Looking back at that crazy 1999 season, Richmond High School Coach Ken Carter was at his wit’s end with his underachieving basketball team: The problem wasn’t on the court, where his players had raced to a 13-0 record--the best ever for the violence-plagued school in this blue-collar East Bay town.
The troubles were in the classroom, where many athletes were skipping lessons and blowing off assignments, riding high on a wave of popularity that only an undefeated season can bring.
So Coach Carter called a timeout. Literally.
In the face of criticism from both parents and school officials, he benched his entire 45-player roster on the varsity, junior varsity and freshman squads. He forfeited the next two league games and made the school gym off-limits even for practice. And play didn’t resume until scofflaw students raised their grades with the help of tutors and encouragement from teammates.
“On the streets and public basketball courts in Richmond and any other city in America, you see the broken dreams of former high school legends who got left behind by life,” Carter says. “And I was just not going to let that happen to these boys.”
The brief lockout made national news and began a remarkable and sometimes painful transformation for Carter, his players and the entire high school.
Today, Carter will taste yet another victory when he enrolls his own son Damien at the West Point Military Academy. The youth is among four players from the 1999 team who are off to four-year colleges on athletic scholarships.
Included in the win column is 1999 graduate Wayne Oliver, who, after sliding to a straight-F average before playing for Carter, will now attend Oklahoma’s Cameron University. Along with Carter and Oliver, who were not among the students prompting the lockout, are two players who will attend UC Berkeley and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Carter says all of the 15 offending athletes are now attending at least community college.
Thanks in part to the lockout’s publicity, Richmond High also has adopted a more optimistic attitude. Officials acknowledge that only 23 of the school’s 209 graduating seniors in 1999 went on to four-year colleges. But the school says it has begun programs to help its students win scholarships and expects the number of its graduates entering four-year schools to rise steadily.
The school has also purchased dozens of new computers, and officials say overall student attendance at classes is on the rise.
Richmond High--once considered among the worst in the West Contra Costa Unified School District--was the only one of the campuses this year to win a state performance award, Carter says.
Carter, 41, is one of nine children. He set numerous school records as a basketball star at Richmond High in the 1970s, and the coaching success vindicates his often-criticized methods.
Since 1998, Carter, a walk-on coach whose primary work is owning a local sports supply store and barbershop, has made his players sign an uncompromising academic contract.
In a city plagued by gangs, the agreement requires players to stay off the streets and maintain a 2.3 grade point average--higher than the state’s minimum 2.0 GPA for sports participation. They not only must attend classes, they must sit in the front row.
After their grades barely met eligibility standards, players on the 1999 squad began breaking their word. After hearing complaints from teachers, Carter made the youths do countless push-ups and run laps. When that didn’t work, he began what players now call the Great Lockout.
One day, when his squads showed up for practice, they found the gym door locked and a sign posted outside. It directed them to go, of all places, to the school library--where tutors were waiting.
On Tuesday, Carter and two of his players recalled the public storm that soon broke.
“It was kind of confusing,” former Richmond point guard Damien Carter recalled of the sign. “We didn’t know what to make of it,” added Oliver.
With a smile, their former coach cut them short: “That sign said it all: Basketball was out until the team got its academic life in order.”
Although the season eventually resumed--with the team finishing 19-5 and losing in the second round of the district playoffs--Carter fell under harsh criticism from school officials and parents.
“I got calls at home, at school, at my job--and they were all negative,” he said. “People wanted a state championship, and I know we sacrificed that. But my goal was to get these boys into college, where they could learn to become leaders and come back to this community as productive citizens.”
Oliver’s father recalls his son’s frustration at seeing the entire team sidelined. “The coach and I have been friends a long time--we played basketball together--and I knew how he did things,” said Wayne Oliver Sr. “Some guys don’t give up until the last bucket is scored. Ken put on the pressure, the full-court press on his own team. And it worked.”
While Gov. Gray Davis showed up for the team’s triumphant return to the court in 1999, school officials skipped the event. Many felt Carter had overstepped his bounds in canceling games without consulting the school board.
“I still feel that way,” said board member Charles Ramsey. “What are we teaching kids if we’re not thoughtful of the consequences of our actions? In this case, it turned out to be a wonderful experience. But what about next time?”
Carter’s tough-school philosophy doesn’t stop at the lockout. His players--many of whom are from low-income families who have never even traveled the 10 miles southwest to San Francisco--go on regular field trips to meet with investment bankers and other icons of the business world.
The lesson their coach tries to drive home is simple.
“I show these boys the facts, how 55% of all inner-city school kids think they’re good enough to play professional sports,” he says. “But in all pro sports--from baseball to basketball, there are only 2,400 jobs total. Microsoft alone has 15,000 millionaire employees working there. And that’s just one company.”
Wayne Oliver recalls how Carter helped turn his academic life around. The year before he transferred to Richmond High, the 6-foot-7 forward was doing poorly.
Then 17, he had lost motivation after his older brother Harold was shot to death on the streets of Richmond. But under Carter’s influence, Oliver’s grades improved.
“Coach Carter cares about you,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
While he wanted to keep playing, Oliver stuck by his coach. After graduation, the coach stuck by him. Carter helped Oliver win grants and other financial aid to enroll at a community college in Coalinga, far from the street distractions of Richmond.
But Carter isn’t through yet. His goal is to see every graduating senior go directly to a four-year school. His campaign has prompted a Web site, https://www.coachcarter.com, and the team’s story may soon become the subject of a TV movie.
Although the varsity team finished a disappointing 6-13 this year, Carter and his players have their eyes set on a higher prize.
“We’re going to college,” Oliver said. “Coach won’t let us fail.”