The Cristo Rey series is a collection of seven pieces written about the Cristo Rey Jesuit Baltimore boy’s basketball program through the lens of their coach Eddie Healy. Cristo Rey Jesuit Baltimore serves students who from low income families in Baltimore City. Every player has endured some hardship in their life, be it victim of violence, emotional trauma, broken family structure or any other afflictions that stunt the growth of many in poverty. This series is the story of unknown kids, on an unknown team from an unknown high school, finding a way to become the team and people they have the potential to be.
One of my favorite characteristics of sports is that they are the ultimate “reality TV,” as literally anything is possible. Whether it is a professional game or 3rd grade lacrosse, unique and amazing plays happen at all levels. The 2016-17 Cristo Rey basketball season had two such special moments on the court. These moments put some of the most genuine smiles on my face and I really wanted to share my perspective of each.
The first moment came from senior Kevin Porter in our first home league game in January. Kevin was new to the team this year and had actually never played organized basketball before. I sought out lacrosse players to fill my roster last spring and once I got a recommendation of Kevin’s character, academic prowess, and leadership ability, I put the full court press on him to tryout.
With him being the student body president, I figured his teammates would respect him even if he were not the most talented. Reluctantly, he agreed to start working out with the team in the summer. To give you an idea of how much of a beginner he was (and also about his humility), Kevin actually asked me at an August workout, “Coach, can you explain exactly how you dribble a basketball?” Needless to say I was floored, and honestly couldn’t hold back a small chuckle.
My staff and I grew fond of Kevin’s character in the early part of the season. He was slowly but surely improving once he started practicing with us after soccer season ended. He was a phenomenal teammate and locker room influence while seeing zero significant minutes on the court. I was really hoping to find a way to give him a special moment during the season but knew my window of opportunity would be small.
Looking ahead at the schedule, I saw that our final home game (a night to honor seniors with a starting spot) would most likely be against a top ranked team in our league and could very well be important in the playoff race. While I planned to start Kevin that night, my respect for him was such that I wanted to put him in a game where I could feel a little more comfortable letting him stay on the court longer. I pulled him aside before a practice over the Christmas break and told him to make sure his mother and family were at our first Friday night game after the holiday against Jemicy because he’d be starting.
Early in the game, there was a little foreshadowing that the night would be special. On the first Jemicy possession, Kevin was playing support defense in the paint when a Jemicy guard drove into the lane. Without hesitation, Kevin stepped up and took a charge. To me, taking a charge on defense is the most selfless thing a player can do. We start each practice at Cristo Rey with everyone taking a charge and the entire team can get out of a sprint if anyone takes a charge during practice. Proud as ever, I immediately subbed Kevin out and let the crowd give Kevin a bit of an ovation. Little did I know that Kevin had more up his sleeve.
I anticipated the contest would not be very close and that I would get Kevin in more throughout the game, but the score never really allowed for my plan. With a little over a minute left, the lead was secure enough that I threw Kevin back in. In all honesty, I was not thinking anything like “I really hope Kevin gets a basket.” I just wanted him to be out there so his family and friends could watch him. However, his teammates had a much different agenda.
All of the sudden, everyone on the court who didn’t have the ball was setting a screen to get Kevin open. The starters, now sitting on the bench, were demanding the younger players get the ball to Kevin. His first two shots were wildly off the mark. But with 14 seconds left, Kevin sunk a 25-foot 3-pointer that he banked in from the top of the key. Almost unsure of how to react, you can see Kevin on film do a little celebratory hop after the ball went in. I just threw my hands up and smiled in disbelief. His teammates and the crowd went wild. One player from the bench got so lost in the moment he ended up on the court. The other team got so frazzled by the environment that their coach called a timeout right afterwards, which turned out to be a nice extended celebratory moment in our huddle. When I got home that evening, I had a text message from Kevin that said, “Coach, that was the best moment of my life.”
I was so moved by the moment, I nominated Kevin for WMAR’s student athlete of the week. They quickly did a story on him and it might be one of the most underrated TV segments about what it means to be a good teammate. If you haven’t seen it and shared it, it’s absolutely worth the time. Kevin’s story continues to get better as just after the season ended, he received a full academic scholarship to Colgate University – another moment that just made me laugh and smile uncontrollably.
What was that 2nd special moment I mentioned? You’ll just have to wait for the next installment.