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By all accounts, the hiring of Marlo Finner at Kenwood was a terrific one.
Whether it’s Kenwood’s vision or my personal opinion, Finner is an ideal coach for a program brimming with potential.
Finner, the former Simeon assistant and U-High head coach, is a class act. The former prep star at Phillips who went on to play at Missouri, is well liked, respected and is an effective leader and hands-on when it comes to player development.
As a bonus, Finner walks into a Kenwood basketball situation that’s stable and has a strong foundation. A sense of discipline has been instilled in this program, with a group of talented players in the pipeline for the new head coach to win with now.
Which brings us to the coach who Finner succeeds –– Jim Maley.
After three seasons as head coach, Maley was abruptly fired by Kenwood administration following the 2013-2014 basketball season.
Unfortunately, Kenwood administration did not return any calls for this story after repeated attempts to reach them.
On March 6, Maley was called in and told he would not be retained as head varsity basketball coach after spending three seasons building the program. According to Maley, the reason he was given for his firing was that “the program’s record was not improving.”
That’s as far as Maley would comment publicly about the specifics.
“Many people have contacted me asking about what in the world happened and have speculated that there must be something else going on behind the scenes,” says Maley. “I want them to know that there is nothing going on on my side of the equation. I can’t speak for the other side, but I know supporters in the Kenwood basketball community certainly have their ideas.”
Kenwood did enjoy success under Maley. This is a program that has bounced between the Public League’s Blue and Red Divisions over the past couple of decades. There have been some winning seasons, sure, but those winning records came with Kenwood playing primarily in the inferior Blue Division.
Prior to Maley’s arrival, Kenwood compiled a 55-96 record overall in the last six seasons it played in the Public League’s Red Division.
In his first season as head coach, Kenwood went 16-9 overall and 8-1 in the Red-Central, even battling league powerhouse Curie down-to-the-wire in defeat. He followed it up with records of 15-12 and 15-13.
The current varsity is a team oozing with young talent, including the promising sophomore combination of Nick Robinson and Zion Morgan. The freshman team won the school’s first-ever city championship in basketball. The future was bright and the program was headed in the right direction.
Maley put together a winning record, even while staying true to his program’s required grade-point average (2.3 during the season and 2.5 out of season) that was higher than the Chicago Public School’s 2.0 GPA requirement. A player sitting out here and there for failing to meet Kenwood’s higher academic criteria may have cost Maley and Kenwood a few games. It didn’t matter as Maley refused to forgo academics and discipline for wins.
He ran a clean program. He dedicated himself to raising the level and profile of the program, both on and off the court. And he instilled discipline and expectations –– in the classroom, as citizens and as players –– which is why the dismissal was so puzzling.
Every one of Maley’s players graduated and moved on to college. Under Maley, the team’s grade-point average and behavior of players in the program improved.
During the 2010-2011 year the the players on the team averaged 60 class tardies with seven total suspensions from school. The team’s grade-point average was at 2.1.
In one year, after incorporating a Code of Conduct discipline and academic report, Maley saw suspensions drop from seven to just one player suspension; the tardies dropped from 60 to seven; the team grade-point average increased from 2.1 to 2.7. The following year the GPA improved to 3.2, with this last year’s GPA at 2.9.
While winning, being competitive and showing progress in a basketball program is important, doing so while achieving in the classroom, improving as players and growing as young men should be the prototype for any high school coach. That’s the ideal, well-rounded goal. What part of that wasn’t being met at Kenwood under Maley?
I was told one story that epitomized what Maley and the Kenwood program was about.
After Maley's first year on the job, one of the top 8th grade players in the entire city, who was enrolled in Kenwood's Academic Center, was being courted by the Public League powers. When Maley sat down with the mother and was told of the situation and all the promises that were being made, Maley stuck to his Kenwood protocol. He didn't make any promises or guarantees of playing time.
What Maley did offer was this: Her son would be held accountable for his behavior and grades on and off the court, even if he didn't like it or if the team lost because of it. If that was something the mother and son were interested in, he should remain at Kenwood. If not, Maley said he understood.
When reminded now of that sequence of events, Maley realizes he won't be able to keep up his end of the promise after being removed as head coach.
"Like the highly intelligent person she [the mother] is, I heard a day later that her son would be staying at Kenwood," says Maley. "I am very sad I won't be able to keep my word to her."
Following Maley’s dismissal, I was contacted by numerous parents of past and current Kenwood players and their parents who were in full support of Maley and disheartened by his dismissal. To a person, they all exuded confidence in the direction the program was heading and appreciative of what Maley had done for their son.
“Their player/coach relationship was extremely positive and productive,” said Natalie Robinson, the mother of Nick Robinson, the program’s highest profile player, in regard to the connection her son and coach Maley shared. “Under the guidance of coach Maley, I have watched Nicholas grow and mature as a basketball player and as a young man. Nicholas continually described coach Maley as an excellent coach. We were surprised and dismayed by the decision to fire Jim Maley.”
Trina Coleman’s son, Joell Davis, was a senior this past season on the Kenwood basketball team and played under Maley for the past two seasons. Although her son will be graduating and moving on, Coleman says she intended to continue to support the basketball program under Maley. Now she’s not so sure.
Coleman, who says Maley was a coach who helped develop her son, “both physically and mentally,” is invested in the program due to the kids in the program and what she saw Maley put into it.
“This was a coach that worked with kids and held them accountable for their behavior, who did not accept discipline issues on or off the court, who opened the gym at 6 a.m. for his players and other students, who personally raised money for the program,” says Coleman. “This is a coach who constantly checked players’ grades to ensure what happened at Curie never happened at Kenwood. This is a coach that made sure students attended study hall so that their grades would not suffer and would improve.”
There were other stories told, letters and emails written from players and parents in support of a coach who tried to do things the right way. The dialogue sounded like a broken record –– a coach pouring his heart and soul into a basketball program and looking out for the players within it. But in the end, even that didn’t matter to the Kenwood administration.
After the Curie academic debacle this past season and the negative headlines it brought, along with all the conversation regarding basketball vs. academics over the years in the Chicago Public League, you would hope lessons have been learned. Maybe, in time, priorities and accountability will change.
However, the firing of Maley shows that the key words in that thought process is “in time.”
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport
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