Inside The Fire

by July 01, 2014

by Gabriel James Bump

Were you to imagine Nick Irvin as a weapon, I’d suggest a grenade. He’s either spectacular or destructive, depending what side you’re on when the pin is pulled.

For two decades, Nick has polarized Chicago high school basketball. He starred as a player in the mid-nineties. This past March, he coached Morgan Park High School to their second straight 3A State Championship. Every step of the way, he’s enjoyed a dizzying mix of success, disappointment, and controversy.

He comes from Chicago royalty. His father, McGlother “Mac” Irvin, was referred to as the “Godfather of Chicago Basketball.” Mac founded the renowned AAU program Mac Irvin Fire. He passed away in 2011. A book could, and should, be written about what Mac Irvin meant to high school basketball. I encourage you to Google him because there isn’t enough space here to do the Irvin patriarch justice. His legacy now belongs in the hands of Nick and his five older siblings.

Over the last seven months, I’ve followed Nick from pre-season high school ball to AAU. I learned that there might not be a better person to guide young men through basketball’s ups and downs.


Let’s start at the beginning of his varsity career, in ’93.

In fact, let’s start on Thursday, December 10, a couple weeks into the season.

Longtime Chicago Tribune reporter Bob Sakamoto wanted to figure out how fifth-ranked St. Rita figured to stop fourth-ranked St. Martin de Porres and their powerful center, Jerry Gee.

Thanks to Google and the Tribune’s online archive, we know that Brother Rice coach Pat Richardson planned to throw everything at Gee.

Sakamoto cautions Richardson’s aggression. He mentions St. Martin’s “other weapons.”

One of those weapons was Freshman Nick.

The next day, Friday, December 11, St. Martin beat their South Side Catholic League rival by nine. Nick dropped 22, mostly from behind the arc, to go with five assists. Sakamoto called him “terrific.”

One week later, St. Martin travelled to second-ranked Mt. Carmel High School for another South Side Catholic League match-up. This time the Silver Eagles had to get through Antoine Walker and Donavan McNabb.

After the game, Mt. Carmel head coach Mike Curta felt sorry for anybody that couldn’t make it to the packed gym. “You can’t ask for a better basketball environment in the state,” Curta told Tribune reporter Patrick Sullivan.

Antoine finished with 34, Donavan with 30.

St. Martin lost 87-79.

Nick started out hot from three. He was 4-6 at halftime. Mt. Carmel made defensive changes in the second half. Nick kept shooting but only scored six more. He finished with 20.

In his article, Sullivan points to Nick’s success early in the game as when “it all started to crumble.”

He still called Nick a “phenom.”

St. Martin coach Mike Manderino, “To me, you’ve got to have the ball going into your big cannon. Gee has got to shoot the ball 25 times a game. We got a couple guys who got excited and were shooting the first thing that came up.”

As a team, St. Martin went 8-28 from long distance.

At halftime, Mt. Carmel tightened their defense on Nick. Mount Carmel’s coach remembered his player saying, “I’ve got Irvin and he’s not going to touch the ball.”

In those games and articles, we have the many versions of Nick encapsulated. There’s Nick The Phenom, Nick The Shot Thief, Nick The Terrific, Nick The Target.

(Now that Nick is coaching there’s Nick The Screamer, Nick The Hugger, Nick The Technical Foul, Nick The Father, Nick The Sweat Fountain, Nick The Laugher)

After the ’93 season, Nick transferred to neighboring Carver High School in order to play in the Chicago Public League. His four older brothers played in their entire careers in the Public League. Mac had another plan for his youngest son. Nick, as always, listened to his father.

“He wanted me to try the Catholic School route because none of us went,” Nick said. “I had the opportunity to go. I had the grades, I had the test scores. He said ‘Man, just try it out.’ I said, ‘Huh? I’m going to play in the Public League where all the stars play. They’re going to say I’m a chump if I don’t play in the Public League.’ He said, ‘just try it out for a year.’ I averaged 21 points my freshman year. I played with great ballplayers. In the back of my mind, I just didn’t want to be there.”

During his three years at Carver, Nick averaged 30 points and 10 assists. He was also a three-time All-State and All-City selectee.

Before Nick’s senior season Carver’s coach left for another job, just one in a quick succession of coach turnarounds Nick had to endure. He decided to look eastward.

He wanted to play basketball with his good friend and future NBA player, Melvin Ely. Melvin lived in another school district. Transfer rules wouldn’t allow it. The two planned on attending The Winchendon School in Massachusetts.

In the summer of ’96, after Nick and Melvin made their announcement, respected Tribune reporter Barry Temkin took aim at the institution.

“The tragedy,” Temkin wrote. “Is for high school basketball, because the announcement this week that Ely and Irvin will spend their senior years at an Eastern prep school leaves little doubt that factors corroding the game nationwide have arrived full force in Chicago.

“High school basketball is not just an extracurricular activity to these players and their families. It is career preparation, and decisions about changing schools are viewed accordingly.”

At the last minute, Melvin got cold feet. Nick decided to give it a shot. Then the coach left for a college job. Nick came back to Carver.

He wanted to make his final season count. He bet his Dad that he’d average forty points for the first fifteen games. He averaged 45. He became the most prolific scorer in Carver history, besting his idol and mentor Tim Hardaway. Nick met Hardaway through his brother Byron, the only Irvin son to play beyond college.

“I admired Tim Hardaway,” Nick said. “We basically had the same built. He was fast and nasty and I had the same attitude. When him and Byron used to go play, I was right there with them riding in the back seat. I would sit and watch him, the way he punished people with his crossover. I used to talk to him and pick his brain. He used to take me in the gym and show me different stuff. I knew that was the guy I really wanted to play like.

“When I went to Carver,” Nick continued. “I was like ‘Man, I get to break Tim Hardaway’s records.’ Then I walked past the trophy case and I saw Cazzie Russell, Terry Cummings, and Tim Hardaway. That was my mindset: I’m going to break all their records. I shattered all their records. That was the highlight for me being Carver’s all-time leading scorer. I mean, being in the company of those guys.”

Even though prep school didn’t work out, Nick and Melvin still wanted to play together. Nick committed to DePaul where his brother Lance was an assistant coach…then the head coach was fired. Nick and Melvin ultimately decided on Fresno State and Hall of Famer Jerry Tarkanian.


While Melvin thrived at Fresno, Nick faded.

“When I went to Fresno State I had to change my game,” Nick remembered. “I had to be a pass-first point guard. I definitely picked the wrong school. If I would’ve stayed and went to DePaul, I would’ve been more successful. They understood my game, they knew where I was coming from, and they just knew me. They knew me as a kid.

“Going to Fresno, I learned a lot from Tark,” Nick continued. “I learned how to build a team and all that. But for me as a ballplayer, it wasn’t good. I averaged 30-something points coming out of high school. I was a scoring first point guard. If I went someplace where I could be a scoring first point guard, that would’ve been better for me.”

Nick spent two seasons at Fresno and came back to Chicago to work for his dad. This is where family matters. It’s important to consider what could’ve happened to Nick without his family behind him. In a basketball-crazed dynasty, there’s always something basketball related to do. Nick came back and coached. How many athletes choose the wrong school and faded into obscurity? The gutter is filled with them. If you consider that, the thanks Nick constantly offers his father doubles in sincerity. Mac Irvin guided Nick through a renaissance. In 2008, he pushed him to apply for the Morgan Park job.

“I was sitting at the house talking to Pops,” Nick said. “And one of his friends came over and they were like ‘you know the Morgan Park job came open.’ My father was like, ‘Go put your name in, go take your resume up there.’ So I put my resume in and they called me back the next day and I interviewed.”

Thinking he wouldn’t get the job, Nick flew out to Memphis. Antoine Walker was playing for the Grizzles back then. They remain friends.

Nick received a call from Morgan Park’s principal, flew back at 6 A.M., put a suit on, and accepted the offer.

Some basketball puritans saw the hiring as an unholy blending between AAU and high school ball. It was Temkin all over again: how important should basketball be for teenagers? Should they be able to make the sport priority? Within months, the debate ignited. Top-rated sophomore and Mac Irvin Fire player, Wayne Blackshear, left Curie High School for Morgan Park. Nick was back in the news, incarnated as a controversial coach. It certainly didn’t help that Morgan Park won the City Championship a year later. Wayne hit the game-winner.


Here we are today. Nick is gearing up for July’s major AAU tournaments. Former Mac Irvin Fire player Jabari Parker is now in the NBA. The Fire’s fresh crop of talent looks, once again, like one of the best in country. Morgan Park is reloaded and looks primed for a three-peat. Colleges have reached out with assistant positions. But Nick is happy where he is. For now.

Whatever the future holds, wherever Nick lands next, certainly an explosion will follow.


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Photo credit: Wayne Trice