For two decades, Jerry L. Tokars coached high school basketball at Chicago’s De La Salle Institute.
He also went to mass every day. So it wasn’t unusual to see a rosary in his hand while out on the court, according to his son.
“He was definitely a faithful man,” Jerry F. Tokars said.
The elder Mr. Tokars, 85, died Sunday morning, according to his son, who said the celebrated basketball coach had been hospitalized in recent weeks for congestive heart failure.
Mr. Tokars grew up on the South Side and graduated from De La Salle in 1951. Five years later, he returned to teach and coach. He took over the basketball program from Ed Riska in 1961, led the team until 1983 and continued teaching there until 1996.
His De La Salle Meteors finished third in the 1977 Class AA state tournament and defeated future NBA star Isiah Thomas and St. Joseph in the sectionals in 1979 when Albert “Moochie” Williams — a 5-foot-7 kid Thomas had taught to shoot the previous summer — swished a 20-footer with seconds left in the game. Thomas once called it “the most disappointing loss I ever had in basketball.”
Because he was at the school for so long, some knew Mr. Tokars as “Mr. De La Salle,” but he later also coached at Leo and Richards high schools and Moraine Valley Community College.
Along the way, Mr. Tokars nurtured notable players including LaRue Martin — the Loyola University Chicago grad who was the No. 1 pick in the 1972 NBA draft — and “a good shot” in the “lightweight division” named Richard M. Daley, whose nickname was “The Mayor.”
“My philosophy was play to the best of your ability,” Tokars once told a reporter. “The very best you can, and play together. By getting that across, the results came naturally. We didn’t always have big stars, but we had great teams.”
According to his son, Mr. Tokars used basketball to shape the lives of young athletes, teaching them to “win with class” and “lose with class.” The son was among those young athletes. He said his father shared life lessons before practice and that, years later, many of his players would keep in touch through calls and birthday visits.
Off the court, Mr. Tokars was an avid volunteer who loved to sing at church and once ran “all kinds of programs for the kids” during summers for the Chicago Ridge park district, according to his son.
“That’s just how he was,” the son said. “He liked to make sure kids were having fun.”
Mr. Tokars was reportedly offered assistant coaching positions at colleges in the mid-1960s but chose to remain at De La Salle.
The coach once said, “If you’re looking to be rich, don’t get into coaching. But if you’re looking for riches in other ways, this is the career.”
He is survived by his wife Kathryn, five children and four stepchildren. His first wife, Eileen, died in 1985.
A wake is scheduled for 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday, at Curley Funeral Home in Chicago Ridge. A funeral is being planned for Thursday at St. Gerald Parish in Oak Lawn, but a time has not yet been set.