Tracy Abrams: 'It Takes A Village'

Tracy Abrams: 'It Takes A Village'

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CHICAGO – Tracy Abrams Jr. crosses the street as he pulls a Mount Carmel sweatshirt hood over his shaved head.

Off in the distance, a police siren cries in the mid-February chill. He's leaving basketball practice at the fenced-in high school, a teen's haven in an otherwise rough neighborhood on the city's South Side.

"Thanks for coming by."

That's one of your first impressions of Tracy. Thanks for coming by.

Come to find out, first impressions are his second skill, playing hoops being the first. Mount Carmel's president and principal, the Rev. Carl Markelz, had a sharp memory of his first experience with Tracy, a 15-year-old freshman at the time.

"The way I met him was interesting. I was at a basketball game, and I didn't really know him as a freshman last year," Markelz said. "It was during the varsity game; Tracy was in the JV game.

"That first encounter, he came over and sat right next to me. He just came over and sat down and we struck up a conversation. You wouldn't necessarily expect a freshman to come and sit by the principal."

The principal asked the freshman about his classes.

"I just found him to be ... it's hard for me to describe. There was something that was a little bit different than other freshmen," Markelz said. "You can tell he's been raised right. He knows the difference between right and wrong. You get a sense there's a confidence that he has; there's a maturity about him."

Perhaps, you think, because he was raised by so many.

"It takes a village," said John Jackson, a Mount Carmel assistant coach who befriended Tracy when he was 12. "A kid like Tracy, someone with all the talent in the world, just a great kid, there's too many pitfalls to leave it to chance."

***

Seems like all of those around him remember their first brush with Tracy. Clay Hutchinson, a police officer in the city, recalled the encounter to the day.

"I remember the first time I met him. It was a Friday night tournament in our basketball program at Jackson Park," Hutchinson said. "He had come in to play with the older guys. I said, 'This kid's talented.' I thought he was 17 years old."

Still without a formal introduction, Hutchinson, who goes simply by "Hutch," returned later to find Tracy hooping with a more youthful set.

"A couple days later, he was playing with the younger kids, kids that are 12 years old. He took it to the basket, knocked a kid over and got an and-one," he said. "I stopped the game and said, 'This kid can't play with these kids. He's older.'

"The kids were all yelling, 'This kid's only in the sixth grade!' I said to Tracy, 'How old are you, young man?' He said, 'I'm 12.' "

First impressions with Hutch and Jackson tipped the dominoes on Tracy's basketball career, the singular milestone being the 6-foot point guard's oral commitment to Illinois in December. Basketball is the center of Tracy's life – "He eats, breathes, sleeps, drinks, lives basketball," Jackson said – and he's afforded the chance to focus on hoops because he's the center of a protective circle.

The adults in his life built a wall of support around Tracy, each of them apparently with similar intentions and certainly cautious to let outsiders in. For a reporter, the wall serves as a sports information department, OK'ing interview requests and clarifying quotes. For college recruiters, like those from Illinois, the circle meant finding the right influence to befriend.

One of the self-appointed guardians is Jackson, a basketball coach by trade and one of Tracy's many father figures, according to Tracy.

"I've got a lot of father figures," he said with a smile, listing three coaches and a police officer among them. His father, Tracy Abrams Sr., is in the picture and attends home games at Mount Carmel, Tracy said.

Jackson rattled off 12 adults with a say in Tracy's upbringing. They range from his mom, Felicia Sales, to elementary school administrators like Cynthia Miller, the principal at Chicago's Fiske School, to Mount Carmel coach Mike Flaherty to Hutch to the folks at HighSight, a nonprofit program that provides mentoring and tutoring for kids from the inner city.

For Tracy, the circle is a source of comfort, though he's known nothing different.

"It's always been like that, for as long as I can remember," he said. "They keep me on the right path."

"He'll have 15 people at our games, family and people that know him," Flaherty said. "It's his own cheering section."

After Hutch's first encounter with Tracy, the police officer visited Fiske School for a follow-up. Tracy asked Hutch, "Are you going to come back to my school?"

"I said, 'Yes, of course I'll come back,' " Hutch said.

But most of the time Tracy doesn't request the help. It's almost as if the help requests him. One of his English teachers at Mount Carmel recently called Flaherty to ask the coach if Tracy could stay in her class for the next trimester.

"She said he was a positive influence in class," Flaherty recalled.

Tracy goes to HighSight up to three times weekly. He's required to attend the mentoring program as part of the financial aid agreement that allows him to attend Mount Carmel. "There is a financial aid connection that he obviously qualified for," said Markelz, a Mount Carmel administrator for 13 years.

"The HighSight program offers opportunities to inner-city youth that would like to come to a school like Mount Carmel if their parents can't afford it. They have to meet the criteria," Jackson said. "This is not a situation where a kid is off the street and he can play basketball and he can just come to a school like Mount Carmel."

On HighSight days, Tracy takes public transportation – "It's about an hour train ride," Jackson said – or catches a lift from Hutch, Jackson or one of the other Mount Carmel coaches.

The circle sees time alone as an opportunity to provide guidance.

"If we're driving up there, we'll talk about all things. I know he's going to get the basketball. In terms of basketball, the kid always rises to the top," Hutch said. "But I use situations that happen in everyday life as a form of education. What happened with Chris Brown (a pop star recently arrested for assault), we talked about that. Michael Vick, we talked about that."

Tracy arrives at Mount Carmel at 7:45. School's out at 2:30. Practice starts at 2:45. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it's off to HighSight. He gets home around 8:30 or 9.

"Then I eat and sleep," Tracy said.

Those close to Tracy confirm his chilled-out demeanor is the norm. He speaks softly, barely above a whisper, and prefers the shadows to public attention. That makes sense, seeing as how he ended what would have been a high-profile recruitment two years before he can sign a national letter of intent, in November 2010.

"I haven't always been this way. Actually, when I was little I had kind of a bad attitude. I didn't really have a good attitude," he said. "Whenever we lost a game, I didn't always handle it well and I would get upset. I've gotten better about it, and I've tried to have a better attitude for the next game. Now I've got an attitude where I know I have to take responsibility for what happens."

As Tracy left the Mount Carmel gym last week, a pair of freshmen hung on his shoulders and reminded him, "Oh, we've got to tell you about that girl."

Tracy laughed and replied, "Yeah, you guys are gonna tell me about a girl."

Jackson was by Tracy's side as the coach accepted a phone call.

"Yeah, I've got him," Jackson said into his cell. "I'll be taking him home."

If it's not Jackson, it's probably Hutch, or Flaherty, or coach Eric Shuler, or someone else.

***

On the afternoon of Dec. 18, Illinois coach Bruce Weber was putting the Illini through a press-breaking drill at Ubben Basketball Complex. Assistant coach Jerrance Howard, who handled much of the Abrams recruitment, approached Weber with cell phone in hand.

It was Tracy, a sophomore, committing to Illinois one month into his career as a member of the Mount Carmel varsity. With averages of 14 points, five rebounds and four assists, and karate-quick hands that flick deflections from ball handlers, and his most explosive skill, a deft first step that makes defenders wobble, Abrams became the first prospect in the Class of 2011 to commit to Illinois.

"It was a good situation for me. I liked the idea of playing with a couple of wings like Jereme Richmond and Crandall (Head)," Tracy said, citing a pair of Illini recruits from the Chicago area. "As a point guard, you want to play with guys like that, good players that can make you better. And I know I can make them better because of how I play. I want to get everyone involved and make other guys better.

"I know (that) playing with those guys is going to be a good thing. It's going to be fun for us."

In a sign of how early college coaches must track prospects, Tracy's circle said the Illini actually were tardy in their pursuit. This, despite the fact he was only a 10th-grader when Weber extended Tracy's first scholarship offer, and the fact he had averaged only six points in part-time duty with the varsity as a fresh-man.

But one part of Illinois' reformed recruiting philosophy is targeting prospects the coaches feel they have a chance with. They aren't going to spend time on a kid if the odds of landing him are slim. Once the Illinois staff learned which members of the circle had pull with Tracy – mainly Hutch and Jackson – Howard executed the diamond press of recruiting.

"Illinois didn't jump on him right away," Hutch said. "I think he felt a little slighted. I know he felt a little slighted. Once he knew they were interested, he felt a connection."

That connection was cemented during a campus visit in September, when Illinois hosted between 15 to 20 prospects for an event dubbed "The World's Biggest Basketball Practice," a spin on the traditional Midnight Madness festivities.

After a pickup game with the other prospects, Tracy convened in Weber's office and earned his first scholarship offer. Two members of Tracy's circle stood at the bottom of the steps at the practice facility, mulling over the surprise development.

"When he came home, he was really excited about that visit," Hutch said. "He couldn't stop talking about it."

Jackson said Tracy has "a view of the big picture," and it's reflected in how the point guard, who turned 17 on Feb. 6, envisions his basketball future.

"I'd like to get where I can take care of my family, take care of my mom. I want to find a way to get my family in a good situation so they don't have to worry about anything," Tracy said. "I'd like to help my mom so she doesn't have to think about where's she's living or working, so she's in a good situation.

"That's not the only reason I play. But I definitely see college and basketball is a way I can do that, to help my family."

The state's Class of 2011 initially was considered a deep reserve, arguably one of the finest classes in recent memory. Inconsistencies among the top prospects have removed some of the shine, though Tracy might be the steadiest prospect of the bunch.

"Unlike some of the other highly touted kids in the 2011 class, Tracy already has that edge, competitiveness and willingness to get after it," said Joe Henricksen, a veteran talent evaluator with Chicago's City/Suburban Hoops Report, who lists Abrams as the state's No. 1 prospect in his class. "That's what worries me about some of the other top-end players in that class. You don't have those worries with Tracy.

"I don't think there is a lot of risk involved with Tracy Abrams as I do with some of the others in that 2011 class."

If not Mount Carmel, Tracy would have attended Simeon or Whitney Young, Jackson said. His plan on the AAU circuit is to run with the D-Rose All-Stars and coach Reggie Rose. And Tracy's impression on his peers leads you to believe others in the 2011 class could follow him to Illinois; not through his own recruiting efforts, as he's not that kind of personality, but through his talents as a lead guard.

"That's probably a pretty strong possibility," Hutch said.

"I think guys like the way I play," Tracy said. "It would be great to have them with me (at Illinois). That's their decision. I'm not going to make that decision for them."

***

On this day, Tracy is late for practice due to school-related obligations. He leans down to tie his adidas hightops, tugging a brown Mount Carmel long-sleeve over his shoulders.

Your first impression is that practice can begin now. Five minutes in, he's ripping a rebound and whisking down the court on a lonely fast break. Frankly, his teammates struggle to play at his accelerated pace, Mount Carmel having lost its top six players from last season, according to the coach.

"From the sixth, seventh grade, he's always been a kid that has been viewed as one of the top players at his grade level," Flaherty said. "When you get that kind of acclamation and notoriety, it tends to blow your head up a little too big. But he's never expected special consideration or special favors because of the fact he's better as a basketball player.

"I holler at him as much as I holler at anyone else."

When Markelz formed his first impression of Tracy, it mirrored that of others in Tracy's circle.

"He has the potential to be a great leader because of the way the other kids respect him," Markelz said. "It's a quiet confidence."

And it's a first impression worth remembering.

pklee@news-gazette.com

LOOKING AHEAD

How Bruce Weber's future rosters at Illinois shape up:
2009-10

Dominique Keller, Sr.
Mike Davis, Jr.
Demetri McCamey, Jr.
Alex Legion, Jr.
Richard Semrau, Jr.
Mike Tisdale, Jr.
Bill Cole, Jr.
Jeff Jordan, Jr.
Stan Simpson, Fr..
Joseph Bertrand, Fr.
Tyler Griffey, Fr.
Brandon Paul, Fr.
D.J. Richardson, Fr.
*Bubba Chisholm, Sr.
*Non-scholarship walk-on.

2010-11
Mike Davis, Sr.
Demetri McCamey, Sr.
Alex Legion, Sr.
Richard Semrau, Sr. (5th year)
Mike Tisdale, Sr.
*Jeff Jordan, Sr.
Bill Cole, Sr.
Stan Simpson, Soph.
Joseph Bertrand, Soph.
Tyler Griffey, Soph.
Brandon Paul, Soph.
D.J. Richardson, Soph.
Meyers Leonard, Fr.
Crandall Head, Fr.
Jereme Richmond, Fr.
*Likely a non-scholarship player.
- As it stands, Illinois would be one over the NCAA's allowable number of scholarships (13). A spot could open through a player bypassing a fifth season of eligibility, transferring, leaving early for the NBA draft, etc.

2011-12
Stan Simpson, Jr.
Joseph Bertrand, Jr.
Tyler Griffey, Jr.
Brandon Paul, Jr.
D.J. Richardson, Jr.
Meyers Leonard, Soph.
Crandall Head, Soph.
Jereme Richmond, Soph.
Tracy Abrams, Fr.

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