When Donnie Boyce was hired to rejuvenate the proud Proviso East basketball program in 2011, the former Pirates basketball star’s first order of business was to surround himself with Proviso East people.
Boyce wanted a coaching staff he trusted, who embraced the school and program, who knew and understood the community and the sometimes complex politics that came with the job. Most importantly, he wanted a staff of Proviso East people that could connect and relate to the student-athlete and help them grow as players and young men.
When Boyce was hired, he first retained Kenny Davis from the previous coaching staff, the star guard who led the Pirates to a state title and 33-0 record in 1992. He reached out and added Sherell Ford, a good friend he played and starred with and won a state championship with in 1991. He hired Cedric McCullough, another former standout Proviso East player from the late 1980s.
Together, they all had big visions and goals for the school they attended and graduated from decades earlier.
“We wanted to take the program to the next level and see where that would take us all,” says McCullough. “Donnie came to me and said, ‘Lets do this –– you, me and Sherell,’ and be a great team together and help these kids.”
It wasn’t as if the program was totally broken. From Andrew Johnson to Troy Jackson to David Chatman, there was a high-level of success –– at least it would be considered high-level success for 99 percent of high school programs in Illinois. In the 18 years those three coaches were at the Maywood school, the Pirates won 20-plus games 11 times while capturing 13 regional championships and three sectional titles.
But this is Proviso East. And under the previous three coaches before Johnson, Jackson and Chatman ––Tom Millikin (1959-1969), Glenn Whittenberg (1970-1983) and Bill Hitt (1983-1993) –– Proviso East was making multiple trips to state and winning state championships.
The natives were getting restless. And these natives are a proud and passionate group of basketball fans with high expectations in a tough area where prep hoops is a beacon of hope. They believed Proviso East, one of the highest profile high school basketball programs in the state, should again be competing for state championships.
Boyce and his “Proviso East boys” promptly went 32-1 in year one. In the first three years on the job, Boyce’s Pirates won 84 games, two sectional championships and brought home two state trophies –– a state runner-up finish in 2012 and a fourth-place finish in 2013.
“We knew we were fortunate, being able to walk into the situation we were walking into with the talent that was in place,” said McCullough of a team that featured a bevy of talent in the pipeline, including Keith Carter, Paris Burns, Paris Lee, Sterling Brown, Brandon Jenkins and Jevon Carter.
In addition to the winning under Boyce, the culture was back in place. Boyce was demanding, yet still endeared himself to his players. There were expectations on and off the floor. Boyce kept any in-house turmoil in check and even suspended star player Sterling Brown in 2012, just prior to playing nationally-ranked Lone Peak (Utah).
The suspension didn’t come as a result of breaking the school’s code of conduct or any serious off-the-court issue; it was simply because Boyce didn’t like the way Brown handled himself on the court during a game. Boyce wanted to send a message to his entire team and let his senior leader know he expected more from him.
The three-year run of success, expectations and discipline stabilized the program and raised the profile of the powerful Proviso East basketball program again. But things unraveled quickly last season.
Boyce was suspended in December when cell phone video showed him intervening in the middle of a student altercation while working as a school security guard. The school board ultimately fired Boyce in February.
The incident, however, was investigated by the Department of Children and Family Services and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, and no criminal charges were filed.
Proviso East’s season was a mess. There were endless distractions. There was talk of a player boycott, with some wanting to walk out in support of Boyce and others wanting to play out their senior year. It led to an uncharacteristic 13-14 record and fourth-place finish in the West Suburban Gold last year.
The season was followed by what you would call a muddled, disorganized mess of an offseason –– with no head coach in place the entire time.
The past eight months included the basketball program losing a sponsorship with the Jordan Brand. Players didn’t have as much access to the school gym as they have had in the past. And to top it off, the Pirates officially started the season last Monday, the first day of basketball practice, still without knowing who their head coach would be.
For a place like Proviso East, that’s not just puzzling; it’s unfathomable and an abomination.
There were rumblings, along with plenty of player and community support, that Boyce would be re-hired as head coach. Theresa Kelly was the only board member to vote against Boyce’s dismissal last February. She is now the school board president and encouraged Boyce to reapply.
By late Tuesday night, however, it became official that the Boyce era was over as McCullough was named the Pirates coach.
“I walk away with my head held high and proud of what we accomplished,” said Boyce upon finally realizing he would not be back at the Maywood school. “I feel bad for the kids and community for what they’ve gone through. But I will always support Proviso East. I’m an alum and I think we were able to restore some of the pride back into the program.”
Now it’s up to McCullough to help turn the page and distance the program from an ugly chapter of Proviso East basketball, even though it appears the administration has set up any new coach for failure.
“It’s very difficult,” McCullough said of the immediate job ahead of him.
In addition to Boyce being gone, McCullough will be without assistants Sherell Ford and Kenny Davis. He begins the season with a shorthanded coaching staff, with only longtime time assistant coach Tom Jeske remaining on staff.
“We all had faith that Donnie would be back,” says McCullough. “Those are big shoes to fill, and I’m not Donnie Boyce. Donnie’s energy brought out the best in these kids.”
With the obstacles they’ve had to endure, McCullough says his team will adopt a “me against the world” mantra going forward. There is talent in place with the emergence of junior Tyler Chisom and the return of athletic senior guard Antonio Williams, to go along with seniors Willie Greenwood and Tyjuan Johnson.
McCullough knows his players can’t live life in reverse. They’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way and need to move forward. But there will also be plenty of familiarity, McCullough says, both with how he hopes his team competes and how they look when they take the floor.
“I’m here to lift his [Boyce] legacy, to play legendary Proviso East and Donnie Boyce style of basketball,” says McCullough, whose strongest coaching traits in the program have been in player development. “It’s my program and Donnie may be gone, but his presence, his passion and style of play is still here. We’ll play hard for Donnie.”
McCullough, who has served as the interim head coach since Boyce’s suspension last December, also wants to continue to build up the young men in the program. Aside from the wins and losses, there was an expectation the coaching staff placed on themselves over the past four years.
“We’re here to help these kids, to help these student-athletes to become better men in life,” says McCullough. “That means taking care of grades and the academic side of things, discipline and doing things the right way. We have to get these kids academically ready and continue to get these kids to college.”
Despite the tumultuous times and all the uncertainty over the past year, McCullough is appreciative of the opportunity ahead of him. When it’s all said and done he takes over a program that has won four state championships and gone to state 11 different times. It’s a legendary program with an iconic list of memorable players, including Boyce, Ford, Glenn Rivers, Jim Brewer, Dee Brown, Michael Finley, Shannon Brown and Sterling Brown.
“It’s still Proviso East, a dream job situation for me that just happened to fall in my lap,” says McCullough. “I’m excited. Now, with our backs against the wall, it’s time for the kids to fight through this adversity.”
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