For a moment, the boys were a finished jigsaw puzzle, as tight as their basketball uniforms were baggy.
LeShawn, his mop of tight curls bobbing with the bouncing ball, sprinted down court, flanked by Ronnie and Shane and Todd.
For the moment, it was just a bunch of lean, confident, hopeful kids playing hoops. No probation officers or cops or anger or alienation.
People were cheering them for once.
LeShawn fed Shane for a pull-up, which he missed. Ronnie, a lanky 16-year-old, all elbows and shins, grabbed the rebound, faked, put it in.
“Get off!” their friends on the bench yelled, whooping and high-fiving. “Yo, bust it, Ronnie!”
“I’ve dreamt about this for the boys,” said Louise Stamper, the team sponsor and the youths’ surrogate mother.
“They’re going to be all right … or else I’ll kill them.”
The West Side Ballers are the only team in the Greater Spokane Youth League sponsored by the Spokane Police Department, and the only one that has posted more days in juvenile lock-up than points on the score board.
The team is made up mostly of members of north Spokane gangs, the West Side Mafia and the Dogpound of the West Central neighborhood.
They lost their first game last week to a polished Native American team, 40-36.
But getting the group onto the court, into uniforms paid for by COPS West, is an unusual experiment being watched by the police department’s gang unit.
“This might make a good model,” said Larry Saunders, an officer in the police gang unit. “You have to be careful. To befriend them, you must have some reservations.”
Since the team formed two months ago, the youths have stayed straight. None has gotten in trouble, and several are going to school more regularly. Others are looking for jobs.
“If you go to juvenile, you can’t play,” said Shane Nelson, 16, his hair trimmed to a quarter inch of blond fuzz.
It’s an unorthodox method of intervention, keeping the gang intact and pushing them toward a different, more socially acceptable focus. Police usually try to break up gangs, arresting the leaders and plugging members into gang intervention programs.
“I know it sounds nuts,” said Ken Lesperance, the West Central neighborhood police officer who helped Stamper organize the team. “But the other thing wasn’t working, and we’ve got to try something…
“They practice Tuesday and Friday and play on Thursday,” he added. “That’s three days I know where they are.”
Police said the West Side Mafia and Dogpound were “fringe” groups, made up of fledging hoodlums with the potential of becoming hardened criminals. Once a gangster goes “hardcore,” no hoops dream would turn them around, according to Saunders.
But it could work on these kids, he said.
“If you are going to play sports, you have rules to abide by,” said Saunders. “If they accept some of the rules of sports, they might accept some of the rules of society.”
The two West Central groups have been linked to vandalism, theft and assault, and last summer some members were involved in a gunfight, according to Lesperance. He’s been unable to confirm rumors of drug peddling.
Every day for two weeks, LeShawn Trammell, 15, beat up a boy who had hurt his little brother. He was jailed for assault.
Another, Kyle Record, was jailed for having a gun. He’s 15, blond fuzz just appearing on his top lip; his adam’s apple has yet to emerge.
Saunders, who is frequently called as an expert witness in the criminal trials of gang members, said petty crime often leads to “hardcore” offenses.
Getting them young is preventative maintenance, he said.
But getting the youths to change the focus of their activities is often difficult for authority figures like police.
That’s where Stamper has been unusually successful. She met most of the current team members last summer, after learning the name of a gang leader through her volunteer work at COPS West.
Tired of fearing the youths, and tired of fearing for the youths, she arranged a meeting with the boy - and 39 of his friends showed up. They made her open her shirt to show that she wasn’t wearing a wire.
She defused their skepticism: she wasn’t a cop and wouldn’t rat them out, she wasn’t their parent. She just wanted to be their friend.
“I worried about her all the time,” said Lesperance, sighing.
She bonded with Nelson, the Trammell brothers, Ronnie and LeShawn, and others by driving them around the neighborhood in her gray Ford Taurus, windows rolled down to blare gangsta rap. She drew stares, and the kids ate it up.
“It sounds crazy, but a Ford Taurus is like a Ferrari to them,” said Stamper.
She started visiting the boys in jail when they got in trouble, hosting parties at home, not rebuking them when they swore or smoked. She watched them drop their guards, giggling over a prank.
“I learned where they bought drugs, about their girlfriends, where they got high, where they hide from the cops,” said Stamper, her speech clipped with a faint South African accent.
She earned respect, in part, through empathy. Her father was an alcoholic. Her mother died of lung cancer when Stamper was 16. She has severe rheumatoid arthritis, an incurable degenerative joint disease. Her hands and feet are gnarled at impossible angles. She’s had 17 surgeries.
“I know what it feels like to look different,” said Stamper.
She joked with the youths about her trick elbow that’s swelled like a cantaloupe, and listened to them talk about absentee fathers, condescending and judgemental authority figures.
“These are kids that live on the edge,” said Gloria Goodwin, mother of one of the team members. “It’s amazing how much these kids respect Louise.”
“She was there for me,” said LeShawn Trammell.
The youths who once distrusted her now fight to carry her down steep stairs. LeShawn rocked Stamper’s four-year-old son Jacob to sleep on the way to a basketball game in the Taurus.
She said she sees the youths as they are: “These are just boys with crushed and broken souls.” And for their potential: “I see Ronnie in a tuxedo.”
When she picked up on their hoops fanaticism, she started talking about a team. Stamper knows nothing about basketball - she once told the team to score lots of touchdowns - but spent hours lining up $300 from the COPS West office to buy team’s uniforms.
She promised team members new Nikes if they followed through on a signed pledge not to smoke and not to swear at practices, not to let the team down.
She’s now looking for sponsors to pay for the Nikes, a concept she joking calls “adopt-a-gang-banger.”
The youths bought the agreement. “You let the team down by breaking the law,” said Lesperance. “It’s kind of ironic.”
Many have the hoops dream of playing in college but have never before played on an organized team. Some played on elementary school teams or competed while in juvenile detention.
They took their first loss hard, standing silently after the game, hands on their hips. They were far better athletes than their competition, and knew it, but teamwork and defense were spotty at times.
They slowly filtered out of the gym, most of them with their parents. Ronnie Trammell stopped on the way out and looked up at the score board.
Since joining the team, he’s been job hunting and “staying straight.” He hesitates to show a gang tattoo, but welcomes an invitation to talk about the team and about the future.
“I believe in fate,” he said. “This happened because it was supposed to, to keep us out of trouble.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Color Photos
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