How Chicago Hoops Express Navigated the Pandemic

In early August, Chicago Hoops Express (CHE) was one of two programs in its area to have stayed out of the gym.

A combination of coronavirus and circumstance kept the club off the court, said CHE Program Director Jerald Davis. Beyond the obvious threat of COVID-19, all CHE coaches are married with families and some have close connections to relatives with pre-existing conditions, adding to the complexity of the situation, he explained.

“We had to make a decision, and that decision impacted many of the kids’ potential college dreams,” Davis said.

The pandemic had made operating a basketball program much harder. Fortunately for Davis, he had a number of helpful parents among his ranks.

One parent, a lawyer, provided Davis with information on potential legal ramifications. Other parents, first responders, gave stories of what they were seeing. Another parent, an internal medicine doctor, sent an email in April detailing the effect the virus was having in her sphere.

Other factors affected CHE’s decision. The spouse of a former Chicago Hoops Express coach passed away after contracting the coronavirus, and another former coach was hospitalized for three months and had to relearned how to walk, Davis said, perhaps only saved by being young and in shape. Davis watched as his daughter had her exchange to Brazil through the Filbright Program cancelled, and he saw how his step daughter, a Division-I basketball player, was impacted.

Photo courtesy of Jerald Davis.

At the start of the pandemic, it was difficult for Davis to grapple with the situation. As program director, it was his decision to open or close the program. But with what unfolded around him, he realized his surroundings were making a collective choice.

“Everything around our situation said, ‘Step back, don’t do this,’” Davis said. “(My assistant coaches) got me by when I was feeling like I had to make this decision for all these individuals.”

In choosing to stay off the court, Chicago Hoops Express refunded $20,000 in fees, Davis said, in part to clear any possible misconceptions of a financial motivation. A zoom call was held with each family and the decision was talked through, with an option provided: if the family wanted to move on from Chicago Hoops Express, the program promised no ill will and help finding a new team that fit.

No one took Chicago Hoops Express up on the offer.

“We have not had any defections, and we have not had any parents who have come to us and given us any sense of pressure to have to play in tournaments,” Davis said.

A unified front makes dealing with these uncertain times more tolerable, but it doesn’t solve the issue. Navigating a pandemic is never simple.

Rather than meet in the gym, Chicago Hoops Express held conditioning workout at a park with everyone maintain their distance. It helped keep the kids in shape and focused on something positive and productive, but it couldn’t replace gym time.

That was one adaptation Chicago Hoops Express made. Another was to find as much footage of its players as it could, including high school tape, and send comprehensive film out to coaches en masse. It’s worked to a large degree – even without playing all spring and summer, many of CHE’s kids have been fielding offers – but that can only do so much. Nothing replicates playing.

“I’m not going to say not playing didn’t hurt us. I believe it hurt us,” Davis said. “I think our team was pretty good, a couple of them would have blown up. But we’ve been able to sustain some energy and make sure that college coaches at least have them on their radar. Some of them might not yet have offers, but at least from the footage we sent, those college coaches have committed to putting that player on their list and trying to get out to see them as soon as there is a high school season, if there is one.”

In mid-August, Chicago Hoops Express returned to the gym for the first time since early in 2020. Masks were required at its high school open gyms, and seventh and eighth graders began practicing for a winter season. Some sense of normalcy has returned, and it’s been an ease on Davis’s mind.

Davis also knows he was lucky. Not every program was in the same position his was. For some, there was less of a choice between playing or not.

“I’ve talked to some individuals in the minority community where many of those kids, there’s no way out if they don’t get a college scholarship,” Davis explained. “For those program directors, they had to deal with the reality of, these kids are living in areas where there’s nothing to do, and this was their lifetime and what kept them mentally going.”

Chicago Hoops Express did what it felt was right for itself, Davis said, and didn’t let what anyone else did affect it.

“We never paid much attention to someone else’s decision or questioned it,” he said. “We respected the fact that each program had to make its decision based on its reasoning.”

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