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Baranek: A long-overdue homecoming for Connor

Coach Ken Connor is honored along with 1986-1987 Varsity State Team Oak Forest Friday December 13 2013. | Jim Boyce/For

Coach Ken Connor is honored along with the 1986-1987 Varsity State Team in Oak Forest Friday, December, 13, 2013. | Jim Boyce/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 18, 2014 6:33AM



It was a special night Friday at Oak Forest High School, where boys and girls basketball stars from the past four decades were honored as “Legends.” The 1986-87 boys basketball team that competed on state finals weekend was also recognized.

It was also an emotional night, especially when Ken Connor stood at center court for the first time in 26 years as an accepted and loved member of the Bengals basketball family.

Friday night brought, if not vindication, at least some closure to an unfortunate chapter in Connor’s life, and the history of Bengals basketball.

In 1986-87 Connor was in his 13th season as the head coach. It was to be his final season, as he was looking to take some time off to follow the basketball exploits of son Kevin, who was going to be a freshman the following year at Bloom Township.

Connor felt that his final group, led by Larry Gorman, Troy Agler and Jeff Delaney, was his best ever. Talk of going to state started early in that campaign, and on Feb. 10 the Bengals were on course at 21-2.

That Friday, however, brought a stunning revelation when then-principal Ed Roberts called Connor into his office and relieved him of his duties. He cited recent incidents in which Connor had allegedly verbally abused his players and officials, and lost control of his team in a friction-filled game in Rosemont against Rich Central. Roberts installed assistant Denny Denman as the new head coach.

The team was told about the change minutes before boarding a bus for a game at Tinley Park. The Bengals won that night and went on to make it to the Class AA quarterfinals, but suffered a disastrous lapse after building a 24-6 lead and lost 64-58 to East St. Louis Lincoln.

Connor’s dismissal brought myriad reactions. His supporters said his personality was no different than in the previous 12-plus seasons, and that Roberts was out to “get” him. His non-supporters said he was an abrasive individual who got what he deserved.

Question: If Connor was so bad for kids, why did Roberts later give him the head coaching position for boys golf ? Why, two years later, did Hillcrest hire him as the head coach for a girls softball team that would find great success? Why would Hillcrest boys basketball coach Tom Cappel bring him on as the sophomore coach? Why, at 72, is he still coaching today in the golf program at Lincoln-Way Central?

Ken Connor is a proven survivor.

Seven years ago Connor was stricken with cancer. He had surgery and was clear for awhile, but four years later six tumors were discovered. An oncologist, he said, took on the challenge and told him she was going to get rid of all six. Incredibly, she did.

Today, Connor is still battling cancer, but says it’s under control and he feels great

Friday marked the end of a whirlwind few weeks in which two of the players he supposedly berated so badly, Gorman and Agler, told Oak Forest coaches Matt Manzke and Mike Brown that they would be willing to come to the ceremony, but only if Connor was invited. Ken wasn’t only invited to the ceremony, he was invited to a current practice to speak to the team.

Gorman told me that Roberts never explained his decision to them or gave them a say. He also said that had the firing not been announced just before gametime, the players might have protested the decision.

And if there had been a team vote?

“I don’t think he would have been fired,” Gorman said. “I loved playing for him. He was like a tough English professor. When you’re going through it you can get a little frustrated, but when you look back you realize that he was only being tough on you because he only wanted to bring the best out of you.

“I’m glad we were able to get him back in touch with not only our team, but back in touch with the program, where he should be.”



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