Hoops and Ladders

How sports are wrecking schools.

I asked both Adams and Washington if they felt any resentment of the recognition lavished on El-Amin. They, after all, have demonstrated significant accomplishment in other areas and have adhered to the precepts given lip service by society and the school, and yet they have gotten nothing like that kind of attention. Both responded in essentially the same way. As Washington put it, "That kind of envy would be small and selfish. Khalid didn't make the rules for the school or the values of society." Besides, he pointed out, there was a practical benefit to the attention focused on El-Amin. "Other teams usually spend all their time preparing to defend against him, and that often works to my advantage."

As Abdul Quddoos notes, the school is a very small community and could not control who gets the public and media adulation even if it wanted to. But there is no doubt about the corrosive effect the sports fixation has on the atmosphere, nor about what it does to the motivation of students. Even Washington, who is friends off court with El-Amin, let a bit of feeling show when I asked him about the academic requirements for athletic participation at North: "Of course. The standards are way too low."

Against Roosevelt, Khalid El-Amin never does find the range with his jump shot. He spends most of his time performing classic point-guard chores, directing the offense with absolute assurance and making startling passes to open teammates. But you can tell that he is looking for a way to put an exclamation point on his statement, and on one trip down the floor, he spots a chink in the Teddies' defense. One second he is dribbling in place in the back court, and in the next he explodes between two defenders, crosses over with his dribble to avoid another, and launches himself toward the basket. Almost under the rim, he twists in mid-air, reaches back and feathers the ball off the glass.

The layup drops. His slashing trajectory returns him to earth out of bounds and directly in front of a cameraman for one of the network affiliates--there specifically to chronicle his return. El-Amin mugs a bizarre in-your-face gesture on his way past the lens.

He's back.

But there is more to the message than that. He's only a high school senior, but basketball is already his job, his profession, bound up with his identity. What he's telling everyone is that the basketball court is his school. Out there he is the one who teaches the lessons and sets the standards for acceptable performance.

In fact, it isn't his scoring--a mere 11 points--that finally puts the game away. To a degree you almost never see in a high school game, El-Amin is a conscious general on the court. When North takes possession out of bounds, he strolls casually down the floor like Patton on a tour of the battlefield. Dribbling the ball is automatic and requires no conscious attention, leaving him free to size up the defense, call out plays and assignments, and point with his free hand to the matchups he wants with opposition players. Even when his shot is off, his command of the game gives his team an overwhelming edge. As Jabbar Washington says later, "He gives us confidence; it's like having a coach on the floor."

It is El-Amin's fierce basketball intelligence that finally wears down the Teddies. You can see the frustration and dejection growing on their faces. No matter what defensive alignment they try, he finds its weakness, getting his teammates the ball in position for short jumpers and easy layups. The Roosevelt players have no idea what he is going to do, and he seems to know what they are going to do before they do it. In fact, it is on defense that he finally breaks the game open. Early in the fourth quarter he makes a quick succession of steals that lead to easy layups for his teammates. Finally in overdrive, the Polars cruise to a 20-point victory.

Two months later, while North is casually disposing of Stillwater in the State Championship game, El-Amin provides an even more striking example of his precocious mastery of the game. After one timeout, the Stillwater squad is momentarily confused about which players are supposed to be on the floor, and when the official hands the ball to a North guard for an inbounds play, a sixth Stillwater player is still within the lines of the court. Instantly, El-Amin jumps into the referee's face, vigorously making a "T" hand gesture. There aren't many high school players familiar with the arcane rule that makes Stillwater's momentary lapse a technical foul. In fact, at the high school level it's not something that referees carry around in the forefront of consciousness or enforce rigorously. Confronted with El-Amin's knowledge of the game, however, the official has no choice but to award a foul shot that adds one more point to North's burgeoning total.

How is it that a high school senior can know so much about basketball and so little about the Missouri Compromise or the relationships in a triangle? Put on the defensive about the role of sports in the schools, administrators in both Minneapolis and St. Paul invariably defend the system by pointing out that expenditures for athletics represent only about 1 percent of the total district budget. That is in fact modest compared to some of the flusher suburban districts, where extracurricular activities (mostly sports) sometimes account for more than 10 percent of the total school budget.

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