Meet Rudy Bernal: The Master of the Barrio Ball
The season ended, as it almost always does for coach Rudy Bernal, with a stab of heartache, a surge of pride and a congratulatory handshake from a peer in awe.
Bernal's basketball team, Lanier High School (San Antonio), had just fallen in the third round of the Texas Class 4A playoffs. The Voks, as they are known, went down with bruised arms and scraped legs, with a gritty, all-Hispanic roster that featured perhaps the smallest starting five in the state this postseason.
In the middle, Bernal had asked 5-foot-11 post Rodrigo Garcia to battle Ben Lammers of Alamo Heights, a 6-10 Division I prospect. For three periods, Garcia, along with 5-10 wing Ajax Reyes and starters who stood no taller than 6-0, held Lammers to six points.
The Voks swarmed Alamo Heights early with defensive pressure, forcing turnovers, scoring in transition, knocking players to the floor. At the half, Lanier led, 21-17, at Littleton Gym in San Antonio, and memories began to stir.
Twelve years earlier, an undersized Lanier team roughed up 6-10 Chris Bosh of Dallas Lincoln High in the state semifinals. Bosh fouled out, the Voks took advantage and won, 50-48, a loss that bothers the NBA all-star to this day. Would history repeat? Alamo Heights coach Andrew Brewer grew concerned as his players took a beating. "We were patching up bloody knees at the end of the first period," he said.
The Mules fought back, using superior height and athleticism to regain control and beat the Voks, 50-34. Bernal's 14th playoff appearance at Lanier ended Feb. 26 with disappointment, tears and fresh admiration. "Your team is awesome," Brewer told Bernal after the game. "Just awesome."
Perhaps no high school basketball coach in Texas squeezes more from his players than Bernal, 58, a burly, goateed-master who's won 543 games in 30 years with overachievers from the barrio. Only one of Bernal's boys has played Division I ball (Orlando Mendez-Valdez at Western Kentucky). Only three could dunk.
Once, during a tournament in Las Vegas, Lanier took nationally-ranked Bishop Gorman (Nev.) into overtime before losing. The Voks' played with such heart, one coach climbed out of the stands to meet Bernal.
"Congratulations," said Tubby Smith, extending a hand. Two years after leading Kentucky to the national championship, Smith began raving about the Voks' suffocating defense, about their tenacity and will to win in the face of overwhelming talent.
In the heart of San Antonio's proud but impoverished West Side, Bernal is a celebrated icon, a coach who beats teams he shouldn't beat, a father figure who corrects, disciplines and inspires. He leads a team prayer in the locker room before each game, closing with these words: "I love you guys." The players respond, "Love you, too."
Not everyone loves the color of their brown skin. Or the hair they traditionally dye blond for the postseason. Or the fact many have relatives born in Mexico. During a playoff game in 2011, some students from Cedar Park High chanted, "USA! USA! USA!"
Apologies followed -- from the school, the school district and the superintendent -- but the taunts stung for weeks. It wasn't a first.
The Voks face adversity everywhere. They attend school in a barrio like no other in Texas, zip code 78207, where 51 percent of families with children under 18 live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 35 percent of the working age population is unemployed. According to a USA.com ranking of Texas zip codes with populations of at least 20,000, residents in 78207 have the lowest mean household income ($26,485) in the state.
Poverty run deeps and reflects the education level of the community. There are three universities in the area, but one study shows nearly 60 percent of adults 25 and older lack a high school diploma. Only 2.3 percent have a bachelor's degree.
Then there's the crime. Drive-by shootings. Rape. Assaults. Homicides. Records show police respond to more violence on the West Side than anywhere else in the city.
It's a wonder Mendez-Valdez -- Bernal's only Division I player -- made it out alive. He grew up in a shanty on a dirt road, a ramshackle behind railroad tracks, across from a cemetery, next to a creek -- "The Bermuda Triangle of Trouble," as one resident calls it. He awoke once to a loud banging, opened the door and found a near-naked prostitute, bleeding from multiple stab wounds. He saw a man's legs severed by a train on the tracks. He saw people shot and killed.
Basketball provided an escape. Under Bernal, Mendez-Valdez blossomed into a star shooting guard who led Western Kentucky to the NCAA Tournament as a senior. He earned a degree in physical education, became a professional player in Mexico and married his college sweetheart.
In the offseason, he visits Bernal and opens his wallet. Mendez-Valdez has donated practice togs to the team. He's paid camp fees and travel expenses for players on the AAU circuit. He remembers what Bernal did for him. "Coach B pushed me to my full potential," Mendez-Valdez says.
Bernal's greatest gift is not using a four-guard set and a small post to beat teams he shouldn't beat. It's getting players to believe in abilities they didn't know they had. Senior guard Martin Sanchez didn't think he could shoot. He played solid defense as a freshman and sophomore. But when Bernal wanted to turn him into an offensive threat, Sanchez shrank. "He was very timid," Bernal says. "He lacked confidence."
After working with Bernal over the summer, Sanchez delivered an All-State performance: swishing threes, scoring at the rim, knocking down mid-range jumpers. For an encore, he averaged 20 points as a senior and received an offer from Division II BYU-Hawaii. Cornell has expressed interest. Sanchez is a straight-A student. "I want to major in computer engineering," he says, "or astronomy."
The Bernal roots at Lanier reach to World War II. Rudy's late father, Ramiro, played guard on the Voks' 1943 state championship team. An uncle, Gilbert Bernal, played for the 1945 state champions. Rudy grew up on the North Side, attended Lee High School and heard all about Lanier's glory days.
When Rudy got the job in 1983, he used success from the past to build a new future. Lanier had not won district in 20 years. The Voks had not advanced to the state tournament in 32. But when they broke through at state in 2000, and reached the finals in 2001, ethnic pride swelled in the neighborhood.
Players echoed a refrain -- "We showed that Mexicans can play basketball" -- while a future NBA star, Chris Bosh, buckled and wept. Bernal recently showed the '01 video to his team. It was the last high school game Bosh lost. The next season, Lincoln went 40-0 and finished No. 1 in the nation.
Lanier, says Lincoln coach Leonard Bishop, inspired his team to greatness. "I can't begin to tell you," he says, "how hard that loss was."
The Voks are still slaying giants. One victim, Manvel High (Tex.), boasted a Top 25 Class 5A state ranking and a front line that went 6-8, 6-7 and 6-7. Lanier won, 61-57, in December. "Kids sometimes size us up during warmups and think the game is already won," Bernal says.
Time is closing on the Bernal era. One more season and he plans to retire. What will Lanier look like after his final game? Perhaps a little like the last one. After falling to Alamo Heights, the Voks shuffled into the locker room, eyes red, hearts aching. Crushed.
Outside, the Alamo Heights coach gushed. "There is not another team that plays harder for their community," Andrew Brewer said. "I almost hate for them to lose because they want it so bad. Kids grow up over there and all they want to be is a Lanier Vok."
Hope has many faces on the West Side, most of them brown. One looks like Mendez-Valdez, the Mexican League player who gives back to the team. Another looks like Sanchez, the guard headed for BYU-Hawaii. Two look like Martin Cardenas and Joseph Martinez, players from the '01 team who now serve Bernal as assistant coaches.
Bernal may not get that elusive state championship. But he will leave something far better. Pride and hope in the barrio.