Recalling the saga of Homer Thurman

600388.png

Recalling the saga of Homer Thurman

Jerry Colangelo, who knows a lot of the history and tradition of Bloom Township's sports program and has written a lot of history of his own as the one-time owner of the Phoenix Suns of the NBA and the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball franchise, recalls with notes of sadness and admiration the last time he spent time with Homer Thurman.

Colangelo and Thurman were teammates on Bloom's 1957 basketball team that lost to Elgin 53-52 in the supersectional. Colangelo has said that it was the most disappointing loss he has ever experienced in his high school, college and professional sports career.

"When I was a sophomore at Illinois, I got permission from Tug Wilson (commissioner of the Big 10) to put on a summer tournament in Chicago Heights," said Colangelo, now director of USA Basketball. "I had the best players in the Midwest playing in the event. I was looking for Homer Thurman. I found him in jail. He looked scruffy and hadn't touched a basketball in so long.

"Well, he had a hamburger and some French fries and stepped on the court like he never missed a beat. He was the MVP in the tournament. He was an amazing story. He disappeared right after that. He is a tragic story, a great talent who went to waste."

Thurman arguably was one of the most outstanding multi-sport athletes ever produced in Illinois. Those who saw him compete in football, basketball and track and field insist he should be mentioned in the same discussion with Dike Eddleman, Lou Boudreau, Otto Graham, Ted Kluszewski, Jack Bastable, Mike Conley, LaMarr Thomas, Howard Jones, Quinn Buckner, Tai Streets, and his teammate at Bloom, Leroy Jackson.
"He occurred out of nowhere," Colangelo recalled. "He made the varsity as a freshman at Bloom at a time (in the 1950s) when the school was a factory for sports. It was no small feat. He ended up as a starter. He became one of the greatest athletes Bloom ever had.

"When he graduated from high school in 1959, in terms of talent, he was as talented an athlete as I had ever seen at that age. Unfortunately, he had other issues that went along with the package. But he could have had a terrific college career and maybe a professional career."

Thurman, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder, was a two-time All-Stater in basketball. He scored 1,619 points in four years and averaged 17.59 per game.

He was a freshman on Bloom's 18-2 team in 1956 that lost to Oak Park 62-57 in the supersectional at Hinsdale, On a team with Colangelo, Bobby Bell and Chuck Green, he was the leading scorer with 20 points.

As a sophomore in 1957, Thurman and Bell each scored 15 points as Bloom lost to Elgin 53-52 in the supersectional at Hinsdale and finished 22-2.

He made enough of a lasting impression that he has been named among 10 players chosen in the second class in the pre-1960s era who will be inducted into the Illinois High School Basketball Hall of Fame and Museum in Pinckneyville. The class will be honored on Nov. 3 in Champaign.

He also was an All-State end on Bloom's unbeaten 1957 football team that featured All-State running back Leroy Jackson, a three-time state sprint champion who later played for the Washington Redskins in the NFL.

In track and field, he was third in the high jump I the 1957 state finals and won the event in 1958. He also led off the winning mile relay in 1958. As a senior, he was fifth in the long jump and ran a leg on the winning 880-yard relay. He competed on four state championship track and field teams.

Thurman was born in Ittabena, Mississippi. The family moved to Chicago Heights and settled on 13th Street and Shields. Homer was a high-strung and temperamental individual. Longtime friend Homer Dillard said his life changed when his mother died in 1959.

"He was never able to relax," Dillard said. "A lot of people in Chicago Heights liked him. But he had no supervision. So many people expected him to do so much. They said he would be the next Oscar Robertson. But when his mother died, something died in him. He didn't want to work as hard."

Thurman was recruited by Iowa during the time of the Connie Hawkins scandal. Homer left after one semester and landed at Midland Lutheran in Fremont, Nebraska. He was a black star in a white community. In 1962, he married Janet Bartling, the daughter of a local newspaper publisher. The couple went to Chicago to be married and to establish a residence. At the time, Thurman became a student at Crane College.

In November of 1962, Thurman had a tryout with the Harlem Globetrotters. He didn't make the team. At the same time, his personal life was crumbling. He left his wife and two children. In 1965, his wife was granted a divorce. She returned to Fremont to live with her parents and children.

"I was always able to find him and get him to play o one of my summer teams," said Dillard, a Bloom graduate of 1957. "But I last saw him in 1974. He was in a hurry. I spotted him walking on the side of the street. He had a cape on and looked like Dracula. A guitar hung around his neck. He said that he couldn't talk and that he'd see me later. I never saw him again.

"He decided he was going to be a musician. He had a guitar and a book to self-teach himself on the guitar. He spent a lot of time learning how to play the guitar. One story was he went to California to play with a band. He is like hearing stories about Elvis. One person saw him in a movie. Another person saw him here or there, a brief shot."

Dillard said Leroy Jackson, not Thurman, was the greatest athlete in Bloom history. But he was very good at everything he did. He didn't play baseball in high school but he was a very good baseball player, as well as basketball, football and track and field.

"In basketball, he was ahead of his time in a lot of things he was doing," Dillard said. "He had small hands. He couldn't palm the ball.

Whatever sport he picked, he could have done well. He had the type of concentration to do it. He was very intense whenever he decided to do something. He put himself into it. He would prepare himself to play a game. That's part of what made him a very good athlete."

Bobby Bell remembers his old teammate, Thurman. "The last I heard was his cousin told me he had seen him in San Francisco. I also heard he was dead. He was a sportsman. He could do it all. He was intelligent, a great natural talent. What went wrong with him was when his mother died and left him alone. Then he was on his own," Bell said.

Alan Macey, a sportswriter with the Chicago Heights Star and the Southtown Star from 1976 to 2011, tried to find Thurman.

Years ago, sports editor John E. Meyers of the Chicago Heights Star assigned Macey to do a series on the great athletes of the south suburbs titled "Do you remember?" Macey even put a former FBI agent on Thurman's trail but he kept running into one dead end after another.

"It was a very frustrating journey," Macey said. "The great Homer Thurman. Is he still alive? God only knows. He could be the greatest three-sport high school athlete who decided to be lost forever."

58 Days to Kickoff: Oak Lawn Richards

58 Days to Kickoff: Oak Lawn Richards

CSNChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 1, we’ll unveil the @CSNPreps Top 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 26.

School: HL Richards Bulldogs

Head coach: Tony Sheehan

Assistant coaches: Steve Fleming, Kevin Szczepkowski, Adam Ziemba, Jeff Kortz, Charlie McCullough, Matt Royce, Charlie Kipp, Rick Pratl

How they fared in 2015: 7-4 (5-1) South Suburban Red Conference. Richards made the Class 6A state playoffs and defeated Morgan Park, then lost to Lincoln-Way North in second round action.

Biggest storyline in 2016: Can the Bulldogs make a deep run this fall?

Names to watch this season: RB Pat Doyle, RB/LB Anthony Quinn, OL Joe Capenter

Biggest holes to fill: The Bulldogs welcome back just one returning offensive linemen in senior Joe Carpenter (6-foot-2, 285 pounds).

EDGY's Early Take: The Bulldogs always have speed and athletes and confidence is pretty high in regards to this team. With 12 starters back including the entire starting offensive backfield, expect Richards to make some serious noise this season.

The secret to Willson Contreras' success with Cubs: Channeling his emotions

The secret to Willson Contreras' success with Cubs: Channeling his emotions

Willson Contreras took the first pitch he saw Sunday and stared down Jose Fernandez. The Miami Marlins ace didn't try to buzz the Cubs rookie and the pitch wasn't close to hitting Contreras. It was just another way of Contreras showing he would not be intimidated by anybody, not even Major League Baseball's leader in strikeouts per nine innings.

Contreras has flashed that kind of spirit throughout his first couple weeks in the big leagues, including his Steph Curry-esque caught-stealing celebration against the St. Louis Cardinals.

But it wasn’t always that way. Mark Johnson uniquely understands how far Contreras has come, the difficulty in harnessing all that and what to expect as a big-league catcher.

"It's been fun to watch him grow as a person and as a player," said Johnson, the current Double-A Tennessee manager who worked with Contreras between 2011 and 2013 in short-season A-ball (Boise) and Class-A Kane County. "He's always been that real emotional player, wearing his emotions on his sleeves. When he was younger, it was kind of hard to contain at times.

"He's always played with so much passion and fire, which is beautiful to have. You'd much rather have a player like that than have a player you'd have to kick in the ass every day.

"For him to be able to tone that down a little bit and control that just shows his maturity and the way he's starting to grow up."

When Johnson coached Contreras, he had not yet become the top catching prospect in the game and actually spent all of 2011 playing the infield and outfield (mostly third base).

Contreras made the switch to catcher in 2012 and his career didn't really start to take off until 2015, when he won the Southern League batting title for Tennessee. The Cubs had even left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft prior to his breakout in his age-23 season last year.

"He's come into his own at the plate," Johnson said. "He really started understanding what he needed to do at the plate last year. He made some good adjustments. It was kind of like the rest of his game.

"He's always been so aggressive and always tried to do too much, whether it was his throwing, his catching, his receiving, his hitting. When he started understanding he didn't have to do as much as he was trying to do, and could simplify things and minimize movements, it started to take off for him.

"Like in [2015], I had him [in the Arizona Fall League], and he was clearly one of the best players out there. His bat and his move to the baseball is really shortened and he's come a long way with his bat and throwing."

So how much of that can be attributed to harnessing his emotions?

"It's just maturing," Johnson said. "It's time. Whether it's staff or the other players taking him aside or talking to him about what to do, what not to do, how to handle yourself in certain situations. It’s the more experiences he has and the more he learns.

"He's a smart kid. He's got this incredible passion to play the game, which is so much fun to watch. And I think it's just a matter of playing and getting that experience."

Johnson was a first-round draft pick (26th overall) of the White Sox in 1994 and spent five years on the South Side before moving to the Cubs system in 2005 (Triple-A Iowa) and then ending his playing career back in the Cubs system in 2009-10. He has talked with Contreras about what to expect in a big market.

During his first two weeks in The Show, Contreras had no issues adjusting to Chicago, hitting .355 with a 1.137 OPS, three homers and nine RBI in 11 games while playing catcher (six games), left field (four games) and first base (two games).

"You could put him anywhere," Johnson said. "He loves to play the game. No matter where you put him, he loves to compete. He loves the game of baseball.

"You could put him at second base or any outfield position, first, third. You could probably put him on the mound and he'd probably be a lights-out pitcher. He's just one of those guys that really competes. And that's what you look for in ballplayers."

Contreras has figured out how to keep his love of the game while learning to keep his cool, without censoring himself.

"He looks like the same old Willy," Johnson said. "He has so much fun playing the game. It's just infectious.

"They're going to love him [in Chicago]. Obviously, he's had a tremendous start. He's playing himself into the lineup every day.

"I think anybody that plays the game with that much passion and that much energy and that much life, you got to be likable."

Bulls headed to Parts Unknown as free agency begins

Bulls headed to Parts Unknown as free agency begins

Derrick Rose will suit up for the perpetually-woeful New York Knicks, Jimmy Butler is headed to a country that has legitimate Zika virus concerns for the Olympic Games, and neither of them has as much uncertainty as the Chicago Bulls as the franchise approaches free agency in a few days.

When the clock strikes midnight Friday, it’ll open up business around the NBA but also cement a sea change for the Bulls as far as their league-wide hierarchy. Two summers ago, the Bulls were getting ready to be the welcoming committee for free agent Carmelo Anthony, believing he was the missing piece to a championship puzzle.

Anthony chose to stay in New York, in large part due to the $50 million disparity between the Knicks and Bulls, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement giving players a greater incentive for staying at home as opposed to bolting to other teams.

The Bulls wound up with a big fish anyway, signing Pau Gasol to a three-year contract he officially opted out of a few days ago, as he and Joakim Noah will depart Chicago for Parts Unknown.

Ironically, that’s the address the Bulls are headed to. Although they have over $23 million in cap space—an amount that’s enough for one max player—they won’t be grocery shopping with the big boys this time around.

They’ll be going bargain hunting, the epitome of what general manger Gar Forman calls “retooling” instead of that other dreaded “R” word: rebuilding.

Taking a couple steps back for the sake of taking a few forward sooner rather than later isn’t the easiest route. But when they decided not to trade Jimmy Butler on draft night or any other recent evening, it was the course of action the franchise decided to take.

“We’re still trying to get a sense of what the market is going to be,” Forman said the night of the NBA Draft, after the Bulls selected Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. “I don’t think anybody knows what’s gonna happen come July 1 because there’s never been anything like this where there’s such a spike in the cap. So we’re still evaluating that. My guess is opposed to one guy we’ll look to fill some holes and guys who fit the plan moving forward.”

Butler and new addition Robin Lopez are the only starters who can say they’re in the top half in the league at their position, with Butler being in the conversation for best shooting guard.

So if the Bulls are to overachieve and find themselves back in the thick of the playoff race, thus showing the competency in the front office and the sidelines to make themselves a destination in free agency this time next summer, they’ll have to be a team whose sum is greater than its individual parts, unless they snag a top-line wing player like Nicolas Batum (Charlotte) or Chandler Parsons (Dallas)—traditional 3-and-D guys but nowhere near superstars and not even All-Stars.

Even still, the proposition the Bulls are facing isn’t enviable but there’s opportunity for Forman to show he’s ahead of the curve and for Fred Hoiberg to rebound from his very shaky rookie season as coach.

Trading Rose was a start, and teams will be interested in Taj Gibson (as they always are), but it’ll be fascinating to see how the Bulls navigate the territory of employing enough veterans to help the young pieces grow while not wasting the valuable time of a respected player like Gibson.

The prudent decisions, the tough ones the good franchises make are usually through trades—players with existing contracts and not the inflated ones the market will bear.

Athleticism is a need, along with a point guard considering the Bulls are inheriting one who had the lowest-scoring point-per-game average in the league last season in Jose Calderon (7.6 points).

While Calderon’s on-floor leadership and ability to spread the floor from the top (41 percent from 3 last season) will be highly valued should he stick around, the Bulls would be better served looking to upgrade the position, despite a class that won’t initially inspire observers at first glance.

Memphis point guard Mike Conley will certainly be the apple of many teams’ eye, but at 29 he’s at the precious age where not only is this the last big long-term contract he’ll likely sign. But he’ll likely want to do it on a team with a clear trajectory upward as opposed to a slow slope down.

Brandon Jennings is a full year removed from Achilles’ recovery, and could take a short deal to rejuvenate his value on the open market, similar to what Gasol did two years ago but on a different level. Jeremy Lin will command a lot of attention, as will Rajon Rondo.

The athletic wings are a bit deeper, but with the league putting a premium on versatile players who can defend the perimeter, run the floor and shoot, the competition will be stiff and it appears as if the Bulls will have to overpay for quality.

Knicks free agent guard Arron Afflalo could be an intriguing, if not understated option as a wing who can defend and be credible as an outside shooter, able to alleviate pressure on Butler to play 40 minutes on the opposing team’s best scorer.

The Bulls’ interest in Golden State’s Harrison Barnes has been an open secret, given his ties with Doug McDermott, Hoiberg and now-Olympic teammate Butler. But as a restricted free agent it leaves any suitor in limbo for three days while the Warriors decide if they want to match—or if Kevin Durant decides to join the juggernaut.

And given Barnes’ underwhelming performance in the postseason, teams should be wary of Barnes not being able to play above the level he’s been at in Golden State, where he was a fourth option.

Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore is an example as a quality player who’ll be in high demand, but his ceiling isn’t too much higher than his reality.

The Bulls would be wise to resist making a splash in multiple areas, as more than a few teams will commit big money to players who can’t change their stripes no matter what the price tag is.

But if the Bulls are able to resist the trends, they can emerge from Parts Unknown and find themselves in a few years on a road marked “May”—and if they’re geniuses, “June.”