Friday is Ron Ashley Reunion Night at Prospect
Al Black's inauspicious beginning in the Prospect basketball program is something he and Ron Ashley still laugh about more than 45 years later.
Black arrived at Prospect as a self-described short, pudgy kid whose lone attribute was his shooting ability. That wasn't good enough to initially get him on the freshman "A" team coached by Ashley.
"Ron always said, 'How was I supposed to know a kid like that could shoot that well?' " Black said with a laugh of eventually getting promoted from the "B" team.
Thanks to Ashley's guidance, Black ascended to tremendous success at Prospect. But the concern Ashley had for his former player didn't end after Black graduated in 1975 and went on to an excellent four-year college career at Illinois Wesleyan.
For the last 17 years, Black has lived about 12 miles east of Peoria in Washington. Black received a well-being check of sorts from his old coach when the town of 15,000 was hit by a devastating tornado four years ago.
"He called up after it happened to see how everybody was," said Black, who was fortunate to avoid any serious damage. "He wanted to check and see how things are going."
That type of interest in helping kids at Prospect in basketball and baseball led current boys coach John Camardella and one of Ashley's former players, Jeff Fuerst, to put together Coach Ron Ashley Reunion Night on Friday night. Many of Ashley's former players are expected to attend the festivities, which start at 5:30 p.m. with a reception in the Prospect Community Room and a recognition ceremony before the 7:30 p.m. Pack the Place boys game against Hersey at Jean Walker Fieldhouse.
The same place that holds a lot of fond memories for the 1956 Arlington High graduate.
"It's nice because I go back a long way with Prospect," said Ashley, who was 93-41 from 1980-85 as the program's head coach. "Fifty-four years ago I remember sitting in the fieldhouse when I did my student-teaching there, and I thought at that time, 'What a great place this would be to teach and coach.' "
Ashley went to Northern Illinois where he played baseball for a year and he also spent two years in the armed services. He taught at Grove Junior High in Elk Grove for five years before finally getting that opportunity he longed for at Prospect in 1970.
When he started there were no openings in basketball. The next year he joined the basketball staff with Bill Slayton and was also part of Larry Pohlman's baseball staff.
Athletes such as Black quickly found out how willing Ashley was to help them. It helped Black play alongside future NBA all-star Jack Sikma and long-time college head coach and assistant Jim Molinari at Illinois Wesleyan and earn team MVP honors as a senior.
"He worked with me," Black said. "We'd meet before practice and he would spend 10 to 15 minutes doing drills that really helped me out.
"He was very positive and upbeat, not only with myself but with so many of my teammates. I have a lot of respect for lifers like that who work in the trenches and do a lot to help kids to get better. That love for the game and love for baseball and basketball came through and everybody saw that."
Especially in the summers. Ashley was in charge of that program and got players running, weightlifting and working to improve their games. It was one of the things former Prospect star and Cubs manager and coach Mike Quade recalled in a phone conversation with Black on Tuesday.
"Mike said, 'I never played for him, but everybody I talked to talked about how much fun he was and how disciplined he was,'" Black said.
None of that changed when Ashley finally got his head-coaching opportunity in 1980.
"He let me sneak into his basketball camp when I was a younger kid," said Dan Raupp, one of the stars of Ashley's final Prospect team. "I got to know him in sixth grade and he saw something in me to let me play with the older kids and I appreciated that.
"I really enjoyed playing for him. You always knew where he was coming from and he was always an upbeat guy."
The Knights took off under Ashley after going 9-16 in his first season. They split their Mid-Suburban League title game appearances the next four years and won three Class AA regional championships.
A big key to Ashley's success was taking on tough competition as he continued the tradition of going to the prestigious Pontiac Holiday Tournament. Through some coaches he met in the Chicago Public League, Ashley started taking the Knights to play in the summer at Malcolm X College and St. Benedict High School.
"We played against unbelievable basketball players, which they all enjoyed, and we never had a problem," Ashley said.
In fact, that led to some recent fame as well as some good fortune for Raupp. He pointed out that in the ESPN 30-for-30 special on Simeon legend Ben Wilson, who was tragically murdered just before the start of the 1984-85 season, some of the summer highlight clips of Wilson were against the Knights in green adidas shirts.
"I owe him a lot of thanks because being in that summer league helped me get recruited and get a Division I scholarship," Raupp said of becoming a three-time letterwinner at Bowling Green. "Having that opportunity to show what you can do helped with my career."
Ashley's 1983-84 team lost 76-74 in the sectional semifinal to eventual state runner-up Evanston with future Purdue star and NBA player Everette Stephens and former Wheeling head coach Lou Wool. Ashley said current Daily Herald high school sports writer Greg Swiderski told him it was one of the five best of the more than 6,000 games he has witnessed as a reporter, fan and official.
The challenge the next year for Ashley was blending his returning players with those who came over when Arlington closed, such as future Michigan State player Todd Wolfe, Walt Sierocki and current Prospect baseball coach Ross Giusti. Raupp said playing together growing up definitely helped and Ashley made sure there were no issues.
"It worked out really well," Ashley said. "I anticipated there would be some problems but there really wasn't. The kids blended together."
They won 23 games for the second time under Ashley. They reached the sectional final but lost by 2 points to eventual Elite Eight qualifier Hersey and current South Florida head coach Brian Gregory.
"At that time I knew it was time for me to leave," he said. "There were some changes in the athletic program and at the school."
Ashley helped Bill Probst at St. Viator for a year and returned to head coaching for awhile at Holy Cross. He still loves the high school sports scene and going to football games, or seeing Giusti's teams play in the spring.
"I haven't seen some of these guys in 35-36 years," Ashley said. "It will be nice to see how they are doing. It was a great group we had there of outstanding athletes and good kids."
And Ron Ashley had a big role in their success then and now.
Honoring Kinneman: Prospect is honoring Dick Kinneman, the school's first basketball coach who died Aug. 17, by having players wear a memorial tribute patch on their warmup tops. The patch says "Kinneman Style" and "1925-2017."
Crandall Condolences: Condolences to the family and many friends of Don Crandall, who passed away Nov. 29 at age 68. Crandall was a fixture in area high school sports as a math teacher and assistant basketball and football coach, athletic director at Conant and Palatine and the Director of Student Activities for District 211 for 12 years.
Crandall is also in the halls of fame for the Illinois Athletic Directors Association and Palatine and Erie High School high schools. Crandall was an all-state basketball player at Erie, about 25 miles northeast of the Quad Cities, and played at Northwestern from 1968-71.
Coaching tidbits: Credit former Conant all-area guard London Dokubo with an assist as Loyola earned its biggest victory in years 65-59 at fifth-ranked Florida on Wednesday night. Dokubo is in his second season as a graduate assistant after spending a year as a volunteer assistant and playing for the Ramblers from 2011-15. Their 1984-85 NCAA Sweet 16 team was the last one to pick up a top-five victory against fourth-ranked Illinois ... Retired Conant coach Tom McCormack has gone full circle and returned to IC College Prep as an assistant coach. McCormack started his head coaching career at Immaculate Conception and went 23-7 with a regional title in his only season at the Elmhurst school in 1984-85 ... Former Schaumburg and Southern Illinois star Tony Young is in his first year as head coach at Marmion Academy in Aurora. Young was an all-area pick as a junior when the Saxons and Bob Williams won the 2001 Class AA state title and the all-area captain the next season.