Growing up in the “City of Champions,” East St. Louis native Mark Chambers fulfilled a dream when he, LaPhonso Ellis and James Harris, helped the Lincoln Tigers win the 1987 Class 2A state basketball championship..
Now 31 years later, Chambers is fulfilling another dream.
Back in East St. Louis after playing several seasons of minor league baseball and 12 years as an assistant basketball coach at Cahokia High School, Chambers is in his first full season as the head basketball coach at East St. Louis.
The Flyers are off and running in 2018-19. Ranked fourth in the Class 3A state basketball poll, East St. Louis leads the Southwestern Conference with a 3-0 record and will carry a 5-1 mark into its showdown against defending Class 4A state champion and top-ranked Belleville West Friday.
“It’s really exciting. I never dreamed this would happen,’’ Chambers said. “Going to Lincoln and playing against East Side, the rivalry was always there. But to have the opportunity to help these kids do something great on the basketball court and in the classroom here at East St. Louis High School and to help them develop into great young men after they leave here is something I take great pride in doing.’’
Chambers, who took over midway through the 2017-18 season following the resignation of Fernando Stevenson, guided the Flyers to the Class 3A sectional title game a year ago where they fell to Marion.
This season, East St. Louis features 6-7 all-state forward and Saint Louis University recruit Terrance Hargrove. Transfers Richard Robinson and Elijah Rice have also been solid early in the year.
But Chambers said both he and his players are still adjusting to each other.
“We’re still adjusting. I’m still getting to know the kids and they’re getting to know me and what I expect from them. But day by day we’re getting more comfortable. Having the summer with them helped,’’ Chambers said.
The Flyers have good depth, which has been augmented with the addition of Robinson and Rice. But the leader is Hargrove. One of the state’s best a year ago, Hargrove continued to improve this summer while playing with the Flyers and his AAU team, Bradley Beal Elite.
To Chambers, Hargrove is the total package.
“Having Terrance and Joe Reece buy into our program from the beginning last year was a huge positive for us because the other kids saw this and they followed. When we advanced to the sectional final last year and had a chance to win the game, I think it showed that there really is light at the end of the tunnel,’’ Chambers said. “That just carried over to the summer. I think we finished 25-4. They have bought into everything we’re trying to do. That’s why I’m so excited about this season.”
Averaging 22 points and 14 rebounds per game, Hargrove’s performance late in the Flyers’ win over Collinsville was one for the ages. Taking over in the fourth quarter, the senior scored 15 straight points as East St. Louis erased an 11-point deficit.
“ Signing with St. Louis University, I think, took him an even higher confidence level,’’ Chambers said. “He works harder than anybody and the things he does at times in practice are just phenomenal
“Terrance is on a mission. We know he’s better than what people think he is. He’s growing as a person everyday.”
In addition to Hargove, Rice (10 ppg.) and Robinson (6.7), Cornelius LeFlore (13.5 ppg.) has also been a key on both ends of the court for East St. Louis.
“This team has a very high ceiling. They expect a lot from themselves and we have very high expectations of them,’’ Chambers said. “These kids have dealt with a lot of adversity with all the coaching changes they’ve had here the last few years. What we have tried to do is create some stability down with positive reinforcement with room for these kids to grow.”