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By Brad Spencer
Team chemistry is a vital component to playing basketball. The give-and-go doesn't work if someone doesn't go. The pick-and-roll doesn't work if no one rolls. The backdoor pass ends up in the gymnasium's hallway if someone doesn't make a bee-line to the hoop. And don't even get us started about how a defense cannot flourish without group unity. Despite the many individual superstars the game has produced, basketball is ultimately built on teamwork.
That's one of the reasons Oak Parker Wendell Gustafson and his son, Alex, an incoming senior on the OPRF High School boys basketball team, have created a local AAU hoops club team called Illinois Huskies. The other reason is they are not particularly fond of the high-priced elite AAU club teams snatching up players from all over the area.
"We really want this to be an alternative to the 'all-about-me' clubs that currently exist," says Wendell, a senior-living facilities management consultant. "It's also a great opportunity for local players to keep playing together for the remainder of July, following the high school summer league obligations."
The 17-and-under team is primarily made up of returning seniors and entirely made up of players in the OPRF basketball program. The team is also being skippered by a familiar face in OPRF graduate and former Huskies player Aaron Levin, who will be a junior at Grinnell College in the fall. Levin knows all too well the difficult dynamics of elite AAU club hoops.
"I remember playing against a Mac Irvin Fire AAU club team and they actually flew in a kid from a different state to play in a tournament," says Levin. "Many of the clubs actually recruit you, and then you go in and tryout and if you make the team there's a hefty fee parents are obligated to pay usually ranging from $1,000 to $1,200. It's blown up to something that can potentially have consequences, as coaches work to exploit the kids.
"What we want to do here is bring together a local group that can keep playing throughout the month of July and build upon that cohesiveness that will need to be there for the regular season come winter," he adds. "This will be an extension of what they've been working on in their high school program."
But money is an issue. Gustafson says he has already put in around $350 of his own money to get things off the ground. He is soliciting $50 from each player to compete in upcoming tournaments. But he's looking for financial backing from sponsors to take care of the bulk of the expenses, such as tournament entry fees. So far Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest has shown interest and Robinson's Ribs said they'd participate in a fundraiser.
"We're trying our best to drum up support for this not-for-profit club, and we hope to have success," says Gustafson.
Illinois Huskies, likely to consist of such OPRF players as 6-foot-8-inch Thomas Ross, TK Mattox (6-7), Alex Gustafson and Jakari Cammon, depending upon whether it conflicts with his football obligations, among others, will compete in the North American Youth Sports Summer Tournament at Judson University in Elgin on July 7 and 8.
OPRF head coach Matt Maloney, who cannot coach or be involved with the club due to IHSA regulations, says he's glad someone is taking the time to create such a local club team at the high school level.
"I think this will be a great experience since they all know each other and have already ran the same offenses and defenses. Since Aaron played for me and was a team captain, he knows the programs expectations and much of what we run," says Maloney, who is allowed to be a fan and watch games from the bleachers. He added he already plans to attend a couple of tournaments.
"These guys need a place to play and we want to provide it," says Levin, who aspires to make coaching a career after college. "The goal is to build the chemistry and keep the camaraderie alive."
The team won the North American Youth Sports Summer Tournament at Judson University in Elgin last week by going 5-1.