Kenwood has long been lauded as a sleeping giant in Public League basketball.
It appears coach Mike Irvin is the one who is set to awaken it — in more ways than one.
Irvin’s first year as a high school coach was the abbreviated Covid season played without a state tournament. He followed that up last year with Kenwood’s first-ever sectional championship last March. The Broncos’ season ended with a loss to Young in the supersectional.
Now Kenwood and its coach have made the biggest and boldest headlines in this young season.
On opening night the Broncos played a high-profile foe in Young and came away with a win. They added another monster victory in last weekend’s Chicago Elite Classic over a highly-ranked and hyped team, beating Joliet West and the Fears brothers.
With the way this team is constructed — there is Division I talent up and down the roster — and with how it has played, the second-ranked Broncos are unbeaten and nipping on the heels of No. 1 Simeon.
And they’re playing without one of their top players, junior star Chris Riddle, a power-packed 6-5 wing who transferred back to Chicago after spending last season at a prep school. Riddle is expected back soon from injury.
On paper, Irvin has arguably the most talented team in the state, one that is capable of playing in Champaign in March and capturing a state championship. But there is still plenty of basketball to be played. There are minutes to manage and a blending of youth and experience. There is a lot more to learn about this Kenwood team.
“With this team, we are not even close to being there yet in terms of what we can be,” Irvin said. “How much better can we get from December to March? I think it will be scary, especially since we are out there now without Chris Riddle.”
The college-level talent and depth, along with the early-season wins and high ranking, have generated a buzz. But so, too, has Irvin. It’s all made Kenwood basketball newsworthy in the high school basketball world.
Irvin’s own headlines and the buzzworthy news and notes he provides are a result of his actions, both in the flamboyant actions on the bench and in the large and loud words he speaks.
When it comes to the roster, the team was immediately built with an influx of incoming freshmen and some transfers. Irvin is quick to note promising players like juniors Chris Riddle and Calvin Robins, highly-regarded sophomore Aleks Alston and current freshman star Noah Mister walked through the doors as freshmen.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times
But in today’s basketball world where transfers have become the norm, it’s bound to happen. And it’s to be expected to some degree.
Kenwood, after all, was considered a sleeping giant for a reason. The academics are strong and the location of the school is opportunistic; the school and, as a result, the basketball program, are attractive and a draw for players and their parents. In a recent survey conducted among city coaches, both current and retired, Kenwood ranked as the third-best basketball coaching job in the Public League.
Add the fact that Irvin has name recognition — he’s the head of the influential Mac Irvin Fire club program and comes from one of the most familiar basketball families in the city — the players were bound to show up.
But Irvin hasn’t been bashful about who he is as a coach and where he believes his team and program are headed.
Some of Irvin’s greatest hits include stating, “We have the best coach in the city, we have the best players in the city and I’m going to show everybody,” following the win over Young. He also doesn’t hide his emotions, beating his chest at center court following the win.
In the closing seconds of the win over Joliet West at UIC last Saturday night, Irvin screamed repeatedly to anyone who would listen, “There is a new sheriff in town.”
In his postgame comments, Irvin had a few more zingers, stating, “They need to understand that I’m a genius at this. I’ve been putting teams together all my life. … We can compete with anyone and we are ready to win the city and state championship.”
Maybe calling Mike Irvin “the Don King of Illinois high school basketball” is a bit too far. But his brother, former Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin, who won four state championships before heading off to the college coaching world, knows his brother is — and always has been — a performer.
“The thing people don’t understand about Mike is that Mike is an entertainer,” Nick said. “He likes to entertain. If he didn’t have a good heart, I would be like, ‘Ahh, Mike, come on.’ But I know him as a brother and I know him as a coach, and I know he means no harm when he says some of those things. He’s doing it for entertainment and entertainment sells tickets. But he has a good heart and doesn’t mean any harm.”
When I told Mike Irvin he reminds me of his brother, the personable and fun Nick Irvin, but Nick Irvin on steroids, he chuckled.
So did Nick Irvin when told the same thing.
“He took what I did and said and bumped it up another level,” Nick said with a laugh.
Basically, Mike Irvin the AAU coach — and all that comes with it in terms of his personality, bravado and brash confidence — has infiltrated high school basketball. What many have seen and heard for years in the spring and summer months in the AAU world is now on full display for everyone in the winter months.
It will often leave basketball fans to simply shake their collective heads in either amusement or disdain.
Yes, Mike Irvin does it a different way. He knows it, has his reasons for it and truly enjoys all that goes into coaching in a specific way that lights up social media while infuriating some. When I mentioned to him some of his quotes and actions aren’t the norm among high school coaches, he simply replied, “I don’t want to be normal.”
“I didn’t come here to coach and not show my personality,” Irvin said. “Coaching brings out my personality, and I love that. I don’t want to be the coach that just sits there.”
He points to the brazen and sometimes over-the-top personality of Deion Sanders as an example and model for him as a coach.
“I love how he coaches and how he does things and what he says to inspire,” Irvin said of the NFL legend turned college football coach. “He makes coaching fun. I don’t want to show up for work, show up for practice and coach in these games like it’s just another day. I want to make it fun and entertaining. That entertainment leads to exposure.”
And at the end of the day the exposure for his kids, he says, is what it’s all about. Anything that brings people to see his team and offers exposure to them is a good thing.
“I love the show,” he admits. “But I am here to help showcase the kids, so there has to be a show to showcase them. I feel like if we can give people a show, that that’s a good way to help get these kids to go to college for free. And that’s what we are trying to do, get them to college.”
But does he believe or fear his loud words put a target on his team’s back? Does he worry it places more pressure on his players? And is there any concern whether others in the basketball industry, including high school coaches, are rubbed the wrong way by his words?
After all, it’s not as if Irvin takes a less-than-subtle way of reminding everyone how good his team is.
When it comes to his players and team, Irvin doesn’t believe it impacts them. He doesn’t think there is any added pressure when he proclaims he has the best team.
“I think it gives my kids more confidence,” Irvin said. “I am a players’ coach, and it’s all about instilling confidence in the players. They are going to get that confidence from me. They’re going to run through a brick wall. They’re going to think they can jump 15 feet high — and actually think that — if I keep telling them over and over again. That is my strategy as a coach, to give kids confidence.”
He says he learned that from his late father, Mac Irvin, an iconic name in the Chicago basketball community. Irvin says his dad taught him the importance of motivating players and setting the bar high.
“It’s all about motivation,” Irvin reiterated. “If you watch how all of us coach, my dad, my brothers, myself, it’s all about motivation. It’s about giving these players more confidence.
“This is how I feel about you. No one else may think you’re the best, but I think you’re the best.”
The confidence in this team and in these players shows. In the very early going, it appears they are playing with a chip on their shoulder. They play hard and compete. They play an attacking style. It’s very reminiscent of how Nick Irvin’s Morgan Park teams played.
Nick Irvin still follows Chicago basketball closely from 1,700 miles away, where he’s now on Bobby Hurley’s staff at Arizona State. He especially keeps tabs on Kenwood and had a word with his brother following last weekend’s big win.
“I told him yesterday after the Joliet West win, and I said as long as your players know where you’re coming from that’s all that matters,” Irvin said. “At the end of the day he’s in it for the kids and to help them get noticed and get scholarships. He’s also there to help Kenwood. And as long as his players and principal understand it, that’s all that matters.”
Irvin doesn’t intend to tone anything down. He believes what he believes, and he’s going to let people know. How they take it or whether it bothers them is up to the individual. But Irvin doesn’t want to be mistaken, either.
“I don’t want to rub anyone the wrong way,” Irvin said. “I don’t want people to take it as arrogance. I don’t want people to confuse confidence for arrogance. I don’t want to rub people the wrong way and they mistake it for arrogance. No, it’s confidence. And don’t allow my confidence to offend your insecurity. I’m in my purpose.”