This week we hit the basketball court for a story about how, sometimes, the game can take on a deeper meaning. And stay tuned till the end of the show, where we have a new Sonic ID, this time from Speaker’s Circle.
Columbia’s Douglass High School provides at-risk students with a non-traditional classroom setting. And for 17 years, the Douglass Bulldogs basketball team has provided an extracurricular avenue for students to make friends, learn sportsmanship and compete. KBIA's Matt Veto has more.
Basketball is just a game for most kids growing up shooting hoops in the backyard or at the playground. That’s how it started for many of the kids that make up the Douglass High School basketball team. As they entered their teenage years, though, basketball grew more meaningful. For some, it’s become more than a game.
“I’d probably be in the streets, running wild. But basketball just changed me all over, everything.”
That’s Chartez Westbrook. He’s a senior and has played with Douglass for four years. He’s six-feet tall, has dark eyes and hair, and a bright smile when he lets it out. Westbrook speaks with an uncommon maturity for a high school kid. Westbrook is 19 years old, the oldest player on the team. He says he was held back in third grade.
Growing up, Westbrook lived in three different cities and went to three different Columbia junior high schools before finally finding some stability at Douglass. He works most days at a factory and attends classes when he can. And one year ago, Westbrook had a child. He says that moment changed his life. … Then he had another child five months ago. He lives with his girlfriend and second child. Despite those challenges, Westbrook is on track to graduate on May 17.
“Man, being a dad. That just woke me up right there. Everything that’s happening in Columbia, it’s hard, for real, but it’s not hard for me, because I’m not in the streets. I’m at home 24/7 with my kids, just trying to be a good dad, that’s all. That’s all I want out of life, just for my kids to tell me how good I was when they were little. Just support and all that good stuff.”
“You say 'everything that happens in Columbia.' What do you mean?"
“Like the murders and the shootings and all that. I try to stay out of it, because without basketball, I’d probably be in it. In the middle of the mess and driving everyone crazy. I don't know. I just– basketball changed my whole way of thinking.”
As a school, Douglass is officially called “non-traditional” because of its smaller class sizes and different learning environment. Westbrook gets class credit for working through the school’s work-study program. Some call Douglass an “alternative” school or a “second-chance” school. Bottom line, the students that attend Douglass might be there for different reasons, but they all share the “at-risk” label.
Basketball helps them shed that label for a little while.
“Gotta have our leaders emerge, guys, gotta have leaders.”
Coach Lynn Allen has been leading the team since the program began. He called this season a “miracle” – not because of records or wins – but because they had a team. For the first time in 17 years, Douglass almost canceled its entire season. Poor grades and some trouble with the law led to ineligibility. But by January, Allen finally had something to work with. And in February, the team was preparing for the final games of the season, including the district playoffs.
Chris Ellersieck is a volunteer assistant coach. He graduated from Douglass in 1999. He admits he’s protective of his athletes. Sometimes he says he worries that the game means too much to them.
“It seems like too often kids have too much pressure to be too much. And while basketball is kind of a lifestyle, it’s not everything. It doesn’t need to be everything.”
But Ellersieck understands the deeper meaning. So, for nothing in return, he is there every day, picking players up at their houses, bringing them to practice and games, and back home. Coach Allen says that a lot of times, the kids haven’t eaten anything. Sometimes they forget the little things. Like socks.
“That’s your all’s job, most players have to bring uniforms, they have to bring shoes, their warm-up tops are on hangers…I’ve never had any players forget socks.”
Ellersieck says there is a lot for the players to think about. Thinking long term about things such as college and jobs can be almost impossible.
“To get them to think in terms of weeks, months, years, it’s different. Sometimes you’re wondering what tomorrow will bring.”
The Bulldogs finished their season with nine wins and four losses. They won a district game, but lost to the eventual state runner-up. The Bulldogs finished the season with six players on their roster, and four of them are seniors that will not be back next season. Allen says each season is like a clean slate.
With no more basketball, it’s back to real life for Westbrook. He says he loves being a dad, changing diapers, giving baths. It’s that 4 a.m. wake-up call courtesy of his five-month-old that’s hard.
“She loves 4 o’clock, I don’t know what it is, she just loves its. Every 4 o’clock in the morning, I hear my girl, “You going to get her?” I get up and make her a bottle and rock her back to sleep and sleep for an hour and get up and go to work and when I can come to school, but I told my job they’re going to have to wait for me to graduate, for me tot come back, because I’m trying to get school over with so I can get a better job and get my degree.”
Westbrook is just one of the “at-risk” survivors. He says he wants to keep playing basketball at a junior college if he can. Otherwise, he’s ready to concentrate on academics.
Some of Westbrook’s growth came on the basketball court, to be sure. Ellersieck says Douglass and its basketball program offer a chance to learn from mistakes. But he doesn’t view that as a “second-chance.” He calls it a first opportunity.
When walking around the MU campus you might see a man in Speaker's Circle. Something of a fixture, he's there at least two days a week and he's playing hacky sack. Well, I wondered about him. Here's this week's Sonic ID: Derrick Fogle.