Gainesville state school is a juvenile correctional facility near the border with Oklahoma – and its basketball team is on a quest for sporting redemption
Bryan Kay in Waco, Texas / The Guardian / Wednesday 8 February 2017 06.00 EST
Nothing about the yellow school bus seemed out of place. Parked next to a high school gymnasium, the driver was grabbing a few minutes shortly after his precious cargo had filed inside, and the sun was going down on another normal Thursday. A regular after-hours high school basketball game was about to take place. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Except, perhaps, the floor-to-ceiling cage separating the driver from the passenger seats.
Waco’s Reicher Catholic high shool were playing host to Gainesville state school, a juvenile correctional facility near the Texas-Oklahoma border. The school bus belonged to the visitors, a small team of student-inmates on the three-hour journey south for the latest chapter in a quest for sporting redemption.
High school sports are serious business in Texas. In some places, fans turn out in the tens of thousands. Teams can attract big-money sponsorship deals. But Gainesville State doesn’t figure in that mix. The Texas juvenile justice department facility is home to about 270 teenage prisoners, locked up for felony crimes like robbery. The school doesn’t have a home arena for basketball, nor a stadium for football. Their uniforms are state-provided. Almost everything else is raised via an associated non-profit.
Critics might suggest these young offenders don’t deserve much more. Dotty Luera, the maximum security center’s community relations coordinator, disagrees. She has a picture on her wall of a squad of 16 boys, who played both basketball and football. Luera says only one has reoffended. “That’s one thing,” she adds. “Another is so many of these kids have not had a chance in life; you know, if you don’t know who your dad is, mom might not be around either.”
They take to the court wearing the Gainesville State black and white, the school’s Tornadoes nickname festooned across their shirts. Not much marks them out. Attendance at the game is spotty, but that’s not unlike a Gainesville State home match. Then, juvenile correction officers, school administrators and volunteers make up the Gainesville State fanbase at their borrowed home: Gainesville middle school for basketball, Gainesville high for football. Tonight, it is almost exclusively the guards dispatched to keep a watchful eye who make up the visiting support.
The Tornadoes are having a difficult season. They’ve won four games, but none of them district match-ups, so the playoffs look unlikely. Gainesville start well but soon begin to slip. They trail by seven after the first quarter, a gap that opens up to 12 by the beginning of the fourth. By the middle of the fourth, they cut the deficit to seven, and Luera, seated on the front bleacher, is growing excited. The team is in the ascendancy and Reicher look ragged. Then the pendulum swings once more. The game ends 70-58 for the Reicher Cougars. Earlier, Luera painted a picture of the struggle. “It takes great courage and integrity to go and play when you’re outnumbered and out-furnished,” she says. “These are some strong kids – and good athletes. They hang in there.”
This season, the basketball roster started out with 10 boys, but was down to eight by tonight. This year’s football season started out with a roster of just 18 – some of whom are playing tonight – to cover offense, defense and special teams. Incredibly, they made the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Many team members are coming to the end of their sentences. To be able to play, they need exemplary records of behavior and evidence of classroom progress. As Luera puts it: “It’s as hard to get released as it is to get to play on a sports team [here].”
Head coach Henry Thomas, who has worked at Gainesville for three years, is not too downbeat about losing some of his players. He’s used to the challenge. “The ones going off are really good kids,” says the veteran of 30 years coaching in public schools. “They’re ready to go home.”
Of the six facilities for juvenile offenders in Texas, the only other to put out sports teams is Giddings state school near Austin. But it is Gainesville that has proven a recent vehicle for positive attention.
Some years back, an opposing team’s fans started to root for Gainesville. Last year, a group of ex-cons started to raise funds for the school after hearing about the football team’s exploits. The basketball team attracted a $10,000 charitable donation inspired by the act of Vanguard college preparatory school, also in Waco, a couple of years ago. After Vanguard played a road game in Gainesville, a couple of their players noticed the spartan set-up of their hosts. No fans to speak of. Certainly no cheerleaders. Vanguard brought more fans with them than were in the home bleachers supporting Gainesville State, the pair noted. So when the time came for Vanguard to entertain Gainesville, they decided to, in essence, hand over home advantage to their guests. Fans. Cheerleaders. Banners.
Vanguard carry on the tradition of laying on a special welcome for Gainesville. On their most recent visit, the Gainesville boys were treated to another banner welcome and a post-game dinner. Team member Dylan – the inmates cannot be identified by their last name, crime committed or home town – saw the gesture as sign that there are people who care about boys like him. “They know that we’re locked up; that we know that they know in our head that we can be different.”
Gainesville State play in a league composed of faith-based and private schools. From a certain angle, it’s a study in contrasts.
Mark Sloat, the athletic director at Reicher, says: “As an athletic director, I feel that these young men are deserving of this opportunity and handle it with class on the court and off the court. It is an opportunity to get a second chance, as we all make mistakes in life. It is how we respond to adversity that proves who we really are on the inside. These young men, I have seen on the court, are good men that made some mistakes, but are committed to turning things around.”
What landed them at Gainesville were felonies. But the sports teams can help inmates learn the value of positive behavior. “I like to impress people, I guess,” continues Dylan, who for good measure, landed a pair of three-pointers moments apart in the third quarter. “Show them I can be what they want me to be instead of being what I want to be. So it was a challenge for me to overcome that and not follow.” He is due to be released soon, and, having attained his GED, he plans to go to barber college.
At small forward is soft-spoken Sedan, also 18. This season he says he made the basketball and football teams. For him, that wasn’t just an accomplishment – it was a dream. Most inmates don’t make it, he says. “They either get in trouble or get kicked off.” He has had setbacks himself and had to pick himself back up again. Being able to leave the campus for games is a motivation, he says, “to be able to feel we can be free again”. Another dream: to become a veterinarian.
Point guard Curtis, another 18-year-old, says the team is the lesson. “I’ve learned how to be a team player, a team-mate. To have a family, that I have, but I never was around to really know that my family love me.”
Then there is Darius. He describes a bleak scene inside the dorm unit in which he is housed at Gainesville. Fights every day. It’s the roughest on the gated campus, he says. “For me to get where I am you’ve got to stay committed to what you want to do.” He is new to basketball. “I never played sports because I was always in trouble at home. And I wanted to play here because I got a chance to, and then I wanted my mom to be proud that I’m doing something positive with my time.”
Playing at shooting guard, Darius says he has learned the value of patience. “Not always ‘I, I, I, me, me, me.’ There’s other ones you got to look out for too.” He has lost people close to him since entering the prison, and vows to turn his life around on the outside.
Some have even bigger dreams beyond the prison gates. Luera told the tale of a youngster now attending community college who played on the football team last year. A running back of some talent, he is already anxious for next season’s college football calendar. Curtis, meanwhile, has his road mapped out. First junior college. On to university. Get a business degree. Then play overseas basketball, preferably in Europe. He appears to mean it. As the team prepared to leave for the journey back to Gainesville, Coach Thomas was ruminating with the Guardian on the permutations required for his team to make the playoffs, when Curtis interjected, grinning. “Can you take me back to London with you?”