Local Lakers Basketball Team Prepares for State Championships, Learns Life Lessons
San Angelo has another team going to a state basketball tournament, with a chance to win it all in their division. This time though, the team going to the state tournament does not hail from one particular school, and the players are most definitely not in high school.
Meet the San Angelo Lakers, the Texas Amateur Athletic Foundation Region 10 champions and state tournament qualifiers. The Lakers will be participating in the tournament this weekend in Longview with their first games taking place the morning and afternoon of March 15 and 16.
Each team that participates will be guaranteed at least 3 games in the round robin portion of the tournament. If the Lakers do win in that section, they will move on to the bracket portion of the tournament where the games will be win or go home.
The 10-year-old-and-under team, which encompasses the third, fourth, and fifth-grade levels, is coached by Terry Lewis, Bear Cummins, and Brandon Cassel, and is 11-4 overall throughout the various tournaments and individual games the team competed in this season. Most of the games took place in and around San Angelo at the various recreation centers and school gymnasiums scattered around town. The state tournament, though, promises to be a large task to tackle for the team from San Angelo.
“The state tournament is going to be 18 teams from all over the state,” head coach Lewis said. “A lot of these teams are select or elite teams. A lot of the teams will charge the kids just to come and try out for the team. It’s not like us, where I got a few kids and we made a team. It’s not like that. It’s pretty intense.”
To get to this point, Lewis and The Lakers did not begin with just the regular season here in San Angelo, but instead began right where they now find themselves this season: the state tournament.
“This summer was the first time that we played in summer tournaments. Marty Lopez has tournaments in the summer around town. We played in his tournaments and we also went to Midland this summer. After we went to the state tournament last year, we saw what the levels of these other kids were and we talked to some of the coaches and they said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing.’ So we kind of did a little bit of that to prepare our kids.”
A native of San Angelo and graduate of Central High School, Coach Lewis and company have been hard at work this season, crafting a winning experience for the children on the Lakers. Not only do they attend summer tournaments, regular season games and practices, the kids are also focused on fundraisers to help get them and their parents through the season.
“We do fundraisers [and receive] donations from businesses, so the parents don’t have to pay anything. We bought uniforms, shoes, all the trips we go on like tournaments—all that is paid through fundraising. We do car washes, bake sales, and, like this weekend, we had a brisket plate fundraiser, and a lot of local businesses helped out too,” Lewis said.
As busy as that sounds, their efforts pay real dividends by the end of the season. For example, last year, Lewis said they raised so much money, around $3,000, that they had enough to give each child $60 and a trip to the mall to buy anything that they wanted.
“It teaches them the value of a dollar, that nothing is going to be handed to them and that you are going to have to work for everything that you get, now and in the future,” said Coach Cummings. “That’s what we also get through the fundraisers.”
As busy as all of this sounds, The Lakers still make time to improve their play on the court.
Practice Makes Perfect
Preparing 8, 9, and 10-year-olds to play basketball, (or any other sport, for that matter) is not an easy task for several reasons. Some are obvious, such as short attention spans, bad attitudes, or just plain disinterest. However, Coach Lewis and his team make coaching this age group look routine.
“A typical practice we’ll do some conditioning. We always practice free throws, of course. And then we’ll do drills like ball handling, passing. And then we’ll normally scrimmage. If I see they need to work on something from the game before, then we’ll work on that, too,” Lewis said. “At this age, mostly passing and ball handling and knowing where they are at on the floor in certain positions are things we work on.”
This practice is no different, starting with simple conditioning: the boys running from one end of the floor to the next and then back again. Next, they do defensive slides in the same fashion. After a quick water break, the real drills begin.
First, the team is split up into three smaller groups. They play a dribbling game where the object is to slap the opposing player’s balls away from them while maintaining proper dribbling form with their ball. Next, the same three teams shoot jump shots from just past the free throw line. If the ball goes in, they run to get their ball and pass it to the next person in line. If they miss, they continue to shoot closer shots until the ball goes through the net.
After that, with the same three teams intact, each boy must dribble as fast as he can from one end of the court to the next, shooting a layup once down to the other end. Once the ball has gone in, the boy can rebound his ball and dribble it as fast as he can without losing control back to the other end to pass off to his teammate. Like all of the shooting drills, the first team to 10 “wins” the drill. The teams shoot free throws next, each team frantically trying to get to the winning number of free throws first.
Finally, the teams gear up for an epic three-point contest, one that finds all the teams within one point of each other when the dust settles. The players beg to do the drill again. The smile on Coach Lewis’ face is evidence enough that he enjoyed the game as much as the players, so he allows the game to go on for another round. It’s all just another day at the office for Coach Lewis and his kids.
“We practice one to one and a half hours twice a week. A lot of these guys, three of them have been playing together since they were 4-years-old, and then I have a couple of them I’ve had for two years…they pretty much know what to expect.”
Between the practices, fundraisers, tournaments, and regular games, Coach Lewis makes sure that his players are just that: actual players in the competitive games.
“Every kid plays in every single game. Even though we are playing in a select group, every kid plays every single game. Now, of course, some are going to play more than others because of skill, but everybody gets to play. There is no set rule in our division—you can play who you want to play. That is something that we do.”
With a philosophy like that, one that can be lost in youth sports many times, it is no wonder that Lewis and his coaches work hard to make sure his players are taken care in a way that stretches far beyond the game of basketball.
Much More than Basketball
In sports, it is easy to get caught up in the moment. We often see coaches yelling at their players in important parts of the game or players that walk away with tears in their eyes over an ill-timed play or soul-crushing loss. Coach Lewis does not, however, use his opportunity to coach to just teach a game. He uses his time with the kids for a much larger purpose than that, a purpose that has driven him from the start.
“Why I wanted to do this is that I see so many kids that have a lot of potential but just don’t have the right guidance and they get lost to the streets or to drugs or, you know, to hanging with the wrong crowd. Even growing up I saw so many guys that I grew up with and guys that were older than me that had so much potential—not just sports but in other things—that just fell off going in the wrong direction. That’s why I started doing this.
“I like to see them grow,” continued Lewis. “It’s not all about basketball. It’s about discipline, respect, you know, just being a good person all around. We talk to them about school, drugs, about hanging with the wrong crowd, about being a leader instead of a follower, you know, be an example, and stuff like that. We’re just not all about basketball.”
And if you think this coach does not practice what he preaches, think again. Even his favorite moment of the season came as a character moment for him and his team.
“The most memorable game [this year] is when we played San Angelo Bulldogs. They are a select team here in town and they travel quite a bit. They are a really good team. We played against them in a tournament and we lost to them by three points… but I didn’t care about losing. I was just so proud of the way they played and got after it. This is a team that two years ago beat us by 20 and 30 points in the tournament, and this year they beat us by three and nine, so I can see the improvement in our boys. And I tell them all the time, it’s not about winning and losing, it’s how you go out there and play. You know, nothing is going to be handed to you. Even in life, you have to work for what you want. You have to work hard for it.”
This sentiment is shared among the Lakers coaches, who look beyond the sport at what they can teach the kids.
“Us teaching them the right way to play…they like to win and I like the competitive spirit that they have, but we also try to instill in them the values of sports. What you learn in sports carries on in life,” assistant coach Cummings said. “I know it did me when I played sports.”
With the skills that he teaches both on and off the court, Coach Lewis sees a bright future on the horizon for his group of kids and for basketball as a whole here in San Angelo.
“I see a lot of potential in a lot of kids. Just looking at the rec division overall, I see a lot of potential in the third, fourth, fifth-grade groups…I see some of these kids putting San Angelo on the map for basketball, whether it’s Central or Lake View or wherever. The third, fourth and fifth-grade bunch is a real good bunch here in San Angelo.”
So while the Lakers may not win their state tournament this weekend, they have already won lessons that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives, the coaches expressed. They have also won a strong set of role models in their coaches and fellow teammates that they will be able to look to when applying those lessons, no matter when that day may come.
With more teams like the Lakers and more coaches like Lewis, Cummings, and Cassel, the future of San Angelo’s youth is indeed bright, both on and off the basketball court.
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