Twenty members of Simeon Career Academy’s vaunted boys’ basketball team strolled into a Daley Center courtroom last week, their confident bearing perhaps not quite as sure as if stepping on a basketball court.
The task ahead, a mock trial exercise testing their ability to think and argue on their feet, might have seemed as daunting as a City League matchup, even if all in fun.
The young men were the guests of Cook County Judge Edward Washington II, who at the behest of Simeon coach Robert Smith, was hoping to plant a seed.
Because of their basketball prowess, all of these players will have an opportunity to go to college and get an education.
The challenge will be to make good use of that opportunity — “to have options when the ball stops bouncing,” as Smith explained it to Washington.
One option, Washington tried to impart, is to become a lawyer some day.
For Washington, who was raised by his divorced mom in K-Town on the West Side, that was not one of the known possibilities when he was their age. Now in his 14th year on the bench, he makes it his business to expose young African-Americans to careers in the law, particularly the less sexy civil side where most lawyers make their living.
“Usually, when we talk about the courts as it relates to young African-Americans, it’s the criminal courts,” said Washington, who normally hears lawsuits involving medical malpractice, product liability and personal injuries.
For Thursday’s exercise, he devised a mythical Simeon Constitutional Basketball Association and asked the players to debate a set of proposed league rules.
First, though, he gave up his judicial robe to 6-7 senior Ben Coupet, who allowed that he enjoyed the sense of power as he stepped up on the bench.
The proposed league rules were seemingly silly stuff such as: “No player in the league shall wear solid dark brown socks, shoes with a solid gold finish, diamond in-lays, polka dots, or that light up.” But each rule held a deeper meaning.
With most of the team filling the jury box and the rest seated at the lawyers’ tables, the players started off cautiously, then warmed to the task.
It seemed to make a difference when star player Zach Norvell, a senior shooting guard bound for Gonzaga, volunteered for his turns at the lectern.
Norvell was not at all impressed with a proposed rule to give a million-dollar signing bonus to any draft pick with a college degree.
Norvell, who hopes to follow Simeon grads Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker into the NBA, said a player with a college degree shouldn’t be rewarded any more than a “one and done” player who leaves school early.
While many of the players were impressive, Coach Smith and I agreed the stars this day were the chatty Bakari Simmons, son of former DePaul and NBA player Bobby Simmons, and junior guard Evan Gilyard.
Gilyard was particularly animated arguing against the rule about loud socks and shoes, making the case that players should be able to express their individuality.
As he spoke, I looked down and noticed Gilyard was wearing lime green socks and a pair of very loud Kevin Durant kicks that were half plaid/half polka dot.
By the end, everyone was vying for a turn to make their point, as Washington introduced them to the lawyer’s art of being able to argue either side of a question.
In his 12 years at Simeon, Smith has won six state championships, and this year’s squad is again one of the pre-season favorites.
During that time, six players have gone on to receive college degrees, with others still in college, Smith said. There are no lawyers in that group, not yet at least.
The players naturally dream of following in the footsteps of Rose and Parker, whose opposite paths speak to the challenges — Rose getting into college only after somebody improperly changed his grades while Parker’s academic prowess won him a spot at Duke.
Afterward, as the team chowed down on pizza, two of the young men told me they are interested in becoming lawyers.
“I like to fight for my people,” said Lester Land, a 6-5 senior forward.
Marcus Walker, the team manager, said he wants to practice law because “I’ve been seeing innocent people getting charged with a crime.”
Those are worthy motivations for any young lawyer.