No one thought much about the six who stayed. The reporters who descended on Gunderson High in San Jose this season came to talk to boys' basketball coach Mike Allen and the 13 players who were either suspended by Allen or quit the team in protest of those suspensions. The debate was everywhere—in the halls of the school, on the students' Facebook pages, in the online readers' comments of the Mercury News. Should the coach be commended for putting discipline above winning, or criticized for a power trip? Were the players spoiled teenagers who needed an attitude adjustment, or strong-willed young men who stood up to authority? Everyone had an opinion. But the six who stayed? Says sophomore forward James Miller, "We weren't really the story."
Some of the three freshmen and three sophomores who played the last six weeks of the Grizzlies' season, which ended on Feb. 12, didn't even expect to make the varsity this year, much less become the varsity. But on Dec. 17, Allen suspended five players for what he described as a general lack of discipline. Eight other teammates thought the punishment was unwarranted and came to practice two days later along with the five to ask Allen to reinstate them. When the coach refused to discuss it, those 13 players left the gym, and the team.
"They walked away right in front of my face," says Mohamed Ali, a sophomore point guard. "It was heartbreaking. I tried to convince them to stay, but their minds were made up." But Ali remained, along with sophomore center Mel Sotelo and two freshmen, forward David Awolowo and guard Jonathan Chavez. They went ahead with practice that morning, just the four of them and Allen, running through drills and plays as best they could. Miller and freshman Evan Conry were later called up from the junior varsity, and Allen had the six-man team that would play the Grizzlies' last 19 games—and lose every one of them.
Allen, 38, in his second year at Gunderson, says he never intended for the suspensions to last all season. "If they had come to me humbly, with a parent, to discuss the problems, they would have been back on the team after the holiday break," he says. (Players responded in various ways—some denied the accusations, others said the coach held them to standards he himself didn't abide by.) He acknowledges that one parent, guard Ryan Tran's father, Linh, did meet with him, but the coach refused to reinstate Ryan when the father came alone, ignoring his request to talk to both player and parent. The parents saw that as an indication Allen was more interested in dictating terms than in resolving the problem.
But concentrating on the ugliness that fractured Gunderson's season makes it easy to miss something beautiful that emerged among the six who stayed. They tried to ignore their disadvantages—playing against older, more physically mature opponents; not having enough players even for a full scrimmage—and tried not to take sides in the dispute between their coach and their ex-teammates. Opponents offered encouraging words after beating them, but mostly the six leaned on each other. "We really bonded," Sotelo said. "After a game a guy might get discouraged and you would help keep his spirits up, and then the next game you'd find him doing the same for you." There certainly was nothing pretty about their record. The six-man roster lost by at least 20 points 12 times, and the only sight sadder than the scoreboard during most of the games was the image of Allen on the sideline with just a single reserve and a row of empty chairs next to him. That tableau changed only once, when two Grizzlies fouled out in a 53--36 loss to Overfelt High, and Gunderson finished with four players on the court.
They lost more than just games; some lost friendships. Those who left the team felt the ones who stayed were being disloyal. "For the first couple of weeks some of those guys hated me," Ali says. "It was hard, because coming into the season these were my teammates, my brothers, guys I looked up to."
So why stay? Each has his reasons. Sotelo, whose parents are divorced, chose to move in with his father before the school year began rather than leave the state with his mother. "I had to make some sacrifices to play here this season," he says. "I didn't just want to give all that away." Ali thought about how hard it might be to regain a place on the team if he walked away. "I think we learned that if you love something, you don't give it up for anyone," Miller says.
Allen says the players who left are welcome to return next year if they're willing to meet with him, but for the moment he'd rather focus on the ones who didn't leave. "These guys could have folded up and quit, and no one would have blamed them," Allen says. "But they refused to do that. I can honestly say this is the best season I've ever had as a coach."
It might be a good sign that many of the players who had shunned Ali earlier have warmed up to him. Toward the end of the season he could look in the bleachers and see ex-teammates cheering for the Grizzlies. "I think they respected us for not giving up even though we were losing," he says. For Ali and his five teammates, there is victory in that.