My first memories of Coach Bob Hallberg are from the 1982-83 season when he was leading Chicago State University (CSU) to new heights.
My stepfather, longtime Oak Lawn Community High School basketball Coach Len Scaduto, had a former player, Greg Lehman, playing for Hallberg at the time, and we would make our way from our home in Palos Heights to the CSU campus to see Lehman play.
I was just 13 at the time and still playing basketball. Trips to the CSU Building, as the gym was called, were a special night out for my childhood friends and me.
In addition to Lehman, the Cougars also had Sherrod Arnold, a transfer from the University of Illinois, who Hallberg referred to as one of the greatest guards he’d ever seen in college basketball.
I would make the same claim. Arnold was an amazing talent.
How he came to be a Cougar speaks in part to why Hallberg was so successful.
Hallberg never gave up on a recruit. He was a natural at recruiting because he had a great way with people, possessing to a large degree the ability to make you feel as if you were the only one in the room with him.
He had recruited Arnold since the athlete was playing for Phillips High School. When things didn’t work out at his first choice, Kentucky State, Arnold returned home to the city, and Hallberg convinced him to attend CSU.
Leaving nothing to chance, Hallberg attended all of Arnold’s games that summer at Malcolm X College. All was fine until Illinois Coach Lou Henson arrived one night in a bright orange polo shirt.
“Word had gotten out,” Hallberg said in an interview for a book I was writing. “I see Lou Henson there; and I’m thinking, ‘I hope Sherrod has a bad night,’ but instead he scores 30! After the game, he goes up to Sherrod and tells him, ‘You’d look great in a Fighting Illini uniform.’”
Arnold could not pass up the Big Ten and went to Illinois; but things did not go as planned, and the next spring, he found himself calling Hallberg. Arnold apologized for not coming the year before and asked if he could come to Chicago State.
Hallberg remembered giving a quick response.
“I said, ‘How soon can you get here?’”
With Arnold in the fold for Chicago State the following season, 1982-83 was among Hallberg’s finest.
By the middle of January, the Cougars were 13-2 and ranked No.-2 in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Ranked No. 1 at the time was tiny Chaminade University, then one month removed from defeating Division-I Virginia and three-time College Player of the Year Ralph Sampson in what is still regarded as the greatest upset in the history of college basketball.
When the Silverswords were upset later by Hawaii Pacific College, the Cougars assumed the No.-1 ranking.
Hallberg did not have time to have shirts printed since CSU was on the road for a game with Central State, so he used a magic marker to draw a big No. 1 on his bare chest that night.
He unveiled it for his team in the locker room at halftime.
“I told them, ‘I don’t want to be ranked No. 1 in the day and then lose in the evening,’” Hallberg told his team, which went on to beat Chaminade 76-69.
I was lucky to be at the CSU Athletic Building five nights later to see the Cougars in person. Shirts had been printed by that time, displaying Chicago State’s No.-1 ranking, and I bought one.
When I learned of Coach Hallberg’s passing on Nov. 19, I thought of the great players he mentored through the years and remembered another prized transfer, Tony Freeman, who had first gone to Indiana University to play for Bob Knight. When it didn’t work out in Bloomington, Freeman transferred to the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) to play for Hallberg. Together, they collaborated on what remains one of the Flames’ greatest accomplishments.
It came early in the 1990 season when UIC visited the University of Illinois. I was in my third year working as a correspondent for the Daily Southtown and was assigned the game. My colleague, Tim Cronin, usually covered Illinois, but he had to cover a Blackhawks event that night.
I was sent to Champaign because I regularly covered UIC for the newspaper. I was the only Chicago-based writer in attendance as the city’s two downtown papers had writers already based in Champaign to cover the Illini. To the surprise of everyone in Assembly Hall, Hallberg and UIC won behind a tremendous performance from Freeman.
I was sitting in the first row of the interview room when Coach Hallberg reached the podium. As I was usually the youngest reporter on press row, I often sat quietly, allowing the older writers to ask questions.
Although I was trying to stay professional, I had a smile on my face as wide as Monroe Harbor when Coach Hallberg made my night as he looked down and greeted me.
“Hi, Jack,” he said, “thanks for driving down.”
No, Coach, thank you.
Editor’s note: Jack Danilewicz is a freelance writer.