Jim Fennell: Memorial hoop is on a crusade
WADE GOP is no longer 13 and shy.
He still has a sweet smile and a soft voice, and his love for basketball remains strong, but he is not afraid to speak his mind and does not seem as innocent as when we first met him three years ago.
Gop is now 16 and a sophomore at Memorial High School. He is part of the basketball team there, a team looking like it could be as good as any in the state.
We first met Gop at the Bishop O'Neil Youth Center on South Elm Street almost three years ago. We had heard about the basketball program Sudi Lett and David Cooper were building there and went to check it out. We discovered it was a basketball program that really wasn't about basketball.
Lett and Cooper said they were trying to use basketball as a way to keep kids off the street. Kids bought in, flocking to the Bishop to be part of the program. A lot of those kids were African refugees like Gop, who is from the Sudan.
Cooper is not as involved with the program as much since he is busy these days in Canada as coach of the Saint John Millrats of the National Basketball League of Canada, but Lett is still around, and the Bishop Elite program is as strong as ever. Three years ago, the Bishop had four teams that traveled the AAU circuit; now there are 10.
Kids from around the state are part of the program, but it is still the city kids who serve as its lifeblood. The maturation of the program is evident in the kids you now see playing in high school. Some, like Shomari Morgan, who played at Memorial and is now at Plymouth State University, have gone on to college.
Almost the entire Memorial team has gone through the Bishop Elite program. Memorial coach Jack Quirk said he is not so sure that is a good thing.
It's not so much a statement about the Bishop Elite program as it is about AAU basketball in general. Kids play a lot of games in the spring and summer, sometimes two or three games in a day. Games are fast and rough, and the style doesn't translate well to the high school game.
Quirk, in his first year back with the boys' team, said it has taken time to get the kids to buy into his system, especially on the defensive end, but it's been working. Before Friday's loss at Dover, the Crusaders were 3-0 in Division I and won another three games to capture their first title at the Queen City Invitational Basketball Tournament since 1977.
As Quirk said, it's easier to get kids to buy in when you're winning.
But this is where it gets tricky.
If it was just about winning a state title or proving that you're the best team in the city, the Crusaders would be no different from many teams. But they are different.
Nine players on the roster are black, and that, Quirk said, makes them stand out. Memorial had as many black players as the other seven teams combined at the QCIBT.
Their names - Kante, Ngalakulondi, Iradukunda, Akat - make them stand out as much as the color of their skin. Quirk said racism is an issue.
Quirk did a stint as basketball coach at Hesser College and said his team was stocked with inner-city kids, many of them black. However, the other junior college teams Hesser played had a similar makeup, so it wasn't that big of a deal. He said he wasn't prepared for the negative reception Memorial gets on the road.
"We're the bad guys," Quirk said. "I tell them beforehand to expect it, and you have to deal with it. It's tough because they're very proud. They're a tight-knit group, and if one is insulted, they're all insulted."
The coach heard the "N-word" used by one person in the crowd during a scrimmage. He questioned game officials about their bias during at least one game. He reads into the words of others as code. Other teams - whiter teams - are described as "heady" and "gritty"; his team is described as "athletic," and is not credited for being tough or smart.
The kids know their reputation, and they want to win a state championship to prove their doubters wrong.
"Not that many people think we can do it," Gop said. "A lot of people think we are bad kids: we can't get good grades; we can't focus; we're not going to respect Quirk.
"We all feel like we have something to prove to the city because we are not like that."
These kids are different. Many have come here from refugee camps, torn away from their families. Oumaru Kante hopes to one day see his father, who lives in the Ivory Coast. Zoubel Iradukunda lives with his aunt and doesn't know where all his family is. Gop has no idea where his father is.
But, in many ways, these kids are no different from other kids who have a passion for something. For them, it's basketball. Most believe they will play in college even though many of them will not. Hopefully they also are acting on the advice of the people trying to prepare them to rely on something other than basketball.
Shomari Morgan did.
He began going to the Bishop after meeting Cooper and finding out both of their families came from Jamaica. He went to PSU to play basketball last year but didn't go out for the team at the start of this season because there was a marketing project he wanted to focus on. He rejoined the team this semester after finding the right balance between academics and athletics.
Iradukunda hopes to get a college scholarship to play basketball but plans to go to college even if he doesn't. Gop says his grade-point average is close to 3.0 and hopes to get an academic scholarship to college.
"I see kids getting arrested for having drugs. I've never done drugs. I don't do any of that stuff," Gop said. "People think we're doing bad things because our friends around my neighborhood are getting arrested. They expect me to get arrested, too. We just have to prove ourselves that we're not like other kids. We know better. From the Bishop, we were taught right."
Wade Gop doesn't seem as innocent as he was when we met him three years, but we think he may be a bit wiser.
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Jim Fennell covers high school basketball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.