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Writers’ Weir: Learning lessons from a first-class coach

Nonfiction prose by Mike Clemens.

By Mike Clemens

The 2005 movie “Coach Carter” tells the inspirational tale of a high school basketball coach with adult standards for his players in the Bay Area city of Richmond, California. It made national news in 1999 when this businessman coach required each player to perform off the court; he locked down the gym until his team could perform in the classroom.

Like the best coaches of any sport, this guy knew the game very well. The high school team he mentored could see his records up on the wall in their gym.

If you’ve not seen the movie, you’ve missed out on a feel-good story of a poor community’s young Black men believing, then achieving in the classroom, on the court and in life after high school.

Thanks to the Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club, motivational speaker Ken Carter filled Centennial Hall’s main ballroom in 2008.

When it came time to climb the platform for autographs, I was near the front, gladly bought his book, and had my DVD autographed by “The Real Coach Ken Carter.” The line up to the stage extended to the doors; many wanted to meet him.

But the following day, someone didn’t.

Flying south the next morning, I was upgraded from coach to first class. Sitting on a plane doesn’t appeal to me, so, with my confirmed seat waiting, I often loiter in the boarding area to see friends headed out or arriving on other flights. After hanging out as long as I could, I stepped aboard a plane ready to leave.

Pausing at the front, I could see that my reserved seat, 4C, was occupied. The first class flight attendant asked if I would like to take the other available seat.

After flying on Alaska Airlines since 1970, I’ve changed seats at least a dozen times for the convenience of fellow passengers. Always in the past, either the flight attendant or the passenger proposing the swap would explain what they wanted and why; I never said no.

This time though, nobody explained, and I was too polite to object — especially when I saw who was sitting in 1A, a first-class coach, Ken Carter.

When I first boarded, I couldn’t see Row 1. Had I known who would be sitting next to me, I’d have jumped at the chance to change seats. Just the day before, I’d waited in line twice to see this guy, once to get in the door and again to climb the stage. So, I was thrilled to be able to spend our flight time to Seattle sitting beside a celebrity. How cool was that?

Later, I began thinking about what happened.

Why didn’t I get an explanation about this proposed seat-swap?

Some people don’t like to sit in the bulkhead row because there isn’t any storage under the seat ahead. That’s a straightforward reason, but this time, no such explanation was offered. Myself, I don’t mind the bulkhead aisle seat because I can stretch out my long legs, and the flight attendant will always find suitable storage. Plus, you are closest to the front door.

Being first off of the plane isn’t useful if you have to stand around waiting at baggage claim; that trip I was traveling light with just a carry-on. But this story isn’t about luggage; it’s about another kind of baggage — ethnic prejudice.

When the flight attendant acknowledged that somebody was sitting in my seat, she asked if the remaining seat was “acceptable.” I didn’t think about her choice of words, until later. Then, it occurred to me that the guy who took my seat might have not found it “acceptable” that his assigned seat was next to a Black man.

I’m no expert on ethnic prejudice, usually called racism (though there’s only one race – human), but I wasn’t born yesterday.

I can’t think of another reason why the guy sitting in my original seat wouldn’t want to sit next to a sleeping, well-dressed, bald, Black man. But it made me wonder about what sometimes lies just below the surface; maybe nobody is totally immune.

Meanwhile, Coach Carter smiled when he woke up because I’d brought along his book to reread while on the plane. What better conversation starter than placing this author’s book on the console between our seats? Then, we talked.

Turns out that he’d ended the day before by playing basketball with some locals. I’m no athlete, but once played basketball on an over 35 team in the Tlingit and Haida gym at Salmon Creek. Our games were late in the day; after all the adrenalin from game-time effort, it was almost impossible to sleep that night. So, the next day after any game, I was always tired and could relate to his nap.

As someone who enjoys feel-good sports movies about how actual team-work can overcome adversity, both real and artificial, on and off the field or court, “Remember the Titans” (2000) and “Glory Road” (2006) tell stories about how one high school football team faced forced integration in 1971 and how one college basketball team showed that performance on the court mattered more than skin color in 1966.

Serious movie buffs know the difference between a Hollywood version of reality and fully accurate documentary films, like “More than a Game” (2009), which tells the story of LeBron James. Because of gaps between history and dramatic license, sometimes DVDs contain commentary about what was added or combined with similar events to make for a better story. But I don’t need that.

Because somebody didn’t want to sit next to him, I got to spend time with the main character of “Coach Carter,” and now, I have my own, personal memories.

Whatever the reason for my seating upgrade, I’ll always remember the movie’s lessons even more.

While I’d love to personally meet Samuel L. Jackson, one of my all-time favorite movie stars who portrayed Ken Carter, I’m thankful that I got to sit next to and chat with a first-class coach, a real-life hero who helped turn boys into men.

The Capital City Weekly, which runs in the Juneau Empire’s Thursday editions, accepts submissions of poetry, fiction and nonfiction for Writers’ Weir. To submit a piece for consideration, email us at editor@juneauempire.com.

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