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FOLLOW THE WILDCATS: A First Look

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 toFollow 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 school was teeming with male athletes. Geez. All it took was one look at a P.E. class for me to see it.

Out on the parking lot of the school, groups of boys leaped up to catch Frisbees with ease, landing on one foot and avoiding being tackled by their friends. Or, they’d play a rough game of football, dodging each others’ tackles, throwing jagged fakes left and right. They could run, change direction, change speed. And they did it wearing raggedy old sneakers, cocky smiles on their faces.

The downside was that most of them smoked cigarettes after each P.E. class, during lunch, before and after school. I hated seeing that, but I was too new to even hint at saying anything.

A lot of the boys played for the school’s football team, which required practice every day after school.The problem, the head coach told me, was that he rarely had a enough players show up to run an actual, prepare-for-the-next-game practice. Still, one look and I could see he was working his tail off trying to keep the program going. There was a lesson in that for me, I realized, and made a mental note of it.

Two nights per week, after football practice, several of the boys headed over to the local YMCA to play in a fall basketball league against other local schools. Our school has a no-homework policy, minus a few classes, so this league provided something to do and a place to do it. Charternet, I had come to realize, is a last stop school for many of these students, male and female, who are sometimes only attending to avoid or put off jail time.

The fall league was organized and used referees. As the high school team’s official head coach, I wasn’t allowed to coach in this league, but I could watch. To keep the boys organized, I had to hire a coach, and I was lucky to find a great guy: Jabari. Some of the boys knew him from a local community center, a plus. Jabari is a big, laid-back guy in his late twenties — not a whole lot older than the guys on the team, another plus. He is also African American, which I think got him the boys’ immediate approval. He knows the game, too, and came highly recommended from some other coaches, whom I was just beginning to get to know.

At the first game, it was immediately apparent that basketball was going to be popular activity at Charternet. That excited the heck out of me - it could really be a big motivational tool for a lot of kids.Twenty-five boys showed up demanding a uniform, but I had only 18. Some who came late and didn’t get one cussed at me, claiming I was playing favorites, and a few even left the gym. 

When the game started, I sat on the baseline, prepared for my first look at these Wildcats to be. It didn’t take long: talent wasn’t going to be my problem. How to harness it, use it, control it, employ it, mold it - that was my assignment. 

There were lots of arguments — with each other and with Jabari when he subbed them out. They got beat handily and stalked off the floor without shaking hands with the other team. First look? My work was cut out for me, that was for sure. But where to start? I had numbers and talent on my side, but clearly these guys had never been taught how to play the game together. Probably not the only thing they’d never been given the chance to learn.  I picked up the uniforms they’d left strewn on the floor and headed home.

Check back soon for more from “FOLLOW THE WILDCATS!”

NEXT UP: A Player Emerges

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