Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 05 2012

Basketball = Life!

My dad requested a post about basketball in Indian Country, so here goes.

As you might know, I coach boys and girls basketball teams for my elementary school. This is already a little nutso to me, because on the East Coast where I grew up we don’t do school basketball teams until middle school. But out here, basketball is a BIG DEAL. Partly this is because there isn’t a lot to do out here, so any kind of sporting event ends up being a big draw, but for some intangible reason basketball is this especially emotional, passionate affair. Parents get thrown out of gyms for yelling at refs. Coaches get technical fouls in ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. I get greeted around town and around tournaments by people I don’t know who say “Hey, Coach,” and recap or ask about our last game.

I spent the weekend with my kids at a tournament, and although it took from Wednesday to Sunday, I loved it. (Also I should get used to it because we have tournaments every weekend all month.) My kids ROCKED it. The girls, who are fantastic players but sometimes get psyched out and nervous, came to PLAY and were awesome—they won their first game by 10 and the second by more than 20, even without one of our best ball handlers. And the boys…the boys blew me away. They won both their first games by a combined total of more than 40 points. We rolled into Saturday with a guaranteed 3rd place or higher finish for both teams.

And then both teams lost. The girls had their little psyched-out episode and didn’t really come to play. But the boys…

You have to be able to picture this situation. Our team is from a failing school, I don’t think any of our kids have basketball hoops at home (and many live in totally dirt road areas, so no pavement either), and in general, they don’t get a lot of breaks. The other team is the wealthiest school in Gallup, the kids of doctors and nurses with fancy warm-up clothes, and, not that it matters, but have the most white kids I’ve seen in one place since moving here on their team. The gym is packed with parents of our kids, parents of their kids, parents of kids from other schools who are hanging out until their kid’s game. The noise level is intense. Their coach is yelling, we’re yelling, the kids are playing their little hearts out. You cannot believe the atmosphere in this place. At the end of the first half, we’re up by 10.

And then the refs decided that the other team should win. They proceeded to call the game so that that outcome was achieved.

OK, I know I sound like one of those excuse-y coaches, our team got unfair calls, boohoo. But this was ABSURD. Our best player, who is such a good boy and such a fantastic player, got called on foul after foul where his hands were straight up and down (for the uninitiated, this means you did not foul). They called every call tight on us, and ignored the other team’s crazy-eyed point guard who, quite honestly, scares me to play against (he plays on travel teams with/against some of our kids) because he seems like he’s trying to hurt people. In the second half, the refs called 11 fouls on our boys, including fouling out our straight-up-and-down non-fouler, and only 3 on the other team. We had to play the last 3 minutes without our boy, and we lost by 7. And our boys were devastated.

Here’s the thing. If you’re not from a place this intense or weren’t there, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Even as I write this, I am less incensed than I was. But after the game, our boys sat in the hallway with us, sobbing. They played their very hardest, they did everything right, and they just got screwed.

I forget that they are still little boys. They act so tough and they are such talented players that I forget that they are only 9-11 years old (yeah, okay, we have one 13-year-old 5th grader. Most are 9-11). Plus, so many of our boys have rough home lives and/or struggle so much in school (2/3 of them are in special ed or should be) that basketball is what keeps them going. They have to do their homework and mind their behavior in order to play, and for some of our kids that is the only reason they do those things. And they are such good boys. They are kind to each other, they are funny and goofy and excited about everything. But they get this broken, beat-down attitude when they lose, and I watch them cry into their jerseys, hiding their eyes, it makes me want to just punch whoever it is who hurt my boys.

Anyway, we ended up in 2nd place for the boys and 3rd place for the girls, and the kids felt better post-trophies and T-shirts. But there you have it: a slice of life, and basketball, because of course basketball is life (just kidding! But not really), in my neck of the woods.

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    In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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