The beating heart of Orr Academy High School’s boys basketball team — the defending Class 2A state champions who recently won the prestigious Proviso West Holiday Tournament with a 77-62 victory over Whitney Young — is the squad’s sense of family, say the program’s coaches. 

“We’re coaches, fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles to these kids,” said Carlos Enriquez, who coaches the school’s sophomore team, during a recent interview. 

Orr associate coach Phil Gibson, who has coached at the West Side school nestled between West Garfield Park and Humboldt Park for a decade, said the program was considered an afterthought on the Chicago high school basketball landscape when he first arrived. 

Gibson said that years of hard work, along with having the good fortune of landing talented players, are the reasons for the team’s recent success.

“God gave us a couple of good kids,” said Gibson, referencing, in particular, standouts Louis Adams and Marlon Jones. “We get a group of kids every year, so we started from the bottom and worked our way up to a state championship.”

Enriquez said each member of the coaching staff brings a unique quality and the players, around 50 in total — from the freshman to senior level — have embraced the program’s disciplined approach. 

The players, the coaches said, must master the gam’s nuances, freshmen must learn the fundamentals, particularly on defense — from executing zone defense to playing man-to-man. 

Off the court, Gibson said, the players understand, now more than ever, that life is bigger than basketball, which, in the grand scheme of things, is really only a metaphor. 

What’s more important than executing zone defense? Handling constant pressures of success — the adversity, the challenges presented by notoriety and the expectation of being a champion. 

“[The players] have to do the right thing all the time, even when things aren’t going their way; you still have to be a man and do things the right way,” said Gibson. “You can’t let one mistake cost you your whole life.”

Gibson said that the players are highly respected among their peers in school and among the younger kids in the community. 

He said that the entire community rallied behind the team last season and have continued to do so this year. 

“Everybody here looks up to y’all; you’re a role model whether you want to be one or not and you have to view it as that and you have to make sure you are making the right steps on and off the court and not get yourself in no trouble,” said Gibson, relaying the message he often gives his young players. “You have to let other kids know that it’s possible for them, too.” 

The development of the players into young men is not lost in the throes of competition, either. For instance, if any player has a single “F” on their weekly grade report, they are not allowed to play. 

And the discipline is in the details. Players, coaches insist, must own a belt, according to Enriquez. 

“We’re coaches, fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles to these kids,” said Enriquez. “You have to be a responsible young men at home and in the building. Chicago is a distraction in and of itself; we keep the kids focused on practice, games and everything else.” 

Gibson exuded pride over watching his players mature over the years. He called the Spartan program a “true family”. 

“It’s a great thing seeing the kids grow,” he said. “When you see the freshmen, they don’t know too much, they’re very young and then when you see them all the way to their senior year, they’re like men almost. All of our kids go to college. Most of them have graduated from college and now they all come back to the program.”