Doing it the right way

By Joe Henricksen

While there are plenty of AAU programs and personalities that have been criticized over the years for having their own agendas and motives, there are several that continue to do it the right way. The Rising Stars program in the western suburbs, not to be confused with the highly-successful Joy of the Game’s Rising Stars AAU teams based in Deerfield, is one of them.

Rising Stars founder Todd Wolfe, who starred at Arlington Heights High School and played four years at Michigan State in the 1980s, has put together a program that emphasizes all that is right with player development.

What is also impressive is the staff Wolfe has assembled, with many having Division I and professional experience. A total of 18 coaches are on board with some kind of college basketball experience.

“Part of it is getting the kids to see, hear and understand some of our own experiences,” says David Gray, who played at Wyoming and is now a big part of the Rising Stars program as a coach.

The staff that is in place has plenty of experience to draw from.

In addition to Wolfe, who was a team captain at Michigan State under coach Jud Heathcote, and Gray, the staff includes Andrew Amaya, Tim Szatko and Rodney Davis among several others. Amaya was an all-stater at Walther Lutheran when he helped lead his team to a third-place Class A finish in 1988. He then went on and starred at Southern Illinois and played in the NBA for both the Vancouver Grizzlies and Washington Bullets. Davis was a star in high school at East Aurora and collegiately at Northern Illinois, where he was a two-time NIU team MVP. Szatko, after a terrific career at Naperville Central, went on to become the Patriot League Player of the Year while playing at Holy Cross.

While the staff conducts various camps, classes and programs to choose from for players of all ages, Wolfe also has the Illinois Attack club basketball team that competes in the AAU tournaments in the spring and summer.

The City/Suburban Hoops Report recently spent a night observing one of the many programs Rising Stars, Inc. puts together and came away awfully impressed. The Rising Stars University is a program designed for high school players, combining basketball and life skills.

The focus includes just about everything there is to basketball, from player development to individual development. Each Tuesday night at Calvary Church gymnasium in Naperville, there is actually a classroom element from 7:00 – 7:30 p.m., with guest speakers brought in to speak on various topics. The speakers have included an athletic trainer speaking on strength and conditioning, a recruiting evaluator on the recruiting process and what is looked for in a player, a Division I assistant athletic director talking about the student-athlete, and other speakers specializing on topics such as goal setting, leadership and peer pressure.

“It’s life tools meeting basketball,” says Gray of the Rising Stars University concept. “That’s what Rising Stars University is about.”

Following the classroom setting, players then break into smaller groups to work on individual skills, team concepts and game situations with the coaches. Those skills, concepts and situations are then put to practice in a structured scrimmage with various strategies applied in the instructional scrimmage. There is also structured scrimmages on Saturdays as well.

There is a definite old school philosophy that is present, with plenty of teaching and structure. There is constant coaching and instruction. And if players are late, they aren’t allowed in the doors. Structure and accountability are stressed.

“That is our goal, to get these kids to be coachable, to establish a work ethic, be humble and build leadership skills,” says Gray.

Players stand out at Rising Stars U

While watching the Rising Stars University program one night recently, a couple of prospects stood out — Waubonsie Valley senior Jelani Johnson and Newark sophomore Kyle Anderson. Johnson, who just recently committed to Western Illinois and coach Jim Molinari, has always been a player that has been more impressive playing for his high school team and in structured settings than on the AAU circuit.

Anderson is a no-namer in recruiting circles, due mostly to the fact he plays for tiny Newark High School. But Anderson, a 6-2 shooting guard, is one to keep an eye on over the next few years in the Class of 2011 as he’s opened the eyes of the Hoops Report a few times this summer and fall.

For more information or to subscribe to the City/Suburban Hoops Report, now in its 14th year of publication, call (630)-408-6709 or email

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