When Joe Gura looks deep in his basketball rearview mirror, he sees the images of Lockport’s Three Amigos. He recalls the fond memories associated with coaching conference champions and playing the role of David vs. Goliath in one of the state’s oldest and most storied holiday tournaments.
Gura has coached basketball at six different high schools in northern and central Illinois—Lockport, Thornton Fractional South, Pontiac, Plainfield North, Kankakee Bishop McNamara and Joliet Catholic Academy. He has played gracious host to the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.
Never has he enjoyed a season more than the one he is experiencing now at JCA. Never has he coached a team with a 1-10 record, either.
JCA is 1-10 heading into back-to-back home games Friday vs. Manteno and Saturday vs. Chicago Longwood. Despite the harsh reality of that record and prevailing conditions outside—dark, dreary—Gura is the picture of Mr. Sunshine in the JCA gymnasium working with his young team.
How young? Gura typically starts a lineup that includes two freshmen—Jalen Jackson and Harry Davis—one sophomore, one junior and one senior. And Gura understands the challenges confronting him go well beyond the norm.
JCA has not climbed above the .500 mark in boys basketball in 30 years.
“It’s why my personality fits this,” Gura said. “I get up every day thinking life is wonderful, whether I owe a bill, whether one of my grandkids has a cold. We’re going to get through it. We’re going to meet the challenges of the day.
“My approach to these kids is love. I love ’em. I say to them, ‘You’re the guys I want. You’re the guys that are going to turn this thing around. You’re the guys that are going to have success.’ And I try to emphasize that every day.”
Gura asks his players, “What did we do to get better?”
He measures success in far different ways than outsiders who obsess over wins and losses. He asks himself, “Did everybody understand that practice drill?” And he reminds himself to be patient.
Gura started the season by teaching the basics to his JCA diaper dandies—one offense, one defense. He has watched his players develop to the point where now, after 11 games, they are comfortable employing three different defenses, running three different man-to-man offensive sets, a zone package and a press-breaker.
His mantra—more than ever—has been one of encourage, rather than discourage.
“I recall something that Coach (Bob) Knight said in 1977—my first year at Lockport,” Gura said. “I was at a clinic. He was the speaker. And he said, ‘You’re not coaching against your opponent. During a game, what you’re coaching for is how your kids perform. Is your team performing what you want?'
“Who you play and what they play will take care of itself. Never were Coach Knight’s words truer than this year. Because I have to concentrate on what my kids are doing. I don’t show them the films of other teams. I show them the films of us and what we did and what we didn’t do.”
The films show JCA is making slow, steady progress. Senior Ryan Peter is averaging 12.5 points and 7.6 rebounds. Elias James is shooting at a 52.3 percent clip. And Shakar Washington had dropped in 10-of-33 from three-point range.
The Hilltoppers were within six points against St. Patrick in the third quarter and had an open look on a three-ball that could have cut the margin in half. They lost 66-37. The Hilltoppers played Nazareth Academy, a team with a 7-footer, to a 48-41 standstill. And the Hilltoppers limited Minooka to 43 points.
The losses sting, to be sure.
Peter poured in 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in a 62-47 victory over IMSA. He coaches his teammates to remain upbeat and to keep a proper perspective. He follows Gura’s lead on both counts.
“Sometimes, I get a little annoyed because we’re playing and he stops and talks and then you think about it,” Peter said. “He talks about the game and then he talks about growing up and being a better person. Basketball is big deal. But, life in general, that’s a huge deal. It’s the biggest deal.”
Washington is one of the few elder statesmen on the JCA roster. The senior guard has come to know Gura as a demanding coach—and respects him for they way he goes about his job. Washington knows Gura as Mr. Business on the basketball floor.
“He’s very intense,” Washington said. “I think it helps everyone on the team because everyone follows his detail and his plan. He makes sure you understand the play to all of its intricacies. The young guys are new to the varsity level. He’s saying things to everyone but working to help them develop their game.”
When he leaves JCA, Gura won’t work again.
“My goal—this is my last stop—I live five blocks away,” he said. “My teaching situation is wonderful. They treat me better than I deserve here. My goal is to build this program up and four or five years down the road—whenever I’m done—have the program intact and have a successor intact and have it smooth-running so Catholic High basketball never goes back to the dark ages.”
When that is accomplished, Gura will be recognized as Coach of the Year. Again.
The shame of it all is he deserves to win that type of recognition here and now.