By Jason Janz
As the NBA finals kick into gear, I’m reminded of the fervor that arose in our neighborhood just a few months back. In March, we were privileged to witness an outburst of hope in Northeast Denver. It was the time of year when high school basketball takes center stage for the district and state tournaments. The hopes of thousands of students rise up and take the floor with the anticipation of seeing their endless drills and late night practices pay off by gaining them a trophy.
As a long-time Colorado resident, I remember going to the CHSAA tournaments and cheering on my high school team. Never very good at basketball, I knew my spot was in the cheering section. It’s been twenty-five years since those days, but this weekend I found myself in that same cheering section, except now I was cheering on my 11th grade son.
Hudson is a student at Manual High School and he is a Thunderbolt through and through. We moved to city eight years ago and placed our children into neighborhood schools. As newbies to urban education, we have experienced the highs and lows, the beauty and the pain, of a turbulent educational environment. One of the beauties of the city that my son discovered is the brotherhood that develops around sports. As our son found his “bros” on the ball court, we found ourselves inextricably linked with a community that’s as strong and deep as we’ve ever experienced.
The boys’ basketball team has had a growing year. We’ve watched as they have improved each game and played better as a team each week. However, we still finished the season with just a 10-9 record. In our league, we were just 3-5. In Class 3A, we were ranked 26th out of 63 teams – just a tad above middle of the road. However, at the end of the season, everyone gets a shot at the playoffs.
The playoffs start out with Districts. Manual won their first game, but lost their next two. To their surprise, their performance gained them a seed in the state tournament ranked as 21st.
To go to State was an unexpected thrill for our team.
Their first game was against the 12th ranked team. We thought this would be the end of the road, but we ended up winning 68-57. The next night, we took the court against the 5th ranked team. The boys fought hard and to the surprise of everyone, we went into overtime. However, it looked as though our hard work would be for naught and we would be knocked out. We were down by three with 3.7 seconds to go. In a moment for the Manual ages, the inbound pass ended up in the hands of a freshman who had limited game time this year, Sebastian Mahan. Just before the buzzer sounded, he hurled the ball 60% of the distance of the court and swish! We were headed to double overtime where we would eventually win 97-90. We were going to the Elite Eight!
Manual High School has a marvelous history. In spite of popular belief, it wasn’t named after a Latino named Manuel. It was part of a nation-wide blueprint that placed a North, South, East, and West high school in metro cities with a Manual High School in the center of town. At it’s core, it was a strategy of stereo-typed low expectations on urban students who could only make it in the “manual trades.” In spite of this mindset, Manual has left an indelible mark upon our city. Our first black mayor walked these halls. Our current mayor is a proud alum. As you enter the foyer, you will see tributes to it’s storied students painted on the walls. At one time, actually eleven times, they were the best basketball team in the state and are tied for the most Colorado high school basketball championships.
But those days seem so far away. The last few decades have been rough for Manual. The school was closed down because of low academic performance in 2006 in spite of a community uproar. Promises were made for the re-opening and hope was high. A Manual alumnus was selected as the principal and the school quickly gained autonomy so that it could make bold and innovative changes. But, after a couple of years at the helm, our leader resigned in disgust because of district bureaucracy. This began a pattern that would repeat in the ensuing years. Manual has now had five principals over the past nine years. As attendance plummeted, so did the number of times we would win championships. While we all like to brag about our championship trophies, we haven’t won a basketball title in twenty-five years.
What made the school go downhill? Let’s just start at the top. Chalkbeat published an article entitled, “Two decades later, a school boundary decision that isolated poor students reverberates.” They highlighted a school board decision that was charged with issues of race and class. After forced busing was removed from public education, boundaries had to be determined. After long debates, Manual was left with a small boundary which doomed it to low enrollment and a low-income boundary which kept it from becoming socio-economically diverse. Those board members who voted for it now admit it was a big mistake. However, DPS has shown their absolute unwillingness to fix the problem – change the boundary and cap enrollment at East. So, now you have East High School just a mile down the road busting at the seams with 2000 students and Manual with under 400.
Sometimes when you see the injustice and the price that is paid by those who suffer under it’s weight, you can grow discouraged. You can easily feel like you are battling a beast that you will never defeat. It’s a true David vs. Goliath, but for some reason our stones always just miss. Board meetings, parent meetings, community organizing, protests – you name it. We’ve tried it all. After awhile, although you hate to admit it, you begin to lose hope that you will get the resources and the attention needed to make the school a success. As you try to rally parents and community members to affect change, you see the faraway look in their eyes. It’s as if they say, “I once had your energy and hope. But, I’ve been lied to, taken advantage of, and shunned. And I’m tired.” I didn’t initially understand it, but now I do. However, the last thing you want the students to see is how hopeless you begin to feel inside. After all, they need to know that the big kids got their back.
The tournament moved to the Coliseum. Bigger stage, better teams. You could sense that everyone felt it was almost too good to be true. We couldn’t help but pinch ourselves. We went up against Colorado Academy in the first game. No stranger to us. They sit inside the 3A Metro League and we play them twice a year. And if you’ve been around Denver long enough, you know who goes to CA. $18,000 a year, private school, athletes with college scholarship offers – you know the type. In our previous two meetings, they had schooled us beating us by a combined total of 42 points in both games.
It was a battle and at halftime we were actually keeping up. To our delight, our boys were not backing down. Six sections of the Coliseum, peppered in red and blue, started to shout and chant. Could it happen? As a parent, you know the feeling of seeing the hopes of your children dashed and sometimes, you’d rather they didn’t hope. But, in the second half, we couldn’t help it. The lid came off and we we all started to believe. We were hanging with them in the third, and we couldn’t restrain ourselves. Our hoarse voices cheered with every turnover and as the ball would would drop for another basket, we started dancing. With just minutes to go, we were in the lead by a few. And then it became seconds. We were up 70-66 and the buzzer sounded. We won!
Pandemonium ensued! We couldn’t hold ourselves back. I immediately leapt over the retaining wall and bounded over the scoring table and ran onto the court hugging the players. My mind recalled the many times they hung out at our home through the years and this was a moment for celebration. Dozens more joined the mob at center court and joy was unleashed. Over the loudspeaker, you could hear, “Fans, please stay off the court, please stay off the court.”
We weren’t fans. We were family.
I entered the Coliseum the following day for the Final Four game and a CHSAA official was waiting. He pulled me into the tunnel and gave me a talking to about rushing the floor. I was told how dangerous it was and he asked me if I understood the danger of what had happened. I pondered giving him a mini-speech on the danger of low expectations, systemic injustice, and not making a big deal out of students who, over the course of their lives, have had to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but I wasn’t sure it was going to fall on listening ears. Also, I felt that I would be ushered right out of the room and nobody was going to take away the privilege of watching our team take the court for the Final Four.
Our luck would run out that day and we ended up with fourth place. In the movies, we have Hoosier moments, last second buzzer beaters, and legendary stories. Most of us don’t ever get to experience that. We get the almost instead of the utmost. This was our lot in the tournament, but the point had been made.
In the movie, The Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams re-instills a desire for learning and growth in the young boys in a private boarding school. His bucking of the system and unconventional style cost him his job and he is forced to leave. In the movie’s closing moments, a remarkable scene unfolds as he is leaving his classroom for the last time. The dean of the school has assumed his teaching duties and is forcing the boys to go back to the traditional text. You can read the unrest in the students as they watch their prized teacher and friend pack his belongings and shuffle out the door. All of the sudden, the students ignore the new teacher and begin to stand on their desks as they look toward Williams. They spontaneously proclaim their love for him – “Oh Captain, My Captain.” He had sparked hope in their lives and they would never be the same.
As our Final Four game was wrapping up, it was obvious we weren’t going to move into the championship game. The boys hung their heads. The road was going to stop here. And we could sense their defeated spirits. Our hearts went out to the boys who had resurrected a small part of the dreams of a historic neighborhood. And then spontaneously from the stands, a droning chant rose up – “T-Booooooooollts, T-Boooooooooolts, T-Boooooolts.” This went on for several minutes drowning out the cheers of the winning team.
What was this?
This was the sound of a community long neglected by the powerful, rising to their feet and thanking a group of ten players for helping us believe that keeping the faith is always worth it. The students had become our teachers. “Oh Manual, Our Manual.”
To the players and coaches, thank you. Dez, Novaj, Hudson, Jadedon, Sea Bass, Masiah, Jerome, Losseny, Nashon, Sufyan – we know you wanted a ring, but what you gave your community was so much deeper than that. Don’t hang your heads. Because, as you walk our streets, there is nothing but respect.