City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year: Thornton’s Tai Streets

The Wildcats not only won 32 games but also Thanksgiving and Christmas tournament titles along the way.

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Thornton coach Tai Streets talks to his players as they play Kankakee.

Thornton coach Tai Streets talks to his players as they play Kankakee.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

Thornton coach Tai Streets is the City/Suburban Hoops Report 2019-2020 Coach of the Year.

But before we dig into why he’s so deserving, a quick history lesson: Streets was one of the greatest overall high school athletes in state history while at Rich South and Thornton.

With size, talent and exemplifying the true definition of an athletic marvel, Streets was a highly-rated wide receiver and All-American prep football player.

As a basketball player his Thornton team upset Kevin Garnett, Ronnie Fields and Farragut in the 1995 state quarterfinals, with Streets, an all-stater and State Finals all-tournament team selection, leading the way.

And, oh, Streets was a state long jump champ in track and a third-place medalist in the 4 x 400 meter relay.

Following a standout career at Michigan, where he caught passes from Tom Brady, Streets was a sixth-round NFL Draft pick. He played six seasons in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions.

If you were familiar with the athletic career of Tai Streets, whether you watched or followed it at all, there would have been an appreciation for how he played, competed and led a team.

To appreciate and understand Streets as a coach, you first have to appreciate and understand Streets as an athlete.

Former Thornton coach Rocky Hill, now the head coach at Thornridge, remembers seeing firsthand how Streets changed the direction of his own program. Hill was elevated to the varsity head job after leading the sophomore group the year before to a 25-0 record.

Already a south suburban star in the mid-1990s, Streets made the move from Rich South to Thornton for his senior year. The impact was instant.

“When he walked in the door he raised the whole aura of our program immediately,” says Hill. “A lot of guys would have been jealous when a guy like that walks through the door, but not with Tai. He was so unselfish and led in such a positive way.

“I’ve been doing this for 40-some years, and I’ve never seen a player who put you in the winner’s circle by doing all the little things that he did to help your team win. He was an absolute winner.”

There was always the athleticism, a true, God-given athletic ability he possessed. But Streets combined the physical gifts with an undeniable spirit and passion to compete. And that’s what has led him to be the coach he is today with a 32-1 team that mirrors himself.

“I honestly did think all that we did this year was possible,” says Streets. “The makeup and mentality of this team is what made me believe that coming into the season. You are never sure how it plays out, but I did think it could be a special year.”

The Wildcats not only won 32 games but also Thanksgiving and Christmas tournament titles along the way. They shared a Southland Conference title with Bloom and advanced to a sectional title game matchup with Marian Catholic before the coronavirus pulled the plug on a memorable season.

Thornton coach Tai Streets as the clock winds down on the Wildcats’ victory over Homewood-Flossmoor.

Thornton coach Tai Streets as the clock winds down on the Wildcats’ victory over Homewood-Flossmoor.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

But Streets did this without stars, big names or a bunch of Division I basketball players and prospects. He did it without the preseason hype. Thornton was ranked in the preseason, but it’s a team that appeared –– from the outside ––to have its limits.

“That Thornton team this year was the most over-achieving Thornton team I’ve ever seen,” Hill points out. “They didn’t have any superstars. They had kids who would go out and play selfless basketball and played at a level so hard that you couldn’t run anything.”

The individual makeup and whatever-it-takes mentality is what has driven Streets for decades as an athlete and coach. He will challenge you while cheering you. He will push you while pulling for you.

“His competitive nature definitely rubbed off on us,” says DJ Williams, the senior standout who personified all of what a Tai Streets-coached player would look like with how he played and competed. “He’s always up. He’s never down. Whether it’s jumping into a competitive drill in practice to get us going or still coaching and demanding the most out of us when we are up by 30 points. He’s amazing to be around.”

Streets is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to motivation, expectations and the fire he coaches with. He is demanding in terms of what he believes in as a coach and how the game should be played.

“People may say I’m crazy as hell, but that’s my expectation,” says Streets of his passion and competitive nature. “They know what my mentality is and what the expectations are. We don’t try to go overboard, but we all know there are expectations and accountability that we have to meet. That was how I was taught when I was younger and what I believe in, and it’s how I coach.”

Williams, a state-sheet-stuffer headed to play football at Murray State next year, knows where the credit goes, calling his coach the team’s “true leader” and “heart of the team.”

“He’s the one responsible for who and what we were as a team,” says Williams. “He’s the one who brought us together, who got us all on the same page, who got us to believe, bond together like brothers and play without an ego.”

The appreciation the players felt for Streets runs deep. Williams emphasized what his coach has meant to the players outside of basketball. Streets would look out for his players in a way that went beyond a coach, Williams said, providing basics for players and going above and beyond for the less fortunate players on the team.

“Honestly, he’s the best coach off the floor,” says Williams. “He is really a different kind of coach. He made sure players were fed before games and never went hungry.”

What was so satisfying to Streets was not the glitzy record and high ranking at the end of the season. The whole “this team bought in” is an often overused cliché, but that “buying in” and “meeting expectations” are what satisfied Streets the most as the season played out.

“The mentality these players brought and the toughness and competitiveness they played with fit what I like and how I like to coach,” Streets points out. “I just loved that. They worked so hard and were a joy to coach.”

There will always be memories of the 32 wins, which is just the eighth time in the long, illustrious history of Thornton basketball that the program has reached the 30-win plateau. There will be moments, including beating Bloom in front of a raucous home crowd, that will live for a lifetime. The rise of DJ Williams as the ultimate defensive stopper will be savored.

The rise up the rankings, the support of the community, the sectional win over H-F, the state tournament anticipation … None of it will be forgotten.

But neither will how it all ended. Streets and every member of that team believed they could win it all –– the sectional, the super-sectional, the whole doggone thing.

“We were rolling, had momentum and they had completely bought in,” says Streets of where his team was at when the plug was pulled. “This was their year. They lived and fought for this. To see them all balling, crying when I talked to them was tough. I’ve never seen anything like it before. This is going to be hard to get over, and it will hurt for a long time and be talked about forever. That shows how much high school basketball means.”

Streets built a team that inspired him and all the fans in Harvey. They were tough kids with a combination of football players who could play basketball and basketball players who matched the toughness of the football players.

“I love this team,” the proud coach says. “They liked each other and didn’t care who received the recognition or the shine. They played together. These guys loved to compete. Every single possession.”

Just like Tai Streets taught and instilled in them.

City/Suburban Hoops Report Coach of the Year Winners

2020: Tai Streets, Thornton

2019: Mike Oliver, Curie

2018: Mike Ellis, Evanston

2017: Mike Healy, Wheaton South

2016: Gene Heidkamp, Benet

2015: Phil Ralston, Geneva

2014: Tom Livatino, Loyola

2013: Mike Taylor, Marian Catholic

2012: Robert Smith, Simeon

2011: Scott Miller, Glenbard East

2010: Gene Heidkamp, Benet

2009: Ron Ashlaw, Waukegan

2008: John Chappetto, Richards

2007: Pat Ambrose, Stevenson

2006: Gordie Kerkman, West Aurora

2005: David Weber, Glenbrook North

2004: Roy Condotti, Homewood-Flossmoor

2003: Bob Curran, Thornwood

2002: Rick Malnati, New Trier

2001: Conte Stamas, Lyons

2000: Dave Lohrke, Glenbard South

1999: Gene Pingatore, St. Joseph

1998: Mark Lindo Naperville North

1997: Gordie Kerkman, West Aurora

1996: Rocky Hill, Thornton

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