Life lessons offered on and off the court
SELAWIK - "I only yell at the kids who are going to be great, because the other kids didn't show up at all," said Andy Lee last week after an evening basketball session in the gym at Selawik Davis-Ramoth School.
Lee, a former high-level player, coach, principal and motivational speaker was in Selawik for a few days to work with local youth, from kindergartners to high schoolers, on the basketball court. But his message was much deeper than layups, teamwork and hustle.
"I want you to be better people," he told the group of young players.
A few boys sneaked in a side door just then and attempted to watch the drills. But there was no watching, only doing. Lee pulled the boys into the group, but not before ordering them to do 20 pushups as a consequence for the late arrival.
Inbetween team- and skill-building drills, Lee offered some words of wisdom. They were given in the context of basketball, but really, Lee said, it's just good advice all around.
"Good players stay up late, great players don't," Lee told the group. "Good players drink soda, great players don't."
Among his many job titles, Lee spent more than a decade as a youth corrections officer in Alaska. "During my 13 years in youth corrections, we locked up 3,217 Alaska Native youths," he said. "I thought that the state's focus was on punishment and incarceration as opposed to treatment and personal growth.
"There was not any community reintegration at that time and there wasn't anything culturally relevant in the institutions and so kids went home sometimes worse than when they left."
Lee was frustrated and decided to do more to help young offenders be better equipped for life outside of jail. He added that while drugs, alcohol and socioeconomic status can be partly to blame, the fundamental problem is a lack of basic social skills, he said.
"The key to getting in the communities and getting kids' attention was to offer something that they're interested in and it turns out that was basketball," Lee said. "I have the gift of having played and coached at a high level, so I use that as an attention-getter to help get my message out there."
Lee has been traveling to villages in the Arctic Northwest for about a decade teaching life lessons through basketball. The goal is to keep young people interested in something healthy, like basketball, as a way to keep them from experimenting with drugs and alcohol, or simply from getting bored and turning to crime or suicide. Lee said he couldn't remember a time when he was working in youth corrections that any young person, who was actively involved in sports, whether it was basketball, volleyball, cross-country, etc., was incarcerated.
"The Northwest Arctic is kind of a microcosm of the rest of the state; you can see every problem, the full range, that's in the rest of the state," he said, adding that over the past 10 years, teachers, parents and students have gotten to know and trust him in the villages.
Lee has been to Selawik four times but has traveled to the other Northwest villages many times, including 30 visits to Kivalina. He doesn't travel to the North Slope because, he said, he doesn't want to stretch himself too thin. Lee lives in Sitka full time where he coaches high school basketball. His motivational speaking business is called Positive Choices.
Each message Lee doles out is unique to the specific school, but there are a couple of common threads: self-discipline and teamwork.
"They have to learn the ability to show up every day for school," Lee said. "And they have to be a good teammate; you can't bully someone all day at school and then expect them to pass you the ball."
The drills that Lee teaches his pupils are core ball handling, passing and shooting skills, but they're not advanced, he said. They're elementary routines that encourage the youth to have fun while learning the fundamentals.
"These games encourage them to laugh freely. And laugh together. Because here they're all the same."
Lee is careful not to discriminate against, or segregate the male and female players because "here, they're all athletes, not boys and girls."
And he's no stranger to discrimination himself. Lee is black and Native - his father is Jamaican and his mother Tlingit - and he likes to point out to his students that he has fought his own battles when it comes to racial stereotypes.
"I like to talk about role models and whether the older kids know it or not, the younger ones are always looking to them."
Maniilaq brought Lee to Selawik for the three-day camp but he has worked with the school district in the past. He travels around the country offering life-skills training for young adults including social skills, personal finance and career development.
Chester Ticket, 30, has been coaching Selawik basketball for three years and was impressed with Lee's methods on the court. Tools that Ticket will use during the season, he said. Ticket added that he thought Lee's other messages of gaining success by staying in school and avoiding drugs and alcohol were useful for the students.
"Getting involved in something like (basketball) is very important," Ticket said. "It's better than them being out there doing nothing, being bored, hanging with the wrong person and getting into trouble."