The Last Three Months as a Basketball Coach in Baltimore
Updated: Feb 11, 2020
From: Derek Davidson
Date: February 21, 2008 3:20:03 PM EST
To: Like literally everyone I knew
Subject: The last three months as a basketball coach in Baltimore
I'm sorry I haven't written more often. I made a promise to myself early in the year to never write when I was feeling down, not in the sake of censorship or misrepresenting what I am doing here in Baltimore, but rather to give my mind time to calm, to remain even-handed about an experience that lends itself to sensationalism. So, in these last few months I have been incommunicado in an effort to let my mind settle, and, having done so, I am ready to talk again.
Even with the distance, things are still sensational. I have been wriggling under the work load, smiling through the halls, sleeping less than ever before, and slowly realizing that my heart is full of children, and I dislike adults. I have managed to keep writing. Mostly in emails or journal entries. Some of you will have seen some of this. This is all about my experience as the basketball coach at my school.
My 8th grade basketball team got jumped, nearly all of them, on Thursday evening right after practice--by grown, gang-affiliated men, the parents, uncles, older siblings of kids from Roland Patterson Middle School, which we share a building with. My players were beaten. Hit in the face with bricks. Dropped to the ground and stomped. Some of them are very hurt. Can't walk, etc. The police came after about 30 minutes, and as soon as anyone heard sirens, they walked away from the scene. Just walked, no running. My team was asked if they could identify any of the attackers, and even though the cops had rounded up people who were walking through the neighborhood, who had obviously just been in a fight, none of the kids would identify anyone. This is Baltimore, after all.
I found out on Friday morning. The entire school day was derailed. No work was done. I decided that rather than try to suppress conversation about what happened, I would just sacrifice the school day to discussion of violence and gangs in Baltimore. I would try to get my head around what happened. I asked my players if they were okay. They were. Some of them were already cracking jokes about it: "Greg was fighting a grown man. Mike pulled out his belt and started whipping niggas! Hyah! Hyah!" Others were less okay. "My man Khasim can't even walk. I had to carry him home, twenty blocks, through Whitelock." (Whitelock is very dangerous place.) Khasim didn't make it to school that morning, so we called from my classroom and asked him how he was doing. "I'm pretty lumped up, Mr. Davidson."
Kids were wild in the halls, trying to muster up support for retaliation, while administration called everyone involved and anyone excitable into the office to give statements about their feelings and intentions. Students are honest, so administration got answers they didn't want to hear. After school, teachers went outside, stood next to police officers and surveyed the land, looking for anger or mischief. There was none. I had held it together all day for the kids, but when I got home that evening, I turned Ante Up by M.O.P. all the way up, punched holes in my closet door, and screamed so loud that my roommate, three stories below, began crying.
Apparently, this kid Chris, a really sweet, quiet kid who helps out on my basketball team as a team manager, missed the first bus. So he and this other boy, similarly harmless, are waiting behind for the second bus, and some random kids who are apparently about high school age come along and ask them for bus tickets (which are given out to students so that they can go to and from school on public transportation), and they didn't have any except their own, so the kids beat them up. Then someone ran upstairs where the entire basketball team heard about it, and they ran downstairs to fight, twenty deep.
They get downstairs and find a big group of older kids, they ask who beat up their man, and the kids eventually say it was this one smaller guy (who was apparently old-looking, just short). So my student.. I almost wrote son because that's how I feel about this kid, Greg, he is going to fight this guy one-on-one, but he decides that it would be unfair because the guy is so small, and Greg is a beast, so Greg tells a smaller kid from the team, Desi, to fight. Desi is small, but he is a rock. There is no give in Desi at all. So Desi beats this guy silly, and teachers see from the seventh floor windows that he is stomping on this kid. Then, as Desi is stomping this kid, the kid's friends get itchy and a big fight breaks loose. Teachers are still on their way down seven flights of stairs. Kids are scattering.
I call them over to me. They come. Police officers grab some of them. Kids are screaming and angry and wanting to fight and hype. Police officers are cursing, one of them is in plain clothes, and the kids almost attack him. A female officer grabs Greg by the neck, ripping his T-shirt, along with another kid, Marquis. Oh yeah, it's snowing, and most of the kids have run down without coats or whatever. I am in a dress shirt and a tie. I am negotiating with police for the freedom of my students, Greg and Marquis. They take them inside to the School Police Office after having Greg sit there shivering for 30 minutes in a T-shirt sitting in the snow.
We usher all of the kids back upstairs to get their statements and call their parents and figure out what the fuck happened. As we walk up the stairs, there are some kids from Roland Patterson (the really dangerous school beneath ours that I told you about) at the windows in their door jawing and throwing gang signs. Roland Patterson has riot doors installed. You have to hold the bar for 15 seconds before they will open, the lock is super heavy duty, and there is an alarm any time the doors open at all. Keon Ballard, one of our kids, a soft spoken, subtle kid who is classified as ED (emotionally disturbed, translation: in severe need of therapy in order to become a productive member of society) walks up to the riot doors and rips them open. With one arm. He ripped the lock straight out of the door. The door flung open, and the boys from Roland Patterson ran off. I immediately step between our men and the now open pathway to destruction and begin screaming at them to keep going upstairs. I've probably never screamed so loud, and right now my throat still hurts, and I can't really speak. I was terrified. But I screamed anyway and was ready to do whatever, but there were 25 of them and one of me. I don't know why, but they listened to me.
We go upstairs, and get statements, and I pull Keon aside and tell him about how silly of a choice he made and how angry I was at him for putting everyone there in danger, not just physically but legally and with our principal. I tell him that if he gets in a fight, or starts a fight, or whatever, if what he wanted to happen right then happened, he would have gone to jail. I tell him that it was a stupid decision, and that I take it personally that he put me in that situation. I say these things to him in a quiet, secluded place, in a calm tone, and he responds respectfully. He says, "Mr. Davidson, I am sorry you had to be in the middle of that. But what you don't understand is that I do not regret opening that door."
Thirty-minutes later, we are all walking back downstairs to make sure the kids catch the next bus and go home. I am holding it together, but I can feel the collapse coming. I'm frazzled and unsure how long I can remain presentable. And suddenly, as we walk through a parking lot that had just been a battleground, a parking lot freshly covered with snow, the warrior children who were cursing and spitting and ripping metal locks off security doors became plain children, throwing snowballs and smiling and dancing. Nick Howard, a goofy kid that I just let on my basketball team, threw a snowball in my ear (I still wasn't wearing a coat), so I dropped him. Kids are dancing in the roadway at the bus stop, singing, smiling. Craig is released. Teachers all go back upstairs and wait around for the bureaucratic cluster-fuck to grind to a halt. All the major roadways are shut down from the snow and ice. One of my fellow teachers gave me a ride to school that day, and I asked her if we could give Greg a ride home. So Greg, Ms. Estevez, and I are all driving home through heavy traffic and heavy snow. Greg sees his brother walking. We pick him up. I ask Greg what all happened, having already heard the story from some fifteen people. He tells me, with tears welling up in his eyes, that if it hadn't been Chris, if the kids had jumped someone who knew how to protect himself, if they hadn't messed with someone who never messes with anyone, he probably wouldn't have run down there.
Ms. Estavez drops Greg, Money (his brother) and me off at my house. Money and Greg come in and meet my roommates. "They don't look like teachers," he says. I drive them home through the snow. I am a bad driver in snow, even without frayed nerves. I manage not to wreck. We stop and get chicken boxes (chicken, fries, salt, pepper, ketchup. Asian people almost always run the stores that sell chicken boxes, which are almost always in predominantly black neighborhoods). I drop them off at home, drive back to my place, fall asleep until just now.
The ninth grade basketball coach is an idiot. He doesn't know the game, and he doesn't work well with the kids, and he doesn't have their confidence, and during a game last night, he called a kid out and started dressing him up and down, yelling at him for not doing things that this coach hadn't taught him to do. I got real upset. (The adults are almost always worse than the children.) I talked to the director of my school, who is married to the principal of my school, who is the older sister of this coach. He, the director, seemed to understand. I told him that I was going to say something to Amit (the train-wreck-of-a-coach/little brother/simpleton) about it.
I did. I explained, in my most tactful approach, which is incidentally not all that tactful, that he can't speak to kids that way, and I tried to explain what all else was going on. He got upset and told me to keep my opinions to myself. I haven't had anyone speak to me like that in a long time, and perhaps it is some sort of cosmic justice for my perennial lack of tact. But I wanted to punch him in the face. Badly. This guy is like 26 years old, but he is a child, and he must look at me and think the same thing, but the truth of the matter is that kids throughout the school, parents of players, and players themselves have all asked me to take over their team. Anyway, he began to give me this spiel about how his team is harder to deal with (it probably is) and that I seem to think I am some wonderful coach (I don't), but he hasn't had as much practice time (he hasn't) and bla bla bla. He started insulting me, and I apologized for offending him, and said that we should finish our conversation later, which was all the task I could muster to keep me from breaking my hand on his face right there. When I later talked to my director, he seemed to understand, but when I talked to my principal, she just parroted the same things that her little brother had said. I told her that Amit had spoken to children in ways that were flatly inappropriate, and she said "Well that's subjective, isn't it." So I said that it was, and that we should finish our conversation later (my go-to in matters of diplomacy it seems), and then I took today off because I slept for four angry hours and couldn't make myself go into school today.
We were playing Baltimore's Best, an AAU team that has been together for five years. They shouldn't really be in our league, since AAU is a much higher standard of play, but they are. So we play them sometimes. They play disciplined ball: smart kids who hit shots and know the game; a skilled, but ruthless coach, who often instructs his players to foul to the ref's blind-side. They are very good, but they play a bit dirty.
Our entire basketball team is eligible to play for once. They've all been on their best behavior in preparation for the game, staying out of trouble, keeping their grades up, coming to practice. The men are convinced that we will win the game. I am optimistic.
The game is heated. We are winning, but just barely. The refs are calling very little, and our men are getting upset. The ball gets tapped loose, and Greg, our star player, dives for it. Boys from the other team jump after him, landing on top of him. In the pile, one of their boys throws a punch to Craig's back.
Greg is a 6 foot, 170 pound, zero-body-fat-having free-safety of a 15-year-old. Greg is a football player and a very good and highly recruited one at that. Greg sometimes gets so frustrated about sports that he cries to himself, silently, during games or on the bench. Greg is a gang member from Whitelock. Greg's father is sometimes in jail. Greg has a four-month-old child. He is dating a girl named "Buttons" (not the mother of his child) and his nickname is Butt-Butt. Greg is the smartest kid in the 8th grade. He made a 95 on my most recent test without studying or even being aware of the upcoming test. Greg wears his little sister's fancy colored, polka-dotted socks and mismatched shoes, and makes jokes almost constantly in class. Greg loves me and has offered to hurt people on my behalf. I once saw Greg in the hallway without his shirt on, and I yelled "Greg, put your clothes on!" He responded that he was trying to "make that money" for the basketball team so that we could buy team shoes. Greg is funny and talented and wonderful, and one time he had to miss school to go to court for an assault charge. Greg has a warrant out for his arrest. Greg attends anger management classes. They are only partially successful.
So this boy punches Greg in the back, and Greg gets up and tries to start a fight. I manage to get between them. I pick Greg up and carry him away. He is focussed and yelling and has only one thing on his mind. I take him to an equipment room. He is livid. I put him down. Khasim is there as well, having moved to support Greg in the fight. They are both ejected from the game. My assistant coach has taken over for me. I tell them both how heartbroken I am. Greg is crying, breathing hard, almost seething. There is too much frustration to hold inside of his body. He is shaking. Khasim is calm, but visibly upset. I talk to them for a while. They calm. I ask them to stay in the room, so I can go coach. There is a plexi-glass window in the room, and the boys can see the game.
I go out to coach, and we are winning, up by 8 point in the fourth quarter. Our team has pulled together. People are stepping up their games. Dominic, our second most talented player, has completely taken over. He is driving to the hoop, absorbing the contact and making the shots. After every play, he picks himself off the ground. During one play, Dominic is slammed hard to to ground and is slow to get up. Greg, still in the room, slams his fists against the plexi-glass, and the entire crowd gets quiet. I walk back into the room and bear hug him around his shoulders, restraining him from the crowd's sight. He is crying and cannot stop telling me that "They're cheating. They're cheating. They're cheating. They're cheating." He is a child. I hold him tighter and say "Calm down, Son. It's a game, Son. Calm down. We're still winning. Your team is pulling together, representing us. Relax, Greg. Breathe, Son."
We won the game. After the game, the coach of the other team and the commissioner of the league came into Greg and Khasim little room, and explained the consequences of their actions. Greg and Khasim apoligize and shake them men's hands. When it is just me and Greg in the room, I ask him if he would apologize to the other team. He wipes a few tears from his face and nods. We walk across the gym, just Greg and I. We approach the other team, and I ask the coach if my player can apologize to his team. He calls his team together, and Greg apologizes for disrespecting the other team, their coaches, and the game. He shakes hands with everyone there. One of their coaches says "It takes a big man to do that." Greg and I walked back to our bench, I thanked him for apologizing, and he nodded again.
Since then Greg was kicked off of the team by my administration (whose attitude toward my team has been consistently negative). We lost the next game in a crisis of leadership, loosing a bit of our composure, but we've since rebounded and pulled together. I am starting a 14-and-under AAU travel team of my own with the Maryland Tiger's association in Owings Mills, Maryland (just north of the city). Greg and Khasim are both playing, as are several other people from my basketball team. The point of the team is to showcase talent and give kids a year-round reason to keep their grades straight and their behavior on point. We also want to get some of these kids out of Baltimore. Many of them have literally never left their neighborhoods. We'll be traveling all up and down the east coast, playing games against top teams from the region. I'm real excited about it. It will, however, be expensive, so if anyone is feeling generous and wants to sponsor the team, you could email me and I'll get you the information. But you all are my friends and family, and I don't mean to solicit you. So please ignore that last sentence if you want.
In other news, my classroom is one of my favorite places, I have made plenty of friends here in Baltimore, and I have managed to adapt to the cold famously. I used to think I was just really used to the heat and it never bothered me. Now I realize I really just don't care what temperature it is.
I'll try to send more emails, and perhaps happier ones.
I love y'all and miss y'all. Write me back.