Nelson Mandela once said education was the best way to change the world.
Sports are a close second.
"Basketball is a powerful force," said Kelcey Watson. "We use it as a hook to get kids interested in education."
I hadn't been with him for five minutes before it happened. Watson, the director of Chattanooga Elite Basketball, was walking the halls of a local rec center when a kid -- black, not much older than 9 or 10 -- walked up and hit him with The Question.
"When are tryouts?" the boy asked.
Kids these days face a full-court press of trouble. For black kids in the city, sometimes it's like being triple-teamed. Poverty. Heartbreak. Homes where any good quickly hot-foots away. In that three-word question, Watson heard the child asking for help. For something else. Something bigger.
When are tryouts?
Every spring, the Elite fields teams of kids -- fifth-graders to 11th -- from across the region (middle-schoolers try out Dec. 15 at Tyner High). Teams of 15 or so players then practice together through the spring and summer, playing tournaments near and far. But it's more than hoops; these coaches teach lessons Mandela would dance over.
"How to be a man. How to be a husband. How to be a father. How to commit to something that's bigger than themselves," said Watson.
Want to know why Watson and the other Elite coaches deserve any extra prayer, checkbook donation or award you've got? Want to know why the axis of this city is greased less with City Hall and police policy and more by the everyday love and labor of good men and women? Want to feel Jimmy-V good about things?
Then meet the Elite coaches.
"They are the best of the best," said Dr. Kathleen Hunt, board chair of the Elite.
Remember the faces of the 32 black men arrested and charged as our city's worst of the worst?
"These men are the opposite," Hunt said.
One rainy night last week, I met with Watson and a roomful of his coaches. I lost count of how often they told me education mattered more than basketball. How they use the sport as a platform to teach discipline, academics, positive brotherhood, anything that counters a slam-dunking, exam-flunking mentality. High school basketball games last
four quarters; these men coach with their eyes on a fifth.
"Life and education and the workforce," said coach Mark Thomas.
Players hand in their report cards. They have required reading and mandatory community service. They visit colleges, plant trees, pack food bank bags. They listen to guest speakers. Sometimes, when they leave home for tournaments, they learn how to pack an overnight bag. (Their coach teaches them.)
"We are their fathers," said Edmund Baulding.
They travel to out-of-state tournaments where they play (and win) against some of the best players in the nation. ("Shaq's son played on a team," one coach said.) Between games, they visit college campuses and meet college coaches. They realize the world is bigger than the Chattanooga streets. They realize the presence of a good man is even bigger.
"These are my sons," said Corey Odom.
They learn the hard way: you don't run a play right, you sit out. You don't do your homework, you sit out. There are consequences on the courts and in life.
The Elite isn't just urban black kids. Some players are white, some with homes far away from the city. Some are the purest shooters in city; others miss right-handed lay-ups in the beginning.
"We see their progression as men and basketball players," said Carlous Drake.
Black kids from the city become best friends with white kids from the country. They spend the night with one another and ride together to tournaments. It's unconscious racial reconciliation, via the basketball court.
Sports fans, you may know some of these coaches: Mark Smith, Gary Long, Jay Price, Leroy Alexander, Tashina Kelsie, Michelle Alexander. Some were star athletes in high school and college. Some are teachers. Some are here because they were coached by Watson years ago, and remember what it's like to find something you so desperately need.
"Young black men are our future," said Watson.
Any coach will tell you that in basketball, one of the most important plays is something called an assist. One player passes the ball to another, who then scores. The player who scored gets the limelight; the player who made the pass is credited with an assist.
It's the most important play of all, as one man helps another succeed.
Just ask the Elite coaches.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.