Jan. 4, 2009
Gone were the typical, late-November gym sounds.
No bouncing balls.
No squealing high tops.
No shouting from coaches or teammates.
The day before the top-ranked Highland boys basketball team opened its 2008-09 season, all those noises suddenly vanished.
Instead, stories echoed off the walls of the otherwise quiet old gym.
By the time the last Hornets player spoke, the harshest elements of their short lives had been bared. Parental abandonment. Drug addiction by parents. Depression. Dropping out. Losing homes.
“Everyone was just telling what’s on their heart, what problems you’re going through,” said Highland senior guard Eric Watson. “It was just a big circle, and we would all just sit there and cry. Every player, it seemed, was just full of tears. … They can feel. They can sympathize. It’s not easy.”
No, but during that unusual and emotional practice, a bond strengthened.
Highland coach Danny Brown calls this year’s senior class the most “high-maintenance” group he’s had in six years at the school. In many ways, those shared, at-home problems have forged a foundation that could help carry the talented Hornets — 10-1 so far and ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll — to a state championship come March.
For many of the players — especially the seniors — playing basketball at Highland provides a daily respite from problems and adds the stability that has , too often, been absent from their lives.
‘Saved my life’
Adjacent to the Highland gym is a portable classroom, which serves as the Hornets’ team room. Thumb-tacked to a small cork board inside this room are several short essays, hand written on notebook paper. Jordan Howard is the author of several. The final sentence of one particular essay stands out.
Wrote Howard: “The Highland boys basketball program has saved my life.”
Five years ago, Howard was a freshman at Sandia. His father, former UNM basketball standout Willie Howard, had been in and out of jail, and his son’s life. Jordan had no friends. He felt like a misfit. He was depressed and trusted nobody.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve always been down on myself,” he said. “Never had confidence. Never really thought I could do what I’m doing now. … I was just waiting for the right time to drop out if that makes sense.”
He dropped out just before Christmas that year.
But, the next year, he decided to start over at Highland. Howard, who now stands 6 feet 7 inches, began playing organized basketball because coaches spotted him in the halls.
His mother, Rochelle Howard, said basketball “kind of gave him a purpose.”
Now, after being granted an extra year of eligibility via hardship by the New Mexico Activities Association, Howard is a captain.
“Socially, it’s just amazing how much he has blossomed,” Brown said. “He has been the guy that I’ve seen so much of a change in. He’s tried to embrace being a leader.”
Howard now wants to become a teacher and coach: “I think there’s still a lot of people out there that are like me, that have the same problems. I think it’d be good for me to help people the way that people have helped me.”
One of those with similar problems is Watson, a fellow Highland starter.Before he started eighth grade, he said, his mother went to prison.
“I couldn’t handle it, and I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “So I just said, ‘All right, my mom’s not here. Forget school. Forget basketball. Forget everything.’ That’s how it was for a long time, until my sophomore year and I came over here and I met coach Brown.”
Watson, who has lived with his grandmother and older sister, initially enrolled at Del Norte. He transferred to Highland when his family moved, but still didn’t play basketball. He says he was a bum. He got into fights and was suspended.
But at some point that life bored Watson. He saw friends dealing with similar personal issues playing basketball and decided to try out.
Watson, like several of his teammates, credits Brown for the changes in his life.
An unlikely core
The coach doesn’t seem to fit the part.
Unlike many of his players, Brown, 32, grew up comfortably. He has a strong relationship with all of his family. Though he lived in the Highland district, Brown played basketball and graduated from Albuquerque Academy, a largely white, private school.
But, as many Hornets will tell you, Brown doesn’t hide the differences.
Said Watson of his coach: “He says, ‘I can not feel what you guys are going through. I can’t feel the pain you guys go through every night and when you wake up in the morning and come back to school. But I can be sympathetic. And I can listen. I can take that in and I can help you guys to the best of my ability.’ ”
Brown spends a lot of time monitoring his team. It’s not that he doesn’t trust them, he just wants the communication lines to stay open.
“What these kids are looking for, they’re looking for love,” Brown said. “We give it to them tough. But they know that everything that we do — even though they don’t like it sometimes; they think I’m a jerk or an idiot — they know it’s for them.”
Brown stays in touch with Rochelle Howard, who might be the most prominent of a handful of Highland’s team moms.
Howard said, “He has a knack of knowing when the boys aren’t in sync.”
Watson and Brown have butted heads more than once. It was an especially emotional exchange between the two that spurred the teary practice in which so many players opened up about their struggles.
Never having a male authority figure in his life, Watson didn’t always react well to barked commands or criticism from coaches, Brown included. He had to have the last word. Sometimes, he still does.
“I feel like if I’m not talking to him back, if I’m not telling him what I feel in a situation where he’s yelling at me, it’s like he has the best of me,” Watson said. “He’s taken some of my pride. When you go through some of the stuff that I’ve been through in my life up to this point, it’s like you live off your pride. If you don’t have your pride, you don’t have nothing else.”
Brown said, “Eric’s very receptive. … He’s working with it.”
Watson wants to go to college and become a police officer.
“I’m ready to get on with my life, see what I’m going to become and see what my future has for me,” he said. “I’m just ready for that.”
Leaving the nest
So is Marcus Franco.
The 5-foot-8-inch senior point guard is, perhaps more than any other Hornet, the heart of the team. He’s also the barometer. Whether the Hive is rolling or stumbling, it’s all written on his face. A tattoo down his right biceps reads, “No guts.” The accompanying mark on his left arm reads, “No glory.” He has willed the team to many wins, said Brown, and often tears up after losses.
That’s what makes it hard for Franco to hide what he’s dealing with at home.
Depression and financial trouble have caused a rift in his family. A bank foreclosed on the family home earlier this year, and they moved in with a grandmother. Eventually, they had to leave. For several weeks, Marcus, his two younger brothers, their father and Highland senior Nico Taylor lived together in a hotel near Highland. Now they live in an apartment that Rochelle Howard helped find. Franco’s mother still has contact with them, but he doesn’t know what the future holds.
Marcus tries to stay strong for his teammates and set a good example for his brothers.
He is grateful for his fellow Hornets: “I felt like I didn’t have nothing to hide. They were going through things like I was. I wasn’t trying to hide from it and express what I felt. Even though I’m going through stuff, I’m still a good person.”
And his coach.
“He stepped up like a man,” Franco said of Brown. “Like a coach…. Like a friend. He helped me out and helped my teammates out. I don’t know if most coaches would do that. He’s something else.”
Perhaps closest to Franco is Taylor.
Brown said of all the Hornets dealing with problems, Taylor has adapted the best. They have made him tougher.
Between his sophomore and junior years Taylor moved to Denver with his mother and siblings after the family was evicted from their apartment. But Taylor, whose father was not a part of his life, was worried about what might happen to him there — “hella trouble” as he says — so he moved back to Albuquerque, and in with Franco.
“Basketball, that’s the best thing in my life right now really,” Taylor said “It takes you from everything. You don’t have to think about all these problems. It’s just basketball. It’s what you want to do. You’re out there having fun. Then you have teammates that care about you and love you too, and coach Brown.”
Taylor also has an essay hanging in the team room. In it he gives insight into what his life might be without the Highland basketball program.
“Then I probably wouldn’t come to school and if I did it would be for all the wrong reasons. … I’d come to do whatever I wanted, talk to girls, sock a (guy) up, just chill or even ditch. I wouldn’t do any work, disturb classes and constantly be getting into arguments with teachers. … I wouldn’t care for school at all.”
Now, he does.
Taylor wants to go to college.
When he looks back, he says he will miss the camaraderie Highland shares. He’ll miss that the players all help one another with homework, each taking the lead in their stronger subjects. He’ll miss the soul food from Watson’s grandmother.
Rochelle Howard seems to smile when she looks back.
“They always have this reputation,” she said. “And me sitting in the stands — I’m white — I hear a lot of people say things because most of our team is black. They seem to be stereotyped into these gangbangers. … They’ve always had the reputation as these bad boys. … All kids have their faults, but these kids have come a long way.”
On the last day of the fall semester, Brown stands in a busy Highland hallway between classes. He watches Franco, Howard and Taylor walk down the hall together, away from him. Soon they’ll all be gone, graduated from the program that has steered their lives.
Like a parent, Brown worries a bit. Did I give them enough? What will happen after they leave the nest?