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 everything happened. Boy, did it ever.
The excitement over the Wildcats’ successful fall-league run had a profound effect on the members of the team. I could feel it, and so could the guys. They were looking ahead, planning for the future, often asking me how good I thought they’d be as a team once the “real” season started, whom we might play in the State tournament, and even what the team might look like years down the road.
I loved hearing this. They were talking about the basketball, of course, but really they were buzzing about their lives. They felt good about themselves! How great was that? As for the basketball, I figured they had reason to feel good about that, too. Tony was our best scorer, our best basketball player, but he was not our best athlete. Nor was he the best mentally or physically. His teammates, the 10 or 11 guys who were rebounding, stealing and playing tough defense, were each terrific athletes in their own rite. They were gritty and tough, exactly like the places where they had grown up. Talent-wise, I couldn’t help but feel these Wildcats had what it took, and that they might be able to do some serious damage out there in the state.
Julius was the first player with whom I started to build a relationship. He stood no taller than six feet, but he was a miniature version of LeBron James. His arms were chiseled, his chest was huge, and he literally bounced when he walked because his calves were like springs.He could grab rebounds over guys six inches taller than him, and he could sprint faster than anyone on the court.
Unlike some of the other students at our school, Julius was quiet and rarely self-promoting. He always wore a hat - against a school rule he did not care for - along with the school uniform: boots, khakis and a green collar shirt. And he smiled a lot; when I’d talk to him he’d look me right in the eyes with his big, brown eyes and nod throughout our conversation. He had a short, tight haircut and the faint signs of a mustache coming in, which I often teased him about.
On the court he let his game do the talking, and in the hallways he smiled and joked around with staff and students. He really was impossible not to like. He never cursed-out his teachers, nor did he ever refuse to follow directions, or skip class. He had a great smile - have I mentioned that?- despite one of his front teeth being slightly chipped from an alleged fight —-and he smiled often.
He came to school everyday with his younger brother, Reggie, who also played basketball for the Wildcats.They had different last names but stuck together and stuck up for each other. They didn’t start fights or ever try to show how tough they were — a too-common practice at Charternet.
They were from Shortbridge, easily the roughest city of the three that our school drew from. The fact that their attendance was so spectacular (they never missed a day) spoke to their commitment to school — and to themselves — and TO doing the right thing: they had to travel 90 minutes each day to and from. Julius had been kicked out of Shortbridge Public, and Reggie, who had been accepted into the local Catholic high school for his academic ability, had decided to go to Charternet with his older brother instead.
I dug up this old shooting mechanism, a shooting disc, that my high school coach had given me as an 8th grader to let Julius use. It kept his non-shooting hand, his left hand, off of the ball when he’d practice shooting. Everyday during his PE class or at lunch, we’d go outside to the school’s outdoor court and I’d help him use the disc; it was awkward at first for him, but when he got the hang of it it made his jump shot so smooth that he couldn’t help but celebrate after each swish.
Then, suddenly, for three straight days Julius was a no-show at school. That scared me. A lot. making it worse was that Reggie came to school each of those days, and when I asked him about his brother, he simply said, “He’s just doing his thing.”
What could that “thing” be?
On Thanksgiving Day, after his Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday absences, I went to Shortbridge to look for Julius.
CHECK BACK SOON FOR MORE FROM “FOLLOW THE WILDCATS!”
NEXT UP: Where’s Julius? Part II
Click here to read ahead!