Gordon Monson: Learn about and remember a life not to be forgotten

(Lisa Marie Miller | Tribune file photo) Judge coach Jim Yerkovich wins his 500th victory in a game against Woods Cross in 2003.

Old folks come and go, and when they do bounce off the backboard and rim and out of this terrestrial orb, often they are remembered momentarily and then they … fade …. fade … into forgotten.

Sometimes, they should be remembered longer.

Jim Yerkovich passed away last week at the age of 77. He should be remembered longer.

He probably will be by the people who worked with him, the people he coached, the people he taught. And when I saw that he died, I thought about those people, but I also thought about a life that was spent informing and enlightening kids in a math classroom and in an old sweaty gym, one that is now named after him.

That should help with the whole remembering thing.

I didn’t know Yerkovich well. He wasn’t an associate or a friend, he was the subject of a profile I wrote nearly 20 years ago, immediately after he gained his 500th win as Judge Memorial Catholic High School’s basketball coach. At that time, he had spent 38 years teaching and coaching at the school, helping kids learn how to properly play the game to which he had devoted his career. That last part, though, is an untruth. He spent those years, and a subsequent six more, committed not to his game, but to his students.

He was teaching more than motion offense and transition D. He was molding disorganized teenagers into disciplined humans. The court at the school was the frame for his instruction.

It’s all he ever wanted to do — coach up the kids at Judge. And teach calculus. And educate and administrate. And win.

So, he did, 634 W’s in total.

“The wins are never as important as the people,” he said back then.

His cluttered office looked like a messy roundball museum, filled in one corner with the painted basketballs that marked his milestone victories to another corner featuring a stack of team T-shirts. In-between were framed newspaper articles on assorted players, piles of basketball paraphernalia, from trophies to a pair of old sneakers, and books on a thousand subjects, including various coaching methodologies.

Up on the walls were posters with crusty old sayings on them, photographs of Yerkovich alongside coaching legends such as John Wooden and Morgan Wootten, and players like Michael Jordan, whose McDonalds All-America team from the East played against Yerkovich’s team from the West. And there were pictures of every one of the Judge teams he had coached, a crowded collection that held images of hundreds and hundreds of former players, with nearly a hundred more yet to add to the assemblage in the seasons ahead.

“Everything in that office represents his life,” said Jim Hamburge, Judge’s principal at the time. “It is his life. He’s not a dynamic person. He’s a calculus teacher who coaches basketball. But his understanding of young people is superb. He’s a consummate virtuoso … and after all the years, his players listen to him. Whatever he says, they do it. Whatever he tells them, they believe it. Around here, he’s like the Pope.”

A Pope with a whistle hanging on his neck and a Spalding — or was that a Wilson? — in his hands.

“By the time I was in the sixth grade, I knew I wanted to be a basketball coach,” he said.

By the time he was in 10th grade, he was a student at Judge.

Although he grew to only 5-foot-9, he managed to earn a basketball scholarship to the University of San Francisco, where he studied philosophy and math and played ball — until he broke his spine in an accident that ended his playing career. Instead, he kept his scholarship by running errands for the coaches and helping out in practice.

“That fractured spine was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “It got me started on my career.”

Almost immediately after graduation, Yerkovich came back to Judge. He became the school’s head coach at the age of 23. The winning ebbed and flowed at first, but over time, his teams piled up the wins with an almost-methodical team concept.

“Togetherness is the focal point,” he said, 500 wins later. “We stress what we can do as a team. We stress the whole concept of ‘We’ instead of ‘Me.’ The best way for me to live and play is we. You have more power that way, more impact. As a we person, you find more fulfillment and success in life. Being selfish, you don’t get the completeness out of what it means to be human. We feel the best working as a team, even in a scoreboard world.”

Added Hamburge: “The lessons he teaches the kids about life are more important to him than any kind of zone defense or full-court press. He’s soft-spoken, but he’s also task oriented and demanding. He expects discipline. One time he sent a player home from practice for using a profanity. He’s always asking them, ‘How can you be a better teammate?’ That’s what he cares about.”

Yerkovich could have moved on from Judge to bigger arenas, to a college gig, to something somewhere that someone might have considered more prestigious, but … he stayed.

“People who get to be high school basketball coaches have a great opportunity, but also a great responsibility,” he said. “Your students want to be a part of your team. They want to be a part of a community. They want to belong. So, they listen … and they grow from there.

“If I had to live my life over again, I would want it to be exactly the way it has been. Even if I had the chance to coach at UCLA, I would rather be here.”

Jim Yerkovich is gone now, having lived that life, having left the gym, as old folks do. But the impact he had at Judge is as vast as it would have been anywhere else, at any place, at any level. May he, and others like him, be remembered, and never fade … fade … into forgotten.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.