Six years ago, Tim Flowers was graduating from Simeon Career Academy, fresh off back-to-back state championships as a first-team all-state player and preparing for his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Six years later he's a varsity head coach, running his own high-school program on Chicago's South Side.
The 6-foot-5, wide-bodied big man certainly wasn't as heralded as his more celebrated high school and grammar school teammate, Derrick Rose, but he was highly regarded in his own right and had earned a reputation as the team's physical, tough inside force as well as the squad's vocal leader.
Flowers didn't have a storied career at the mid-major level as many observers expected. Instead, he left Wisconsin-Milwaukee during his initial year on campus, returning to Chicago for family reasons. He then bounced around colleges, first attending Kennedy-King College -- a two-year community college in the Englewood neighborhood -- where he was raised on the same block as the former league MVP. After a solid showing at the junior-college level, there would be talk about him surfacing at Chicago State, then NAIA program Robert Morris. But while he continued to attend classes as a student, it appeared that his basketball days were done.
Although Flowers didn't develop into a star college player, his love of the game never went away. As one of Rose's close-knit group of friends, he's been afforded the opportunity to travel with the Bulls superstar and see plenty of NBA basketball over the past few years. But his aspirations weren't to immediately get a position at the highest level of the sport.
The 24-year-old found his way back to his alma mater and began volunteering as an assistant coach for the school's sophomore team, which eventually won the city championship. Simeon varsity head coach Robert Smith, who coached Flowers, was cautious at first.
"He talked about it a little bit last year and I just told him to make sure that when he was ready to do it that he was going to be able to put his full commitment into it, so this fall, when we started conditioning, he was there for conditioning and he said this is what he wanted to do," Smith recounted.
Rose was also supportive, attending Simeon's sophomore title-game win and vouching for Flowers' devotion to his new vocation.
"I was there for his first championship and he takes it very seriously. That’s something he loves doing. He loves teaching people, especially kids,” Rose explained. “He has a lot of brothers and sisters that are younger than him, so he’s like a father figure to them. That kind of plays a role when it comes to being around kids, so he definitely fits that job."
Smith asked Flowers to help out the Wolverines' varsity coaching staff after the sophomore team's season was over. Although he was the youngest member of the bunch, his youth actually benefited him when advising the likes of All-American Jabari Parker and the Illinois-bound guard tandem of Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, as well as Simeon's promising youngsters, some of whom were also brought up to the varsity.
"You have somebody that’s a little bit close to their age, who they can relate to and somebody who’s been through the fight and the struggle, and won, so it’s really good to have him back on the staff with us," Smith said during the state playoffs. "It’s been huge. That’s why we moved him right on the bench. He was coaching the sophomores and once they won, I just told him, ‘I need you there with us every day in practice. You’ve been there, you’ve been on the bench with us now.’ It’s been really helpful."
That experience convinced him that coaching was not only his destiny, but that he wanted a shot at running his show and when he learned that there was an opening at DuSable High School, he applied for the position and in late April, Flowers was hired. With Smith -- who has set a record with six state titles, including a current run of four in a row -- as a mentor, he felt prepared for the opportunity despite his age.
"My opinion of Coach Rob is certainly different from a lot of people's because I not only think he's one of the best coaches in the city of Chicago, I think he's one of the greatest to ever do it in the high school ranks, anywhere," explained Flowers, the first of Smith's protégés to land a head-coaching position, but likely far from the last. Simeon assistants like Leonard Thomas, Marlo Finner and Jeff Duncan are all highly regarded in city basketball circles. "He's accomplished some things that nobody else has ever been ever to accomplish, with Derrick and me, and Jabari and Kendrick, with Jaleni Neely and Brandon Spearman. So many guys came through the ranks and he always finds a way to pull them together, always finds a way to keep them on course and let them know what they're really working toward and that's a championship, so I'm just blessed to come from that lineage of great coaches, that lineage of great coaches and have the knowledge and discipline instilled into me."
It was a whirlwind process for Flowers, but he felt capable of handling the job at the school on 49th and Wabash where the likes of new Detroit Pistons head coach Maurice Cheeks, fellow former NBA point guard Kevin Porter and pioneering stars like Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton and "Sweet" Charlie Brown blazed a trail in the 1950s -- not to mention late luminaries such as former Chicago mayor Harold Washington, comedian Redd Foxx, "Soul Train" creator Don Cornelius and a host of jazz legends like Nat "King" Cole and Dinah Washington -- attended.
"I remember at Simeon, Coach Smith told us that one day the game was going to stop. Everybody wasn't going to make it to the NBA, everybody wasn't going to make millions of dollars playing. So what was I going to do next? Then, when the opportunity came to coach at Simeon this past year, I went and did it and I loved it. I fell in love with it and then, when the DuSable job came open, I wanted to challenge myself. I feel like I'm a very blessed person and I didn't want to just be stagnant in life. I felt like moving on to the next thing would be the best thing for me and that would be taking over my own program, and come to DuSable. Best decision I could have made," Flowers explained, while supervising an open-gym session at the school recently. "It was crazy, to be honest with you because my mind was everywhere. I felt like I was ready for it. I knew that mentally, spiritually, emotionally, I knew I was ready for it, for that step in my life, to take over a program. And I also knew that it was time for me to do something that I was happy doing and I'm happy doing this. Being here, at this school, with these young men, I'm happy and that was the main thing for me. So at the end of the day, I went with happiness over anything.
"I grew up in a household with me and my mom, and I've got six brothers and sisters and recently, two years ago, having a daughter and I've got a nephew and two nieces. And that love and that passion that I have for them and wanting to see them do well in life, and seeing my little brothers and their friends and wanting them to do well, and having so many people that were in my life, that did so many positive, good things for me, I just want to give back," he continued. "The only way to do it was to give back, give back to the people that need my help, and that's the young men of Chicago. To see something different, to hear from a different perspective. Everybody says I'm too young, but how young do you have to be to play basketball or to coach basketball, if you have a knowledge of it or a passion? And even if my knowledge isn't up there with the best coaches, my passion for the game, my willingness to learn, my willingness to work hard for the betterment of my players, that's what matters the most to me. My players are happy with me and I'm happy being here.
"I can't say enough about the staff behind me and administration here. My staff is great. They're always with me. They're always telling me what we can possibly use toward next year or what we can do to get better for next year and then my administration, they put a lot of faith into me as a 24-year-old head man, to lead these young men and their school. And that's what I appreciate the most and that's why I know I have to work even harder because I have some people that really believed in me, that didn't have to give me the opportunity. They didn't coach me, they didn't come to school with me every day at Simeon or any of those different things, so for them to give me this challenge, it's huge for me."
DuSable had a 14-11 record last season, losing in the sectional round of the state playoffs after upsetting a talented St. Rita team in the regional finals. So while it wasn't a terrible situation, the program certainly wasn't on the same level as Simeon, whom they lost to during a regular-season Red-South conference matchup, and other city powerhouses. But Flowers, after experiencing such success during his own prep days, wants the school to eventually be known for basketball glory again.
"The first all-black basketball team to make it downstate came from DuSable, in 1954 with "Sweet Charlie" Brown and those guys, and they got cheated in that game, so that's one thing I knew about growing up because I went to grammar school and high school with Sweet Charlie's daughter, so I always knew some type of history on DuSable and when I started doing my research on it, I see that they had so many people that came out of here and did well in life," he said. "The tradition was so rich and the history was so rich and now I'm just in the situation to try to bring some of that history and tradition back to the forefront."
While there haven't been any formal practices, after getting hired, Flowers let it be known that both returning players and those who were interested in playing next winter could feel free to attend afterschool sessions that include light running and drill work, as well as pickup games, which is customary for high school teams.
"We get a little running in and then open gym. It's just giving these guys a safe haven to come to, so when they come and play the game of basketball and not worry about what's going on. If somebody's getting into it at the park, we know in here it's all love and I know we've got a long way to go in getting ready for our season, but it's just giving them somewhere where they can just come and be themselves, and not always watch over their shoulder. It's been a tremendous and great experience so far," he explained. "A couple of the guys, I've had to push to come in and really play hard all the time and I think that's the difference. A lot of coaches in Chicago, I feel like they push their players and they do what they need to do for their program, but I feel like it's that extra level of commitment you have to instill in them.
“One thing about me is that I've instilled into these guys is even when they leave here, I want them to be able to say, 'Man, that's a great big brother,' or great mentor or great friend, for the rest of their lives and that's what I want to bring to these guys: just showing them that they've got stability behind them when it comes to me."
But Flowers is careful to not let his age muddy the waters when it comes to discipline and though he projects a laid-back air about him, it's clear that while his age makes it obvious that he can relate to his players, a laissez-faire atmosphere won't be tolerated.
"I don't really lean on that [his age] too much. I just let who I am speak. I know I'm not an arrogant person, I'm not a big-headed person, I'm not anyone that's hard to talk to. I'm very personable, so I allow them to be themselves,” Flowers said. “If they want to joke, play and have fun, I allow them to be themselves. But when we get on this floor, they know that it's about business with me. They know that I want them running hard to try to get their legs warm, their body warm. When we play, they know that I want movement, that I want them playing hard at all times and I think that's been the biggest transition for me, to really have that much power to instill that into guys, to be able to tell them what to do. It's kind of hard for me and it's kind of funny for me to be able to do it, but I love it. It's a blessing.
"If I've got to walk through the building to see some of the guys, see what they're doing, pop up on them, just letting them know that there's going to be some consequences for whatever they do and letting them know there's going to be somebody that's going to check you when they need to be checked. I'm not trying to be anyone's father because they've got to go home to their families. But I'm trying to be the best person and best man and best brother and best father figure that I can be on a daily basis, and I think right now, it's an adjustment period, getting used to it, but it's something that I think I'm flourishing doing because my guys are happy with it. I think they look forward to seeing me in the hallways checking on them, walking into the lunch room. So I think that's what I really bring to this program, just stability and holding everyone accountable."
Flowers is already gaining the respect of his players, who appreciate that he can relate to them, but are more enthused about the approach he's implementing.
"I was very excited because I didn't get a chance to show what I can do [last season] ... I worked very hard for this [opportunity] and Coach Tim gave me a chance," said Bryant Adams, a 6-foot-1 swingman heading into his last year of high school. "Everybody, he gave them a chance and told them to come in the gym and play, so he can see what you've got.
"When he came, he wanted our names and everything, and what he said is, 'I'm checking your names for grades,' and I was like, 'This is the real deal,'" he continued. "He told me one of his goals was to get me into college ... I was like, 'Wow, I never heard a coach here tell me that.'
"It gives me a lot of hope."
Isaac Buford, a 5-foot-10 point guard, who was a key player on last season's varsity team, added: "He really wants us to do well, he pushes us, tells us to get better every day and work hard every time we step on the court. He motivates us to do better.
"It's really good. We've got somebody that's close to our age and he can basically understand us better," he went on to say. "He's an intense coach. Basically, he pushes us. He can joke around with us, but when it's time to work, it's time to work.
"When he first came in through the door, he called us up about our grades, asked if we failed this, what we need to work on, do we need study hall. Everything you need help in, he was on it."
Khonja Scott, a 1997 DuSable alum, has worked at the school for four years and was a holdover from the former staff. Scott, who saw Flowers play in high school, stayed on as the program's frosh-soph coach, as well as assisting Flowers at the varsity level.
"From Day 1, we were both on the same accord and how we want to run things," said Scott, who noted that Flowers "stressed" that the players maintain a 2.5 or better grade-point average. "He brings dedication to the kids. He's a hard-working coach. He deals with the different things that the kids bring, like attitudes.
"They're a little bit more motivated now," he added. "They're kind of looking up to him right now, almost like a mentor."
Flowers downplays his own playing days, but can't help but be amused at the fact that his protégés reference his past as if it was ancient history, though he emphasizes that they can build their own legacy.
"You know what's so crazy is that when a lot of the kids, when I heard that I got the job and I came in and met with them, a lot of them were like, 'Man, I Googled you yesterday,' and even parents. Parents were like, 'Well, I Googled you and I saw you and Derrick in the game, all the games that you played in,'" he recalled. "One thing that I try to tell them is I'm not holding on to what happened in the past. That's my past, that's my history. Now I'm looking forward to what the future can bring and I think it's going to bring some great things over here at DuSable High School."
"I heard about him," said Buford, a talented scoring floor general. "My brothers, they played basketball, and they told me about him. He played with D-Rose. He's a good mentor for me.
"I've got brothers around his age. They talk to me like he does. He doesn't cut me any slack. He tells me every day, 'Just work hard, keep doing what you've got to do to be successful,'" continued Buford, who has hopes of earning an athletic scholarship to college. "He wants to be a champion. He told us he's not used to losing and playing with Simeon, they did great things and that's what he wants to be like. He wants us to do well on the court and off, just get better every day.
"I'm going to work as I can to get people to notice me and get my name out there, and the team."
Adams, a wiry and athletic high-energy wing player, chimed in: "I really didn't know that much, but I did know of him.
"[Flowers has had a] big impact because he explained he's from the streets, he didn't come from anything and I was like, 'Yeah, I can relate to that.' He was just explaining that there was no excuse for us not to be in the gym if we really want to do this and that's what really set the tone for me," he added. "Coach Tim, all of them, they're going to get at you, they're going to let you know that this isn't a game and we're trying to build a program.
"I was like, 'It's going to be a good season' ... by him coming, I see some progress in everyone here. Everyone got better, I kid you not."
Scott concurred: "We're looking forward to next season. It should be an excellent season.
"We've just got to keep talking to them, maintaining and making sure they understand where we're coming from, as far as what we're trying to establish here at this program right now. We're not dealing with kids not coming to practice and showing up when they want to."
While it's still very early in his tenure and Flowers doesn't want to jump the gun, he's optimistic about DuSable's prospects for the 2013-14 high-school season.
"I think that we've got a great big guy in Antonio Monroe. He didn't get much time here, but he's similar to what I was in high school. I was undersized, I had good feet, I had good hands and he's that same type of player," he said, highlighting some players who have already impressed him in the open-gym sessions. "I think Bryant Adams, he's going to do a lot of good things for us. Isaac Buford is going to be tremendous for us. I think he's a great guard, one of the best guards in the city of Chicago that's unknown. We've got a guy like Prince Dukes, another guy that can stretch the floor for us. So we've got a lot of guys that can contribute to our team."
"I'm really trying to wait to see what players show themselves through and go with what we have. If we've got a team where we've got to throw the ball down low a lot, then that's what I want to do. If we've got a team where we want to press a lot, turn the ball over and get a lot of layups, then that's what we'll do. But I think we're going to do whatever's going to be the best thing for our team. I think we've got some guys that can do a lot of different things, so it's just putting them in the right situations to be successful, on and off the court. I've been preaching to them taking care of the classroom, do the things that's necessary in the classroom, because a lot of these guys probably didn't think they would have the opportunity to get to a college or to have an opportunity to have their college paid for, and that's my thing, showing them that there is an opportunity if they go out and get it."
Six years after his own glory days as part of a storied legacy concluded, Flowers has embarked on a new path and while it's not nearly as high-profile as the one his childhood friend has taken, he has no regrets.