Welcome to “Follow the Wildcats.” This recent basketball season I did my best to keep an accurate journal of the center-city high school basketball team for which I was the first-year head coach. “Follow the Wildcats” is a compilation of many stories, told through the lens of the Wildcats’ lives. Names and identities of people and places have been changed in deference to the people involved. But all of these stories are 100% true. Everything happened. Boy, did it ever.
With the long day of getting all the players’ physical exam paperwork behind us, Coach Anderson, a history teacher at Charternet, and I decided we needed to reconfirm our commitment to the boys that this season, this team, was a go. So during the day we made sure to find each player in the hallway between class, shake his hand, and tell him how much we looked forward to having him in practice that day.
Nonetheless, five of them were no shows on Day 3, bringing us down to 12 players.
“I told you, Coach,” Tony said as he and the others got onto the bus for practice that afternoon, “these dudes ain’t gonna take this seriously. They’re gonna treat it just like football and not care at all. You don’t know these types of kids, man.”
Another boy, Terrell, a tall, wiry boy from Shortbridge with a huge Afro, had a different attitude. “If these dudes ain’t gonna show, more playing time for me, yo,” he announced to the bus full of boys. (Though he didn’t say “guys,” he used the n-word, which I’ve come to learn is allowable with and among peers.) The boys laughed, shouted and screamed that he wouldn’t play even a minute. “Your Afro’s too big, man!”
Terrell had transferred into Charternet just a week before basketball started. A social worker he knew asked me if I’d let him play, despite not playing in the fall league, and I happily accepted him. It seemed to me, based on the timing of his entrance into Charternet, that he was only enrolling so he could play basketball. Rather, basketball was forcing him to enroll in school. So I had no other choice but to take him. Plus, he had a great smile and laughed a lot. I didn’t know much about his background, other than that he hadn’t been in any school the entire year, and that he was 18 and - while at that age he should have been in his senior year - was starting his sophomore year.
The fact that five guys had apparently decided not to play left me torn. I tended to be loud, harsh, and overly enthusiastic in practice, and perhaps in the school’s hallways, as well. Sticking to my guns, to my own ways, meant those guys had quit on the team and I would never allow them back. But softening my approach meant going to them and trying to see what I had done wrong to throw them off, to turn them away from wanting to be a Wildcat.
“If those guys don’t want to be here, we can’t force them,” Coach Williams said.
He was right, in a way. And I had to represent consistency to these boys. Plus,we had to make it our priority to reward and focus on the boys who were committed, and not to dwell on those who had decided not to play.
It was time to start developing the core cast of the Wildcats, and they helped their own cause by showing us that week that yes, indeed, they were ready to play some hoops!
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