everything at Homewood-Flossmoor High School

Homewood-Flossmoor girls basketball coach Tony Smith. | Jim Karczewski/For Sun-Times Media

Homewood-Flossmoor girls basketball coach Tony Smith. | Jim Karczewski/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 20, 2014 6:41AM



There’s something wrong at Homewood-Flossmoor High School.

The school and its girls basketball team are being sued by an anonymous member of that team who claims that the coach unfairly recruited players from other schools.

Six teens changed schools this year to play for first-year coach Anthony Smith at Homewood-Flossmoor. Four of them previously had played for Smith at Bolingbrook High School, where he was the girls coach for 12 years.

Smith has said nothing he did violated any rules. H-F District 233 officials contend that all of the transfer students have legal residences within the district’s boundaries.

And Illinois High School Association officials told SouthtownStar writer Tony Baranek that H-F is in compliance with the organization’s guidelines for accepting transfer students.

All of that reminds me of politicians and businessmen caught up in scandals whose first response is, “I have done nothing illegal.”

That doesn’t mean what you’ve done is right.

Even if you believe that four players from Bolingbrook suddenly decided to relocate into District 233 (which isn’t exactly a neighboring school district) and that a fifth transferred from Plainfield East and a sixth from Marist, just to play for Smith, there’s still something wrong with this picture.

Smith is a tremendously successful coach. In his 12 years at Bolingbrook, where he grew up, Smith’s girls teams won four state titles and nine consecutive sectional championships.

“And it isn’t like that team was a girls basketball powerhouse before he got there,” a longtime prep sports observer told me.

H-F’s girls varsity team is ranked No. 1 in the state. Five of the transfers started a recent game for the team.

Smith’s teams not only win games, but he boasts that many of his players have excellent academic records and go on to play on scholarship in college.

Fine. Congratulations. But is that really all we want from high school sports programs?

“If these kids really wanted to play for their old coach, what was he supposed to tell them?” a colleague said during a discussion about the controversy. “Should he have said, ‘Don’t come here to play for me?’ ”

Well, yes, but not in those words.

Maybe he should’ve said something like, “Hey, you owe it to yourselves, your families, your teammates, your school and your community to stay where you are. Loyalty counts for something. That’s what we mean by team concept.”

All right, maybe that’s a bunch of hooey. But it’s the sort of thing high school athletes ought to believe in, or at least the sort of thing we hope that coaches teach them.

Maybe the parents of these girls all bought homes in the H-F district, or more likely rented apartments. Maybe the students did the right thing for their futures.

But what about the girls who would’ve played for H-F this year if Smith and his entourage had not arrived?

Many of the players who were on the team last year may have grown up in the area and dreamed of playing in front of their families and classmates. Now, some of them simply are not good enough.

They might have been the best girls basketball players in the neighborhood, but that was before the new girls moved in.

Hey, that kind of thing happens. And when it happens by chance, well, those are the breaks.

But no one is saying this is just the luck of the draw. Even if Smith didn’t recruit these girls (which would be a violation of IHSA rules), they followed him and he obviously didn’t discourage them.

So how good a coach is he?

If Smith had taken the existing team, worked with the kids who were there and attained a No. 1 ranking, that would have been something. He obviously didn’t feel he was good enough to do that.

Rules and laws, as good as they are, can be twisted and bent. The clever always can find loopholes.

No mother worth her salt would ever accept an “I didn’t violate any rules” excuse from her child.

“I taught you better,” she would say. “I raised you to know the difference between right and wrong.”

I’m not sure at what age the importance of right and wrong disappears, but at some point we put it behind us along with the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.

So adults talk about “the law,” “ethics,” “morality” and “rules and regulations.” We’re not better for that.

I realize that Catholic schools have been recruiting players for decades, and male athletes have been switching public schools for nearly as long. Maybe this is just a case of girls sports catching up to the boys.

There’s no doubt that youth sports have become corrupted beyond recognition by “club teams,” often run as a sideline by high school coaches to recruit athletes, and traveling teams that look like semi-pro clubs for teens.

The legal merits of this lawsuit will be decided in court, but it shines a light on a problem with our sports culture.

I’m not in the camp that says every kid should play in every game or is against keeping score during games. Competition can be a good thing if it’s fair.

The very first rule, when it comes to youth sports, ought to be fair play, another version of right and wrong.

There’s nothing fair about what happened in at Homewood-Flossmoor. There’s no way an adult could explain this to a young child without blushing.

Why? Because it is wrong.

Life isn’t always fair. Bad things happen to good people. Good guys don’t always win.

All of that is true. But turning away when a wrong is done, that’s never right.

And if this is a lost cause, if people of goodwill don’t get it, I can’t blame Smith and his transfer students for playing the game to win.



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