Shorthanded Chicago junior college teams soldier on during tumultuous basketball season

Richard J. Daley College guard Jeffrey Oakley rises for a layup during a game against Harry S. Truman College on Jan. 13 in Chicago. Oakley scored 26 points and played all 40 minutes in Daley’s 82-68 loss. (Andrew Polk/Medill)

By Andrew Polk
Medill Reports

Harry S. Truman College men’s basketball coach John Cooksey paced up and down the sidelines last week just like at every other game in his 23-year coaching career.

When Cooksey returned to his bench, however, he sat alone. No assistant coaches. No substitute players. Not even a student manager.

On the opposing bench, Richard J. Daley College coach Curtis Strong Sr. found himself in a similar predicament. He had only one substitute and one assistant coach keeping him company.

To the handful of onlookers who witnessed Truman’s 82-68 win over Daley on Jan. 13, it was clear from the opening tip: This was an atypical junior college basketball game dominated by sparse teams.

Truman picked up its first win of the 2021-22 season, building a 15-point halftime lead and fending off several late runs from Daley, but for the game to be played at all – that was the highlight of the night. Several of Chicago’s junior college basketball teams are struggling to maintain a sufficient roster to compete this season amid the latest COVID-19 surge and an ongoing drop in interest for junior college basketball. But Truman and Daley each had just enough players last week to meet the five-player minimum and avoid a postponement or forfeiture.

At the junior college level, coaches already worry about losing players to academic ineligibility, and the persistence of the pandemic has depleted rosters even further. Truman, Daley and Kennedy-King College, which has only five active players on its roster, are getting hit the hardest, and the three schools subsequently find themselves at the bottom of the NJCAA Region 4 Division I standings. The region’s top junior college team, Triton College, has 14 players this season.

After Truman’s win over Daley, Cooksey applauded his team’s response to the difficult hand they were dealt.

“I told my players to embrace the challenge, that they’d probably never get to play 40 minutes a game in the rest of their lives,” Cooksey said. “I thought they played really well together tonight.”

Truman (1-9) has made several necessary adjustments throughout the season as its roster has slowly thinned. The team now plays a zone defense, which helps players stay out of foul trouble. If a player commits five fouls, Truman would be forced to play the remainder of the game with four players.

Truman guard Jordan Fenderson led his team with 26 points in the victory over Daley. After the game, Fenderson said the team is focused on winning games regardless of how many players are active.

“We didn’t wish upon this, but when we found out we just had five, we had to figure out a game plan to get a win still,” Fenderson said. “I told my teammates that if we got a win tonight, I’d be smiling all the way home.”

Fenderson was fierce on the defensive end as well, drawing the assignment of taller Daley players after Truman forward Mohammad Ahmad committed his fourth foul in the second half. Fenderson only had two personal fouls, so Cooksey made the defensive change to keep Ahmad away from any potential fouls in the paint.

Strong, in his first year at Daley (6-9), started the season with 15 players. But three players left the school, two more incurred injuries and several others quit midseason. With tiny rosters, both Daley and Truman are unable to simulate even the five-on-five action of a game during practice.

“They get complacent and think ‘this is not a real team,’” Strong said of his players. “But every time you put on that jersey, you’re still representing your school.”

Strong mentioned how thankful he was that his six active players were all academically eligible, keeping the team’s season alive. When asked about team goals, both coaches touched on improving their win-loss record, but Cooksey made it clear that graduation rate and academics remain the ultimate barometer of team success for junior college teams.

“Number one, I want my sophomores to graduate, and I want my freshmen to be in good academic standing,” Cooksey said. “We have some tough sledding ahead, but I want them to enjoy the ride.”

Andrew Polk is a sports reporter at Medill from San Mateo, Calif. You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @apolk17.