The first four minutes were scoreless and it was, frankly, painful to watch.
One boy tried to dribble around his back and lost control passing the ball. Coach immediately pulled him off the court and sent in a substitute.
Another blocked the first shot the opponents attempted, then dribbled the length of the floor and shot an air ball, missing everything. You could feel the frustrations rising among the players and the Coach.
One of the beauties of basketball is that it isn’t that hard to put the ball in the hole. When you first start playing, there’s enough positive feedback that anyone can develop a serious basketball jones and become obsessed with the game and notions of where it might take you.
It’s also an egalitarian sport. Unlike football or even tennis, it does not require much gear. Unlike baseball or soccer, you can play a meaningful game with as few as two people. And while expensive club teams offer the best competition in many sports, anyone with a hankering can find their way to a good game in their neighborhood or go to the Greenlake outdoor basketball courts and test their skills against former and future college and pro players. If you are lucky, you can even have your shot swatted into orbit by local NBA superstar Shawn Kemp.
That’s the deceptive part about basketball. It looks like individual effort conquers all. Unlike other team sports, basketball’s five-person squad is small enough that one player can dominate a game. And playing on the street, it is often all about domination.
Jeffrey Lane calls it “savage individualism” in his book Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball, saying the game celebrates machismo.
At the same time, “to lower-class blacks in the inner cities of America, basketball has become one of the most expressive modes of cultural expression,” according to Nelson George (Elevating the Game).
The team had won their previous game — the first victory of the year in the Magnuson Park Recreation Center league — but now the players, most of whom live with their families at Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus, seemed to be backsliding in their next-to-last game.
Certainly they had some athletic talent and lots of moxy. And in the pick-up games these kids were used to playing, that was often enough to be successful. But in organized team ball, attitude and effort will only get you so far.
And for many young people growing up in poverty and disadvantaged neighborhoods, basketball seems to actually be a plausible way out. Kids see the multi-million dollar professional players and imagine themselves in their signature brand shoes. And with skinny little Steph Curry winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award two years running, you don’t even need to be a physical giant to succeed! According to our staff youth advocate, Charlisse Hammon, many of our kids have grandiose notions of becoming NBA stars.
And so when a resident of Solid Ground’s single adult housing program at Sand Point volunteered to coach a team of youth from our family housing in the rec league, there were kids waiting to play.
“Around 250 children and youth live among the formerly homeless families at Sand Point Housing,” according to Kristin Klansnic, Children’s Services Manager.
“Many of the youth face mental health and behavioral challenges stemming from the trauma they have experienced in their upbringing,” Klansnic says. “We are trying to give them as many opportunities as possible to explore new activities, succeed in school, and increase the protective factors in their lives.
“A recent needs assessment shows families and staff agree that we need more sports and recreational activities for the kids.”
As soon as Coach saw them scrimmage, “I knew that we were going to lose every game,” he tells me. (In order to protect privacy, neither Coach’s nor the kids’ names are being used in this piece.)
“They did not know how to hit lay-ups, how to box-out. Just basic stuff. And that’s from kids that have played street pick-up ball forever. I have told them first day that playing pick-up ball is great just to get out and have physical activity, but you don’t learn anything. If anything it enhances the bad behavior that I am seeing.”
So Coach tried imposing structure. He tried teaching them the Princeton offense and Temple defense, drilling them on fast breaks and other plays.
“Not knowing these kids at all, not knowing any of the kids around here, I started with the discipline. I was the authoritarian guy. I created this long player conduct contract, like two pages. I worked in NCAA compliance, so it is pretty similar to that. I treated it like a college team. I figured out that wasn’t going to work after a while.”
It was more than just players hogging the ball and shooting it every chance they got. There was fighting among the team, and challenges to the Coach.
“I was called every name in the book,” Coach says.
Somehow the team survived the first half down just 18-15 and through the opening minutes of the second half, you could see them settle into the game. Players recognized opportunities to pass to teammates in better positions to score. They did not execute well, and so could not finish the plays. But they were seeing them.
“I know that coaching is such an important part of a kid’s development,” Coach says. “I remember my first coach. Most of these kids have never played team sports before. And if they have, it’s football, which is a totally different thing. This is focused.
“I told them stop playing 21, it ruins your game. So now at least they are playing half-court. I showed them this drill that drove them nuts in the beginning. Now they are doing it on their own: no dribble basketball. And they are so good at cutting. They didn’t know it was a drill. It works.
“In the games, it hardly ever translates. They have all this bravado before the games, and then when the game starts they are like little kids, ‘What do I do?’ They don’t run any of the offensive plays … they don’t have confidence in themselves to run it.”
And yet, their expectations, or dreams, are sky high. While most of the kids could not even make their high school teams, many believed they would play pro ball. “You can’t deny a kid a dream. But they are two years away from getting out of high school. They have to have (more) realistic goals,” Coach says.
“Some of the kids are parenting themselves,” Hammon says, “and they don’t know the type of accountability we are holding them to. This is an opportunity they might not get and we have some special circumstances.”
Over the course of the winter season, there was clearly evidence of the boys pulling together, starting to jell as a team despite their circumstances.
It was a learning curve for Coach as well.
“I can’t imagine what these kids have gone through,” he says. “I grew up in a nice environment, had everything I needed. I can’t even pretend to know what they are going through. But I’ve had long conversations with kids that I never would have experienced if I didn’t do this, about fathers in jail, drug problems, girlfriend stuff, really deep stuff.”
Midway through the second half, the opposing team stopped hitting its outside shots. Our boys grabbed rebounds, worked for open shots and eventually pulled into the lead 26-25 with 11 minutes to play.
The heat in the gym started to rise. While first half mistakes were met with a devil-may-care attitude, a victory in sight meant the stakes were higher. You could see it in the players’ effort: a quick burst on defense to steal a pass, tussling for rebounds under the basket. But you could also see the delusions of grandeur take over as the more skilled players tried to take the game over and failed. A few lousy calls by the referees and a game see-sawing in the balance tipped over to the advantage of the other team.
“This basketball program allowed a wonderful group of teens to participate on a team with their peers,” Klansnic says.
“The response from the youth was very positive. We are working to increase the number of opportunities like this. But space and funding challenges need to be worked out. We partner heavily with the Magnuson Community Center and their basketball court has limited availability due to limitations in funding, staffing, scheduling of other groups, and the cost of running such a program.”
When the game was over, our players dispersed from the gym. A few bickered and chased each other out. Others shuffled in solitaire around the next two teams setting up their warm-up drills and headed out into the afternoon sun.