Casey, Paul, and I were three friends graduating from college having accomplished nothing. We were all as different as our majors, and just as useless. Casey had a degree in social work, though he was the only graduate from the program who didn't really want to change the world. Paul had a degree in marketing, but he had yet to grasp the concept of a legitimate business. I was good at French, so I majored in it.
We sat on the beach while our graduation ceremony took place downtown. I was glad for one less opportunity to trip and fall in front of tons of spectators. None of us had gotten "involved" at UWM during the previous seven semesters, and graduation didn't really seem like the best time to start. I did try to join the baseball team one spring, but the athletic director informed me that I had missed the fall try-outs. I couldn't imagine fall try-outs for a spring sport.
Paul decided to break our silence with one of his usual observations. "I know you two don't give a rat's ass, but I wanna make some bank. We should go into business together. I could easily create an internet porn site with my computer."
"That's been done, Pauly," Casey reminded him. "We need to ... wait a second! I bet we could put an ad in the Onion, and plenty a chicks would get naked for us. Hey Bri, you got that expensive camera and Paul's got the computer."
"Godammit, guys," I interjected. "I know neither of you are about to get naked with the girls, and only hard-core porn sells on the web. Back in high school I thought I'd really make something out of myself, and now this!"
"What the hell do you know?" asked Paul. "You have a degree in French. My sister told me that French girls don't shave."
"That's it!" I exclaimed, not paying much attention to Paul.
"Hairy French girls?" demanded Casey.
"No, man, high school. That's our business." I had to let them in on an idea that just popped into my head. "Haven't you guys heard about that school choice charter voucher thing? Well, why don't we open up a school! Just the three of us. Let's say ninety kids, thirty each."
"What are the numbers?" asked Paul.
"Four thousand dollars per kid," I told them. "I saw it in the paper last week. And my ma knows that Polly Williams dame. She's the state senator who's all big into those new schools."
Casey added, "But we need some sort of draw for the poor kids. Why would they want to go to our school?"
"Who gives a damn!" said Paul. "Ninety kids; four grand per; that equals $360,000! A hundred and twenty thousand a piece, minus expenses. What about the expenses?"
I decided to make something up. "We could rent space from some local industry, and let the kids do a 'School to Work' program. Hell, we might even be able to make a little extra ourselves."
"Once again," interrupted Casey. "Why would they want to go to our school?"
I didn't have to make anything up for this answer. "They're gonna come to our school to play sports, and win. They're gonna come because we'll have a Pass/Fail system, and no textbooks. Believe me, guys, they're gonna come to our school!"
Paul was sent out the next day in search of a local industry or church willing to house our great experiment. Our deal would include the use of a large room or auditorium for about five hours, an hour in the cafeteria, and any weight-training or gymnasium facilities. In return, we would offer two hours per student of work-study and some good publicity.
Casey and I ventured to Ms. Polly William's office, hoping that we might get her help. She was interested and not entirely busy, so we were allowed to present our plan to her. I did most of the talking, since it was pretty much my idea.
"So you two gentlemen are interested in educating the young people of our community?" asked Polly.
"Yes m'am," I replied. "We feel that a school that teaches the importance of teamwork through sports will offer these children a great opportunity. We will stress the acquisition of soft skills, as well as teach ethics, manners, morals, rights as citizens, and a sense of community."
"If we can get a committee together," Polly began, "and a few experienced teachers, we might be able to work on this idea of yours. And we must have a co-ed campus."
"I don't think so, Ms. Williams," I replied. "We want to prove how efficiently and well a school like this can be run. We have a third visionary out in search of a business partner right now. We want to instill a "School to Work" program immediately. All boys equals no distractions, and we can't afford girls coaches."
"I think you boys are sincere, so I'm going to authorize funding for a period of one year, provided that you recruit at least fifty students by next month, and that you have a lease secured. I just don't know if you three are qualified as educators, but we must allow the students and their families to make the choice. Just remember that you do not want to get on my last nerve and mess this up." Polly pointed out our favorite flaw with School Choice. The money goes to whoever makes the best promises, and we were about to make some damn good ones.
Paul had found two local businesses very interested in our new school. Both were newly relocated in the inner city, and they saw our school as a great chance to endear their companies to the community, and get some free labor. I had confidence that Paul would be able to weasel a good deal out of 'em, so I left our future location to him.
MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools to the uninitiated) still had one month of classes, and we needed to get some young men enrolled. Casey and I went to my old school, John Marshall High, in search of some help. My former football coach/guidance counselor was in his office, and I briefly explained my quest. After some coaxing, he agreed to let me access the MPS database in order to find free-lunch students. These kids would likely be eligible for School Choice. I then cross-referenced the names with students who had GPA's below a 2.0. Sadly, the list did not shrink very much.
As the fifth page of names was printing, a young man entered the office. He was wearing Tommy carpenter jeans and a Fubu jersey.
"So, wuz-up, Coach?" he asked of the coach.
"LeMichael, this is a former student who is looking for players at his new school." I was surprised that the coach had called a student already.
"But I don't go to his school," LeMichael replied.
"I think that you should," said Coach. "You've used up all of your appeals, and your teachers say that your grades haven't improved. This young man will give you the chance that I can't give you anymore-- the chance to play." Coach helped me sign a total of six former players on my first day of recruiting.
I combed the high-schools for one week, recruiting a total of twenty-three guys. The stories were all the same, and they all just wanted another chance. I cared but I didn't, and I was just glad to have some students. Nearly half of the boys had "star potential." They were real physical specimens, and their coaches assured me that only grades stood between these young men and possible careers in football, basketball, or track.
I took Casey with me to recruit in the middle schools, beginning with my old school. Little seemed changed at Wilbur Wright Middle School, so I figured that I knew where to find our best men. As the students got in line to enter the school, we waited.
"Hey, Bri," said Casey. "Shouldn't we go in with the students? It's rainin' out here."
He obviously didn't realize what was going to happen. "No way, man. You're about to see some future football recruits in action."
The flow of students had stopped, and two teachers made them wait in the hall. The administration always let us in the building on rainy or cold days, but we were not allowed beyond the main hall. Five-hundred or so students stuffed into a twelve-foot wide, hundred-foot long hall. Someone would always start to push from the rear.
We watched as the students packed in tightly, and then we saw our men. Four gangsterish boys with confident looks began pushing at the back. I could see the other students struggle to maintain their positions. I could hear one of the teachers telling the kids to be patient, but our guys kept on pushing. Then, just like back in the day, one of the boys yelled "Nigga Pile!" The four boys pushed harder and harder, yelling all the while. The fear of the other students was now heightened, and they all began pushing forward. Others yelled and shoved, but Casey and I knew which ones we wanted. The teachers were no longer able to hold back the herd of children, and safety warranted an early entrance to school on this day.
Casey grabbed two of the instigators while I caught one. The fourth stood nearby to observe the punishment of his peers. These were big kids, so I explained myself quickly. All four of the boys turned out to be eligible for our program, and they agreed to give our school a shot. Two of 'em weren't even graduating from middle school, so I suppose the choice wasn't too hard. Charlie, Marvin, Terrance, and Major were our newest recruits, and they led us to the gold mine.
Our new boys reminded us how small the city really is, and we soon had their cousins, friends, and neighbors calling us to find out about the new school. Word began to spread, and a newspaper article was even written. By our third week, we had sixty-five students and a week left to find more new freshmen. We still visited the middle schools daily, but we hadn't yet found THE ringer. I wanted the legend of some playground; a superior talent that would make me famous.
Paul made a deal with Milwaukeelectronics, Inc., a manufacturer of all sorts of high-tech shit. The location was perfect at around 30th and North Avenue. Most of our students lived on the North Side, and the Martin Luther King Center (football/baseball fields) was very close. I was also happy that a Checker's burger joint and a Popeye's Fried Chicken weren't too far away, though Milwaukeelectronics agreed to let us eat in their cafeteria, assuming use of state and federal subsidies.
Casey had gotten busy working with the families, and doing his social work stuff.He helped them fill out all of the forms. We were able to submit our request for funding to the proper authorities. Enrollment was up to near eighty kids by the end of the MPS school year in mid-June. Mandatory football practice with classes was to begin August 10th, and my job now shifted from recruiter of bodies to recruiter of equipment.
My former coach from Marshall helped out with one set of equipment per student he gave me. The other coaches in the city tried to give what they could. I went out to the suburbs and was met with a mix of support and anger. Donations reached about a fourth of what would be needed, with all of the high-schools exhausted. I began to frequent all the Play-it-Again Sports stores around the city, buying all the equipment I could, but we still needed over forty uniforms by July 12th.
I was on the phone with one of the parents, making some arrangements for her son, who "don't like to take showers in front of others," when Casey walked in with a hot little number. She had look-at-me blonde hair and unavoidable brown eyes. My own eyes begged for an introduction, and Casey soon obliged.
"Jena, this is Brian. He's the one with all the ideas." I shook her hand. Casey added, "Brian, Jena graduated from the social work program with me. She decided to track me down after she saw that article in the paper last month. She's offered to help us in any way she can."
Before I could even go through the piggish process of imagining different ways of letting her help me, I said, "She just did, man... Advertising! We'll put an ad in the paper asking for used equipment, volunteers, and more students. We might be able to get another article written about our success, too."
"What's the name of your new school, guys?" asked Jena.
"Oh, shit!" said Casey. "We overlooked that one. How about Hank Aaron High?"
"Good thinking, Case!" I told him. "We can get Paul to talk with local stars like Doc Rivers, Terry Porter, Junior Bridgeman, and maybe Larry Hisle. Even Ray Allen or Big Dog might be interested."
"Big Dog Academy," Casey said. "That sounds pretty cool."
Paul worked on getting us an appropriate name, and the ad spurred some excitement. Old pads and uniforms were sent, including an old leather football helmet. We received baseball gloves and bats. We also received letters from citizens giving their support for a school like ours, but most of all, we got more money. People sent checks along with their well wishes. By the first weekend in August, we had enough equipment to clothe an entire team, which had become ninety, with a waiting list of four. We even got a phone call from Mayor John O. Norquist. Nobody ever asked to see our curriculum or our credentials, though.
Four days before summer practice was to begin, Paul broke the news to us. "I couldn't get anyone from your list of names. Their agents didn't see the risk as worthwhile. I did find a local athlete, though, and he'd be glad to lend us his name."
"Alright, then," I said. "Who is he?"
"Um, it's this ex-Brave Johnny Logan," returned Paul.
"Johnny Fuckin Logan!" screamed Casey. "He's not even black! And he thinks he's a scout for the Brewers or something, but I've never heard Sal Bando admit to it."
"But he's willing to donate money," Paul added. Paul was now fighting an uphill battle, since we needed a black man's name on the school. We had one white kid and a few Puerto Rican's enrolled, but almost all of our kids were black. The fact that the three of us weren't black didn't really occur to us.
"There must be someone who'd like the chance to improve their image," I decided.
Casey spoke up, "Wait a second! Name local star desperately needing some good publicity... C'mon!"
"I don't know, man. Liberace?" I said playfully.
The Lattrell Sprewell Learning Center was open for business on August 10th. Spree even showed up for the opening day of class/practice, and he presented the school with a check worth $200,000 for "scholarship and improvements". Paul wanted to get a School BMW M3 with the funds, and Casey wanted the money to pay back student loans. I was too caught up in the first day of my coaching career to pay much attention to them.
I could see the same fear and excitement in these boys that I felt my first day of football practice. Most of them knew me already, but I went through the introductions. I had two volunteer assistant coaches, Mr. Connors and Mr. Davis. They were both retired high-school coaches who lived nearby. They helped me distribute the equipment. We didn't exactly have a locker room, so my students were expected to carry (or wear) everything between home and school daily.
The days were set up so that we would work on offense for two hours, break and talk for two hours, and then work on defense for two more hours. We used the land behind the Martin Luther King Center for our practices. By the end of the first week, I could see that we had some definite talent, and they were all given play books to memorize. I wanted to run a Four-Horsemen Offense of my own design, along with a fifty-four pressure defense.
I went out with Jena the Friday night after the first week of practices. She had been busy helping Casey and Paul set up the auditorium in the Milwaukeelectronics Building for classes. She told me that she was worried about not having some sort of textbooks, or even professional teachers. She was also worried about our "School to Work" program, which she saw as child labor. I wanted to tell her that we can't change the world, but I knew she wouldn't believe me.
"Jena," I said. "Over time, this will become a sound program with countless opportunities for the students and potential employers. We just have to let it take its own shape for now, and make adjustments later."
"What about Paul's new Range Rover? Is that part of the shaping of your school?" I had not expected her to know about Paul's spending spree.
"He draws a salary from the school," I replied. "He just used the donation money as a loan until the government sends our checks."
"I'm just not sure whether you guys are doing all this for the kids or for yourselves."
So what if we get rich while helping the kids! We weren't hurting anybody. I wanted to prove to her that we were going to help these young men, or at least I was.
I got the bad news early that Monday morning. Two of my students had knocked-off a convenience store and been caught by police. The surveillance video had taped them wearing their football jerseys. I knew the fallout would be enormous when Casey told me that all the local news channels had aired the tape, with only the kids' faces blacked out. The same media that had helped to promote my school as something special would likely now promote it as some sort of cesspool. Regardless of the school's tarnished image outside of the community, parents and neighbors rallied around the program. Maybe they knew what it was like to be good people with bad reputations, or maybe they could now see the program as "us against them."
Only two kids missed school that day, and we had an inspired practice. The kids could feel the sense of urgency , and they listened when I preached about destroying our school's image, and their chance to play. During our discussion time that day, I talked to them about the old Negro Leagues. We talked about discrimination and segregation, but we also discussed hope and opportunity. I told them about how the Negro League teams would often "barnstorm," and take on local white teams.
"Hey Coach!" said number 46. "Why don't we do us some barnstormin'?"
"When you all have six plays memorized on offense, we can do that," I replied.
"Straight?" asked Charlie.
"Damn straight!" I said. "And that's why I've divided us up into two full teams. Forty-five on each side. We can run all-out scrimmages against ourselves until we're ready to challenge other teams." They gave me an easy way to divide them into an A Team and a B Team. I called them Red and Blue.
That day, Terrance got picked up by his cousin, Mark. Terrance introduced me to him, but I didn't think anything of it, until T-Bone told me that Mark was only seventeen. One look at this kid, and I knew I had my ringer. He was easily six-five, with guns as big as most kids' thighs. The last grade that Mark ever passed was seventh, but some things can't be taught, anyhow.
I told Paul that I would need a bus for Friday, since I planned on taking my boys out barnstorming. The team heard rumors that their season might begin Friday, so they worked extra-hard to learn their plays. I told the Red Team that they would stay back with Coach Connors, and the Blue Team would come with me. That's when Paul showed up in a large U-Haul truck.
"What's this for, Paul?" I asked.
"You wanted transportation, and buses cost over a hundred dollars for your trip. This truck cost me thirty bucks." I didn't bother explaining the legalities or the comfort issues or the fact that he had just bought a freakin' Range Rover. I just calmly loaded my Blue Team into the moving truck, and we headed for the 'burbs.
We rolled into the Hartland Arrowhead parking lot around ten in the morning, much to the surprise of the coaches. When I proposed the idea of playing us, but they refused at first. Their coaching staff heard mumblings from their own side and soon realized that some sort of honor was at stake.
We decided on an hour of warm-ups, and then my Blue Team would play the Arrowhead Freshman squad. The refs I had hired arrived right after we did My team was ready, but I could see the fear of another failure in their short lives. Their fears were short-lived.
Arrowhead, a perennial conference champion, folded early and often under the superior talent and execution of my Blue Team. My guys seemed to play with the belief that every play was their last, and when the last play came, we had a 26-0 victory.
The Arrowhead coaching staff came over to talk with me after the game. "Your boys didn't play too bad today," admitted one of the men. "Too bad they can't stay out of jail."
Another coach added, "I know they have some real talent. They're always better at basketball, and they get all that practice running from the cops."
The head coach had had enough. "I believe that some of us are sore losers. You had the superior force today, and I wish you the best of luck. I hope you really can help those kids out, and I admire you for trying."
The head coach made me feel so good that I lost my desire to let them all know that they had lost so terribly to my B Team. I knew then that I did want to change the world, and I also knew that I had the means to do so.