Donnie Boyce shares his expertise at basketball practice at Proviso East High School in November. (Courtesy Ned Wagner)

Isn’t it frustrating when a local kid makes good and then moves to a posh suburb and leaves the old neighborhood behind? It’s a familiar meme; an instance that becomes an idea; an idea that becomes a cliché; a cliché that becomes a myth that takes on a life all of its own. Why don’t they give back to the neighborhood that contributed to making them the success that they are today, we ask? Today that myth is being put to rest over at Proviso East. 

Back in 1991 Donnie Boyce and his childhood friends Michael Finley and Sherrell Ford were the “Three Amigos” who they led a one-loss Proviso East team to the IHSA Class AA basketball championship. Boyce then went on to star at The University of Colorado. He graduated from Colorado as the all-time leading scorer in Buffalo history. Boyce’s NBA career was brief, however, and beset with injury, but he went on to enjoy a long basketball career overseas. Boyce played for 11 years (with a rod and two screws in his leg) on teams based in France, Argentina, Italy and China and played ball in 25 different countries. 

As fulfilling as playing all over the world was for Boyce, it was actually after this phase that he experienced perhaps the most rewarding chapter of his basketball career. “Next to the NBA,” said Boyce, “playing for the Harlem Globetrotters was the best experience I ever had as far as basketball was concerned. To see the pleasure and the joy you put on kids’ faces day in and night out.

“We would go to hospitals and to see the smile you put on a sick kid’s face really touched my heart.” 

And now Boyce is back as the head basketball coach of the Proviso East Pirates. “Coming back was an opportunity for me to help these kids not make some of the mistakes I made and to help them navigate some of the obstacles that come with being a student athlete. People don’t know the pressure on these kids to first, perform in the classroom, and then perform on the court, and then still be able to do your house chores and be a normal teenager,” says Boyce whom his players call ‘Coach Donnie.’

Boyce’s teams have been highly successful since he took over the head coaching position in 2011 finishing second in the State in his first year and fourth the year after. But last year The Pirates were knocked out in sectionals. This ramps up the pressure, says Coach Donnie. 

“We were bred out here in Maywood and Proviso East that it’s first or nothing. To be that close [the first year] and to not come home with the state trophy left a bitter taste in our mouths…and regardless of the level of talent we have, the expectations are State — or nothing.”

Nonetheless, Donnie Boyce relishes the challenge. And the challenges go far beyond the basketball court. “People don’t know all the different hats you have to wear when you sit in this chair. And I wasn’t prepared for that. I felt prepared for the teaching part and the relationship part between player and coach, but being a high school coach you have to be a social worker, a family worker; to be a father figure in a lot of these kids’ eyes.” 

Boyce also took into account feedback from parents and former players to institute a study hall afterschool on days when they have late practices. “It gives me a chance to bond with the players and to see who needs help in the classroom and with their schoolwork. Typically the guys who need help in the classroom are also the guys who need help on the floor.” Boyce also came to the realization that he and his coaching staff play an integral role in guiding the young men in their charge along their path to maturity. 

“I try to teach my players to be responsible, to be accountable when you do make a mistake and that if you work hard, 9 times out of 10 the results are going to come.” Boyce says, “I like the teaching part…when you see a kid work and work and work and then you see the light bulb come on and you see the confidence grow… I really love to work with guys like that.” 

Boyce also values helping his players get to college. “Around here with all the economic and social problems; to take some of that financial stress off the parents [is huge].

“Every year we put at least one or two student athletes into Division I basketball programs, but I place everybody if they want to continue to play; either JUCO, Division III or Division II.”

And Boyce is not the only Proviso East Alumnus to come home. All of his staff have come through the program. 

“The first call I made [after accepting the position] was to Sherrell. Cedric McCullough who is my assistant coach was all area [for Proviso East] in ’88. Kenny Davis was State Champ in ’91 and ’92, and Theo Owens, who has been coaching with me in AAU, works on the sophomore level. And Tom Jesky who does our scouting…I couldn’t do it without him.”

And what about the third and most accomplished Amigo? “If I say ‘Mike [Michael Finley], I need you to talk to the team’, he will do his best to come in or get on the speaker phone…I needed people who would be able to look at a team and say ‘now that’s a Proviso East basketball team.’ I needed people who understood the pressure and expectations of coaching for Proviso East.” 

Oh, and Donnie, just so you know: Dr. Collins-Hart is already making plans, and renting a tour bus for WHEN The Pirates go downstate…no pressure, Coach! But thanks for coming home.