Follow The Wildcats

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

Phone Call: Part II

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.

Two days after being offered a coaching job at Danton High School, I met with Mr. Thomas, Danton’s Athletic Director, in his office at the school. I had driven through Danton’s quaint downtown to get there, through quiet streets and past big front yards and impressive homes. I passed the middle school and elementary school, bright red brick buildings adjacent to big, colorful playgrounds and sprawling green fields. I passed mothers speed walking together, I passed dads watering their landscaping and kids in baseball uniforms eating pizza outside of a small, mom-and-pop restaurant.

The entrance to the high school’s campus had its own traffic light, just before a well-trimmed soccer field, which was next to another field within a rubber, professional-looking track. Beyond that field was a row of tennis courts, and then a practice football field. To the left was a football stadium, its field made of bright green turf. I parked and walked through glass doors underneath a big sign that read “Athletic Complex.”

I sat down in Mr. Thomas’ office and we discussed the details of the job, the ins and outs of Danton, and its apparent need for a new basketball culture. He added that there was a strong likelihood that I would be able to teach in the school district, and to run camps and build my own program from the ground up. “I’m concerned,” I said, “that I am leaving Charternet too soon, too swiftly after such a strong first year of building relationships.”

I could sense Mr. Thomas’ understanding of youth, his knowledge that coaching was never about winning, but about changing the lives of youth. Never had he mentioned Danton’s need to win basketball games. He had spoken only about the Danton basketball players’ need to be led in the right direction with discipline and consistency, and the program’s need for energy and positivity.

“I understand,” he said, nodding. He paused for a few seconds, looking out of the window of his office. “You know, there is never a good time to leave,” he began, turning back to me. “Every year, there will be the next group of kids coming in who you want to help.”

I pictured my idol, my college basketball coach, pacing the sidelines of our home bench. Once, early in his career, after a 31-win season at our small, Div. III school, he was poached by a school in the Big East. And after another championship season, he was poached by an NBA team. These were offers he had refused, he said, because of the intimacy and importance of helping boys grow into becoming men at our school. Thirty-four years later, after compiling 602 wins, there he stood, giving a retirement speech to an audience of 200 former players and their families, humbly satisfied with his body of work.

“Coach,” Mr. Thomas continued, “Danton will accept what you want to do - helping the less fortunate from this area - with open arms. Danton is very giving community. People here will appreciate that you want to do more than coach basketball.”

“It will be a staple of my campaign here as a coach. It has to be,” I said resolutely. I was not making demands. I was reflecting on the fact that, suddenly, I had inwardly decided I would leave the Wildcats for Danton. I could no longer struggle to make ends meet, I knew. I did, at some point, have to think about myself. But in this instance, that thought was not singular. I was excited by the prospect of coaching the youth in Danton, by the challenge of revamping its basketball culture, and mostly I was excited by the prospect of meeting a new set of ballplayers whom I could mentor.

The underlying thought running through my mind was simple, though: The less stable I was, the less stable the Wildcats would be. And at that point my mind was a mess from the chaotic lifestyle I had led for a full year. A full year of low pay and uncertain future employment opportunities, and year’s worth of days filled with a group of kids needing my constantly from the minute I woke up, and even when I went to sleep. Being so incredibly bogged down with what this work required and not being able to make ends meet was no way to help the Wildcats make it through their daily struggles. Something more strategic had to be put into place, and as the leader of whatever that would end up being, I had to make sure I could survive.

In the end, Iif Charternet wasn’t sure that they could rehire me and if I didn’t have a job, then the Wildcats would suffer, too.

It humbled me to know that I was their lifeline. But in deciding to depart from them as their basketball coach, it gave me a lifetime’s worth of adrenaline to know - to know suddenly intrinsically - that I wouldn’t give up until I found a way to help them long term.

I was no longer going to pace the sidelines at Charternet. There, it had never been about wins and losses. It had been about our relationship together, the Wildcats and me, a mutually beneficial experience that had transformed the way I thought.

My bigger offer had come knocking, I suppose. But I answered only because I hoped it would permit me to continue what I had started with a group of boys whom I had the obligation to turn into men.

But could I make it work? I needed to serve the Dalton kids equally well. That was what I was being hired to do. But could I also keep the Wildcats in my life and give them what they needed? Could I enlist the help of a supposedly generous and caring Dalton community to keep my promises to the Wildcats?

Time would tell all of that. But my past said so much more. It said the situation in cities like Landgon and Shortbridge were so much worse, so much more dire, than a lot of people truly knew.

Yes, they carried their typical labels as places “in need.” But they were so much more than that. They were environments where youth’s lives were lost before they started. They were streets that swallowed up young men and didn’t even bother spitting them out. They were traps and mazes that came without instructions explaining how to escape. They were terrifying, dark places that left scars on the Wildcats’ lives; some could be hidden, others could not.

I let eight Wildcats out of my grasp in one year. They were all serving time in prison, and the five that remained would undoubtedly wonder how now I could just walk away.

I walked off knowing I’d remain committed, but not knowing exactly how that looked.

And the Wildcats let me go, justifiably assuming I was just another visitor who would not return.

Thank you for reading “Follow the Wildcats.”