Leo coach shows Lions place he once called home

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Dec. 1, 2019 10:40 pm

After Jamal Thompson settled in as the Chicago Leo boys basketball coach a year ago, it didn't take long before he reached out to an old college roommate to set up a reunion.

"My first call was (Quincy High School coach) Andy Douglas and I let him know right away, ‘Hey, we want to come down,'" Thompson said.

That was enough to make it happen.

Leo returned to the QHS Thanksgiving Tournament field this week for the first time since 1991 -- the Lions went 17-4 in seven previous appearances with four championships -- and squared off against the Blue Devils in the Saturday night spotlight. The 66-45 loss and 1-2 overall showing weren't what Thompson expected, but he knows the long-term benefit of this trip will be monumental.

"My whole philosophy is this: Let's begin our season downstate because our goal is to end the season downstate," Thompson said. "For us to come here and see a whole different environment instead of the inner-city, that's a great experience for them."

And the Lions got to see where Thompson once called home.

The second recruit to sign with the Quincy University men's basketball program in 2000 after Mike Foster succeeded Steve Hawkins as head coach, Thompson enjoyed a fruitful career running the point for the Hawks. He scored 1,000 career points, one of 40 players in program history to do so, and helped former QU coach Marty Bell change the direction of the program.

After winning just seven games Thompson's sophomore season, the Hawks went 11-17 his senior year and made the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament field for just the third time in program history. The Hawks followed that up with three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, all because of the work Thompson and others did to set the right course.

So if Thompson was the second recruit to sign with the Hawks that spring, who was the first?

That was Douglas, and the two roomed together their freshman season. Douglas played in 20 of the Hawks' 26 games his freshman season, but he chose to give up playing basketball after that season to concentrate on academics.

"It was kind of disappointing when he left and gave it up," Thompson said.

But they never lost touch, which is how this reunion came about.

Although they didn't coach against each other -- Douglas missed Saturday's game as he serves a six-game suspension -- they were able to catch up with each other. Thompson also was able to visit QU and Pepsi Arena, where the Lions shot around Saturday afternoon and current QU coach Ryan Hellenthal gave them a tour of the facilities.

It's part of the experience Thompson wants to give his players.

"I wouldn't change this for the world," said Thompson, who is in his second season as a head coach. "I love coaching."

Still, there was an adjustment phase he had to endure.

"The hardest part at first was me putting pressure on myself," Thompson said. "Once I realized this is the game of basketball, it changed. The kids buy into the system and everything else is fun."

Every day is that way.

"The best part is just giving these kids something to enjoy, just giving back," Thompson said.

Coming back to Quincy with the Lions in tow fulfills that mission. And as the experience reminded him, it's always good to go back to a place you once called home.