July 4 was already a holiday, but for first-year head coach Chris Collins and his staff at Northwestern University, there was another reason to celebrate besides the commemorating the independence of this country.
It was also the day that Victor Law, a rising senior at St. Rita of Cascia High School on the Southwest side of Chicago, committed to the program. Law, a 6-foot-7 forward, is regarded as one the 100 best players in the class of 2014, so having him pledge to the Wildcats early was a major accomplishment.
But getting Law was bigger than just getting a top national recruit, though it’s not something that’s happened frequently in Evanston over the years, certainly not in basketball.
Law is also Collins’ first recruit and one of the best players in the city, a place where, despite its proximity to campus, Northwestern has struggled to land top prospects.
“Being No. 1 is always the best feeling and I feel as though Northwestern is a place where the roof is just going to explode when we win,” Law told CSNChicago.com. “I think the town and the whole culture of Northwestern is just waiting for a winner, and I think being the first to commit, I’m going to be able to provide that and be able to bring a winning culture to Northwestern.”
Since he was interviewed just before the NCAA’s July recruiting period started, Law has went on to make even more of a name for himself nationally, playing well at Reebok’s “Breakout” camp in Philadelphia and opening the eyes of national media. His commitment created even more of a buzz in his hometown, especially considering the other options he was weighing and the fact that a good summer would have likely led to more widespread interest.
But the connection he forged with Collins after the coach was hired in the spring, as well as being close enough that the South Holland, Ill., resident’s family could see him play home games, were major influences on Law's decision to end his recruitment early.
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“It’s pretty close to home, it’s a great school academically and Coach Collins being there is just a great a mix of everything. You really couldn’t ask for anything better than that, a top-flight academic school and a basketball mix that’s going to be a part of it, so I feel like I can just add to that and add to the whole Northwestern picture, to really bring in other kids,” he said from his high school gym. “I never really thought about Northwestern [before Collins was hired]. When I was younger, you really just think about the power schools like Duke and North Carolina. They showed interest, but whenever you get some of the higher academic schools to recruit you, you have to take a look at them.
“He came to see me for my first open gym [of the spring recruiting period]. His first day on the job, he came to see me play, so it was really impressive to me. I thought he really showed a great interest, and I just loved his enthusiasm and his optimism about the job and what he was going to do with the program. I thought that other schools had great programs and they were doing great things, but being that first one, the person to start the legacy and start the dynasty was just something that was really important to me,” the athletic wing added. “Northwestern was important, but I could see when Coach Collins came, it was of much greater importance because he just filled that basketball aspect that I was looking for and not just academics. Other schools filled the basketball aspect, but weren't really achieving what I wanted academically and Northwestern just came into the picture with both, so it’s something I’m really looking forward to.
“When I committed to Northwestern, our bond just got stronger. I think when we go through our lives, we’ll be locked arms forever because I’m his first recruit and I’ll be the first one that ever believed in him as a head coach. We’ll always be there for each other and I’ll be there to help him throughout the way,” the South Suburban native went on to say. “Just meeting him as a person, the connections are always great. His father’s Doug Collins. Just the connections that you get to meet and see at Northwestern, it’s amazing. The people that you meet at Northwestern are just fabulous. Those connections, the people that you’re going to room with are going to be the CEOs and doctors of the world.”
It also helps that Law’s older sister, Simone, will be at nearby Loyola University on Chicago’s North Side for his freshman year. Simone Law is an acclaimed basketball player in her own right, nearly averaging a double-double as a sophomore forward last season and earning first-team all-Horizon League honors as the Ramblers’ leading scorer.
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“She’s a big role model in my life, so I think being only 15 minutes away from her is really something important,” said Law, who claims he first started to beat his sister in one-on-one battles when he was in eighth grade. “I can always go back to her and work out with her, or get her advice or something, because when you’re away, the pressures or struggles of college that you face, you’re not going to be able to get the same advice or the same home-cooked meal.”
The distance from home, Collins’ pedigree and Northwestern’s reputation as a school helped land Law, but while the coach wants the basketball program to gain a national profile, he understands that recruiting in his own backyard will ultimately be the reason or failure for success.
“I’m a Chicagoland basketball player, so I may be biased, but I've always felt that the players who come out of Chicago, it’s the most fertile ground for high school players in the country. Not only for the high school players that we have here in Chicago, but also you have great coaches, you have great programs and kids are very competitive, and basketball means a lot to them. It’s a great city for basketball and to have a school right in Chicago, we want to be able to recruit our home area. It’s so very important. Young men want to stay home, want to play in front of their families and friends, and get a chance to get a great education at a place like Northwestern,” explained Collins, who couldn't discuss Law specifically due to NCAA rules.
“Our staff, it’s our first year here. We’re trying to set the stage for the future of our program. We have a lot of scholarships to give and we’re out and about, and trying to provide an opportunity for guys to come in, play in a great conference like the Big Ten, be in Chicago and be at a world-class school like Northwestern. We have a young, energetic staff, we’re excited about our future, we think it’s going to be an exciting style for guys to want to play in and now it’s just up to us to find the guys that we’re really looking for.”
The son of former NBA coach and player Doug Collins, the former Glenbrook North High School star was a standout sharpshooter at Duke before beginning his coaching career at his alma mater. Getting mentored by both his father and Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski, he feels prepared to end Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament drought.
“I feel I’ve been mentored by the best, being around Coach K pretty much for the last, almost 20 years. He’s been like a second father to me. He’s taught me so much about what it means to be a coach at this level. It’s not just about the X’s and O’s. It’s about building the relationships, getting to know your players, having a deep level of trust that will carry out on the court when it matters most and he’s a great leader. I’ve tried to take notes along the way to replicate some of what he’s been able to do and I think the main thing that he’s tried to teach me as well is, ‘Be yourself. Take what I’ve taught you, take what others have taught you,’ and being around USA Basketball, being around great pro coaches and great pro players, you take a little bit from each coach and each person you’ve been around, and try to mold it into your own system and your own style and your own personality, and that’s what I’m going to try to do here with our program at Northwestern,” he explained.
“First, it’s going to take a collective effort, it’s going to take a lot of hard work and it’s going to take good players. I’ve always said it’s a player’s game. Basketball’s a player’s game and it’s my job as their coach to put them in positions to make plays and be players and to come together as a group, and if you get good players who can come together and play hard for one another and for each other, then usually good things are going to happen. That’s our goal here and hopefully that will be the tournament at some point, and even beyond. That’s our goal.
“Like I said when I first took over here and became the coach, my vision isn’t just to go to the tournament. My vision is for us to build a program and what I mean by that is year in and year out, you have teams that are respected within your conference, respected nationally and have a chance to compete at the highest level, and really, that’s my vision, to get us to the highest point where we feel that way and we feel that we have a program, we have standards, we have values and I’m in it for the long haul. That’s why I came here. It’s my hometown. I love this area, I love Chicago and I’m hoping to be here for a long, long time,” continued Collins.
“We’re excited about it. We’re in full force and we’re a together group, and we know that no one can do it alone. I can’t do it alone. You need people to help you and we feel like our team, with our staff and the players we have in the program—and in the future—are going to help us get to that point.”
That starts with Law, who’s already focused on selling the virtues to the program to AAU teammates like Marian Catholic point guard Tyler Ulis and St. Rita teammate Charles Matthews, among others in the area and across the country.
“Of course I think I’m going to bring in some people, just seeing me and my optimism and my enthusiasm. Just like Coach Collins did towards me. I’m going to promote the message of Northwestern to other kids and hopefully them seeing me commit there, it will get their bravery up and they’ll come, too,” said Law, who plans to study business and marketing in college. “There’s been some players, some teammates that I’m playing with, that I really like playing with, that Northwestern would be a great fit for them, so I think they should just come on over.”
That won’t be easy, as top prospects in Chicago have traditionally favored attending national powerhouses, just as Collins did when he was highly-touted recruit and Northwestern attempted to keep the Northshore native at home.
“They tried to recruit me and it was right in my backyard. It was 10 minutes from home and obviously it’s a great school, and somewhere that I considered. Didn’t end up coming here, but maybe if I knew then what I know now, maybe I would have ended up here. But it turned out pretty well for me,” he said. “When I grew up, I envisioned myself being a player. People always ask me, ‘Did you think you were going to be a coach?’ and really, when you’re a kid, you don’t really think about coaching. You’re in the backyard and you’re make-believing yourself in college, playing in the pros and I always wanted to be a player. But the one thing I did know is that I loved the game and I had a passion for basketball, and I always wanted to be around it, whether it was watching on TV, whether it was tagging along with my dad in gyms. His practices, his games, my own stuff. So once I couldn't play anymore, it was only natural that I would want to stay involved and give back to what’s been given to me and become a teacher of the game and a coach.”
Equipped with a staff that includes his own high school coach, Brian James — a long-time NBA assistant coach under Collins’ father, as well as an advance scout in the league — and two younger coaches with local ties, Northwestern alum Patrick Baldwin and South Suburban native Armon Gates, Collins believes the Wildcats’ collective qualities will help them be a factor on the local recruiting scene.
“Coach James brings a ton of experience to the table. He’s been in the NBA for the last 15 years, but people don’t realize as much is before that, for 18 years, he was a top high school coach in the state of Illinois. He coached me, but he coached at a number of other schools as well, so he’s great contacts throughout the state, he’s very well-respected in this area and he’s a heck of a basketball coach. I’m going to lean on him a lot. He’s a tremendous X-and-O tactician. He’s been around. He’s a little bit older, where I can lean on him in certain situations, good and bad, to help me on this journey as a young coach, and I couldn't be more thankful and grateful to have him with me because we’ve been together a lot. He’s like a part of my family and now for us to be taking on this challenge together, it’s going to be incredibly special,” Collins said.
“When I was looking around [to hire] a staff, I wanted a little bit of everything. I didn’t just want guys who just knew how to recruit or just know how to coach. I wanted guys who had the whole package and in Pat Baldwin, you have someone who’s a graduate of Northwestern University, who bleeds purple. He loves this place, he understands what makes this place successful and he’s hungry to see this place succeed at a high level. In Armon Gates, you have a tremendous player, who’s still young, he’s hungry and he’s kind of been on a fast track. He’s been at a couple schools, he’s energetic, he’s vibrant, he’s got a great personality, he’s an upbeat, positive guy and a good teacher and a good communicator.
“Those guys bring a lot of energy. They bring a lot of excitement. They’re hungry. They’re Chicago guys, they’re well respected in this area, they've recruited this area very well. But they’re also good basketball coaches,” he added. “I feel like we have a great staff, we have a great chemistry, the pieces really fit and now it’s just on us to get out and do the work. You've got to get out, you've got to work on all levels. In recruiting, on the court with your players and there’s no substitute for doing the hard work to get the job done.
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“Our staff is very much involved in the recruiting. It’s a team effort, in my eyes. It’s not just me, it’s not any of them individually. With every player we recruit, I want our recruits to know every one on our staff because they’re going to be touched by all of them throughout their courses of time here, while they’re at Northwestern. Obviously I’m the head coach and I’m going to be the one primarily responsible for what they do. But I want them to have great relationships with my assistant coaches. I want them to feel really comfortable with our whole staff and see our chemistry, and hopefully that will funnel into what’s going to be on the floor with our players, as well.”
While Collins is enthusiastic about Northwestern’s future, he also believes the present is bright with the return of two-year starting point guard David Sobolewski, then getting back scorer Drew Crawford — the Naperville product is the son of NBA referee and one of the best returning players in the conference — and wing JerShon Cobb from one-year absences, from injury and academic reasons, respectively.
“We’re excited about the season. We have a lot of veterans returning, a lot of guys who were injured last year, specifically Drew Crawford, back from his injury. He’ll be our best player, our senior leader. I think he has a chance to have an outstanding season this season and he’s really hungry and motivated to have a good year. Jershon Cobb will be back from a year off. We’ll have Dave Sobeleweski, who will be back as a junior — he started for two years — and I there’s a lot of emerging young talent. I like the young guys in our program. They’re working hard,” Collins said.
“They maybe haven’t had a ton of playing experience, but they’ll get their opportunity now. We have a tough schedule. It’s going to be a tough go, but we’re looking forward to it. We’re going to work hard and hopefully, our goal is every night we go out there, the other team knows that they’re going to have a battle on their hands because they’re going to play a hard-playing, tough-minded team.”
As for Law, he’s not resting on his laurels as the pioneer recruit that could spearhead Northwestern’s inroads to the city’s best players — the likes of Crawford and former star John Shurna are from the nearby suburbs, while city products like Lincoln Park High School graduate Michael “Juice” Thompson have been far and few between — most likely because his career at St. Rita, coached by former New York City high school coach and ex-DePaul assistant Gary DeCesare, has taken a similar trajectory.
“For the duration of the summer, I really just want to play, get myself better for the school year because the ultimate goal is to win the state [championship] and to put St. Rita on the map. St. Rita is almost a similar situation to Northwestern,” said Law of his high school, which has a loaded roster featuring himself, the aforementioned Matthews, one of the top rising juniors in the country, and other standouts. “The school is great academically, but basketball wasn’t really known. It was known as a football school and when Coach [Gary] DeCesare came, we really turned the culture around and it’s now a basketball power, so I think I can really do the same thing at Northwestern.”
And when he arrives in Evanston next fall, while he’ll focus on adding some bulk to his frame and rounding out his perimeter game, Law’s primary focus will be something that Collins will appreciate.
“To win. Individual accomplishments come with winning. It’s always more fun to win than it is to lose, so I think if I can just bring winning to Northwestern, I’ll be fine,” he said. “I think once we win and go to the tournament, the roof will blow off.”
Modest goals in most places, but for a program that doesn't have the best track record for winning, sometimes you’ve got to crawl before you walk. But in a few years, Collins, coaching Law—and other local stars, if he has his way—expects Northwestern basketball to be in a full-out sprint.