The Michigan high school basketball community is once again putting on a full-court press in an effort to save its season.
Nearly a year removed from seeing the end of their seasons cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, coaches, administrators and student-athletes are voicing their frustrations stemming from the latest delay from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that has pushed the potential start of the 2021 season to Feb. 21.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced an updated restriction policy on Friday, Jan. 22, that left contact sports such as boys and girls basketball, wrestling, hockey and competitive cheer on the sidelines, while restaurants, classrooms and other venues will open in a limited capacity starting Feb. 1.
To some coaches who also serve as teachers in their school districts, the math doesn’t add up.
“Since the governor and MDHHS won’t look at the science, numbers and infection rates of athletics, let’s look at what she does want, which is all students in school,” said Hanover-Horton boys varsity basketball coach Chad Mortimer. “Classroom sizes are 25-30 kids, which means students are about one to three feet apart if the size of the classroom allows for it. Most of them don’t. The hallways at all our schools are packed in the morning during class change time and after school at dismissal time. There are groups of kids side by side, congregating, laughing, talking, etc.
“How is it safe for kids to be in classrooms, hallways, gym classes, buses, and lunchrooms during the day, but it’s not safe to play sports once the school day is over? Especially when playing sports means fewer students, more spacing and better social distancing, and even more protocols in place to ensure their safety? This is why our kids are so confused.
“Students and parents deserve an opportunity to make the choice if they want to participate or not. By running extracurricular sports through the school systems, we can ensure that safety protocols are being practiced. If not given the opportunity to play through their school, students are still going to play, but they will be playing in arenas and programs where safety may not be first and foremost. This will also involve traveling out of state for competition. Not playing sports is not an option for our kids. It is being done in our neighboring states and throughout the country safely and effectively. Our students deserve every opportunity as those students in other states. The research is far and wide about the positive impacts that extracurricular activities have on students.
“We all want to come together to do what is best for our students.”
The emotional and psychological effect on teenage athletes the recent delay has caused cannot be overstated in the eyes of the adults witnessing their reactions on a day-to-day basis.
“As a coach and a parent, I think the hardest part of the situation right now is watching these kids struggle,” said Grass Lake girls varsity basketball coach Andrea Cabana. “For me, that’s really the bottom line, because they are absolutely struggling. They don’t understand why the rules seem to be different for them. They are constantly just being defeated over and over again. It’s starting to take its toll on them, and I just don’t know how some of these kids will recover from this.
“It’s sad because I don’t think that any of the decisions that are being made right now are being made with the kids’ well-being and best interest in mind. Obviously, our governor lacks the ability to empathize with these kids. I realize high school sports are not at the top of her priority list, but what she doesn’t realize is that high school sports are everything to these kids. It is their whole world and it’s being taken from them without any real valid explanation.
“It’s hard for them to understand what’s going on and it’s difficult for us as adults to really comprehend the decisions being made. For her to constantly keep leaning on the crutch of keeping us safe is really starting to become outdated, in my opinion. We’re watching every other state but ours be able to safely handle allowing their high school athletes to play in a manner where they’re safe and it’s not catastrophic. Yet, we, here in Michigan, can’t for some reason figure out how to do that.
“It’s just frustrating and heartbreaking. It really is. I just feel bad for these athletes because it’s going to take them a long time to get past this.”
For standout performers like Flushing senior girls basketball player Alex Long, the work that goes into maintaining success is difficult when there doesn’t appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
“As a player, it’s really hard because we’ve been waiting for our season all year and every time it gets pushed back, it’s like a little piece inside of you is just breaking,” she said. “It’s hard because we never know now what to expect, especially being a senior.
“There’s not much we can do about it either. We just have to keep working, finding things to do on our own. When we can get into the gym, we’re getting in there because we missed out on that for three months. That was the hardest three months of my life, so I don’t want to go through that again.
“It’s hard to stay motivated but you have to think of the positive things. There is still hope for the season and hopefully, we get to that point. But that’s what we’re hoping for right now, just looking on the bright side of things and getting in the gym when we can.”
Frankenmuth sophomore girls basketball standout Lexi Boyke believes most basketball players would be ready to play if the season started tomorrow due to the emphasis that has been putting on individual drills and conditioning during the delay.
“We come to practice, and everybody is positive and happy to be here,” she said. “It’s been kind of different because we can’t do some things … it’s been more player development and conditioning. So when the season starts, we should be on top of things as far as conditioning and shooting.”
For seniors like Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern boys basketball player Trinidad Chambliss, years of hard work building up to a potentially special final season at the high school level is being washed away right in front of their eyes.
“It’s definitely disappointing because it’s my senior season and I’ve grown up with these guys since middle school and we’ve been dreaming about this season our whole lives,” he said. “To be able to not have a season (right now) is just devasting.”
The latest delay may also cause a mass exodus of high-profile athletes to forgo their high school winter sports seasons and opt to participate in travel leagues instead of MHSAA-regulated competition. For Cabana, who also serves as the director and coach of Michigan Premier girls travel basketball organization based out of Jackson, Michigan, that option is becoming more viable by the hour.
“I think that is one of the bigger dangers right now,” she said of the possible movement to travel leagues. “I think this whole dilemma is really going to affect the relationship between the MHSAA and student-athletes moving forward. I think a lot of athletes that have the ability to play travel ball will absolutely do so, but there’s also a lot of kids who don’t have that ability and they are the ones who are going to be left behind with nothing to do.
“At the end of the day, we just need to have a season so these student-athletes can have some sort of an outlet. They’ve been working hard since their seasons were taken away from them last year and now, there’s a real danger that it could be taken away from them again. The ones who are hurting the most are the seniors because most of them didn’t get an end to the winter sports season last year or any sort of spring season and this could be their last opportunity to play organized team sports for the rest of their lives.
“For that opportunity to possibly be taken away from them without any statistical or scientific data to back up the decision is difficult to accept.”
The juxtaposition of basketball players watching football teams compete at Ford Field to finish their seasons while being told their indoor contact sport is too dangerous is laughable to some.
“It’s not fair what’s happening to the kids,” said Muskegon boys varsity basketball coach and athletic director Keith Guy. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do, but they’re frustrated and rightfully so because they see everything open in their state except contact sports. It’s ridiculous when they just saw football finals played on Saturday on TV. Kids can’t play basketball? They can’t do competitive cheer, wrestling, when we just had football finals?
“When they came (to practice on Friday), I could tell they were frustrated, so I said, ‘Hey, look, yell at me, cuss me out, just get it out. We’re not going to do anything today. We’re going to talk. I’m going to try and ask you questions. If I don’t have the answer, I’m getting them for you.’ But the guys expressed themselves and I had to apologize to them because they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.
“In my opinion right now, adults are failing them and I don’t know what the political thing is, but I just think they’re being failed.”
Some noteworthy statewide events are already being put in jeopardy due to the season’s extended delay. Grand Rapids Union’s 7th Annual Red Hawks Showcase, which is one of the state’s highest-profile events outside of the state tournament, is scheduled for Feb. 13.
Union boys varsity basketball coach and tournament developer Brandon Guyton said it’s too early to tell if the event, which was designed to showcase some of the best basketball players in Michigan, will be rescheduled to a later date or not.
Guyton added that he will continue to work with his players for four or five days every week.
“The kids are still showing up on time, and they are working hard and showing up early, getting some shots up,” he said. “But I think Friday, there was some loss of hope when I looked at my seniors. I have some seniors who want to utilize this time to get some film in and give themselves a shot to play at the next level. There are definitely some concerns that that can be in jeopardy.
“I also think the guys just want those high school memories that are so memorable for our lives. We were just talking about how much high school matters to our lives. It sucks to see these kids getting the short end of the stick. I just hope that the guys get a chance to have some type of season.”
The mounting frustration continues to boil over as the basketball community, and winter sports participants in general, simply want a goal to reach for in order to save their seasons.
“The goal line has been moved several times,” said Kent City girls basketball coach Scott Carlson. “My players have reached the breaking point that there are tears being shed over not being able to play, yet they can do so many other activities including going to class, eating lunch, going out to eat, going to a gym, getting a haircut, or shopping. Someone should tell them why. They feel they are doing everything right, everything that is asked of them, but they still can’t play.
“Don’t keep putting these kids through the pain of expecting and hoping to play only to take it away time and time again. I now fully understand when people talk about the mental health of our students and what they are going through. I don’t want to see the pain in the eyes of my players like I saw last week ever again. It was painful for me as their coach. I was able to experience my high school senior season as a player and I can’t imagine not having that experience with my brother, teammates and coaches. That is a memory that lasts a lifetime for a player.
“Instead of why, I have a better idea. My challenge to whoever is making the decision is to tell us what we have to do in order to play no matter how extreme you think it might be if you feel we are not doing enough already. Put the ball in our court. We will rise to that level. We just need a chance.”
Some coaches, such as Schoolcraft girls basketball coach Steve Kulczyk, are looking at best-case scenarios if the season does indeed tip-off on Feb. 21.
“Based on what we have current permission to do, we have to get out of the gate on February 21st,” he said. “To say we’re going to have a full season, I think everybody understands that’s not going to happen. I’d like to have at least a double-digit amount of regular-season games. Oftentimes, you don’t know what you have as a coach until halfway through the season. In a typical season, you usually kind of find out who you are about Game 10, between your personnel and what you’re trying to get done.
“I think anything less than than 10 to 12 games is truly just a tournament-type season. They’re just going to have a tournament crapshoot and see what happens. I don’t know how they can frame it timewise, but if we’re not getting, realistically, a dozen games, it’s going to look very different than anything we’ve ever done before.
“But that’s my wish list. I prefer they move it back. We had a 15-game schedule in place starting February 1st, where we’re going to have six weeks of three-game weeks and three two-game weeks, and that, to me, was very realistic.”
FRANKENMUTH BOYS BASKETBALL COACH ANDY DONOVAN
“I don’t want people to think that we’re not taking COVID-19 seriously, because we are and we understand the dangers. But I believe the data shows that if we follow protocols, we can play safely.
“I see how we’re doing things for everybody, like unemployment checks, stimulus checks, an extra year of eligibility for college athletes. But we’re not doing anything for high school athletes. They don’t get an extra year.
“We owe it to them to give them this opportunity. This is an extension of the classroom. There are lessons learned here that they take with them the rest of their lives, lessons that they may not get from a textbook. And right now, we’re taking that opportunity away.”
GARY BARNS, GOODRICH BOYS BASKETBALL COACH
“I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m old enough to remember when Kennedy was shot, the (first) man on the moon, 9-11. It’s hard to wrap your arms around it and figure it out. Right now is the hardest coaching I’ve ever had to do. People are just depressed because we’ve been in such a lockdown for so long.
“My biggest thing is we’ve been on lockdown since March 11 of last year. You can’t imagine the number of times I’ve had to build my kids back up. We’ve got a pretty good team here. We’ve got a couple of kids (Aidan Rubio and Tyson Davis) who could have left and gone to Ohio or Indiana, but they trust the system. Last Friday, it was a kick in the stomach.
“We do everything. We take temperatures, we socially distance, we encourage the washing of hands, don’t drink water out of the fountain. If you have the sniffles, we send you home. We’ve done everything we can possibly do.
“I just want them to play. These seniors have given up a lot. I was talking to Tyson (Davis) last night. I thanked Tyson for staying at Goodrich. He said, ‘Coach, we’re not done yet.’ Rubio, ‘We’re not done yet.’
“How many times can you get kicked in the teeth?”
YPSILANTI ARBOR PREP GIRLS BASKETBALL COACH SCOTT STINE
“I’m extremely frustrated with the governor and the head of the health department for not being clear with us with what they’re looking for. Our numbers have gone down since November and we still can’t play, we still don’t have any set date. Feb. 21 comes, and they (may) get extended again. There’s no transparency.
“Our kids are doing the best they can do. They’re following all these protocols, they’re practicing their butts off, they’re staying positive and we don’t know if it’s obtainable or not. It doesn’t make sense that they don’t have to give us some type, ‘the numbers need to be here,’ for us basketball, hockey and wrestling to play.”
“If they were transparent with what they’re looking for, in terms of how they keep talking about the science and the numbers, if they were transparent with that, I think a person could agree with it or disagree with it, but you could move on. The thing to me that’s making it extremely frustrating is there’s no honesty, there’s no transparency with what we’re trying to do.
“What I’m hoping for is the director of the health department will reverse the (extension) decision before then (Feb. 21). I’m hoping we can still have contact starting Feb. 1. If it doesn’t, as long as we’re allowed to be in the gym, we’ll do what we’re allowed to do, and we’ll prepare to be ready for play on Feb. 21.”
FLUSHING GIRLS BASKETBALL COACH LARRY FORD
“It’s difficult at best. It’s been really tough for the girls. It’s really disheartening bordering on depression for them, I think, on a lot of days. I’m proud of them, how they’re doing in terms of reacting to it and accepting what it is we can do and what we can’t do. But it’s been very difficult and more than frustrating at this point, not being able to play, but we’re trying to get by.
“(Right now) we don’t dwell on it. We accept it for what it is right now. We know it’s something that’s not in our control, which is not unlike some of the other things in life, so it’s what you do with it and how you make the best of it. And that’s what we’re trying to do, make the best of it any way we can.”
SCHOOLCRAFT BOYS HOOPS COACH RANDY SMALL
“I think it’s frustrating. To be honest with you, I think at this point, we just need to know if there’s going to be a season or not, and when it’s going to start. If it’s not going to start, then just let us know because we’re two months past our normal start date now.
“I think Indiana’s girls’ sectionals either start this week or next week, so in other words, they’re winding their season down, and we have begun to start yet, so if we’re going to start, give us a date.
“If we’re not going to start, let us know because I think it’s tough on the kids and the parents – I think that’s probably who it’s toughest on, especially seniors. So, I think they just need to know, and if there’s not going to be a season, then we can potentially plan on something else.
RICHLAND GULL LAKE BOYS BASKETBALL COACH BRYAN DUTTON
“The message I would say is that these kids are ready, they’re ready to go at it. We’re going to follow the protocols we need to do, and whatever that is, I think we’re all willing to do whatever it takes to play the game, get that competitive nature back in and fill that void, because before long, we’re going to have more of a serious problem with our kids’ future missing out and not being able to get that, and there is depression and stuff with what’s going on when we keep ripping things away from them. There are going to be bigger problems than letting us play.”
DETROIT RENAISSANCE GIRLS BASKETBALL COACH SHANE LAWAL
“If a thousand people have said, ‘Let us play, Whitmer,’ and you’re not acknowledging it, you’re not speaking for the people that you represent. You’re a public servant. What’s the difference between you and Trump? Tell me. I’m a democrat by default, but let’s remove the crap and all of the politics that come with it: Why should I vote for you? Everybody has to vote for their best interest. I’m a girls basketball coach. My interest is girls basketball. If she’s against my interest, what reason do I have to vote for her again? I don’t get it. That’s just what my frustration is with it.
“The MHSAA, from March of last year, they’ve been letting Whitmer take the fall for all the blame, but they have a big part in the blame too. The MHSAA does not want to give up control or de-regulate or whatever. So you string us along by keeping us tied to the rules that we can’t break.
“At some point, I’m complicit too. If I keep getting my kids gassed up with a new schedule and a new this and a new that, I’m just as guilty as anyone in Lansing. At some point, I’ll be honest with you man, I want to be like, ‘OK, the season’s canceled. Let’s go play basketball or do what you want to do, and I support you. But I don’t want to keep bring kids in to pass the ball around in circles and virtual high fives.
“The MHSAA has to be careful because if everybody just decides, ‘You know what? Screw this, we’re all going to start playing each other,’ then that is even worse. Now you’re either forced to punish us or kind of destroy your organization. This might have a lasting effect. I don’t know, there’s a lot going on.”
SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS