Gamekeeper: Former NU coach Rich Falk keeps lessons alive at popular basketball camp

When Rich Falk held his first basketball camp in the summer of 1980 Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had just finished their rookie seasons in the N.B.A. and Michael Jordan was going into his senior year at Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C.

Today, the Rich Falk Basketball Camp for elementary, junior high school and high school boys between the ages of nine and eighteen at Trinity International University in Deerfield has the distinction of being the longest running basketball camp in the Chicago metropolitan area.

The superstars Bird, Johnson, and Jordan have come and gone, and the game has changed significantly during this span of nearly four decades, but Falk’s unique philosophy has never changed. “First and foremost, ours is a teaching camp,” emphasized the former Galva High School and Northwestern University star and coach who went on to spend twenty-one years as an assistant and later associate commissioner of the Big Ten before retiring in 2010. “We teach fundamentals and instruct players on how to properly play the game of basketball.

“Our program combines individual fundamental development, basic and advanced team concepts, game situations, and several competitions and full-court games to emphasize all aspects.”

The teaching goes beyond the basketball curriculum. The importance of academics, attitude, behavior, and teamwork are constant points of emphasis. “We have a proven system,” Falk said. “Each year we simply refine and implement it. The Rich Falk Basketball Camp shows young men what it takes to succeed in basketball and in life. Our goal is to get kids in the frame of mind to be successful.”

Lake Forest College was the camp site for its first eighteen years before Falk moved it to the present location at Trinity International University. This summer the Sunday-through-Thursday overnight camps for boys are scheduled for July 16th to 20th and July 23rd to 27th. In addition to the overnight campers, there will be some commuters. A day camp for girls seven to fifteen was inaugurated in 2014, and this year it will be held from July 10th to 13th. This year for the first time there also will be a separate day camp for boys during the same July 10th to 13th time-frame.

Falk congratulates a camper, one of dozens who come for the intensive basketball boot camp. (Photo by Lois Bernstein)

Since 1990, the co-director of the Rich Falk Basketball Camp has been Rich’s son, Geoff, an assistant principal and department head at Hampshire High School who coached at Galesburg High School from 1999-2003. Another son, Michael Falk, a Chicago attorney who has a high school basketball star at Glenbrook South, conducts a shooting clinic and makes a Powerpoint presentation on playing the game more effectively. Behind the scenes Rich’s wife, Susan, and Geoff’s wife, Joanna, play important organizational roles.

There’s also the figurative extended family, namely the supervisors and coaches who keep coming back year after year—Ike Johnson, who oversees the College Division for players in the middle age group, has been on the staff for all but one year; former camper Jeff Hippen, supervisor of the High School Division for the youngest campers, is another who has been a fixture for more the three decades; and Paul Alpera, who runs the Pro Division for the oldest campers, is a seventeen-year staff member. There are twelve coaches—four in each division—and a dozen or more counselors, most of whom are former campers.

Like Rich and Geoff and their wives, every supervisor, coach and counselor is at the overnight camp twenty-four hours a day. “Every night when the kids come back to the dorm we all come back,” Falk said. “If you want to work for me, you can’t go out at night. You’re going to stay in the dorms and set a good example.

“After the kids are in their rooms, we have a staff meeting from 10:30 to 11:30. We break up into groups and plan the next day’s curriculum. When we go to bed we know exactly what we’re going to do in the gym. We’ve got to have a curriculum plan and be ready to go when I blow that whistle.

“We’re not baby-sitters. We take this very seriously.”

Every day is structured. Campers get up between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and have breakfast. At nine o’clock the whistle blows and they spend the rest of the morning working on shooting, ball-handling, defensive, and rebounding fundamentals. After their lunch break they return to the courts where they hear guest speakers, engage in individual drills, and play a game. The afternoon session ends at 4:30 p.m. and the next two hours are spent eating dinner and relaxing. Open gym starts at 6:30 followed by night games.

“They play one game in the afternoon and two games at night,” Falk said. “They take the fundamental skills and apply them to the team concept with four other players—set a good screen, create space to get your shot, block off your man. If they’re not getting the ball a lot, we stress how important it is for them to become an outstanding reaction player by getting loose balls, steals, deflections, and rebounds. When you can do all of those things that will endear you to your coach.

“Every kid who comes to this camp will be within a minute or so of every other kid in terms of playing time. Some will start and some will come off the bench in one game and in the next game it will be the other way around.

“We have The Falk Rule: If it’s a tie game, the team that scores last wins. That means you don’t foul and you don’t take bad shots; you play better defense and you play better offense.”

Big Ten Network analyst Shon Morris comes to the camps every summer to give motivational speeches. Morris scored 1,407 points as a Northwestern player from 1984-88, and Falk was his coach for the first two years of his college career. “He was the guy who recruited me and the opportunity he gave me is something I’ll never forget,” Morris said. “Every significant positive thing in my life I can trace back to the opportunity to go to Northwestern. He has been a big part of my life and I have the utmost respect for him personally and professionally.

“We stayed in touch and I welcomed the opportunity when he was kind enough to ask me to come to his camp for an afternoon and speak to the group. It’s easily been a decade or more that I’ve been doing it, and it’s something I enjoy. It’s not just his name that’s on it. He’s doing instruction. He demonstrates a lot of drills. The way he runs his camp is the way I think camps should be run.”

Rich Falk averaged more than twenty points a game as a high-schooler and nearly fifteen as a Northwestern Wildcat. He briefly played in the N.B.A. before beginning his N.U. coaching career. (Photo by Lois Bernstein)

Falk is a disciple of Tex Winter, the assistant coach who installed the triangle offense that enabled coach Phil Jackson to bring out the best in the world-champion Chicago Bulls of the nineteen nineties. When Winter was Northwestern’s coach, Falk worked as his assistant for five years prior to succeeding him in 1979. “Everything we teach is the Tex Winter way: You teach fundamentals every day and you never go to extremes” Falk said. “Every fundamental skill—ball-handling, shooting, defensive stance, and rebounding—is broken down, and in everything we do, we stress attitude, fundamentals, execution, and pride.

“One year, when he was with the Bulls, Tex spoke at our camp. In my mind, Tex is one of the top coaches who ever lived and he has eleven NBA championship rings from his time with the Bulls and the Lakers to prove it.”

Falk doesn’t hand out championship rings at the conclusion of his camps but he does have awards galore in each of the three divisions. In each division, there are plaques for Mr. Hustle, Mr. Enthusiasm, Most Improved, Best Attitude, Best Ballhandler, Best Shooter, Best Defender, Best Rebounder, Free Throw Contest winner, Hot Shot Contest winner, 1-on-1 Tournament winner, and 3-on-3 Tournament winners. Runners-up receive certificates.

At the concluding session an award goes to the Player of the Week in each division and there also is a Coach’s Award, which is essentially a consolation prize that goes to the second most outstanding player. “I’ve had youngsters who have come for seven or eight straight years and in that first year Mr. Hustle is the only award they’re able to win because they’re not experienced enough to win some of the other awards,” Falk said. “They’ve gotten better and better each year and by the time they’re in the Pro Division they’re up for our top award, the Dave Laban Memorial Player of the Week Award. I don’t vote on any of the awards. That’s all done by the coaches and division heads.

“We don’t give out trophies to winning teams. At the end of camp we have them stand up and we give them a round of applause.”

Glenbrook North basketball coach Dave Weber (brother of former University of Illinois and current Kansas State University coach Bruce Weber) began working at the camp a few years ago and he has become one of Falk’s most zealous disciples. In the educated opinion of the Glenbrook North coach: “It’s the best camp I’ve ever been involved with. Rich gives one hundred percent every day. That’s why he is so successful. He is beyond anybody I’ve ever been around in the game as far as his love for it is concerned. The camaraderie Rich creates makes this camp.

“Today, with all of these AAU situations, there is tremendous pressure. I think that’s the big difference you see at Rich’s camp—the kids have fun playing basketball. They go there for a week and they learn and they play a lot of basketball and they make friends. You see kids laughing and enjoying the game. It’s refreshing to see.”

Morris sees another unique aspect: “That camp fills to capacity every session and they don’t advertise. It’s all repeat customers and word of mouth. In this day and age when there is so much competition and so much opportunity, that’s remarkable. It’s a tribute to the quality of the experience these young people have. They keep coming back and they share their experience with others and that keeps it going.”

Falk doesn’t claim that his camp will be a player’s ticket to a college basketball scholarship or even a slot on a high school team’s roster. He pointed out that of all the boys and girls nationally who start playing basketball in fourth grade only five or six percent will go on to play high school varsity basketball. “But I don’t tell our kids that,” he hastened to add. “I tell them: ‘Always shoot for the moon; it worked out for me; it has worked out for others; and I hope it works out for you but always put academics first because you need a Plan B.’”

On the first day of camp Falk tells the players: “Our goal is to try to give you everything we can in the way of skills that are required to try out for your next team so you’ll have a better chance of making that team.”

At the end of the camp the coaches conduct what Falk likens to an exit interview, detailing the observations they’ve made. “It gives the coach a chance to say something personal,” Falk explained. “He will tell the player the three or four things he needs to work on and the things he has been doing well. The sign of achievement is not the award you might win. It’s the self-satisfaction of knowing that you’re improving. That’s a confidence builder.

“There’s no star treatment at the Rich Falk Basketball Camp. They all pay the same amount of money, they all deserve the same amount of playing time, and they all deserve to be treated the same way.”

About the author

For forty years, Neil was a byline writer for the Chicago Tribune and his beats included the Chicago Blackhawks, Big Ten football and basketball, and horse racing. Among his many national and regional awards, he was a member of a reporting team that earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

More From Chicagoly