Team gives troubled students something to look forward to
CHAMPAIGN – After an overtime loss Friday, the basketball team at Columbia Center is 4-5 in its first season.
That's still quite an accomplishment, considering:
– The team roster can change weekly, or even daily.
–Almost every player has been kicked off the team at some point this year, for behavior or poor attendance or grades.
– Many of the players have never been a member of a team before.
– And most are dealing with serious issues: instability at home, medical conditions, pressure to join a gang, anger, a sense of failure.
Flavian Prince is the team's coach and dean at Columbia Center – the Champaign school district's alternative program for students who have been expelled from their home schools or aren't succeeding there because of behavior issues. He has been amazed at how the team has brought out the best in the players.
"It's a volatile bunch of kids on the floor," he said. "(But) for the most part, they get along with each other and support each other, better than I've seen in any other competition.
"The fact that everything they've been through, you'd think they'd just want to put their foot on somebody's neck. But they find ways to be compassionate. That's what I like about coaching this team."
Prince saw a team as a way to give students a sense of identity related to the school, and teach them responsibility and respect. The team is part of the Illinois Interagency Athletics Association, which includes alternative programs and group homes, and emphasizes good sportsmanship over winning.
"What we try to teach them is, they can start over and have a clean slate," Prince said. "A lot of kids think this is school for bad kids, so they'll be bad kids. There is a tremendous sense of hopelessness."
Tommie Pettigrew, 16, skipped school a lot last year. His grades were poor, and when he was at Columbia, he often would get in fights and get kicked out.
"I was basically not really coming because there wasn't too much to do here except get in trouble," he said.
The basketball team changed that.
"We can come in and take our anger out on the court," Pettigrew said. "Instead of taking it out in a violent way, we take it out in a positive way, on the court."
Prince said the poor attendance and constant turnover of students at Columbia Center make it a challenge to put together a team.
"The biggest thing they are missing is the social tools to function in the classroom," he said. "It is apparent when you put them on a team. Some kids just can't jell.
"Sometimes getting five of them to focus on running a play together is a trick. But when they learn to function as a team, it really translates to class. You can teach them these skills on the basketball court in a manner that is different than it is in school. Some of these kids associate school with failure."
Any student can practice, but to play in games, they must meet certain behavior and attendance standards.
"It's really about putting it back in the hands of the kids," he said. "If they want to do it, they've got to help each other get to school."
Pettigrew said the team has given him and his teammates more self-confidence and discipline.
"People who really enjoy playing basketball have a stake in bringing their grades up and staying on the team. It motivates you," he said. "Before we were on the team, nobody made too much effort in school. We wasn't even thinking about school."
Now, the players help each other out.
"We'll say, 'It ain't cool to be doing this. If you need help, come talk to me or another teammate,'" Pettigrew said. "We've learned more about each other, learned how to cooperate.
"Some people, we had problems with each other, but once we were on the team, we learned to work with each other. We grew our relationship outside of school as friends."
Pettigrew has been a role model for the team, Prince said.
"Tommie Pettigrew, when an opposing player makes a basket, he claps," he said. "It feels good that they can be competitive and be sportsmen, and not be a jerk all the time. They learn it from other people on the team.
"Young black males are taught to act tough and posture. It's all an act, but in arenas where you'd think it would come out even more, it's just the opposite. They're very supportive. They work together as a team."
Pettigrew, who played basketball in middle school, has helped teammates with fundamentals. He grinned self-consciously when asked about being a team leader.
"It's exciting. It made me feel very happy because I have the ability to help people and encourage them," he said. "They always told me I was a leader, but I had to see it to believe it. Now I'm seeing it, so I do believe it."
Said Prince: "This really is deeper than playing basketball, because they can play basketball anywhere. It's just about them being something, accomplishing something. When they find something they are successful at, they really focus on it.
"Once you see how they are outside of showing off for their friends, you see they are amazing kids – smart, attentive."
Prince reminds his players to use the skills they demonstrate on the basketball court to succeed in the classroom. But basketball sometimes becomes too important for them. They can get so excited on game days, they lose focus on school.
Prince actually canceled one game because the players couldn't focus on anything else. Sometimes he'll suspend a player for a while to get his focus back on schoolwork.
But, he said, "I'll do what I can to keep the kids on the team. I know if a kid is sitting on the bus thinking, 'I'll just go to the mall this morning,' the prospect of being on the team keeps them coming here."
He has seen a dramatic change in some of his players. Michael Mitchell, 16, had hundreds of discipline referrals last year, more than any other student in the district, Prince said.
"Last year was just a disaster," Mitchell admitted.
He said being a part of the basketball team has helped him grow up, and he's trying to focus on what he wants and not let peer pressure lead him to break the rules.
"This is my first time to be consistent on something," he said. "We have something to fight for. We usually don't want to fight for anything in alternative school because we don't even want to be here.
"If this basketball team helps me strive for something, I guess I'm going to participate. This basketball team is something I really want."