LYONS – What better place to harken people to “Return to Heaven” than in a church?
This initiative, however, has nothing to do with organized religion. It’s all about basketball.
For Derek Molis and athletes like him, being on the court playing the game he loves is the closest they will come to the Pearly Gates in this life. The McCook native wanted to make sure they had an environment in which to do it that was divine.
“Back in 2006, I really wanted to start a basketball program,” Molis said. “The most important thing about my company is that it was founded literally on the belief of teaching skills and drills and the mechanics behind the entire game.”
Molis founded The Athlete Within Basketball School and began operations at the McCook Athletic and Exposition Center (MAX), where he served as director of operations and marketing. The MAX started as a private venture and eventually was obtained by the village of McCook.
Jeff Tobolski, mayor of McCook and a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, is Molis’ cousin and helped him secure the position, Molis said. He left his job with the village of McCook after several years and decided to focus on his business.
Molis also wanted to find a new facility out of which to run his school. He came across the gym at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lyons, and he knew he had found his spot.
But heavenly isn’t how Molis would describe the gym’s condition when he first saw it. The facility was part of the construction of Zion’s newer school addition, built in 1961. It needed major renovation, so Molis got to work.
With funding from an investor, Molis planned the rehabilitation project for the gym. A stage and bleachers were removed, and a new hardwood floor was installed along with new baskets and wall pads. Molis also modernized the bathrooms and a shower area.
Inspired by the title of an essay he wrote about his love of the game, Molis decided to call the new facility the Return to Heaven Gymnasium. The name can be seen on a small ramp right at the foot of the gym along with his essay, part of a series of sports-themed posters he created.
The program offers professional instruction in basketball through private lessons, camps and team competitions. He also operates Full Package Athletics South/Amateur Athletic Union.
Molis has the background to make his venture effective.
His father, Wayne Molis, played in the NBA for the New York Knicks. He and his brother, Brian, were standout players for Gene Pingatore, boys basketball coach at St. Joseph High School in Westchester.
Molis played college basketball at Fordham University and Loyola University Chicago. He also has played basketball internationally.
Playing in prep and collegiate sports is different than it was a few decades ago, Molis said. Many athletes need private training to keep up with the competition and gain an advantage, he said.
“When you’re a young kid coming up, no matter what sport you’re in, sports have changed so much in the last 15 years,” Molis said. “It’s kind of unfortunate for a lot of kids, because unless you have super God-given athletic abilities, you almost have to do private instruction no matter what sport. Because if you don’t specialize, by the time these kids get to high school, it’s just so cutthroat by that time where they have a difficult time making high school teams.”
This specialized training has made a difference for local athletes, said Marty Henehan, TAW’s director of travel operations. He oversees the programs travel teams and their athletes competing in the Amateur Athletic Union.
“Two years ago, we had 24 boys in our eighth-grade program; 22 of them made their high school teams,” Henehan said. “From [Lyons Township High School], where they had two teams of 24, nine of those kids came from our program. We’re very proud of that.”
Molis and members of his staff aren’t the only ones pleased with how TAW has transformed Zion’s gym and is flourishing in the community.
“I think it’s beautiful,” the Rev. William Orr, Zion’s pastor, said of the gym’s renovations. “He put his heart and soul into it, and I think he’s did a remarkable job. … We now have more people in the building. It’s a great symbiotic relationship.”
For Molis, the reward is in passing on his love of basketball to a new generation of players.
“Basketball is obviously in our blood. It was in my blood; I could never really get away from the game, whether I was playing — I play to this day — or now I really teach it. It’s my time to teach it.”