Streets gives back with Meanstreets

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Streets gives back with Meanstreets

Tai Streets arrived at a crossroads in his life in 2005. One of the most accomplished three-sport athletes in state history, perhaps the best since Centralia's legendary Dike Eddleman in the 1940s, Streets' six-year career in the NFL was over. What direction was he going to take?

Would you believe basketball? He grew up in Matteson and joined coach Ron Newquist's Wolverines, a south suburban AAU team, while he was attending Rich South in Richton Park.

"It was a totally different experience," Streets said. "It was something to do in the summer. I loved competing and I loved playing basketball. We played against the best players in the country. Our goal was to go to the state and national AAU tournaments. The nationals were in New Orleans. I liked basketball more than football at that time."

After transferring to Thornton of Harvey as a senior, he earned All-State recognition while playing on the Wildcats' 1995 team that ousted top-ranked Farragut and Kevin Garnett in the state quarterfinals but lost to Peoria Manual in the state final.

But football punched his ticket to college and the NFL. He was an All-Big Ten receiver at Michigan and caught two touchdown passes in the 1998 Rose Bowl as the Wolverines clinched a share of the national championship. As a senior, he was voted MVP on a team that was quarterbacked by Tom Brady.

Streets played for five years with the San Francisco 49ers as the fourth receiver behind Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes. Released after the 2003 season, he signed with the Detroit Lions. After one season, he retired.

"In 2005, my knees were banged up. I couldn't do it anymore, too much pain," Streets said.

Fortunately, he had laid a foundation for his future in 2001 when he co-founded with best friend Carlton Debose an AAU team known as the Wildcats. He had been persuaded to launch the project by Newquist, who had too many 14-and-under players and was looking for a way to give them more playing time. "Are you interested in coaching? You should pursue this," Newquist told Streets.

They started their program under the Wolverines umbrella. A year later, they decided to go on their own. They changed the name from Wildcats to Meanstreets, not wanting to think it was a Thornton team. Since then, the program, sponsored by Nike, has grown to involve over 250 boys and girls and has earned a national reputation.

"I wanted to give back," Streets said. "I want to help kids from our area become better people and get to college. It's tough for kids from Harvey to go to college. I wanted to show them that there is a way. That's the reason we did it, why we started our program. We're not trying to get anything out of it except a 'Thank you. You helped me to be a better man and to get me to college.' In our first year, 11 of 12 kids went on to get college degrees."

Streets, who also serves as an assistant on coach Troy Jackson's basketball team at Thornton, admits he is thinking about applying for a head coaching position at the high school level. But he doesn't want to give up his involvement with Meanstreets.

At first, he paid for the club's expenses out of his own pocket. Then Nike came on board in 2005. The advantages are obvious. "The Nike logo helps to get kids. They want to play for a Nike team. They pay for equipment and travel. We still have to raise funds but it helps to have Nike behind you," Streets said.

He admits, however, that the association with Nike and competition with other shoe companies "gets messy at times. Travel basketball is crazy, so many programs, so many tournaments," he said.

"People always are badmouthing AAU basketball on TV. Sure, there are slimy people out there. But don't put everyone under the same umbrella. We're not about that. We're about making kids better people. We get kids off the streets. We deal with kids from Harvey, Gary (Indiana) and Chicago who don't have the best opportunities. We help them to get out of their situation. All of us are in it to help kids."

He fights the AAU stigma all the time. A disciplinarian, he won't tolerate kids who don't do their schoolwork or have bad attitudes or lack character. He won't badmouth other programs. His approach is to talk to parents and tell them what he does and how he can improve their child's game and get him to college.

"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "We produce guys. Many critics say kids who participate in AAU aren't instructed in fundamentals, that coaches just toss the ball on the floor and let the kids run up and down. High school is regimented so they just want to run in the summer, right?

"Well, we try to teach them the proper way of doing things, as in college. We want to get them ready for college. They have to be accountable, be on time, abide by curfews on the road, attend meetings. On the court, we teach the mental part of the game, how to handle certain situations. Why did you do this? This is what you should have done.

"College coaches complain that high school kids aren't prepared, that they lack fundamentals. Our kids are college-ready, more than most programs. They won't be surprised at what happens in college."

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Here are some of Monday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Preview: Cubs look to bounce back vs. Giants tonight on CSN

White Sox fall to Diamondbacks in series opener

Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen

Should Blackhawks' next assistant coach be Joel Quenneville's choice?

How Bears are using veteran videos to school rookies on NFL way

Luis Robert the latest high-end acquisition for White Sox

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Carlos Rodon 'getting closer' but still without time frame for return

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

MMQB's Peter King's thoughts on Trubisky, Howard, White and the Bears offense

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”