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FOLLOW THE WILDCATS: A Player Emerges

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.

By the second game, I still hadn’t memorized the names of the boys who signed up to play for the Wildcats’ fall league team. It was still only October, and the rush of the new school year, its intensity, and, yes, the fact that my new day-to-day job had me exhausted left little time to get to know so many personalities. First year teaching - or just working in a school - is so exhausting, it’s incredible. I was coming home every day, crashing on the couch and doing my best to keep my eyes open, unable to move.

But one name emerged after we lost our first game: Tony, Tony, Tony, Tony. All of the boys were chattering about our next contest, two days on, against Langdon Public, and how they’d have to find a way to stop this guy Tony.

Tony, as it turned out, actually attended our school, Charternet. A teacher pointed him out to me, and I immediately recognized him from seeing him in the hallways. He was quiet, but he had a smile that hinted at a warm, gentle, inner light. And he was a leader. You could see it in the way the other students responded to him.  He possessed a natural presence. In the loud, riotous hallways between classes, a mere tap on the shoulder from Tony turned heads. Students gathered around him and smiled, even if he spoke only a few words.

But, according to Tony himself, he wasn’t supposed to be at Charternet. He had apparently been involved in what the local newspapers had treated as a very serious crime, a situation he thought would soon dissolve. Until such time, he was no longer allowed at Langdon Public. I heard bits and pieces about what he had allegedly done, but not enough to form a clear picture of why he was here.

So he came to the only school that could legally take him, and he was apparently telling everyone that he would soon be gone. Until his departure and reentry into Langdon Public, he said, he’d be playing for Langdon Public in the basketball fall league. Rumor had it he resented having to go to our school and, he was sure the Wildcats’ basketball program was going to be a joke.

Two nights later at the YMCA I took my baseline seat and watched Tony torch Charternet’s fall-league team for 30-plus points. He was one of the most graceful young players I had seen in a long, long time. He sailed through the air for tricky layups with either hand, depending on what angles defenders took away from him. He dribbled the ball with a physical command that rivaled a college basketball player’s. He was a true talent, period. Even if he was beating up on the players from our school.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, dropped that second fall league game in the same frustrated, divided, angry fashion as their first. It was clear to me that street basketball was all they had ever seen, barely having played a refereed game all of their lives. Access to organized leagues and seasoned coaches meant having money, which they did not have.

And it was clear to me that we were going to need Tony.

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

NEXT UP: Tony Changes Everything

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