By James Kay
On June 17, OPRF High School announced that Phil Gary will take over as its next boys basketball head coach. Gary played basketball at the school for four years and has since moved on to compete at the collegiate and professional level. Since retiring as a player, he has been coaching at Walter Payton College Prep over the last six years (head coach there last season) and now finds himself running the program he was groomed in.
The day after he was got the new position, Gary and Sports Editor James Kay discussed his past and what he hopes his future will hold.
When you saw there was a head coaching vacancy at OPRF, what was going through your mind?
The first thing I thought was, "Oh my god, this is like a dream come true." I went back to Oak Park as a freshman coach when I first started coaching and I remember back then having the goal to someday become the head coach. So when I saw it was open, I had to gather my thoughts because I couldn't believe this great opportunity was out there.
I'm sure you and former OPRF basketball coach Matt Maloney have been in contact since you got the position. Did he have any advice for you?
He reached out to me as well as my former coaches, Al Allen and Nick Sakellaris. They have helped mold me into the man I am today.
Having played for Al Allen, is there anything you took from his coaching style that you have incorporated into the way you handle things on the sidelines?
Definitely. He always wanted us to work hard and be consistent at practice because it translates to the game. He would tell us he can't help us during the game and that it's on us as the players. In terms of what I have taken from him as a coach, it's just his message of trying to be as perfect as possible in practice because it'll translate over to the game — and have fun. That's the main goal. Honestly, when you pick up any sport whether it's basketball, football or baseball it's important to make sure [the players] are having fun because at the end of the day, they're kids.
You and Iman Shumpert were a lethal backcourt tandem back in the day. I was reading an old recap from 2007 about how Iman and his 17 points per game was missing in your final game as a Huskie. Do you feel like this is an opportunity to take care of unfinished business?
Oh, absolutely. We feel like we had a good chance of making it far in the playoffs that year. [Shumpert] broke his elbow and that really put a damper on our playoff hopes. Anyone who has ever put on an OPRF uniform has had the goal every year to go downstate and win. There's always unfinished business until you actually get to play on the last day.
What are your fondest memories going through OPRF's program?
I had fun on the court and off the court. The relationships I've built with coaches and players is probably the most important thing. [Some of them] were my best men at my wedding and I was the best man at their weddings and you become really close. They become your brothers and, for coaches, it is like the players are your sons. So it's like one big family and I call [OPRF] my home now.
You played at Malcolm X Junior College before earning a scholarship to play at Florida International University before playing in India and what is now the NBA's G-League. You're a solid example of how there's more than the traditional pathway to achieve your dreams of playing at the professional level. Is that one of one of your strengths as a coach, along with developing positive relationships with the players that you alluded to in the press release?
Absolutely. I always tell the kids I took the tougher and almost impossible route to ultimately get to my goal. It is something I wouldn't trade and everybody has a different story or a different route to go. I took it another way but the one thing I did was I worked extremely hard for everything I got and it made it so much better when I made it and achieved my dream of playing Division I basketball. That was my goal. Everyone has dreams about playing in the NBA but my biggest goal was to play D-I basketball and I just worked my butt off and got to where I wanted to be. My path was different but I still got there.
Taking on a new head coaching position is difficult under normal circumstances but with COVID-19 still a part of our lives as well as the protests around police brutality and racial equity, is there anything you are going to do differently than you would if you were joining a program under normal circumstances?
Even with the interview process, everything has been different. Not being able to meet them face to face was a bit awkward [laughs]. But I definitely want to get with the players as quickly as possible and just let them know that, yes, we want to resume basketball, but there are bigger things happening in the world right now. It will be good to sit down and listen to what they think about what is happening in the rest of the world. I also want to pick their brains since I don't know everything as a coach and I always want feedback from the players and coaches. I want them to understand that when I listen, I am doing it to understand them and where they are coming from.
OPRF is going through a transition phase with Matt Maloney stepping down, losing two of last year's leading scorers, and seniors like Justin Cross and Kyren Gardner graduating. Is this an opportunity to mold the program into what you want it to be and see how the newcomers on the team complement players like Rashaad Trice, Anthony Coleman and Demetrius Dortch?
It's funny you mention those three names because I coached them when they were fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders. I am familiar with a lot of guys on the team and it is definitely an opportunity for us to see how the new guys will blend in with the returning players. They all play hard and that's half the battle these days. Once we get out on the floor, a lot of things will fall into place more. But these kids work hard and that's all I can ask for as a coach.
What are your goals for the program?
Of course it is to go as far as we can in the playoffs every year, but it is also to build a program that is fair to the players. We want to teach them accountability and make sure that when they leave after four years at [OPRF], they will be better young men. That is every coach's dream.
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