James Foster developed his basketball skills in the Chicago Public League, but he describes himself as a farmer when it comes to coaching.
Foster is executive director of Impact Basketball, a nonprofit traveling program for area boys and girls, co-founded with Don Soucek in 1999, has always emphasized a grass-roots philosophy.
"We've got to groom our players from the bottom up," Foster said. "That's why I'll always coach the lower levels of Impact because that's where the foundation is laid. I think that's very important.
"The biggest gratification I get is when you see the light bulb go off in their heads. They get a sense of confidence. It helps them believe in themselves. That's what I really like about coaching."
This past season, Impact had approximately 130 players on its 11 boys and girls teams, ranging from third grade through Under-17. Many athletes eventually attend OPRF and Fenwick high schools.
This year there were boys teams for third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh (two teams) and eighth (two teams) grades and the U-15 and U-17 age groups. There was one combined girls team with seventh- and eighth-graders.
Impact's fifth-grade boys, elite seventh- and eighth-grade boys and girls teams each won at least three tournaments this season.
Twelve coaches are listed on the team's website. Foster, who splits coaching time between the boys and girls teams, also juggles jobs in real estate and at O'Hare Airport.
"I do have a great passion for it, but we also have coaches who have passion because they all have the vision and are all people of God," Foster said.
"I'm very happy with the level of talent in the program this year," he added. "We have more potential elite players than we have ever had."
The family atmosphere that Impact has tried to nurture showed this past season under tragic circumstances. Foster's parents were displaced in October after their home burned down. Foster's father died April 7.
"The support from the organization got me through. I'm talking about the coaches and families of Impact. It's a family within an organization," Foster said.
"I really feel Impact is very representative of what Oak Park is. When there are times of need, they reflect Oak Park and I think that's one of the reasons I moved out here."
Derrick Robinson has been coaching with Impact for roughly 12 years and has served as director of operations the past six. This past season, he coached the fifth-grade and eighth-grade developmental boys and assisted Foster with the girls.
"We just believe in the kids and love the sport and that's what really drives us. When [Foster and I] met, we just hit it off. We were right for each other and he trusted me," Robinson recalled.
"The main thing for me is it's not just a basketball program. We try not to only teach basketball skills but life lessons. That's what attracted me. I think that differentiates us somewhat. It's not just play ball, go home."
Foster and Soucek began with a girls team that included Foster's daughters, Jasmine and Jonay, and Soucek's daughter. Originally known as the Lady Huskies, the team welcomed all players whether they were planning to attend OPRF, Fenwick or Trinity.
The girls selected the current name of Impact as an acronym: Individuals Making Positive Alternative Choices Together.
Impact soon added more girls teams, although Foster was on his own for a couple of years after Soucek stopped coaching. After another local traveling program ceased operations, Impact added boys teams in 2006.
Foster said Impact uses the "European principle" of emphasizing training over playing actual games. Using a 1-2-3 skills approach, players are trained in all fundamentals, regardless of height or projected positions. Team tryouts are held in late February.
Impact also welcomes recommendations from an auxiliary council of 12-14 randomly-selected parents who serve no more than two years.
"The parents help govern," Foster said. "We'll actually implement their ideas for the program. If they make sense and it makes us a better organization, then we'll do them."
Current college basketball players who played for Impact at some point include former OPRF standouts Gabe Levin (Long Beach State) and Ka'Darryl Bell (Bradley), Proviso East graduate Keith Carter (Valparaiso) and Seton Academy graduate Jordan Foster (South Carolina-Aiken). Former women's collegiate athletes with Impact ties are OPRF graduate Jonay Foster (Johns Hopkins, basketball) and Kendal Dirkin (Fairfield) and Olivia Wilks (Grinnell), who played volleyball.
"I'm very proud we have a lot of players who went on to high school and college and reach back and say hi to me. I'm very happy with that," Foster said.
"Basketball is just a small part of their life. We stress to the kids to get academic scholarships over sports. Basketball is what we do, but it's not what we are."
Robinson played basketball for Whitney Young and had Division I offers but chose to not play and attend Western Michigan. He went on to graduate school at Northwestern for finance and marketing.
"The majority [of our players] are not going to play D-1 or go professional so they have to have other life skills that make them successful," Robinson said.
Foster's father was an assistant varsity boys basketball coach in Arkansas. Foster played for Farragut in the legendary Red-West Division and at Northeastern Illinois.
"I moved out to Oak Park to do things better and for my kids. I wanted my kids to be in a diverse environment," he said. "It's something we really strive to maintain in Impact. God has always spoken to me and he needs more leaders and wants me to help facilitate that in the youth. Suburban kids need those same things."
This year's season gets under way July 21 with the Impact Dribbling Camp, followed by Shooting Camp. At the start of October, Impact Skill Development Sessions will be every Saturday at OPRF until tryouts.
"With those fundamentals, we just drive it into their heads because that's how their confidence grows, especially at the young levels," Robinson said. "When they get that confidence, the skills that come just jump off the chart. Then we're able to introduce new concepts to them and we've proven that over the years."