Marlo Finner shortly after being appointed as the head coach of Kenwood Academy’s boys’ basketball program in April of 2014. (Marc Monaghan, Hyde Park Herald)
Gavriel M. Wilkins | 02.07.17
CHICAGO – It is 4:57 p.m. on the first day of February. In a dimly lit gym off the shore of Lake Michigan, the proverbial sheriff in town has arisen after keeping a watchful eye on his team. He is not pleased with what he sees from his players during the initial drills conducted in practice. Seeking to make his presence felt, he makes a statement. One so loud, that it echoes throughout the hallways of the school on 5015 South Blackstone.
“It starts NOW!”
While practice appears to be getting underway, Kenwood’s rise from relative unknowns to a promising Public League power on the hardwood seems to be taking full shape.
Prior to Marlo Finner’s arrival at Kenwood two and a half years ago, the Broncos boys basketball program appeared to be in a constant flux. The team bounced around the Public League’s Blue and Red Divisions over the past few decades. Despite putting together a few winning seasons over the years, the program had only managed to achieve success in the city’s inferior Blue Division.
As of April 2014, Kenwood went 101-130 overall in its last nine seasons as a member of the Red-Central conference.
Until, the new marshal took over.
In his first two and a half seasons as the head coach at Kenwood, Finner has help guide the Broncos to a 56-18 record overall, taking the basketball program just north of Hyde Park to new heights.
The former local prep hoops star at Phillips and Missouri forward, has led Kenwood to two out of the last three Red-Central conference championships and its first ever city championship game versus Simeon in 2016.
How has the program near President Obama’s former backyard, turned its fortunes around so quickly?
“Coach Finner brought to this school a level of basketball expertise, but also came from a rich tradition of successful high school basketball here in Chicago,” says Kenwood principal Dr. Greg Jones. “He believes in the kids, and they also believe in him… just watching the practices and workouts, you notice that kids are fully vested.”
Prior to heading over to Kenwood, Finner served as the varsity boys basketball coach at University of Chicago Laboratory School. He helped guide the Maroons to a 20-8 record in his first and lone season with the program, en route to earning the Independent Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year award in 2014. However, Finner’s route towards earning a head coaching job at the varsity level did not come easy.
Not long ago, Finner was an assistant varsity boys’ basketball coach at Morgan Park High School. During his time there, he also managed to serve as the Mustangs sophomore head coach, where he would lead his team to the city semifinals in 2008. Months later, Finner left Morgan Park for Waukegan to serve in the same capacity for one season under the legendary head coach Ron Ashlaw, where he would help steer the Bulldogs varsity squad to its first-ever state championship game versus Whitney Young in 2009. Shortly afterwards, he would return back home to serve as an assistant once again at Simeon under the legendary Robert Smith. At Simeon, he further cultivated his coaching prowess, and helping direct the Wolverines to four straight Class 4A state championships from 2009-2013.
It was during this time that Finner envisioned himself serving in a lead seat someday, as he would play a vital role in the development of several players who went onto play at the Division I or NBA level. Finner mentored and groomed local talent from the likes of Steve Taylor (Toledo), Kendall Pollard (Dayton), Jaylon Tate (Illinois), Zach Norvell (Gonzaga), and Jabari Parker of the Milwaukee Bucks.
“Usually when you build a program, you have to go get what you need,” says Kenwood assistant athletic director Charles Tabb. “The lucky thing about this program, was that he did not have to go anywhere because people sought out him…he allowed them to compete.”
Yet, Kenwood has done more than just solely compete.
The Broncos have posted a .757 winning percentage as a program throughout Coach Finner’s tenure, garnering at least 19 wins or more each season over the last three years. Despite being hit hard by graduation this past spring, Kenwood has managed to infuse a line of new blood on its roster this season. Featuring a team that can play up to 10 guys, despite the loss of two Division I players in Nick Robinson (St. Joseph) and Zion Morgan (UNLV).
Several players on this year’s current roster have attracted the attention of multiple college programs. As a result, many people throughout Hyde Park cannot help but take note of the program’s most recent transformation.
“The bulk of the games are sold out. We have lines outside,” Jones says. “The gymnasium is packed…the alumni is really excited about the program…When we played Simeon in the city championship game, thousands of people were there to a point in which it was close to a sellout crowd at Chicago State.”
On top of receiving a strong level of support from the community, Kenwood also managed to score themselves an apparel deal with Nike following last year’s city championship game. Although you could never tell from being around Finner.
“Coach Finner is a student of the game,” says Kenwood assistant coach Steve Parham. “He’s always reading and learning about new ways on how he can better connect with his players…He keeps the guys focused by going through drills over and over with constant reps. So, that they are comfortable and not worried if they’re unsure of things.”
Many of his players also feel the same way, as they truly believe that Finner is the biggest piece in what has helped Kenwood Basketball turn the corner as of late.
“Coach Marlo means everything to the program,” says Kenwood junior guard R.J. McGee. “Without him running the program the way he does, I do not know if Kenwood would have ever been this successful.”
It is 5 p.m. on the second day of February. The sheriff takes the floor yet once again for practice. This time around, he puts his players through grueling conditioning drills and continues to keep a watchful eye his team. Once the team wraps up a set of Indian runs where the last player in a single file line sprints to the front, Finner rises up from his chair on the sidelines to speak with his team. Letting them know that there is still more work to be done.
The Broncos’ march toward capturing their first-ever city and state championship begins now.