Lewis Thorpe’s loving, lasting legacy

Former North Lawndale basketball coach Lewis Thorpe at the state finals. | Sun-Times file photo

Late North Lawndale coach and West Side icon Lewis Thorpe gets two honorary street signs in memory of his work I was driving when I first heard former North Lawndale basketball star Jonathan Mills was shot and killed. It was July 2016.
I had to pull over to the side of the highway. The thought that Mills might be dead rattled me badly. I could tell Jon Mills stories for an hour, some of them too hilarious for publication in a family newspaper. He said what he meant, then followed it up on the court. I loved watching him play basketball and loved talking with him about basketball before and after games.
My first phone call after pulling over was to North Lawndale coach Lewis Thorpe. Mills had been out of high school for seven years by that point, but I didn’t even worry about that. Thorpe would know and would answer my call, even in a difficult time.
Thorpe answered. And he didn’t just know what had happened, he was there. He was at the crime scene.

Sun-Times file photo
Jonathan Mills

‘‘It’s him,’’ Thorpe said. ‘‘I’m looking at the body right now.’’
Of course, Thorpe was there. That’s whom he was: a person you could count on, a person who was always there. He was there for his family, there for his players, there for an entire community on the West Side. He even was there for reporters.
Thorpe was in tears. The rest of our conversation is private. I had what I needed to do my job.
Thorpe died unexpectedly in October 2018. He was 56. It was a shock to his family, North Lawndale and the West Side.
Look around at the Chicago basketball powers. Almost all the schools have been dominant for six decades or more, under multiple coaches. That isn’t the case with North Lawndale.
Thorpe built a powerhouse at a school no one had heard of, a school without a gym. He led the Phoenix to four consecutive state appearances in 2006-09. North Lawndale won the Class 2A title in 2008, finished second in Class A in 2007 and was third in Class 3A in 2009. He led the Phoenix to the city title in 2009.
But all that success on the court pales in comparison to what Thorpe’s life meant overall. He was married to his wife, Patricia, for 28 years and was the proud father of five children.

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Thorpe was a neighborhood force on the West Side. The night before he died, he was mentoring kids. Not athletes, just students.
Thorpe’s impact was honored last weekend. The city has erected two honorary street signs for him. One is at 16th and Spaulding by North Lawndale’s main campus, and the other is on South Farrar Drive in Douglas Park by the North Lawndale/Collins campus where the Phoenix play basketball.
‘‘Aldermen only get two [honorary street signs] per year per ward, and I gave him both of mine,’’ Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) said. ‘‘He deserves this honor for all the work he did in our community and how much he meant to so many people. He’s an iconic coach, but it is more for how instrumental he was in so many young people’s lives.’’
Chicago has more than 2,000 honorary street signs with no searchable database, but Thorpe is thought to be the first high school basketball coach to earn the honor.
Thorpe’s wife was the driving force behind the signs.
‘‘I wasn’t stopping until it was up,’’ Patricia Donahue-Thorpe said.

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Lewis Thorpe’s family. Left to right: Brandon Thorpe, Jalen Thorpe, Carol Thorpe, Patricia Donahue-Thorpe and Stephen Thorpe.

COVID-19 delayed the installation of the signs, and there hasn’t been an official celebration or unveiling yet. But family members and former North Lawndale players have been stopping by to see the signs all week.
‘‘When I saw it up close, it really hit me,’’ Thorpe’s son Stephen said. ‘‘When I have kids, I will be able to show them this. This does something for the Thorpe family for generations to come. It’s great to know that he’s recognized in the community he made the biggest change in. We wanted something that would be memorable and continue his legacy.’’
Stephen and Patricia managed to keep the sign a surprise from the rest of the family.
‘‘Everyone went over together to see it,’’ Patricia said. ‘‘Just to see the glow on his mother’s face, his sister’s face. This was just an awesome way to end the year as a family. It was rainy, but it felt so bright.’’

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