By Alyssa Muir
Fenwick High School girls basketball coach David Power watched the seconds tick off the clock during his team’s season-ending loss to Nazareth Academy on Feb. 28. But unlike every other year, this wasn’t just a close to a season but to Power’s legendary 45-year career.
Power, who spent 29 of those 45 years at Fenwick, retires as the school’s only girls basketball coach ever. He won more than 1,000 games and three state championships.
Power announced his retirement Nov. 1, prior to the beginning of his final season.
“I knew I had to finish up some time, so I thought this year would be as good as any,” Power said. “We had a group of seniors that have been with me for a while, some since fourth or fifth grade, and I felt that we had a really good chance to make it downstate.”
The Fenwick Friars were a game away from returning to state but ultimately fell to Nazareth in the Super-Sectionals.
“To me it was like any other season,” Power said. “I don’t think it hits you until it’s over.”
In 1992, Fenwick transitioned from an all-boys high school to a coeducational school. Power, who had spent the previous 10 years coaching at Immaculate Heart of Mary High School, a suburban Westchester school that has since closed, jumped at the chance to “tackle a new challenge.”
His first team at Fenwick had all freshmen players. They won just one game —against the Illinois Math & Science Academy in Aurora.
But Power slowly built the program and eventually secured its first state championship in 2001. The Friars won another six seasons later, this time with Power’s daughter Erin on the team.
And while Fenwick’s reputation was one of the draws for former Friar Tricia Liston, who played college basketball at Duke University and was eventually drafted No. 12 in the 2014 WNBA draft, Power was the biggest one.
“Growing up, I always wanted to play for him,” Liston said. “My older sisters played for him. I played for a travel team that he helped coach. I couldn’t wait to go to Fenwick so I could officially play for him in a competitive way.”
The same could be said for former players Brittanny Johnson, who played for Power before moving on to Boston College, and Devereaux Peters, another player who eventually made it to the WNBA.
“I wasn’t sold on Fenwick as a school, but I went because I trusted (Power),” Johnson said. “And I made the right choice because from that time to now he’s always had my back. He’s never not shown up for me.”
Peters had a similar story.
“I didn’t know much about Fenwick outside of basketball before I went, but it came to that crossroads where I knew I needed to go there if I wanted to take basketball seriously,” Peters said.
The transition won’t be easy for Power.
“Sometimes I find myself thinking like ‘I need to order the shirts for summer camp’ and then it’s ‘Oh, yeah, that’s right—I’m not doing that anymore,’” Power said. “It’s little things like that because I’m a creature of habit—45 years and you get used to doing certain things.”
It will be equally difficult for people close to the program to adjust to the team without Power.
“When I think of Fenwick girls basketball, obviously the first thing that comes to mind is Coach Power and what he did for the program,” Liston said. “It’s going to take some time to get used to. If you use Fenwick girls basketball in a sentence, you can bet that Coach Power’s name will be in that sentence too.”
A pioneer for the girls’ game
Power recalls working at Proviso West High School from 1977 to 1982, his first of three head coaching stops, where the boys received new uniforms every year while his team only got them every three years. That bothered him. So, Power asked the school why this was the case, and someone bluntly told him that, unlike the girls, the boys drew a crowd.
“Even though Title IX just started it really wasn’t equitable at all,” Power said. “We’ve come so far to where we are now.”
At the time of the comment, Power resolved to find a way to bring people to the girls’ games.
He made the games as “entertaining as possible” by bringing in passionate announcers, having break dancers and having the teams come onto the court with loud music blaring. The other step was much simpler.
“All you need is a good matchup and an exciting brand of basketball, and people will come,” Power said. “That’s why, almost every year, I was playing the hardest schedule in the entire state of Illinois. Because people were going to come to see those matchups.”
People did come as packed gyms became the norm for Power’s games at both IMH and Fenwick—somewhat of a rarity for high school girls basketball at the time.
“Girls basketball really got put on the map because of (Power),” Liston said. “He made it cool.”
Dale Heidloff, Power’s assistant coach for 22 years, agrees.
“He was pretty much one of four individuals that really got Illinois girls basketball off the ground,” Heidloff said. “He’s been at this for 40 years now and, at this point, his name is synonymous with girls basketball.”
Heidloff also retired. Fenwick is searching for a new girls basketball coach.
People above all
Asked about the legacy he is leaving behind, Power’s answer has nothing to do with his on-court success.
“It’s about people,” he said. “The referees, the people at the scorer’s table, the mangers who sometimes get overlooked but who do so much and, of course, my terrific assistant coaches. At the end of the day, your relationships with people and how you treat people, those are the kind of things I hope I left behind on the game.”
Similarly, his bonds with his players have very little to do with their basketball prowess.
“The basketball stuff is great, but what I love the most about these girls is what they do afterwards,” Power said. “I have some medical doctors, an orthopedic surgeon, lawyers, teachers and super-moms. I’m very proud of what they’ve done beyond their basketball days.”
And those former players are eager to include him in their lives after basketball.
“He’s someone who’s going to be part of my life for as long as I’m here,” Peters said.
Power also has several former players who went on to be coaches.
“You can see how big of an influence he was on them,” Heidloff said of these coaches. “They operate with that same people-first mindset that (Power) always lived by and taught.”
One of those coaches is Johnson, hired as Evanston Township High School’s head basketball coach in May of 2016.
Johnson missed a large chunk of her sophomore season due to injury, but credits Power for first getting her thinking about coaching during that time.
“He didn’t just ignore me,” Johnson said. “He kept me engaged and involved by giving me coaching responsibilities. Even then, he believed I could be successful in this. I’ve used his advice every step of the way.”
For Power, that last statement encompasses his greatest source of satisfaction from his legendary career.
“What am I most proud of? Not wins and losses, I’ll tell you that,” Power said. “I think it’s the fact that most girls know that even 10 or 20 years after leaving the program, if there’s anything they need at all, they can give me a call. And I’ve had that happen many times. They know that I care about them and will do whatever I can to help them.”
Alyssa Muir is a sports reporter at Medill from Tampa, Florida. You can follow Alyssa on Twitter at @alyssa_muir21.