Old backboards, leaky roof, no wins — and joy

RicardoBasketball has always been my favorite sport to play. I like to play baseball and football, too. But basketball has always been the sport I find myself yearning to do.

Whenever I watch basketball, I get the itch to go to the court. I always remember my childhood at the Washington Neighborhood Center, where I learned to play basketball, where I molded my game and forced myself to learn how to shoot left-handed—my natural hand—because I had a “broken” right-handed shot. For me, the closest thing to playing organized basketball was the WNC.

I say closest to organized basketball because the only way we played against other teams was through the connections of our coach, Tomas Montoya, son of the late Sacramento poet and artist, José Montoya. Montoya picked up the reigns of coaching the basketball team after another coach had to leave. The WNC was broke, so it wasn’t like kids were coming to sign up for a top notch basketball team with slick uniforms and new basketballs or even a regulation-sized court, like our rivals down the street, the Boys and Girls Club.

The WNC stayed open after the Boys and Girls Club arrived, because it had us. A bunch of kids who came every day after to school to use the one working computer with internet and to play basketball until the Center closed.

WNC1The idea to make a WNC basketball team was born from us kids going there and playing against each other every day, thinking we had the skills to play against others. Let’s just say when we did play against other teams, we didn’t win many, if any, games. But our ragtag group of basketball players from the WNC on 16th and D street, known as the Warriors—to represent the warrior painted on the wall of the WNC basketball court area—earned the respect of whoever we played. And not because of our basketball prowess.

My two best friends growing up were Raphael and Pedro. During our two years at Sutter Middle School, we tried out for the basketball team, knowing we would never make it. We didn’t fit the athletic basketball player mold. Our game belonged to the streets outside of school gyms. So we spent our early teenage days playing basketball at the Center or Muir Park around the corner on 16th and C street. Playing basketball became popular at the Center, along with boxing and the Barrio Art, so they tried to develop an actual basketball team for us. A team was to be assembled from the kids who played basketball at the Center.

Me, Raphael, and Pedro were joined by my brother, Raymond, my little cousin, Cubby, and a bunch of kids from around the neighborhood. We were an awkward-looking group of kids. Our ages ranged from as young as nine to 15. And we were mostly Mexican, with Raphael our only black guy. He fit right in, because he grew up in the Center with us and couldn’t afford to go to the Boys and Girls Club.

***

Our playing styles were all over the place. I liked to shoot and liked to play inside. I thought of myself as the team’s Rasheed Wallace. I wasn’t that good, obviously, but I am decent for a big guy. Raphael was our short, pudgy, lefty point guard. He could move fast for a guy his size, and he was the only one who made it past first cuts for Sutter. So Raphael was a luxury to us. His shot is ugly but it can go in.

WNC2My brother Raymond was nicknamed “Shooter” because he liked to shoot a lot and he had a pretty weird stroke. Pedro was chubby and tall with a two-handed shot. We had Mingos, our backup point guard who liked to show off his dribbling. We had a Willie Williams on our team; that was his real name, apparently, but he could ball well enough. And we had a kid named Fudgy. We had a couple of gangbangers from the hood, and we had Ivan, our brute-like center. He likened himself to Ben Wallace, to compliment my Rasheed Wallace, because this was around the time the Pistons beat the Lakers in the finals and we hated the Lakers and admired the Pistons’ style of play.

Ivan was a little better than Ben Wallace on offense if you ask me. He had an ugly, unorthodox game, but he knew how to pound it inside. In fact, that’s all he knew how to do. I remember watching him take advantage of undersized kids we played at a church. He completely dominated them. He was ruthless and a hot head.

Our two youngest players were Nene and Cubby. Cubby was around 10- or 11-years-old, with a long, skinny ponytail. He was so tiny and rarely played because of his age and size but when he did play, he was fearless. He went out there with his Mighty Mouse speed and picked everybody’s pocket and took any open shot he had.

“I remember I made a three-point shot in a game,” Cubby says. “We lost pretty badly, but everybody was cheering because I made the shot.”

***

Coach Tomas lined up our first game against an actual opponent with the Boys and Girls Club on 12th and G Street. It was the place we envied because they had the nice court and new basketballs with their own team uniforms. We played in a rundown building, with old backboards and no three-point line. Our ceiling leaked when it rained. We used to practice on the court while it was wet and with puddles in the corners. We dreamed of going into the Boys and Girls Club and whupping their ass. We had high hopes. We believed in ourselves that much. It never happened.

“The very first time we played them, the size of an actual court threw me off,” Pedro says. “Coming from our makeshift, rinky-dink court to a regulation one. I’m pretty sure I was tired after lay-up lines.”

Before we played our first game, we all brought whatever white shirts we had: I had no plain white shirts so I had to turn a shirt with a graphic on it, inside-out. And we spray painted “Warriors” on the front and our numbers on the front and back. Some of us stenciled in nicknames. These were our first-ever jerseys we used to represent the Center against the Boys and Girls Club. We looked raggedy as hell, but I liked them, because that was us. It represented us well.

Raymond remembers that first game as epic and actually competitive compared to the rest of the games we played.

“I remember the first game going to like, double or triple overtime,” Raymond says. “They were holding the ball and it was close all the way down, but it was obvious nobody wanted us to win.”

We came into that game over-matched, and it wasn’t supposed to be as close as it was. We lost by one point, and it was the Boys and Girls Club’s team tactic of holding the ball because there was no shot clock that caused tensions to boil over at the end and after the game.

Ivan, the aforementioned hot head, hated losing and was always trying to fight somebody. He would start giving out hard fouls and stepping up to anybody. Fortunately, cooler heads always prevailed and there would never be actual fights. Just lots of pushing and shoving.

We were going to lose the battle but we weren’t going to lose the war. We weren’t great at basketball but we were tough and commanded respect. We were never able to beat the Boys and Girls Club, but they enjoyed playing us because we were at least a challenge and it was a bonafide rivalry because we were in the same neighborhood. Even after all the hoopla that would happen during the game, there was always camaraderie after.

***

We held bake sales to get actual jerseys, which we bought at Wal-Mart. We picked out plain charcoal gray T-shirts that we screen printed an image of the Center onto, with our names and numbers on the back. I wore number 30, like Rasheed Wallace, of course, with my initials of “RSL” on the back. The “jerseys” had sleeves and they looked nice. But they were too thick for basketball. Eventually, we got sleeveless, black shirts, with red shorts.

The shirts had the image of the Huelga bird that represented farm workers on them and “W.N.C.” in Old English. Eventually, Coach Tomas had to step down and coaching duties were handed off to one of Fudgy’s relatives. He was really laid back, and we ended up getting new green jersey’s with him, but his run as our coach was short lived and tumultuous.

We got to play in a tournament out in North Sacramento, against teams from different cities, including Oakland. We only looked the part of basketball players because of our matching green jerseys, because we got handily defeated in our first game. The teams we played were more organized and athletic, and we were still that same group of the exact opposite.

Things came to a head in our second game—an elimination game—where we were once again way behind on the scoreboard. The team were playing was from Oakland and they were just running the score up on us. This was frustrating, and Ivan had to be taken out of the game because his temper was hindering his playing ability.

I was still in the game and was trying to foul our opponents but the referees stopped calling fouls. My own temper got the better of me, because I decided to make my foul more obvious and went over to whoever had the ball and shoved him to the ground and turned around to walk away not knowing there was the whole opponent’s bench up and ready to mob me. Nothing happened. The game ended and we went home early.

I don’t remember playing much after that. One day the new coach didn’t show up and that was the end of the WNC Warriors. It was fun while it lasted, and eventually we all went our separate ways or just got older.

Fudgy and Willie disappeared. Cubby started puberty and cut his ponytail. The gangbangers kept on gang banging. And the rest of us got older and started high school. Once Pedro and I, and eventually Raymond, joined high school football, we didn’t have the time to go play basketball every day at the Center.

I remember being at football practice constantly dreaming of being at the Center playing basketball. Before Raymond joined football, I was jealous that he and Raphael got to go home after school and ball up every day. I can’t explain how it made me feel. I can’t say it was an escape because there was nothing I was escaping from.

It was just fun, innocent, and less stressful times.

When I think of my childhood or basketball, I always think of the Center, on the edge of downtown Sacramento, and I know I’m not the only one. I wasn’t born there, but I was raised there and I’ll always look back on that time as some of the best times of my life, thanks to the Center for keeping its doors open to us, when on the outside, we could be doing who knows what.

I wasn’t aware of that at the time. I just wanted to play basketball.

 

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