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Sacred Hoops

by DAVE ZIRIN

Top-ranked boxer Juan “Hispanic Causing Panic” Lazcano didn’t know what hit him. The lightweight contender returned to his El Paso, Texas neighborhood to encourage a room of young children to “follow your dreams.” Lazcano was sharp as a tack and surefooted as a saint on Sunday. But a simple question stunned him like a stiff right cross.

“Why do you box?”

It was asked by a nine year old boy named Mateo and it’s a question that could perhaps only have been asked at a jewel of a camp called Basketball in the Barrio.

Now in its tenth year, Basketball in the Barrio is an annual living demonstration of how sports can develop the best angels in our nature. It’s also the story of how a shoestring basketball camp can be a bulwark for change.

At the cost of one dollar per person, Basketball in the Barrio opens its doors to the youth of the Segundo Barrio in El Paso. But like the root of a Texas Cedar, basketball is only the foundation. The camp also exposes kids to flamenco dancing, muralists, mariachi, and even ballet. These are all aspects of what is called “border culture” — or culture of the “fronterizo.” Border culture is the dynamic mix of the US and Mexico that merges in El Paso and it’s neighbor city, Juarez, Mexico. In much of Texas, “border culture” is looked upon with racist derision; something to sneer at, to shun, and to treat as if unclean. Basketball in the Barrio teaches kids to revel in it, like the dry heat of the desert sun.

This is the guiding philosophy of the camp’s director Rus Bradburd. Rus is not someone who, upon first glance, resembles a fronterizo. He’s also a living example of why books shouldn’t be judged by their covers. Rus was an assistant men’s basketball coach for the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) from 1983-1991, under legendary head coach Don Haskins. It was there that he came to the conclusion that Basketball in the Barrio needed to happen.

“I couldn’t stand that most of the kids in El Paso couldn’t afford to go the basketball camps in El Paso,” says Bradburd, over the surrounding shouts and steady thumping of 100 basketballs. “All over the country, big time college coaches, who are already overpaid, are making a fortune off of kids with these deluxe basketball camps. I wanted a camp that was not only accessible, but where we could play a role in talking about border culture and cultural traditions, where these kids could see that their culture is nothing to be embarrassed about but something they could wear as a point of pride.”

The kids at the camp span the gamut from expert dribblers, somehow pounding the ball with electric speed through their spindly legs, to those who look like they might trip over the foul line. But all treat the game, and each other, with tender respect.

Amber Avila, age 10, has been attending the camp for three years. She is typical of the children here in that she loves basketball but also holds it in a perspective that would shame many adult sports writers and armchair strategists alike. When asked what position she plays, Amber says nonchalantly, “Oh, I can play the 1,2 or the 3.” [Basketball lingo for point guard, shooting guard or small forward.] She says proudly that her dream is to play in the WNBA, but likes the fact that the camp offers more, because, in her words, “not everyone’s dream is to play basketball and we kids need to reach for our dreams.” She also enjoys camp because “the boys aren’t rude.”

One of those presumably polite boys, Chris Travieso, 10, also loves Basketball in the Barrio because, “I can learn about my history and play basketball at the same time. Also it’s a great place to make friends and learn new things.”

Amber, Chris and all the young people embrace the border culture with the same gusto they take to the court. Perhaps the most stunning sight of this year’s camp was when a former dancer in the Mexican National Ballet made her presentation. Many of the children had never seen ballet in their lives and some of the coaches feared how a ballet lesson for 120 elementary age children would go over. But the kids took to it like the parched take to ice water. When this brave, flinty ballerina asked for volunteers, much of the camp, including many of the boys, stormed the court to take instructions on how to stand on their toes and plie.

This entire experience is shaped by a unique collection of instructors who descend upon El Paso from around the country. Doug Harris, a documentary filmmaker and former NBA draftee who travels to the camp from the Bay Area, calls his annual trip to El Paso “a pilgrimage.” The word fits because the adults arrive with a sacredly shared commitment to the idea that sports can be a force for social change.

Another coach, Debbie Weinreis, makes her journey from St. Paul, Minnesota. After playing college ball at near-by New Mexico, Weinreis was a pro for 15 years in Europe. She says that she returns because, “In many camps I’ve been a part of, there is just too much pressure on the bottom line. Most of these kids will not go pro, but they do have to go on in life. We want them to see that there are options.” She also likes teaching in an environment where boys and girls aren’t separated but work together. “This camp does a great job of making it a place where girls, who from ages 6-10 are more physically advanced anyway, can star.”

Many of the coaches work with an organization called Athletes United for Peace. This movement spirit shapes the spirit of the camp as a bulwark for change. El Paso is a military town that will see an influx of 15,000 troops in the next year. Basketball in the Barrio, in the face of the billion-dollar weaponry the kids witness every day, tries to offer another perspective.

As Bradburd says, “It’s a camp that tries to teach peace and tolerance. This is not a flag waving camp. The kids get enough of that on TV and in school. It’s fine that this camp can be one place that doesn’t push patriotism down their throats… [Besides] how are we supposed to teach kids not to hit each other, to not be bullies, when it’s our foreign policy?”

And in El Paso, foreign policy colludes with the domestic like few other places in the country. The border has become militarized with hysteria over “illegal” immigration as well as fears that Al Quada will attack from the south. The specter of a “Juan bin Laden” has intensified an atmosphere of mistrust and racism. A Coors Light Billboard in El Paso says it all with the slogan “Always Cool, Aqui or There.” In other words, get it through your heads: you are either “Here” or “There” — but Coors can cross the border even if you can not.

The beauty of border culture is something unimaginable to the corporations that have stripped El Paso of jobs and made Juarez the home base for their maquiladoras. This makes those around Basketball in the Barrio all the more determined to help people remember and carry on the tradition of the fronterizo. Coach Steve Yellen, a former UTEP player and member of Athletes United for Peace says, “We want these kids to have pride in their community, pride in their culture, and pride in themselves.”

This consistent call for “pride” is not just a well-worn homily, but something all the instructors recognize as a necessary component for survival in El Paso. This is a city, in the words of Javier Diaz, that is “excluded, disconnected, and disrespected” throughout Texas. Diaz, a 75-year-old retired guidance counselor in El Paso Public Schools, speaks while watching the kids do a dribbling drill called “the impossible catch.” “We are an island in the state,” he says. “El Paso is a proud blue collar town, but we are promoted as being little more than low wages, cheap labor, and not worth giving a damn about. We have a political elite in Texas that wants to just strangle common people like us that live in Segundo Barrio. That’s why Basketball in the Barrio is so important. It teaches not just sports but self-respect. It can keep alive border culture, which to me means taking the best of Anglo and Mexican culture and combining them to educate our young about art, beauty, and tolerance. To be a ‘fronterizo’ is to be a whole person.”

It’s because the camp is forging whole people that led young Mateo to ask Juan Lazcano that simple question: “Why do you box?” It’s a question that defines the worldview of Basketball in the Barrio: why fight when you can learn, when you can play, and when you can dance?

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at whatsmynamefool2005@yahoo.com.

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DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

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