FED UP WITH HIS TEAM'S POOR ATTITUDE, GUNDERSON HIGH COACH MIKE ALLEN SUSPENDED EVERY STARTER. WHEN A BOYCOTT BY OTHER PLAYERS LEFT HIM SHORT OF A FULL LINEUP, HE REBUILT THE PROGRAM ALMOST FROM SCRATCH. HE WAS WIDELY PRAISED FOR DOING THE RIGHT THING. BUT DID HE?
RYAN TRAN was 13 the first time he saw Coach Carter on cable at his home in San Jose. He remembers watching as Carter, played by Samuel L. Jackson, locked his Richmond (Calif.) High basketball team out of the gym and threatened to cancel the season if the players didn't improve their grades. I bet my dad loves this movie, Ryan thought, for his parents stressed discipline and academics. Ryan never imagined something similar happening to him, though. Until it did.
It was a Friday night nine days before Christmas 2011, and San Jose's Gunderson High had just lost ugly at Los Gatos: turnovers, bad shots, sloppy defense, one-on-one moves. Gunderson coach Mike Allen stood in the visitors' locker room, staring down at his players. At 38, Allen wasn't that far removed from his days playing pro overseas and, before that, at San Jose Christian College, a Bible school where he was an All-America two guard. He'd added a few pounds to his wide-hipped, 6'1" frame but still had the look of an athlete. Though he rarely raised his voice, he was furious. Seven games into the season Gunderson was 3--4, and Allen had seen enough. Enough showboating, insubordination, tardiness and bullying of teammates. "I want all of you to give me your jerseys," he shouted. "Take them off. Right now!"
The players did, wondering what would happen next. The following morning after practice, Allen gathered them for an announcement. Seventeen boys, ranging in age from 14 to 18, peered up at him. They were a diverse bunch, as one might expect in the strip-mall sprawl of south San Jose. Gunderson's students were more than 50% Hispanic, and the rest were a mix of Asian-Americans, South Asians, Vietnamese, whites and African-Americans. Most were lower-middle to middle class. Ever since a student was stabbed to death at the nearby light-rail station a decade earlier, Gunderson had had a reputation, deserved or not, as unsafe; Silicon Valley magnates sent their children elsewhere, and so did the parents of elite athletes.
The 2011--12 boys' basketball squad showed promise, however, despite an unorthodox lineup of four combo guards and one power forward. The guards were Ryan, a junior playmaker and straight-A student; senior Lodi Vertilus, a long, athletic football wide receiver; Lamar Smith, a brash senior who attacked the rim like a tiny Latrell Sprewell; and Joaquin Gallardo, a gritty junior with a sweet shooting stroke. A year earlier the Grizzlies had finished a surprising 14--8 in Allen's first season, losing in the first round of the Central Coast Section of the California Interscholastic Federation playoffs. This year they were favorites to win the middle division of the Blossom Valley Athletic League. For the first time in ages, there were expectations.
Which makes what Allen did that Saturday morning even more surprising. In a calm voice he announced that he was suspending the starting five—Ryan, Lodi, Joaquin, Lamar and big man Jose Silva—for disciplinary reasons, the exact nature of which remains a matter of dispute two years later. One point was clear, though: The players were not to show up for practice on Monday. The only way for them to rejoin the team, Allen said, was to return with a parent and meet with him.
Allen thought he'd laid down the law. But when he arrived for practice on Monday, a little before 6 a.m., he found the suspended starters outside the gym, under the home of the grizzlies sign, along with the rest of the team. As Allen approached, Lamar spoke up: "Coach, we want to talk to you."
"You're wasting your time," Allen said. "You can't be here today. You need to leave."
Then Allen walked to the back of the gym to unlock it. Once inside, he turned on the lights and strolled across the court to open the front doors. What he saw then stopped him cold.
Only four boys remained under the sign outside: a pair of freshmen, Jonathan Chavez and David Awolowo, and two sophomores, Mel Sotelo and Mohamed Ali. Not only had the five suspended players vanished, but so had eight of their teammates, including all the upperclassmen.
Allen peered out into the predawn grayness, then back at the four boys who now composed the Gunderson varsity. It was one of those moments, Allen would later say, when you find out who you are as a coach and as a man.
"All right," Allen said, holding open the door, "let's get to work."
And so the boys huffed through Allen's beloved medicine-ball drills and ran a truncated version of the weave. That afternoon Allen called up the two jayvee players he believed could survive on the varsity, James Miller and Evan Conry. That gave him six boys. None were older than 15.
Three days later Gunderson hosted Leland, a neighboring school that would finish the season just above .500. As the Grizzlies warmed up, the visiting fans murmured, wondering why the jayvee was on the floor. Then it hit them: This was Gunderson's varsity. Within minutes the rout was on, layup after layup by Leland. James missed all nine shots he took. The final score was 76--30.
Four more times before the new year the Grizzlies played with their skeleton crew, and four more times they lost. Even the boys' parents found it painful to watch.
At this point no one would have blamed Allen for welcoming back the Renegade 13, as one newspaper later referred to the suspended players and their teammates who walked. Allen had made his point. He'd stood his ground. Plus, a full-strength Gunderson squad would still have had a good shot at the playoffs.
But that's not what Allen did.
WHAT HAPPENS when a coach draws a line in the sand? How does it affect the trajectory of his life and the lives of his players?
Allen became something of a folk hero. "The mutiny at Gunderson High," an article in the San Jose Mercury News called it. "We weren't being that disrespectful," said Eddie Perez, one of the seniors quoted in the story. "[Coach Allen] wants to run the team his way and doesn't listen to our own opinions." Allen's perspective: "These kids nowadays feel they are privileged and have a right, but they fail to realize what being part of a team is about."
The story hit a nerve. Not that disrespectful? Readers flooded the Mercury News with letters chiding the boys. "I would rather support students with a little less talent but good manners and sportsmanship than these self-centered students," wrote Juanita Walters of Milpitas.
"Finally, here was an adult who was willing to put ego and winning aside in order to grow character in the young men he coached," wrote Elizabeth Vander Esch of San Jose.
The comments section on the Mercury News's website swelled with vitriol. Though the Gunderson 13 were defended by a smattering of friends and relatives, and by some of the dismissed starters themselves, the vast majority sided with Allen.
Soon TV trucks showed up at Gunderson games, mobile antennas sprouting into the night sky. National columnists weighed in. The story became about more than one man, a group of teenagers and a basketball team. It became a referendum on what we expect of our coaches and our children. It became the story of youth sports in America.
Allen himself received a tidal wave of supportive emails, more than 1,000 in the months that followed. Eventually the movie people called. This is just like Coach Carter! they said.
Only it wasn't, because reality is rarely like the movies. In real life Carter wasn't exactly the mentor he appears to be in the film, at least according to one of his former players, who said later that he didn't have their futures at heart. No doubt some of this is jealousy, or resentment. But the point remains: Real life is messy. It's complicated. So is what happened at Gunderson High. It's the kind of tale that offers no easy heroes and villains, that lacks a clear wrong and right.
It's the kind of story that is all about perspective.
STAY STRONG. That's what Allen told himself during those first weeks. It was his mantra at practice as he watched his players clank layups. It's what he told himself on the sideline as Gunderson lost one game after another—to Silver Creek, to Independence, to Pioneer, to Overfelt and, worst of all, by 48 points to Branham. It's what he reminded principal Dominic Bejarano and athletic director Chris Corbin when they began to have doubts. After all, it was one thing to support a new coach on principle, another to squirm on the sideline as your school got embarrassed and parents demanded to know why their sons could no longer play.
Most of all, stay strong is what Allen told his team. You've crossed a picket line, he told them. Be ready for what comes with that. You are not going to win a game this season. Be O.K. with that. This is about commitment.
To give the players a fighting chance, he went back to basics. Rather than his usual pressing and fast-breaking, Allen ran a simple motion offense and relied on a 2-1-2 zone D most of the time. He told his lumbering center, Big Mel, to not even cross half-court; otherwise he'd never get back on defense. None of it mattered. The losses piled up. At night Allen sometimes pulled over to the side of the road and wept. He wondered how he would make it through a whole season. Then again, he'd come through worse.
Allen grew up in Cincinnati, Denver and Tacoma, Wash., raised by a single mother in rough neighborhoods. As a teenager he fell in with the wrong crowd before finding structure and purpose in two institutions: basketball and church. While playing open gym hoops on a visit to San Jose Christian College the summer after graduating from high school, he was pulled aside by the coach, Glen Miller, who also led missionary trips. "I could care less about your athletic ability," said Miller. "Basketball is a tool you can enjoy, but I produce leaders who change the world."
Allen was inspired. Even though basketball was his worst sport—he started playing only as a junior—he decided to attend SJCC to play for Miller. By the time Allen graduated, in 1996, he was student-body president and an All-America, and SJCC had won three National Bible School championships.
Allen lit out for Europe to follow his dream of a pro career. He played in Poland and then Sweden, accompanied by his wife, Virginia, who bore him a son, Jacobi. One day when Jacobi was 2½, Allen returned to their apartment, and Virginia handed him divorce papers. She left with Jacobi that afternoon. Allen says he didn't hear from her for four years. Then one morning in 2004, while he was in Korea on an exhibition tour with the Harlem Ambassadors, he got a call from the Santa Clara County (Calif.) DA's office. You need to come pick up your son by tomorrow afternoon, or he could be put up for adoption.
Shocked and scared, Allen left the Ambassadors and boarded a plane for the U.S. And that, as he now recounts in motivational speeches to church groups and to players at basketball camps, is when his life stopped being about him. He won custody of Jacobi and raised him as a single parent, just as his mother had raised him. Over the next five years, while employed as sports ministries director at Calvary Church in Los Gatos, Allen built a thriving side business as a basketball-skills trainer. Soon his program included 1,000 kids, and his website was filled with video testimonials. He coached a girls' team at a Catholic school, ran an AAU squad, directed a boys' jayvee program. He gave speeches on themes such as "maintaining moral purity" and "being a soldier for Christ" and "discovering your destiny." He married Anna Walker, the p.r. director at The King's Academy, a Christian school, and they had a son, Braydon, and later a daughter, Michela. Then, in 2010, he was contacted by Gunderson about its coaching job.
Allen's goal when he arrived at Gunderson was to build a lasting basketball program. Like Coach Carter, Allen held the boys to academic standards: They needed to maintain a 2.5 GPA to play. This angered some players and parents; after all, the football team didn't need grades that high. But Allen held firm. Same went for practice. Show up 30 seconds late and Allen locked the doors on you. To encourage competition he held one-on-one varsity tournaments before each game to earn a jersey. In the summers he expected players to join his traveling team and train at his facility in Los Gatos, paying if they could afford to. During the season he woke at 4:30 a.m. and drove from house to house picking up players for practice, sometimes making two trips when his Chevy Blazer got too full. He worked long days, finally falling into bed at midnight, but he loved it. He felt he had a purpose, a plan.
From the beginning Allen had been determined to change the basketball culture at Gunderson. During his first season he considered suspending the upperclassmen for disciplinary reasons but felt he was too new to the job to do so. After he heard the jayvee coaches curse at players and was told by players that the coaches were talking behind his back, the coaches were let go. So Allen coached both jayvee and varsity for the final dozen games. Over the summer he recruited Marc Taylor, an assistant at The King's Academy, to be his second in command and the new jayvee coach. Taylor cut quite a figure at practice, a giant, barrel-chested bald man who alternated between yelling at the boys and looking out for them. If Allen was aloof, Taylor was the opposite, and the players appreciated his tough love.
Taylor was of the same mind as Allen when it came to building a program. He hated the culture of AAU ball—the lack of fundamentals and the players' constant need for validation. We used to have self-starters, he'd say. Now they're all "attaboys." You need to say "attaboy" to get them to do anything. Both Taylor and Allen disliked helicopter parents and kids who defied authority. "Our job is, You got to meet the standard," Taylor explains. "Then if they don't, it's on them. They have to submit."
Neither coach had much patience for the attitudes of the seniors in the fall of 2011. They hadn't joined Allen's summer league teams. They arrived late for practice on occasion. Allen felt their body language was disrespectful. They looked in the stands after making shots rather than running back on D. They intimidated the younger players, leading Allen and Taylor to worry that they would inhibit the freshmen and sophomores and "infect" them with their attitude. So, according to Taylor, early on the coaches put together a game plan for a "worst-case scenario." If need be, they'd tear down the program and rebuild it with kids who cared.
But how to know when that moment had arrived? The night of the Los Gatos game, after taking away the players' jerseys, Allen says he couldn't sleep. Partly he was embarrassed. His Grizzlies had been blown out in the town where he trained players in the summer, by a team that included some of his pupils. He felt that the Gunderson starters were trying to take over the team, and he was torn. Cede authority, and he would sacrifice principle for victories. Stand firm, and without its best players the team might not survive.
Sometime after 2 a.m., Allen prayed. God, I don't want to have to make this decision, give me the peace to do it. By the time his alarm clock went off two hours later, he knew he was taking the right action. Even so, he had no idea how it would turn out. Imagine making that kind of leap, knowing you'd be questioned by parents and administrators, that your son would be repeatedly asked about it in middle school, that you'd receive anonymous hostile phone calls, that you'd lose every game, that you might get fired.
On top of it, there was something Allen had told no one but his closest friends: Anna had a tumor in her stomach. She would need surgery, and there was no guarantee she'd live.
The thing that carried Allen through those dark days, he says, was faith. He believed he was doing the right thing.
THE RIGHT THING. It's an interesting concept. The seniors first approached Mohamed Ali on the afternoon of the suspensions. "You're going to walk out with us, right?" they said. "You're our boy, right? You got our backs, right?" Mohamed didn't say anything. He didn't know what to say.
That night he returned to the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his parents and five siblings near Gunderson. Mohamed's mother and father emigrated from Somalia before he was born, and his father worked long hours driving a cab. When Mohamed became interested in basketball, his parents weren't happy. You must focus on school, they said. That's how you build a future in this country. But for Mohamed the game, even if it never came easy to him, provided a mooring, a connection with others. In middle school, if you didn't play you were, in his words, "a nobody." So he played, and he began to love the game. By his sophomore year at Gunderson he'd grown into a skinny 5'11" boy who glided up and down the court. That year he would throw down his first dunk, in a pickup game in front of whooping friends. What was more American than that?
In Allen, Mohamed saw a lifeline. For two years they'd trained together in summer camps and individually. Though Mohamed bristled at Allen's demanding ways, he knew that to play, he needed to show the coach respect. And playing was the most important thing. That's why Mohamed stayed at the gym that Monday morning. He feared he was letting down his friends on the team—his "brothers," as he called them. He worried that they wouldn't respect him. But he could not walk.
The other three players who stayed had their own reasons. Jonathan Chavez and David Awolowo were freshmen and felt little kinship with the upperclassmen. As for Mel Sotelo, a sophomore, his parents had divorced and he'd moved in with his father in San Jose rather than go out of state with his mother. He'd made sacrifices to play. He couldn't just give that up.
The first game was thrilling for the four players and the two who joined them from the jayvee. They were starters on varsity. They were leaders. They got to shoot a lot.
Sure, they heard about the exiled players. How they had written a group letter to principal Bejarano stating that "Coach Mike Allen has not responded to requests for an explanation" and that "we feel like our season is in jeopardy, something we would very much like to avoid from [sic] occurring." How they had gone as a group with one of the parents to talk with Allen, but the coach hadn't budged. (To both the administration and parents, Allen provided few specific examples of what the players had done wrong, arguing that the aggregate of many acts had led to the suspensions.) How some of them were texting Allen, asking to be allowed back on the team. How Ryan and his father, Linh Tran, eventually met with the coach without success, and each side had a different account of the meeting.
Some boys still on the team felt bad for Ryan in particular. Jonathan considered him a role model: another undersized guard who played the right way. He would later wonder if Ryan was just "collateral damage" in Allen's conflict with the other players.
The six boys couldn't dwell on it, though. They had games to play. Except that with each lopsided loss, the thrill dissipated, even as the reporters arrived. Who wanted to get creamed on TV? The players began doubting themselves and blaming one another. Worse, the dismissed players came to watch them. Mohamed remembers seeing them clustered in the bleachers. Some were laughing and mocking Allen—"Oh, my God!" they'd chortle after one mistake or another. Others, like Ryan, just looked on, expressionless.
School days were almost as bad. You're not really my boy, the exiled upperclassmen said to Mohamed. Instead, they whispered, Mohamed was a traitor.
David, the freshman forward, became so embarrassed that he ignored team tradition and stopped wearing a tie to school on game days. His low point came on Jan. 18, after Gunderson lost again, to Evergreen Valley. In the locker room David began to cry, something he hadn't done in years. Allen walked in, and Bejarano, there to support the team. But David couldn't stop. He hunched over, the tears seeping out. He considered quitting, or transferring. He wondered whether there would even be a Gunderson basketball team in a year's time.
Finally, on Feb. 10, the season ended. Gunderson had lost 21 games in a row. There were whispers that Coach Allen wouldn't return. That kids were going to leave. Allen had stood his ground, but at what cost? And for what benefit?
IT WASN'T RIGHT. This is what stuck with the players who walked. It wasn't right how Allen booted them off the team without explanation. Tardiness? Showboating? Those were reasons to bench someone, not to jettison an entire starting five. Hell, Allen had suspended Ryan Tran. Only a month earlier the coach had nominated Ryan for Gunderson Athlete of the Month.
It wasn't as if the rest of them were all screwups, either. Lodi Vertilus was an honor-roll student, as was James Lee. Joaquin Gallardo had spent the summer working out with Allen. As for the eight who weren't initially suspended but had stuck with their teammates, what was their sin, showing solidarity? Loyalty is supposed to be applauded, especially among young men. Coaches demand it. The military prizes it. Even if walking out was impulsive, wasn't it commendable the way these boys stood up for one another?
Unity was something in which the boys took pride. A Band of Brothers, they called themselves. Some of them grew up in tough circumstances, with absent or struggling parents. The basketball team was their second family. The players had spent weekends at the park, running the court all afternoon. Afterward they had played NBA Live or watched NBA ball at somebody's house. Life had taught them that sometimes your friends are all you have.
The night of the suspensions they started a group message on Facebook and decided to stand as one. That way, they assumed, Allen would have to talk to them. Sure, the coach rubbed many of them the wrong way, with his holier-than-thou attitude and rigidity. Others just wanted to go back to how it was before Allen arrived, when the coaches let them jack up shots and call their own plays. Some of the players talked openly about hoping Allen would be fired. But others liked Allen. They considered him a father figure. He'd welcomed them into his home; they'd met his wife and kids. He was a good man. They just wanted to be heard. They wanted respect.
After the walkout they were giddy. They'd stood up to authority. They'd stuck together. It felt important. As the days passed, though, it became clear that Allen didn't see the suspensions as the first step in a discussion—even for the eight who had left in solidarity. (Allen says they "dismissed themselves" and didn't meet his requirement that they show up with their parents; the players say they were never given a fair hearing.) Excitement turned to anger. Anger turned to concern. They tried to talk to Bejarano and the AD, Corbin. "They didn't trust our word," one of the 13 says. "They usually don't at that age."
In the end the 13 were left with a void. All those mornings and afternoons they had gone to practice were now empty. No one wanted to play ball or talk about the game. Without the carrot of the team, some of them got poorer grades. At first it was amusing to see Gunderson get creamed, but it also hurt. For many, this was their senior season. This was supposed to be their moment.
The news stories hurt just as much. Renegades? Mutiny? At one point a Mercury News columnist, Scott Herhold, took up Ryan's cause, noting his straight-A grades and good relationship with Gunderson's coaches and quoting his coach at the basketball Hilltoppers Academy, Steve Shaw, who said, "If I had 10 of the best players and five of Ryan, I would pick the five Ryan Trans." But public opinion wasn't going to change. These kids got what they deserved.
In June nine of the 13 graduated, walking across the stage and off into the world. None appeared in the team basketball photo. Their stats were missing on the MaxPreps website. It was as if their senior season had not existed.
The Prodigal Son
IT'S HARD to pinpoint when the turnaround began. Maybe it was that summer, when six Gunderson players spent three months working with Allen in his program, paying if they could. Or maybe it was in the fall, when 35 kids showed up for varsity tryouts. Or perhaps it was on that June morning in 2012 when Ryan Tran, now an incoming senior, sent a text message to Allen: "Can I come to the gym today?"
The oldest of the four Tran children, Ryan was expected to set the bar, and boy, did he. By third grade he was tutoring second-graders in math. In fifth grade he won a President's Award for Educational Excellence. Obsessed with basketball, he practiced for hours in the family driveway, encouraged by Linh, an aviation engineer. Linh and his family had immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was 21, and he worked three jobs while getting his degree in electrical engineering at San Jose State at night. Any son of his understood the value of hard work. Despite his slight frame, Ryan was playing on traveling teams in middle school and was on track to be a three-year varsity player at Gunderson.
After the suspensions, Linh had been irate. Tell me what my son did wrong, he asked Allen in January 2012. The coach's response, according to the Trans: If you don't know why, I'm not going to tell you. Linh met with the administration. He contacted media outlets. He sent mass emails to the CIF, to other schools. He wanted answers. He felt he never got them. Allen says he offered to let Ryan back on the team provided he accepted a bench role. Ryan says he told the coach he wouldn't come back without his teammates.
Ryan didn't touch a basketball until April. His father pushed him to go to the gym, but Ryan just wanted to melt away.
It took him weeks to send the text to Allen. His friends were shocked that he wanted to return to the team. After all you went through, they said. But Ryan loved basketball too much.
He expected Allen to say they had to talk. But the coach just said yes. It was enough, Allen now says, that Ryan had "humbled himself," and by allowing Ryan back, Allen felt he was "humbling myself." When Ryan showed up for practice, the two didn't discuss what had occurred. Instead the team went right back to work. But it took weeks for Ryan to talk to Mohamed and the others who had stayed. Theirs was now strictly a working relationship.
There was plenty to work on. Even with Ryan's return, the Gunderson roster contained gaping holes. The team had little depth, less experience and no size outside of the immobile Big Mel. Jose Silva joined Ryan in returning to the team but went down with an injury. In the first game of the season the Grizzlies lost to Los Gatos 75--48. In the weeks that followed Gunderson lost twice more to push its winless streak to 24 games.
Then, on Dec. 12, Gunderson played Thomas More, a nonleague school that would finish the season 19--6. Another blowout loomed. As he did before every game, Ryan led his teammates in prayer. "It's O.K. to mess up," he said. "Don't get mad at each other. Now let's pray for no injuries. Let's pray that we have a good game."
The Grizzlies came out on fire. Ryan sliced through the defense for layups. David swatted away shots. Mohamed and Jonathan clogged the passing lanes. Gunderson led early, then More made a run in the second quarter. This is your time! Allen roared at his players at the half in the locker room, banging on a table. This is what you prepared for, why you put in all those hours! In the second half the Grizzlies held strong. The final score was 68--57, Gunderson. Allen teared up in the locker room. So did some of the boys. The Grizzlies had won for the first time in more than a year.
One win turned into two, then four, then eight. In February 2013, Mercury News reporter Julia Prodis Sulek wrote a story about Gunderson's "incredible journey." In the space of a year, she wrote, Allen had made the program competitive again by playing his way. It was "something beyond vindication."
Competitive would have been enough for all of them. Just finishing .500 was a huge achievement. But then, on Feb. 12, Gunderson played Andrew P. Hill in the first game of the Blossom Valley tournament. The game tilted back and forth until, with 19 seconds left, the Grizzlies had the ball with the score tied. In the stands, parents and students stood, screaming. The ball ended up in Ryan's hands. He stood at the top of the key, looking up at the clock: 15 seconds. 10. Finally, at five, he drove left, spun in the paint and pulled up. All those years of practice paid off. He lofted the ball from seven feet out. The buzzer blared. Swish. Then: pandemonium. Ryan raced toward the bench. His teammates mobbed him, hugging and bouncing. So did Allen.
Nine days later Gunderson did it again, beating Carmel in its first game of the section playoffs. That the Grizzlies lost to Salinas in the quarterfinals did little to dampen the buzz. The Grizzlies were the feel-good story of the South Bay. In an unprecedented occurrence, Gunderson players swept the Blossom Valley division's awards for senior of the year (Ryan), junior of the year (Mohamed) and sophomore of the year (David). Adding to the excitement, a group of talented freshmen was arriving in the fall.
A mere 14 months after the walkout, Gunderson was on track to become a power.
HOW DO you measure the impact of a coach?
It is a cool night in San Jose, and gangly teenagers stream toward the Gunderson gym. Inside they run wind sprints. Medicine-ball drills come next, then the weave, then three-on-two drills. Allen stands at midcourt, hands on hips, watching silently. Occasionally he stops practice. "Never put your hands on your knees," he admonishes a bent-over sophomore. "You're not tired. Do not ever even think tired. Your opponent will know." The boy nods, straightens up. He does not talk back.
On the baseline, hardly winded, stands Mohamed. Now a senior, he is 6'2", graceful, confident. He finishes the break with soaring drives. NAIA and junior colleges are interested. He has become the leader of the team, and Allen couldn't be more proud. When the two part, they say "Love ya."
On the other side of the court stands David. He has grown into a dominant post player, 6'4" and 183 pounds, while carrying a 4.0 GPA. He speaks glowingly of his coach, saying, "He's just really inspiring, you know? You just can't give up on a man like that. He's just so passionate."
Not far from David is Jacobi Allen, who is now a freshman. He is wide-hipped and long-armed, like his father, and he plays with passion. Farther down are more freshman reinforcements: a 6'5" starter and another who had seven interceptions as Gunderson's starting cornerback. All three have played and trained with Mike Allen Sports for years. The pipeline is in place. Gunderson is a favorite to win the league. (They will finish the year 17--12 and make the section quarterfinals.)
Allen is in a good place. His wife is healthy, the tumor successfully removed, and she coaches the Gunderson girls' soccer and cross-country teams. Allen's off-season clinic continues to grow, and Allen aspires to one day become a college or NBA coach. He works as hard as ever; after practice on this night he will stay at the gym until 11 p.m., shagging balls for two high school girls as they work on their jump shots.
He is pleased with the program's progress, proud of how opposing coaches comment upon the demeanor of his players, how his bench is always attentive and cheering. He's proud of how hard the boys study—eight varsity players were recently named to the honor roll—and the effort they put out on the court. "I know how much of an effect I'm having on people's lives, on players' dreams," Allen says. "I'm having an opportunity to change lives, like I needed when I was young."
As for the Gunderson 13, Allen says he hasn't spoken to many of them. He says he did invite them to an alumni game, but none showed up to play. Asked if he would do anything different given a second chance, he says no, but he does wonder if he "wanted it more for them than they wanted it themselves." He says he hopes the 13 learned from the experience: To always be respectful. To understand that when you are part of a team, it's not about you, that it's a together thing.
"My hope is for them to know how important it is to work together through everything," he says. "I wish that they would have followed through with the simple request. Marc [Taylor] and I saw what was needed in order for them to get on track. Because we don't want them to be where they are today." He pauses. "That's the unfortunate thing, the pain I have. Wondering where these guys are today and are they setting a good example."
Where These Guys Are Today
AFTER GUNDERSON, the 13 dispersed. Lodi headed to DeAnza College in Cupertino. Joaquin eventually went to San Jose State. Lamar got a job. One player ended up in downtown San Jose, spending his days not doing much of anything. The others worry about him.
From afar, the 13 watched as Gunderson went from laughingstock to contender. They thought about what had happened. Tried to process it. When a reporter called, in the winter of 2013, they were reticent. "I have no further comments on that situation thank you though," wrote Lamar in a Facebook message. Lodi responded enthusiastically at first but then stopped talking. Others spoke only on condition that they not be named.
Life lessons? Yes, they got those, though perhaps not the ones Allen intended. "I learned that life is a cold, hard world," says one of the 13. "Some people might be happy and excited for you, but when it comes down to push and shove, they won't be there for you. Adults have so much self-esteem and respect for each other, they're not able to say, 'You're right' or 'I'm sorry for what happened, can you please forgive me?' "
The 13 assume there was a reason for what happened; they say they just don't know what it was. "Maybe I'll get to speak to Coach Allen about it later in life," says one. "We can just kind of be mutual and say, 'Why did it happen that way?' "
There was only one member of the Gunderson 13 who was willing to talk on the record. He arrives at an In-N-Out burger joint in San Jose the week before Christmas, nearly two years to the day since he was suspended. He wears black-rimmed glasses and a wispy goatee.
Ryan Tran is doing well. His senior year at Gunderson he was class president, scholar-athlete of the year and valedictorian, graduating with a 4.0 GPA. He is at UCLA, where he studies five to six hours a night and plays off and on with a practice squad that scrimmages against the UCLA women's basketball team. It's a way to stay around the game.
He says he tries to forget about what happened that winter, even while admitting that it remains "a big part of my life." While joining a UCLA club he was asked to share an experience and told the story of the walkout. On his application to MIT he was asked about the most challenging part of his life. He wrote about that lost season. He wonders now if that's why he didn't get in.
Still, he says he wouldn't do anything different. "I needed to stand up for myself as well as for these other guys," he says. "We were kicked off but not told why." And while Allen says that Ryan "humbled himself" by coming back his senior year, that's not how Ryan sees it. He considered transferring, then decided that would be cowardly. "By staying I could show that what happened isn't going to faze me," Ryan says. "That, if anything, it makes me stronger."
These days Ryan feels neither loyalty nor animosity toward Allen. He appreciates how the coach welcomed him back and encouraged him, "but it doesn't change the fact that I didn't respect the decision he made the year prior." Asked if he'd recommend Allen as a coach, Ryan hesitates, then laughs. "I don't know," he says finally. "I'd say yes for skill development and training, but not for learning about the game of basketball."
How about as a molder of young men?
This time Ryan doesn't hesitate: "No. Not for that."
TWO YEARS AGO Mike Allen drew a line in the sand. Today the Gunderson basketball team is undeniably stronger. His players invest countless hours in the sport. They keep their grades up. They respect authority. They have become better players and, perhaps, better men. All in large part because of him.
Some argue that this is all you need to know. That the end justifies the means. That, as Taylor puts it, "sometimes you have to take the hit because the reward is so great." Sometimes for progress to occur, real progress, there has to be, as junior guard Jonathan Chavez—one of the four who stayed on the team in 2011—put it, "collateral damage."
Others believe this is missing the point. That, in the big scheme of things, youth coaching is rarely about sport itself. That instead it's a safe place for young people to test boundaries and learn about authority, to wrestle with ideas such as sacrifice and loyalty. That its most important lessons may not become apparent for years. "They are young men—if you have to punish them, punish them," Linh Tran says. "But they love to play basketball. We all make mistakes. The coach makes a mistake. The players make a mistake. But if you're a grown man and you do that to a young person, that's not the right thing to do. They're in high school, but they're still children. You're able to give them opportunities to learn their lessons."
Where you come down on the matter may depend on who you are. A 16-year-old sees the world differently from a parent, who sees it differently from a coach. Should we show allegiance to our friends or to authority figures? Should we live in the present or fixate on the future? These are not easy questions to answer, especially for a teenager. Allen says he hopes that the Gunderson 13 learned how important it is "to work together through everything." One wonders if, in the end, it was only the boys who needed to learn that lesson.