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FOLLOW THE WILDCATS: Passionate Play

The journey of a Connecticut inner-city boys' high school basketball team whose toughest opponents are the daily struggles of each of its players.

The following blog post was taken from its original location, found here.

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.

As soon as I could after I watched the video that showed eight of our basketball players robbing a convenience store, I huddled with Coach Williams and Coach Anderson. What should we do? What could we do? It seemed for sure that arrests were coming, with likely some jail time for at least a few of them. Forget the basketball for a minute. Forget the whole Wildcats thing I was trying to create. Exactly how naive had I been to think I could turn hoops into a haven for these guys, given the reality of the world they lived in? A world I barely knew or understood. 

No surprise: Word of the store robbery had leaked into the student population. How could it not? But to them, it wasn’t headline news. The boys and girls who asked me about it, they took it as just another story. Another story in a long line of stories they had heard before just like this one.

There were no easy answers. No easy solutions. Maybe no solutions at all, at least right now. The more we coaches talked about it, the more it became clear to us that until further notice, it was out of our hands. We couldn’t punish the players until we knew what the law was going to decide. Plus, not everyone on the team had been in the store. Ayo had refused to go, knowing what was going to take place. Terrell chose the same route, deciding to go home instead. And even the guys who did go, were they all equally guilty? This whole thing could wreck the team, take it apart, and then where would we be, where would I be?

So we concentrated on the one thing we could control. Hoops. We had a scrimmage to prepare for, our last one before our first game. This time, we weren’t going to a Danby-like town where we’d feel like aliens. We were headed to Middleton, a blue-collar town with some very tough parts, and to a high school that had a strong history of basketball ups and downs. The boys knew many of the players, played in off-season leagues with them, even hung out with them. Bragging rights were the name of the game against Middleton High.

Tony, Ayo, ‘Nique, Primo and Tito started for the Wildcats. They had had the best week of practice of anyone and therefore deserved to start. The Middleton Knights put out a lineup of similar height and weight, and they stared down our boys as they walked onto the floor.

And then it began. The Wildcats played hard. I mean hard. They sprinted to both ends of the floor, picked up their opponents on defense way before they had to, shouted to each other when they needed help, and they went after rebounds like it was going out of style.

Tony put on a show. He stole the ball from his man repeatedly, scored with layups, jump shots and three-pointers, and led the Wildcats full court press with volume and velocity.

The Wildcats knew that even though we only won one quarter (like at Danby, the scoreboard was reset after each quarter, standard practice at scrimmages), that by tying with Middleton in one and being within one or two baskets on the other two, that they had inflicted some serious damage.

“Nice work today, guys, seriously. That team is a well-known program with a lot of history, “ I shouted to a happily distracted locker room. “You guys are ready for our first game, so let’s have a great week of practice!”

It was finally coalescing. The carefully designed practices, the one-on-one chats we coaches have with each player, the encouraging, the arguing, the sweating and the long, long hours. The Wildcats were five days away from a test they had put more time into that perhaps anything in their lives.

How it would all go down would leave heads spinning.

COME BACK SOON FOR MORE FROM “FOLLOW THE WILDCATS!”

NEXT UP: Where’s Julius? Part III: Pre-Game Information Overload


Click here to read ahead!

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