LOGAN SQUARE — The six varsity players on the Collins Academy High School girls volleyball team know Lei Keovan only as "Coach."
They aren't aware Keovan grew up in a Thai refugee camp after he and his family fled Laos by crossing the Mekong River at midnight.
They have no idea he came to the United States when he was 5, after being sponsored by an Oak Park synagogue, and that he lived in Wisconsin, Rhode Island and Illinois with various siblings before his sophomore year of high school.
Or that the 39-year-old used to have a 45-inch vertical leap, which the 5-foot-10-inch outside hitter utilized to claim volleyball player of the year honors at Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1993 — when his name was Lea Keovanpheng.
And that he became the first member of his large family — Keovan doesn't even know how many siblings he has, but it's at least 10 — to graduate from college when he received a degree from Loyola University Chicago.
No, the Warriors' players see Keovan, an attorney who legally changed his name while a law student at DePaul University, as the man who saved their volleyball careers.
"There would not be a team here if Coach Lei hadn't come," said senior Juavonna Baldwin, of University Village, whose 9-3 team begins IHSA postseason play Tuesday. "He gave us this opportunity."
"Proud" of His Past
"It's good to say you've gone through all of this," Keovan said from a Logan Square coffee shop last week. "My life has been all about resilience."
Keovan was 2½ in 1977 when his family left pro-Communist Laos, which was in a state of upheaval after the end of the Vietnam War. Keovan's father, My, had been a supporter of the American troops, and if the family hadn't left, "he would have been taken to a concentration camp," said Keovan's older brother by six years, Matt.
Matt Keovan said his family took a taxi from their home in the suburbs of the country's capital, Vientiane, close to the Mekong River, where they waited for midnight and a shallow spot to cross. Lei doesn't remember the crossing, but Matt, who's worked for the Oak Park Park District for more than 20 years, said he recalls "termites biting his feet" and "carrying Lei on his back like a chimpanzee" as they waded across the Mekong.
The Keovans joined several thousand Laotians at the nearby Nong Khai refugee camp in Thailand, and Lei stayed there for nearly three years before Oak Park Temple sponsored his voyage to America. Other siblings and his father were sponsored by churches in Oak Park, Lei said. His mother and additional siblings were sponsored by religious organizations in Portland, Ore.
"We had no money in our pockets, and none of us spoke English," said Matt, who also changed his surname so it is easier to pronounce.
Once in the States, Lei hopped between various siblings' households, especially after his father returned to Laos when he was in sixth grade. Rock bottom, Lei said, was when he had to leave Oak Park for Rhode Island his freshman year of high school, just when he was about to start playing basketball and volleyball, only to return to Oak Park as a sophomore.
"Lots and lots of moving," said Lei, who didn't know his mom was alive until a private investigator found her in Oregon when he was 21. "Had to make friends fast at the schools I went to. When you grow up so poor, you just want to work hard."
Lei said one of the few constants was volleyball. He began serving, spiking, digging and blocking in grade school. He was good, and his success helped him develop those much-needed friendships.
The Sun-Times named him its player of the year in 1993, when he led Oak Park-River Forest to the state championship match. He also competed for the Ramblers and played for a year on the EVP Beach Volleyball Tour while he was in law school.
"Volleyball really has been everything to me," Lei said.
Giving Back to the Game
Matt said his younger brother "is living the American dream."
Lei, a real estate and tax attorney, owns a law practice. His wife, Golie, who is a political refugee from Iran, is an optometrist who owns Belmont Eye Care. Both businesses are in Avondale.
The couple, who met while they were students at Loyola, have a 3-year-old son, Dahani, which means "richness of mind, body and soul" in Sanskrit.
"Life is beautiful now," Golie said.
Four years ago, Golie said Lei decided to give something back to the sport that has provided him so much. The head coaching job opened at Collins, a West Side school known for basketball but definitely not for volleyball, and Lei jumped at the opportunity.
"He's so passionate about volleyball since it's something that helped him and saved him. He didn't have a psychologist growing up. He just was one of those people who kept it all in, except when he let it all out on the court," Golie said. "He wanted to inspire the players to take out their anger, their frustration, whatever their deal was, to take it out by hitting the ball."
Lei's hiring paid immediate dividends, as the Warriors won a regional championship. They made the regional finals his second season, but last year the team didn't even participate in the IHSA tournament because the athletic department failed to provide proper paperwork, Lei said.
Top-seeded Collins is a favorite to hoist a regional trophy again this season, even though the team has just six players. Lei doesn't have an assistant, and his current batch of players think the program would fold if not for his efforts.
"He's the best coach ever. We wouldn't trade him for anything," said senior Tatianna Alexander, of North Lawndale.
"He's always encouraging us to keep going and strive for the best," added senior Moeshay Williams, of the Near West Side.
Senior Timmeka Jones, of North Lawndale, considers Lei a "mentor and role model." Jones wants to win a regional title for her teammates, but stressed her last high school season is in honor of her coach.
"Nobody is as dedicated to us as he is," Jones said.
In his four years, Lei said numerous players have quit because "They thought practices were too hard or didn't want to learn new skills because it didn't come easily."
He also has had to deal with off-the-court issues: Two of his top players this season were kicked off the team because of fighting.
For the six who remain, Lei sees the strength in them that carried him to a life of accomplishment.
"I think the greatest achievement for all the players on the team is that they actually graduate and go on to college," Lei said. "Coaching them has been very rewarding."