They Got Game But Need a League

Given the cold shoulder by other basketball leagues, city middle schools try to go it alone

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The kids have questions, but the coach doesn't have answers. For two years in a row, Jeff Cohen's teams at McKinley Classical Junior Academy were allowed to compete in outside leagues. Each year, they played well. And each year, they were told not to come back.

Cohen still isn't sure he knows why. His kids certainly don't.

"It's about them," says Cohen. "I have questions that I can't seem to get answers to for a bunch of nice 12-year-old kids. That question basically is, why can't they play?"

For Cohen and other middle-school coaches in the city's financially strapped public-school system, finding a place to play has been a preoccupation. Until last month, there was no league for schools like McKinley, nothing like the Catholic Youth Council (CYC) leagues for city and suburban parochial schools, or the leagues run by Boys Clubs, or suburban municipal recreation leagues.

Two years ago, several teams from McKinley were allowed to play in the CYC league but were told they couldn't participate in the playoffs. And then last year, the CYC voted against letting public schools back in the league, though they continued to include other non-Catholic teams like Tower Grove Baptist and secular schools such as New City School and Institute for the Deaf. At the end of 1998, the Clayton Parks and Recreation League was the next stop for McKinley's 12-year-olds, but that proved to be just a one-year layover. For this basketball season, McKinley was told by Clayton it couldn't return to play in that league.

Of course, reasons were given for these exclusions. In the case of the CYC, McKinley was told there wasn't enough gym space available in its South City District leagues but that the team might be able to play in the north district. That posed transportation problems for McKinley. In Clayton's case, McKinley was told its players were just too good for the competition and they'd have to play elsewhere.

From the CYC's perspective, public-school kids can play, just not under the names of their public schools. The brief experiment in which a few public-school teams were let in ended amid concerns over a lack of control of the teams. "We find it much easier for us, if we have a problem with a parish, to go back to a pastor and say, "We're having a problem with this team, this coach,' and they deal with it in their own organization," says Paul Scovill, CYC sports director. "That's been the basis of our whole program all along."

Scovill is not saying the McKinley teams were a problem; it was more that coaches in the South City district of CYC saw them as a potential problem. "Some of the people in the leadership of South City viewed it as a problem, dealing with an "outside group,' if you want to call a public school that," says Scovill.

Of course, there are racial aspects to letting a public school play in a parochial league. Enrollment in city public schools is 85 percent African-American. Cohen's current team, which eventually found a place to play in an Affton league, has eight black players and four whites. Though there are North Side Catholic parishes and CYC teams that are predominantly African-American, the South City CYC district that McKinley had played in was largely Caucasian. Even the perception that the CYC had a problem with a black team is standing history on its head: Cardinal Joseph Ritter launched the Catholic league back in the late 1940s after the city municipal leagues banned certain parishes whose teams included black players. In the case of McKinley's team, Scovill reiterates that the worry was about control, not pigmentation.

"Our program was developed and designed all along to be a Catholic-parish organization," says Scovill. "In the last two or three years or so it's opened up to other religious denominations. I guess the desire is not there to have "public schools or outside groups.' There is a place for kids to play. If they are in a Catholic parish, then they're eligible to play for that team, whether they're Catholic or not. So the black-white issue as far as the players being involved is not an issue at all."

At least one CYC coach, though not familiar with the McKinley situation, says some coaches would have welcomed a public-school team in the league, though other coaches wouldn't. "We'd like to have the competition. We get tired of playing the same schools," he says. "But for some coaches, when they see a bunch of black kids playing basketball, that's scary."

Some of those coaches privately said they worried that public schools would recruit "ringers" outside their schools and the CYC teams wouldn't have any enforcement powers to prevent those players from playing. In the case of McKinley, a magnet school for what the district calls "gifted" students, the odds of that happening might have been diminished. But it might be that the CYC thought that once a few public schools were admitted, others would follow and the league might be overwhelmed. With those concerns, real or imagined, it's not surprising that McKinley was not allowed to return.

If the CYC leagues are about anything, they're about control. Cohen knew that, and he embraced the league's organization and its strict roster verifications on the ages of players. "The CYC does a very good job of running their league, in terms of birth certificates and IDs," says Cohen. "My guys did do that for the CYC, the whole bit. I wanted to stress I didn't have a hidden agenda. We weren't trying to steal the league from them. We were simply looking for games to play, like a lot of other teams."

Another public-school coach says a strong league structure helps deal with problems with overzealous parents and coaches. "All these other leagues have minimal controls in place. The sad thing is, things can get out of control. Some parents are idiots. Being a coach is like being a paramedic -- you don't believe this stuff happens until you get out and see it. That's why we wanted in the CYC. They had the bureaucracy built in. But they went and changed their minds."

As for Clayton, the stated reason for not inviting McKinley back was that the team was playing at a level above the rest of the league. Cohen admits that his team was undefeated during the season in Clayton but disputes that most of the games were lopsided. Eric Urfer, director of parks and recreation for Clayton, points to league rules about equal playing time for all players and no registered "standings" as signs it is not a competitive league.

"I believe they were very skilled and were playing at a higher level than our league was offering," says Urfer. "It was hard getting kids to show up for that particular game because they knew they were going to get blown out. That's not good for the morale of the kids and what we're trying to push."

Although Cohen was trying to play in a "diverse" setting, at one point he entered his team in the Herbert Hoover Boys Club, which is located on North Grand Avenue on the site of the old Sportsman's Park. The league fee was a bit less than the $300 the team had paid to participate in the CYC league, but the league lacked diversity, because it was the opposite of the South City CYC -- virtually all-black.

"It worked out fine," says Cohen. "Up there we faced a reverse dilemma. We had some Caucasian children and some mixed children on our team. And they got a little stuff. Hoover had all-black teams at the time. They took a little grief from some of the children but nothing out of the ordinary. They were called "Opie' or whatever, the trash-talking, and maybe some of my boys did a little of that back. But certainly there were no major problems."

After years of being adrift, the 22 middle schools in the St. Louis Public School District may finally be getting their own basketball league, thanks to the efforts of two teachers at Humboldt Middle School -- Melvin Walls, a physical-education teacher, and Anthony Simpson, a vocal-music teacher. Thomas Daly, Humboldt's principal, describes the effort as an "informal league," in which about eight middle schools started participating last month. Such a league, if it evolves, could give the students a sense of school identity. "They enjoy representing their middle school," says Daly. "Anything you give them over and above the classroom gives them something else to hold onto."

Mary Beth Purdy, principal at McKinley, says this fledgling league is cheaper than entering the more organized leagues, because the main expense is paying the referees. "With the other leagues, there was a big fee involved," says Purdy. "It gives the kids a chance to play with each other. We have some kids who play with CYC, Mathews-Dickey and Herbert Hoover boys clubs. That's fine too. But this gives some of those who wouldn't have that chance a chance to play in a competitive league between schools."

If the league progresses, it will be a way to enhance the image of middle schools and give the students an added feeling of belonging. "The kids are identified as "McKinley.' It gives them a way to identify with their school," says Purdy. "We announce the results of the games so the kids get recognition, too. We also have a chess club, a math club and that kind of thing. They get their recognition, and the basketball team gets theirs as well."

McKinley's participation in the league came long after Cohen had entered his team in the Affton league, so it was too late for him to become involved. Purdy admits the middle-school league is a shoestring operation because it gets no money from the district. McKinley finances its entry by skimming a dime off the proceeds from each bag of chips sold after school. "It's not in the budget," says Purdy of any athletic league. Such an underfunded endeavor raises concerns that rosters won't be verified and there won't be any mechanism to enforce rules.

Floyd Irons, basketball coach at Vashon High School, is in favor of a middle-school league but knows what the biggest obstacle is: "The economics of it, money to run the league," says Irons. "Somebody will complain about having a basketball league when there is no league for baseball, softball and other things. But I always feel you should give kids a lot of opportunities to harness their energy, give them outlets other than sitting in front of a television playing Nintendo, getting them involved with outside activities. This would be a chance to do something positive."

One possible support system for such a league could come from the Police Athletic League. Major Gregory R. Hawkins, president of PAL Inc., says city police officers volunteer as coaches for more than 250 children, ranging from double-Dutch rope-jumping to baseball. In the current approach, officers volunteer as coaches for teams in various leagues, including Mathews-Dickey, Herbert Hoover and a league in St. Ann. Discussions have begun for something more structured that would involve city middle and elementary schools.

"There's a vision that PAL will be able to partner with some of the public schools and create their own league," says Hawkins. "There's nothing concrete at this time."

The efforts by the police organization have been funded by private donations and asset forfeiture funds. Any organized league for middle schools would need underwriting by some other source. Without that structure and funding, a league for city middle schools is a long shot.

Even though Cohen isn't yet part of the current effort to piece together a league, he sees the need. "Part of the problem is, in efforts in the past, was they don't police it well," he says. "We desperately needed a league to play in. I like leagues because of their organization; it's a neutral court most of the time and you go there and the refs and the scorekeepers are there, so it cuts out a lot of knotty problems that if you're independent you have to deal with."

And if the school is playing in its own league, the team doesn't have to worry about being invited back next year.

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