Louise Irvin’s home became an incubator for fledgling basketball stars, always filled with laughter, Motown music, homework advice — and a bottomless supply of food for hungry teenage athletes.
She fed grits and bacon-and-egg sandwiches to Antoine Walker and Bobby Simmons when they were still just dreaming of playing in the NBA one day. A young Tim Hardaway Sr. used to gobble up her apples and oranges. She tutored another up-and-comer, Juwan Howard, on his homework.
And back when the Washington Wizards’ Jabari Parker won a high school athletic award, “He came over and gave her the trophy,” said her son Lance Irvin, head men’s basketball coach at Chicago State University.
Around 109th and Parnell on the South Side, “It was the house to be in,” according to Jason C. Palmer, a friend who is an associate editor for the website referee.com.
Mrs. Irvin, 78, the “First Lady” of the nationally renowned Mac Irvin Fire youth basketball club, died last Sunday at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn. She had heart trouble and experienced complications after hip-replacement surgery, according to Lance Irvin.
“She just got tired,” he said.
Parker was tapped to speak at her funeral Saturday, along with retired Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons star Mark Aguirre, a Chicago Public League high school standout at Westinghouse on the West Side who went on to DePaul University before turning pro.
“There’s only a few people that I really consider pure at heart, and Miss Irvin was one of those people,” said Parker, the former Simeon high school star. “As a kid, I just loved how she always was motivating and that she knew that I could do big things with the talent and gifts that I was given through God. I’m very saddened that I won’t be able to see her any more. But I’m happy to know that she’ll be in heaven and that she’ll be next to her husband, Mr. Irvin. And I’m grateful that I had a chance to know her.”
Mrs. Irvin’s husband McGlother “Mac” Irvin, who died in 2011, founded the dominant prep club basketball program that bears his name. Sponsored by Nike, it showcases some of the finest talent in the country and keeps high school stars playing into the summer.
Mrs. Irvin handled all of the not-so-little things for the club. She helped arrange team trips, booked hotels, managed the budget and made sure kids had proper uniforms.
“She was the one keeping things running,” Palmer said.
She’d be in the stands for all six of her children’s high school games and at many Mac Irvin Fire games. Out of respect, others would clear a front-row spot in the bleachers for her. From there, she’d keep watch for any weakness on the opposing team and offer advice to the Mac Irvin players.
More than courtside strategy, she made an impact with the way she helped kids believe in themselves, people who knew her said.
When Lance was a seventh-grader at Sutherland grade school, one of his teachers predicted he was going to lose the spelling bee. He came home that night and told his mother.
“We’re going to study,” he remembers she told him, “and you’re going to win.”
For three hours, they drilled together. The next morning, she sent him off with this: “Do your best. Good things are going to happen.”
They did, he said: He won.
Each afternoon, his school bus would drop him about five blocks from the family’s house. He said that on that day, “I felt so much pride, I ran all the way home and told her.”
“She really was a good mother,” he said.
When her son Michael struggled with his jump shot, she took him to their backyard court for pointers.
“She could dribble. She could shoot,” Lance Irvin said.
“She was a phenomenal woman,” said Linnae Harper, a WNBA point guard with the Chicago Sky who started playing for the Mac Irvin Fire when she was a sixth-grader at Robert A. Black Magnet High School.
“She always had open arms for all of us,” said Harper, who went on to play at Whitney Young, the University of Kentucky and Ohio State before going pro. “She always would point out just keeping your grades up.”
Harper said Mrs. Irvin also reminded kids there was more to life besides basketball, telling them: “Keep going no matter what happens. Things will work out the way it should.”
When promising young athletes were agonizing over whether to leave school and try to turn pro, she’d tell them: “The pros are going to be there. If you become an NBA player, you’re going to have to become an adult.”
“She was quite vocal on issues. . . especially fair education and job opportunities,” Palmer said. “She would often say, ‘We need more than just basketball players in our community. We need doctors, politicians, teachers and scientists.’ ”
Born Louise Gillespie, she grew up in Maywood, where she attended Washington grade school and played softball.
At 14, she wrote to the Chicago Defender, looking for pen pals “from all over the United States.”
She went to Proviso East High School in Maywood, where a younger cousin, Jim Brewer, was a star, going on to play in the NBA.
Her mother Rosa cleaned houses in Glen Ellyn and other suburbs. Rosa Gillespie “taught me and my brothers and sisters how to clean houses, windows,” Lance Irvin said.
Young Louise’s father Arthur worked for the American Can Company and drove a blue fix-it truck around, repairing anything from vacuums to dryers.
After high school, she attended Howard University and Southern Illinois University, according to her son. She landed jobs with Illinois Bell and as a community worker with the University of Illinois’ extension program.
She met her future husband at a party in Maywood. They were married from 1965 until his death in 2011.
The Irvins’ house often resounded with the music of the Temptations and Gladys Knight & the Pips. They enjoyed dancing and hosting Friday night games of bid whist, Lance Irvin said.
Mrs. Irvin was a fan of the Detroit Pistons because she valued their “toughness.” And she liked doing crossword puzzles and reading romance novels.
Mrs. Irvin is also survived by her daughter Cynthia, who works in sports administration for the Chicago Public Schools; sons Byron, an NBA agent; McGlother “Mac,” who works with the Mac Irvin Fire; Michael, CEO of the Mac Irvin Fire; and Nick, head boys basketball coach at Morgan Park High School; a sister, Irma Montgomery; brother Alfred; and 12 grandchildren.
A wake for Mrs. Irvin will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at West Point Missionary Baptist Church, 3566 S. Cottage Grove Ave., followed by her funeral there at 11 a.m. Saturday. She will be buried at Lincoln Cemetery next to her husband.