WEST LOOP — Well before he walked the sidelines of an NBA court and stayed in five-star hotels, Dick Versace spent four years as a head coach at Gordon Tech High School and lived in a fourth-floor walkup on Devon and California avenues.
Versace called those quartet of seasons — from 1969-73, when he compiled a 100-18 record — at Gordon "like Camelot."
He also never forgot how the success at the North Side Catholic school eventually would help vault him to a head coaching job with the Indiana Pacers and president of basketball operations and general manager positions with the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies.
"I'm grateful to Gordon for giving me the vehicle to propel me to a level where I could move on and make enough money to actually be able to pay for my kids to go to college," Versace says now.
In an effort to give back to Gordon, Versace, 73, this season became a volunteer consultant for the school's boys basketball team, which is led by second-year head coach Tom Kleinschmidt.
It's only fitting, Kleinschmidt said.
"Dick was the one who influenced me to come back," said Kleinschmidt, the Rams' all-time leading scorer with 1,989 points, and a former DePaul superstar. "I ask Dick's advice and I bounce a lot of stuff off him."
Versace, a longtime West Loop resident, attends several Rams practices each month. He also goes to most home games and a spattering of road tilts, always sitting a few rows away from Gordon Tech's bench.
"It couldn't be a better situation for me having him around," said Rams assistant coach Carl Maniscalco, 55, who was recruited by Versace at Gordon and also played for him in junior college and when Versace was the head coach at Bradley University. "I'm still awestruck by him. He always adds something little that seems so simple that maybe a 55-year-old like me doesn't see yet."
A School 'United' Around A Basketball Team
When Versace coached and appeared as an NBA analyst on TNT and NBC Chicago, he was known for his flashy suits and a hairstyle that the L.A. Times once described as "George Washington's powdered wig."
Versace does not look like that now. He was dressed in a black jacket, black hat, workout pants and sunglasses as he munched down eggs over hard and hash browns at the Little Goat in the West Loop during an interview. Versace, who in the past few years had both of his knees replaced, also walked gingerly but he boasted that he recently started playing tennis again.
But once he started talking about basketball, Versace became his old fiery self. Versace is a basketball junkie. His iPad includes an app called Synergy, which broadcasts every college and pro game imaginable. He watches it religiously as well as theScore program that shows detailed stats from professional hoops affairs.
Versace left his position with the Grizzlies in 2005 but he has stayed close to the game. He occasionally attends practices and games at Marquette University to consult head coach Buzz Williams. He appears at coaching clinics throughout the country and recently spent 45 days advising Hall of Famer Rollie Massimino, the head coach at Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Fla. since 2006.
Versace admits he was a skilled tactician on the bench but said luck also had a great deal to do with his success and rise in the coaching game.
He met the late Chuck Daly, who would hire him to be an assistant coach of the Detroit Pistons, at a coaching clinic in Cleveland. Versace was in his dorm room when Daly, then the head coach at the University of Pennsylvania, walked in and said "I guess we're bunkmates."
Later that day, Versace started reading the book "Future Shock" by Alvin Toffler only to look over and realize Daly was reading the same thing.
"We had the same interest in books, and that started a longtime friendship," said Versace, who would become Daly's top assistant before becoming the Pacers' head coach.
A similar stroke of luck occurred prior to Versace's start at Gordon, when nearby St. Philip High School closed, and Versace said he was able to get many of their best players. That included Lee Arthur Scott, who ended up scoring 1,277 career points, fifth best on the Rams' all-time list. Scott and the Rams dominated the competition under Versace, whose teams in 1970-71 and 1971-72 each won a school-record 31 games.
Versace described coaching Gordon at the time as "electric" as the Rams played in front of packed houses. They even made warm-ups exciting with Versace's "Pretzel and Tips" — a complicated, Harlem Globetrotter-like drill featuring passing, cutting and bouncing a red-white-and-blue basketball off the backboard, with the last player violently dunking it.
"It was just unbelievable how unified the school was around the basketball team," said Versace, who also taught American literature while at Gordon. "People were hanging from the rafters."
Said Maniscalco, of Sauganash: "What Simeon and Whitney Young are now, that was what Gordon Tech was when Dick was here."
Keeping The Suitcase Unpacked
Versace said he never made more than $9,000 a year at Gordon, and with two kids — Dave and Julie — to feed, he knew he'd have to look for greener pastures. As Versace said, "the money trail leads to the NBA."
Versace has made enough money in the game to live comfortably. If he wants to spend three weeks at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Fla., he does just that. His wish to eventually pay for his children's college costs came through. He sent Dave to the University of Illinois and Julie to the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"It was great that he did it for us," said Dave Versace, 49, of Ravenswood Manor. "He always stressed to us that education was the most important thing."
Versace has had five lofts in the city, including his current West Loop residence. The former NBA coach has such affection for Chicago that he's had an official residence here since the 1980s, even when he headed the program at Bradley in Peoria.
"I love Chicago," Versace said. "My father [Humbert] was a West Pointer, and he moved us all over the world. I never could say I was from anywhere, but I decided to make Chicago my home."
Versace has been pleased with Gordon Tech's growth under Kleinschmidt, who has guided the Rams to a 9-7 record this season.
"I think they're on their way," Versace said. "They have a lot of young kids that are pretty good. And I think Tommy is very charismatic who will attract a lot of great players. He already has done that."
Dave Versace said he wouldn't be surprised if his dad returned to coaching full time. But Versace said he is "enjoying the periphery, consulting thing."
When Daly retired in 1999, he told Versace that he "couldn't pack one more suitcase."
"That's how I feel now," Versace said.