By: Tina Jenkins Bell
Morgan Park High School’s new boys’ basketball coach Chris Gardner has a plan. A family man who is married to wife Tia and father to one-year old daughter Dylan, Coach Gardner says he has a commitment to rear teams of responsible young men who understand their greatness does not start nor end on a basketball court. He said, “I want people to know our guys have potential academically and as contributors to the community. I want my players to know that too; their value surpasses their skills in basketball.”
Coach Gardner is also committed to winning games and, having played semi-professionally in Iran and here in the United States, he obviously loves the basketball. But, he’s a balanced blend of an educator, coach, and family man, and so he is serious about transforming boys to men who know their worth on and off the court.
Are you Christopher, Christian or just Chris?
Legally I’m Christopher. Mostly, I’m just Chris. The kids call me Coach CG, a nickname that kind of stuck from my playing days. At home, I’m Chris, and I’m Christopher when I’m in trouble.
Are you a resident of the Beverly/Morgan Park community?
Actually, my wife and I are in the process of closing on a home in Beverly, so I will be in the area. I grew up in Washington Heights.
Tell me about your new position.
Morgan Park High School is such a high-profile program with so many state championships and a national name. I don’t take that lightly. I humbly accept the challenge of maintaining that name and having a standard of my own and raising it to a new level. As for responsibilities, I’ll oversee the boys basketball program, going from seventh to twelfth grade. Obviously, you know we want to win ball games and compete at the highest level and aspire to win state championships. But, more importantly, I want these kids to be champions of the classroom and champions of the community to go along with that. It will be my job to oversee that. More importantly, it will be my job to teach the guys life lessons through the game of basketball in a team and family atmosphere, and to raise these young boys into young men and help them through that process.
Those attributes and responsibilities have traditionally been the job a coach, right?
A coach wears a lot of hats. Sometimes, indirectly you can be mentors, big brothers, father figures, mediators, counselors, disciplinarians… sometimes we’re the only male figure in the lives of these players from teenagers until they become grown. With that, you want to make sure, on a daily basis, you’re a positive influence in their lives. Once you have that, things get a little easier from a basketball standpoint because they trust you. The trust factor is a big thing these days. When I was growing up, it was always a “respect your elders” or a run to the wall and ask questions later. But now, kids have to be able to trust you before they run to that wall. I understand that. I take on that challenge for every kid.
When does the season begin?
Games will start in November. It will be a condensed season this year, from November to February. A full season is from November to March.
What are some of your goals for this school year?
The number one goal this year, when school starts virtually and still having to figure out how to conduct workouts, is to maintain safety during COVID. I’ve already gotten thermometers. Masks are on the way. I even got them spray bottles to keep in their pockets to have hand sanitizer on hand. I’m working on buying a machine to spray down equipment in the gym and creating “walk-through” zones so that athletes can work out in their own safety bubbles. So, when we start our open gyms, practices, try-outs and things of that nature, I want to do everything within my power to make sure these kids operate in a COVID-free environment.
The second part to that is I want to make sure all of our athletes have a laptop and access to the Internet. I want to know they’re online getting their classes and instruction and submitting their work. I think right now the academics are more important than anything because the truth of the matter is that if this COVID-thing gets worse it’s possible the season could be cancelled. So, at the very least, at the forefront should be their academics and safety before we can remotely talk about a game.
What precautions do you plan to take during games?
I’m not sure if there will be spectators, but I have a plan (if there are no spectators) to socially distance athletes, either by having them sit six feet apart in the bleachers on spacing the chairs that way. I will be working with our athletic director and Dr. Skanes to ensure that everything is safe for us and other teams.
Have any of your goals changed in light of COVID?
No. The goals have not changed. The priorities might have changed a bit because safety, security, and their academics are going to come first. Let’s say the season is cancelled, I still have to help kids get into college, and to ensure that they are extra–recruitable from the academic side of things. Across the country, we’re asking these kids to learn remotely. Their parents may not be home as they work, so we’ve got to make sure they are retaining and learning in their online sessions. I’ve proposed to have an athletic study table. Once their log in requirement hours are over, they must conduct that (the study table) before we do workouts every day. This would be for all players, from 7th through 12.
With ten years-experience, what are some of your greatest achievements?
Seeing Adam Miller named player of the year and “Mr. Basketball.” I am very excited for him and what he will accomplish at the University of Illinois. Prior to that, at Kankakee Community College, I was there for four years. Each of those years a Junior College All American was produced. More importantly, more than 90% of those kids received scholarships to attend four-year colleges, where they would not have to pay to attend school. At Morgan Park High School, we want our kids to go to college — through scholarships based on academics, athletics, or their operational knowledge of basketball.
What was your greatest challenge? My last year at one community college where I had twelve good guys but not all were committed to the classroom. Due to academic issues, we finished the year with only seven guys. Our team played in a national tournament despite that.
Part of the issue was the minimal support from that particular college, but this time around I’ll have full support from MPHS administration, athletic director, and other staff. That relationship is very important, and I will do my best to do my part every single day.
But challenges are a fact of life. Every kid is going to have a difficult situation to navigate through those tough times. Helping them grow up especially in this time of COVID and social justice…how to do things, what to say, what not to say. Guiding them through all of this is just part of the territory of being a coach.