It starts with the boys who cut themselves. They are a blessing. Take the freshman who trips in the first set of suicide sprints. Coach Jim (Scoogy) Smith whistles the start, and in a crisp volley of chirping sneakers the kid goes down. He promptly rights himself, but soon he is a full court behind the pack, his skinny arms and legs chugging, his buzz cut tucked deep in his shoulders, as if the gym were about to collapse on his head. Scoogy (rhymes with boogie) loudly counts off the long seconds of the boy's humiliation.
He never recovers from the fall. Within days he is gone from the group of about 50 boys who showed up for the start of basketball intramurals, or preseason workouts, at Coatesville (Pa.) Area Senior High. The two-day tryout from which the 12-man varsity will be chosen is still six weeks off, but each of the hungry young hearts in the gym knows that it's in the intramurals that he will or won't make the team. And making the Red Raiders, wearing the red and black, is about as big a deal as there is for a teenager in Coatesville.
Mark Hostutler, a junior who has spent hundreds of solitary hours launching jump shots at the Y near his house in a suburban development, sums it up for many of the boys in the gym: "Basketball is my life. I have to make this team. It's all I think about."
Coatesville (pop. 11,038) is a worn-out steel town about 45 minutes west of Philadelphia, where the land begins to riffle up toward the Piedmont Plateau, Blue Mountain and the mighty Appalachians. The town bends like a gray scar along an old rail line between two wooded ridges that, as basketball season begins, are in full autumn flame. Coatesville High takes most of its 2,176 students from the upscale developments and small towns scattered across the surrounding hills, but it draws its reputation—and nearly all of its basketball players—from the hard streets of Coatesville proper, where most folks are poor and black.
These players grow up under the looming gray sheds and black stacks of Lukens Steel, in a hive of run-down row houses and bland projects around a derelict downtown strip whose only thriving retail trade is in crack. Here basketball is more than the biggest game in town. It's hope. It's often the only thing that keeps teenage boys off the streets. Basketball can be a ticket to college, to a life. This was true when Scoogy wore the red and black in the 1960s and was still true when his assistant Ricky Hicks was a Red Raiders star in the '80s. Coatesville is a perennial power in Philadelphia-area schoolboy basketball. The high school game is the town's inter-generational glue.
The boys who show up for intramurals are signing on for an ordeal familiar to every kid who ever chased a dream of sports glory: the sizing up of talent and the hazarding of ego called trying out. It's a process that began for most of them years ago with the choosing of sides on the asphalt at Ash Park or the Ninth Avenue rec center, where the nets hang in tatters and the backboards are gray from the smudges of a million caroms. Those who were chosen, who kept being chosen, who went on to star in rec leagues and summer basketball camps, have reached the ultimate reckoning at this new gym tucked against a leafy ridge east of downtown, where Scoogy's practiced eye decides who will become a Red Raider and who won't.
"It's hard," Scoogy says, sitting with the back of his plastic chair tilted against the wall in his office a few days before intramurals begin. He toys with his whistle. Scoogy, 50, is a rangy man with pale copper skin, big hands and a round face whose features are so large that they need an extra second or two to arrange into a smile or a frown. He got his nickname as a baby—it was his grandmother's word for an especially wiggly, insistent child—and it still fits. Mouth and man are in constant motion on the court, teasing, instructing, berating, howling with pleasure or, more often, dismay. He's a cheerful tyrant.
Some parents don't much like Scoogy—who was a basketball assistant at Coatesville High for two years before being named head coach in 1995—because he's blunt and impatient and so demanding of their boys. But most of the parents do like him, and what the players feel goes way beyond that. They want to be his boys. The task of choosing only a dozen of them, of dashing so many tender hopes, gives Scoogy pause. He hums a sustained bass note and then repeats with emphasis: "Hard."
Intramurals run from late September through October and into November, three evenings a week of demanding drills and scrimmages. Official try-outs start Monday, Nov. 11, and two days later Scoogy will pick his team. Some boys, like the hapless sprinter in the first suicides, will do him a favor and cut themselves. They will fall on their faces or simply size up the competition and go home. But most of the others who show up are infected with the dream. Each can see his career as a glorious progression from playground to state championship to NCAA Final Four to...the NBA! And the only obstacle to this megabucks, slam-dunk future is one man with a whistle.