At Luke C. Moore Academy, forming a basketball team gave troubled students a needed outlet

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 12:36 AM

Just a couple of hours before Eugene Williams was set to play his first varsity basketball game earlier this month, the former high school dropout triumphantly hoisted his jersey in the makeshift locker room. This was what he worked toward: a chance finally to play high school basketball, while also putting his life back on track.

Alongside Williams that afternoon were players whose paths included similar missteps on the District's streets. Some had spent time in jail; many had spent time around drugs; all had flunked out of or been expelled from other D.C. high schools before landing at Luke C. Moore Academy, the city's only public alternative high school.

Opened in 1970, Moore had never fielded an interscholastic sports team. Sports never seemed to fit alongside the curriculum. That changed, however, this winter. After more than a year of preparation, the school's new administration was able to put a boys' basketball team into the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association. The Eagles finished the year 1-11 and will not qualify for the DCIAA playoffs, but those involved with the team acknowledge this is one record that doesn't matter - the basketball was the thing.

"That's all I was waiting for," said Williams, who enrolled at Luke C. Moore in November at the behest of his girlfriend, after he spent the past three years bouncing between schools in the District and Montgomery County before he stopped going to classes at Paint Branch last March. "When I got out there, that was it for me. That was the reason I came back [to school]. Now, maybe I can get my diploma and do something with my life."

Williams knows he's almost out of options. He winces when asked what he would be doing now if Luke C. Moore had not decided to field a basketball team. Looking around at his teammates, Williams knows he has plenty of company.

"A lot of these kids are looking for a second chance, but some, a fifth chance," said Carlos Perkins, Luke C. Moore's assistant principal. "But for most of them, it's their last chance."

When Azalia Hunt-Speight, 30, took over as Moore principal prior to the 2009-10 school year, average daily attendance at the Brookland school was 32 percent, according to DCPS.

"The first thing we said was, 'How do we turn this place into a place that people want to be?' " she said, noting enrollment this year is 289. "Sports matters. It helps you to see the light."

Even though the school moved into a renovated and modernized building for the 2006-07 school year, it was clear to Perkins why so few students wanted to be there.

"When we walked into the building, it felt like an adult facility," he said, referring to the bare walls, devoid of the school's maroon and gold, renderings of Moore's mascot or anything to unite a geographically disparate student body. "We wanted it to feel like a school."

Since Luke C. Moore never had a team, its students had to hurry to other schools at dismissal to play for their teams, per DCPS rules for schools that don't sponsor a particular sport. And that only happened if they were able to meet DCIAA eligibility standards.

A point of pride

"What does it mean, in the context of Luke C. Moore, for Luke C. Moore to have a basketball team?" Perkins asked, explaining how the administration debated starting a team. "We want you to be proud of your school, and, ultimately, we realized that this is something that can do that."

Hunt-Speight met DCPS Athletic Director Marcus Ellis at a Dunbar girls' game in December 2009 and proposed bringing a team to Moore. As the game was going on, Ellis listened half-heartedly and told her it all sounded fine. Then, he caught himself in a double-take.

"Wait a minute," he told her, shaking his head almost to jar himself into reality. "You're talking about Luke C. Moore?"

Ellis had plenty of concerns. Per DCIAA rules, no Moore student who turned 19 prior to July 1, 2010, would be eligible to play this season - a factor that eliminated approximately one-fourth of a student body, according to Hunt-Speight. He also acknowledged plenty of Moore students had behavioral issues and told Hunt-Speight that there had to be "no drama on the court."

"The first thing I said to her," Ellis said, "was: 'Can this be done? I know you want it done, but can it be done?'"

Hunt-Speight knew it could only be done if she had the right coach. When Ali Jarrett saw a vacancy for a head basketball coach at a DCPS high school he applied. He didn't know anything about what made Luke C. Moore different.

Jarrett told Hunt-Speight he spent the past decade working with at-risk children in schools and nonprofits, but she told him that might not be enough.

"I told him: 'If you can't handle giving a hug to a kid who's HIV-positive, I don't want you. If you can't handle having a kid curse you out because he didn't eat last night, I don't want you.' We have kids who come from situations that are really difficult," Hunt-Speight said.

Jarrett, 40, didn't flinch. "Once she told me the type of kids who we'd have and the problems they were going through, it wasn't that difficult to grasp," he said.

At the DCIAA's preseason meeting, Ellis told the rest of the DCIAA coaches about Moore's plans. After a couple of light-hearted jokes from coaches lamenting that they could no longer get Moore students to play on their teams, the rest of the league welcomed the Eagles.

"It's good to see them out here,' said longtime Anacostia coach and athletic director Frank Briscoe. "This is about giving kids a chance."

The team would also be an incentive for all students to perform academically. Even though there are only about a dozen players on a basketball team, Hunt-Speight said this team would be Luke C. Moore's "tryout year." If the basketball players can maintain eligibility and behave on the court, then Ellis said he would give them a budget for the 2011-12 school year to participate in more DCIAA sports.

"I see a change in discipline from just a week ago," Ellis said in mid-January. "You hear players telling each other, 'Watch the cursing,' " knowing each expletive during practice requires them to run four laps around the gymnasium.

Eligibility was difficult to maintain, as players had to adhere to the DCIAA schedule. Several players who were eligible when practice first started in December were unable to play once grades came out in late January. Others who had hoped to gain clearance didn't. Jarrett said the first practice was the only one where "everybody" showed up.

"That's what frustrates me the most," he said. "The ones who come every day, I admire them."

'This will be good'

When word began to trickle out around school in late fall that Moore would field a boys' basketball team, students greeted the news with more skepticism than excitement.

"I was like: 'What? Luke Moore can't have no basketball team. It's an alternative school,' " said senior forward Dominic Harden, who is in his first year at the school and played on the football team last fall at McKinley. "When I start thinking about it, this will be good for Luke Moore because most kids do have anger and some people can only flush out their frustrations on sports. . . . You've got to release and [physical education class] can't do it for you."

Eugene Williams found out about the team through his girlfriend, Tonica Belton, also a Moore student. Williams spent his freshman year at Coolidge in 2007-08, but said he never went to class. His mother moved out to Silver Spring, and enrolled him at Paint Branch the following year, but his grades and truancy remained an issue. He spent the first half of the 2009-10 school year at Randolph Academy, Montgomery County Public Schools' alternative school, and returned to Paint Branch after winter break.

In March 2010, though, he stopped going to school altogether.

"My grades just dropped," he said. "There was no point in me going to school. I really didn't know" what to do.

When Belton told him Moore was starting a basketball team, Williams decided to enroll. He said his biggest high school regret was never playing varsity. He wasn't academically eligible because his most recent grades were from the semester when he quit at Paint Branch, but Jarrett allowed him to practice with the team.

Williams's story is similar to many of Moore's players.

Tavaris Chambers was hoping to make the four-time defending DCIAA champion basketball team as a junior at Cardozo. But on Nov. 3, 2007, he was arrested and charged with robbery with a deadly weapon and transporting a handgun in Maryland for attacking a pedestrian at a traffic stop. He was sentenced to four years in prison, but was paroled in August and enrolled at Luke C. Moore.

Having turned 21 last month, Chambers knew his playing days were long gone. Yet he still went to practice, not only because he wanted to play, but also to try to steer his classmates from a fate similar to his own.

"I relate to a lot of these guys," Chambers said. "Now that I'm older, I want to show these guys that there's still a chance for you. I'd rather be in school or a gym doing something productive instead of running the streets. Once you find trouble, it's hard to stay away from it."

Jarrett said only about three or four of the 15 players who tried out for the team had ever played organized basketball before, so he knew not to expect much. Several of the games were so one-sided because, Jarrett said, "none of them are in basketball shape."

Williams, however, was ready when he learned on the morning of Feb. 1 that he had regained his eligibility. The 5-foot-6 point guard was in the starting lineup later that night for the Eagles' home game against Phelps, and quickly drew praise from his coaches for delivering a beautiful bounce pass to Harden on a fast break.

Williams helped the Eagles build a 44-34 lead midway through the fourth quarter, and it seemed they would finally get their first victory. Phelps rallied, however, to tie the score at 52 with seven seconds left.

Jarrett called timeout and drew up a play. Andre Moses inbounded the ball from midcourt to Williams, who drove toward the basket, spun in the lane and flipped in the winning basket with 2.7 seconds left.

"I just had to get that shot off," Williams said. "I kept my eyes on the clock and when it went in, oh man, that bucket proved so much. It showed I could come back."

Each player looked for another to embrace. The couple of dozen spectators ran over to congratulate the Eagles. Hunt-Speight ran on to the court and sought out each player and coach to give a hug. The players posed together on the bench for photos as the school's first victorious team.

"I don't know if I could take more of this," Hunt-Speight said of the thrilling ending, "but this is why we did this."

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