Former Illini, Mount Carmel star Tracy Abrams now a great mentor

Tracy Abrams launched Chicago Positive Impact, a mentorship program for local grade-school kids.

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Tracy Abrams (left) with Chicago Positive Impact.

Tracy Abrams (left) with Chicago Positive Impact.


When it comes to perseverance, positivity and the ability to lead, Tracy Abrams has those traits in abundance.

He had them while starring for the Mount Carmel basketball team a decade ago. He had them as a guard at Illinois, where he made 138 starts, scored 1,191 points and fought his way back from two devastating season-ending injuries, tearing an ACL one year and blowing out his Achilles the next.

If Abrams is going to be there for you, no matter the circumstances you’ve been dealt or the hardships you’re facing, he’s bringing a bundle of positivity and feel-good energy

The youth in Chicago and the suburbs can be thankful for that.

With what he describes as a “passion for working with kids,” Abrams launched Chicago Positive Impact, a mentorship program, a little over a year ago. He has become a hands-on mentor for kids between the third and eighth grade.

Abrams has partnered with Chicago Public Schools, as well as four schools in south suburban Dolton, to provide a positive avenue for kids to travel as they go through the trials that too often beset them.

The name — Chicago Positive Impact — couldn’t be more fitting for an Abrams-led organization. The born-and-raised South Sider is pure Chicago. With an upbeat personality, he has been making an impact on lives all his life.

“Tracy is always smiling, full of joy,” said former Illinois assistant coach Paris Parham, who was with Abrams in Champaign for five years. “It’s no surprise he’s a leader of young men because that’s what he’s always been — a big-time leader. I saw that when I first met him as a 13-year-old kid at [Chicago’s] Washington Park, and I saw that as a coach in his years at Illinois.’’

Abrams, who played professionally overseas after his career at Illinois, uses basketball as a tool within the program. He says the fun, the goals and the dreams kids have with basketball is a way for him to connect and relate. But his focus is on a much bigger picture when it comes to today’s youth and the impact of his program.

Mount Carmel’s Tracy Abrams drives against Seton in 2009.

Mount Carmel’s Tracy Abrams drives against Seton in 2009.

Sun-Times file photo

“It’s a platform to help kids grow, to learn life skills and to grow as leaders,” said Abrams, who earned three degrees at Illinois, including two master’s degrees. “The biggest part of the program is simply teaching life and leadership skills.”

Working directly in the schools, where Abrams will spend two or three days a week with students, Chicago Positive Impact is a 15-week program. Abrams is a role model and lends an ear to listen, for sure, but the program is equipped with materials and videos that become enrichment sessions for the kids involved. Life skills, goal-setting and decision-making are the focal points, while characteristics such as integrity and leadership are emphasized.

. While there is a curriculum that supports the program, it’s Abrams who remains the force behind all that is right with Chicago Positive Impact. And it’s the kids in the program who invigorate Abrams.

“These kids drive me,” Abrams said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat anything because what some of these kids are growing up in and growing up around is tough, really tough. There is so much violence in the city. They know someone who has been killed. They know someone who is in jail. I see what it is doing to our youth. I see the impact.”

And Abrams wants to curtail that pernicious influence. He’s excited about the results he has witnessed once the kids have gone through the program.

“Being there weekly with these kids, I see what the program can do for them,” he said. “I see what being a good source of energy and regular positivity can do for them. I see what staying away from negativity can do. You see the impact you have on people with just your positivity. It can help change a life.”

Abrams is always trying to find ways to help, to give back and reach more kids. He held a basketball camp this summer, but it was limited to 50 campers because of COVID-19 restrictions. This Sunday, through his program, there will be a Back to School Grab n’ Go Rally at 60th and Cottage Grove from 1-4 p.m. Kids will receive free school supplies, including backpacks, and food, games and prizes will be provided.

. Abrams had his own important mentor while growing up. Clay Hutchinson, a recently retired Chicago police officer, took Abrams under his wing after meeting him during the summer before Abrams began the seventh grade.

Hutchinson started a youth program while working in the Chicago Police Department’s 3rd District. The program was centered around basketball, first taking place at Jackson Park, then the University of Chicago. More than 100 kids would show up on Saturday at 11 a.m. and play until 5 or 6 p.m. Abrams came every week.

Then, coincidentally, Hutchinson found himself in Abrams’ school two to three times a week as part of a school police program. So he sought out the kid he saw each Saturday in the basketball program.

Illinois guard Tracy Abrams (13) tries to dribble past Iowa forward Nicholas Baer (51) in 2017.

Illinois guard Tracy Abrams (13) tries to dribble past Iowa forward Nicholas Baer (51) in 2017.

AP Photos

“Where Tracy lived was a rough area, a tough community,” Hutchinson said. “We wanted to keep him involved and engaged. His family was tight-knit, but it was a blessing that his parents were open to me mentoring him.”

The two hit it off, and the relationship grew. Basketball was the starting point, but Hutchinson said they just “organically became close,” ultimately becoming part of each other’s family.

“He became a big-brother figure to my younger kids,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson remembers the typical “NBA talks” he had with Abrams, the ones every young, heavily-hyped basketball-playing teen in Chicago shares when discussing the future. But what Hutchinson also recalls is the rare maturity and pragmatic mindset that Abrams had at a young age.

“He was always much wiser than the kids his age,” Hutchinson said.

He remembers Abrams telling him that he wanted to follow in his footsteps — not as a police officer but as someone who gave back to the community in his own way and on his own time.

“He said to me, ‘I want to do a program like you’re doing when I get older,’ ” Hutchinson said. “He said he wanted to do something to give back to the community when he could. That was when he was probably in eighth grade. But he saw how much it meant to kids and how much it helped.”

Hutchinson said that even at a young age Abrams had foresight and aspired to help people.

Abrams listened in on the conversations Hutchinson and other police volunteers had with kids in the neighborhood during all those Saturdays. He believes Abrams watched and witnessed up close what a program like that did for kids — and what it did for him. It was the impetus for the road Abrams chose to take as an adult.

“He saw how we connected and the impact our relationship had on both of us,” Hutchinson said. “He’s like a son to me, and we wouldn’t have met if not for that program. So I think he saw the importance of that. It was a rough area that he navigated his way through, and he was really good at it. But I think he saw how others around him weren’t so fortunate.”

Abrams experienced firsthand what a mentor like Hutchinson, who he calls “a true role model,” can do for a young kid looking for direction.

“I had a mentor who was such a big help in my life,” Abrams said. “He definitely influenced me in such a positive way. But whether a kid has a single parent, both parents or the parenting is lacking, we want to give kids an extra support system. We need that in our communities.”

The start of this unprecedented school year has provided a bit of a roadblock for Abrams. With Chicago Public Schools in remote learning, Abrams is now putting together a virtual program that he hopes to have up and running soon.

Abrams, 28, has a team of 10 who work for him as he looks to expand, with the ultimate goal of having a space — an actual facility — for kids in their neighborhood. His vision is to provide an outlet for kids, a place where they can dream big while enhancing the chances of making those dreams a reality.

“Whether it’s basketball or music or art or whatever it is they are interested in, having a place to provide opportunities for them, to grow those interests, that is the ultimate goal,” Abrams said. “I want to continue to expand. For a kid who loves art and has dreams of using art in some way, to be able to provide what they need in that area, to be able to maximize that interest, to help them be their very best self . . . that’s what I would like to provide.”

Always looking to help, Abrams will continue to foster relationships with the youth of Chicago and show an understanding of the struggles and challenges kids face. But he will also show there’s a way to handle the adversity with some friendly, nurturing help. He’s proof of that.

“He’s always loved basketball, but he truly has always loved helping people more,” Hutchinson said. “He’s just an amazing person.”

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