Roosevelt basketball goes from nothing to hope for future

Photo courtesy: John Jaramillo

By Abbas Haleem

Ira Berkow was 19 in 1958.

The Pulitzer Prize-winner and former New York Times sports columnist didn’t know where he would attend school and what career path to follow. He had two scholarship offers to play basketball at small schools out of Chicago. However, he didn’t want to leave and didn’t take them.

He ended up going to the University of Illinois in Chicago, but he flunked out after just one semester. But he hadn’t given up on getting an education.

He wound up at Roosevelt University. The commuter school in the South Loop remains in his memory not just because it gave him a second chance at education. It also gave him the opportunity to advance his basketball career.

Roosevelt’s basketball team played at the Division III level. The coach, Ed Turner, had no assistants, and his basketball team practiced at a worn down recreational facility called the Olivet Institute. It was four miles away from Roosevelt, had exposed pipes on the ceiling and walls, and not all the lights worked.

“It wasn’t the Superdome, I can tell you that,” Berkow said in a phone interview. “It was very basic. It was hardly even a high school gym.”

Berkow could relate to what the Roosevelt basketball players encountered in 2009. That is the year Roosevelt restarted its athletic program, even though it still didn’t have a gym and a limited coaching staff.

The school decided to suspend varsity athletics in 1989 because officials felt it wasn’t servicing the make-up of a primarily adult student body. Roosevelt then reversed its course in 2009, viewing sports as a way to lure traditional freshmen out of high school.

The journey has been tough, but seven years later, Roosevelt is seeing progress with the basketball team and the rest of its athletic program, which consists of 16 sports. Officials view the completion of a new gym as being instrumental to the program reaching a higher level.

“We’ve learned how to walk,” said Athletic Director Mike Cassidy. “I feel like we’re in junior high. We’re trying to figure out who we are, who we’re going to be when we grow up.”

(Abbas Haleem | MEDILL)
(Abbas Haleem | MEDILL)

Roosevelt basketball coach Joe Griffin is also optimistic. He has guided the basketball team through the many challenges as its only coach since its revival.

The team went from 5-22 in its first season and didn’t make it to .500 until 2014. But they made the playoffs last year, and their 12-16 record this season is the first time the team’s record declined from the previous season.

“After our fourth season, we knew we had a good team of returners coming back and a four-year class of recruits that were really good,” Griffin said. “We moved into the gym by then. We kind of knew the landscape of everything.”

When Cassidy was hired in 2009, he was given an office and the task of bringing intercollegiate athletics back to Roosevelt, which has 5,300 students. He spent his first year learning what resources he would need and how he would get them.

Roosevelt now has a $12.1 million athletics facility, the Lillian and Larry Goodman Center, named after and funded mostly by the Lillian and Larry Goodman Foundations.

“That became its own unique challenge in the first couple years was planning, designing, dealing with all the ebbs and flows of building a house, basically, an athletic center on one of the most prominent corners of the city of Chicago,” Cassidy said.

In Griffin’s early days, the team spent its first 2 1/2 years trekking to other institutions’ gyms, just as Berkow’s did.

Griffin’s team practiced and played at the Illinois Institute of Technology, now-defunct Attack Athletics and the University of Illinois at Chicago. The team had five coaches this season, three of which were volunteers, as opposed to just Turner back in Berkow’s day.

“I knew what I was getting into,” Griffin said. “There was nothing here. There was no gym. There was no team. There was no logo. There were no players. They gave me a phone. They gave me a Blackberry and a laptop and said, ‘Build a program.’”

The team was on a bus almost daily just to go to practice, and they would lug their own equipment. Tyree York, a guard who started for Roosevelt from 2011-2015, said it was tough having practices at another school and playing “home games” that were actually away. He said since the bus occasionally didn’t come, he would have to walk to UIC and back to his dorm.

Abbas Haleem
A basketball commemorating Tyree York scoring his 1,000th point in 2014 sits near the coach’s office at Roosevelt’s Goodman Center. (Abbas Haleem | MEDILL)

He and the team, though, were laying down the foundation for future players.

That didn’t go unnoticed when Kevin Priebe joined the lineup. He played on the same high school team as York. After spending a semester at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he transferred to Roosevelt.

“They were telling me about the new buildings that were going to be built,” Priebe said. “They were telling me I had a chance to start up a program, which was enticing. A lot of playing time, a new culture, building your own legacy.”

And coaches added onto that culture. York said Aaron Rolle, who started as a volunteer coach the same year York started playing, helped him develop the most because they grew together on the team.

Rolle said focusing on the basketball aspect of the team becomes easier once the culture is established. He added that past players who have come through the program have changed because of their experience at Roosevelt.

“Guys like (sophomore guard/small forward) Damian Zalewski, the growth that he’s shown confidence-wise,” Rolle said. “Looking people in the eyes, shaking hands, things like that. He wasn’t that kid.”

One of the positive experiences York had was beating Robert Morris University his senior year. Twice. He said he remembers getting routed by their nearby rival every time the teams faced off in his first three seasons. To him, beating them twice in a season showed how much the team grew since its ’09 revival.

“Honestly, if the gym didn’t come, it wouldn’t have mattered to me because I just loved building something at the Roosevelt program,” said York, a Lombard native who was named All-CCAC Second Team his senior year after winning honorable mention two years in a row.

But the gym did come.

Across the street from where Cassidy had his office, a parking lot was transformed into the Lillian and Larry Goodman Center, home of the Roosevelt Lakers. Building a facility was part of the plan from Cassidy’s first day on the job, he said.

“[It’s] a huge challenge for us, but it’s one I always have an eye on. Trying to tie our history to our present,” Cassidy said. “There’s more alumni I want to meet. There’s more people I want to make aware that we’re back.”

The team played its first home game Dec. 1, 2012, a 69-60 win over Trinity Christian College with 508 watching from the stands. It was a true turning point.

Players have been able to spend extra hours at the Goodman Center working on shooting, pick and rolls, offensive and defensive plays. They eat and study on the ground floor after class before going upstairs to practice. The Goodman Center has become a home to a team that, for a while, did not have one.

“Now, somebody comes into our gym and they know how we’re going to play,” York said. “They know we’re going to be tough on defense. We’re going to be diving on the floor, and if you come into our house, you’ve got to know that you’ve got to bring it or else we’re going to beat you. Playing at UIC, we see their logo on the ground, so we know that’s not our facility, but now we come into our gym, and it’s our logo, and we get an opportunity to show out in front of our fans, and we get to bring the community out. It was so big for us. It was nice and convenient.”

Photo at top: Roosevelt basketball coach Joe Griffin (Second from right) and Athletic Director Mike Cassidy (Right) take a photo in the Lillian and Larry Goodman Center on Senior Night. With them is Kevin Priebe (Third from left), the school’s first player to have a home gym for all four years of his basketball career. (Photo courtesy: John Jaramillo, Roosevelt University)