Hoop dreams: the young Texas inmates hoping for a second chance

Gainesville state school is a juvenile correctional facility near the border with Oklahoma – and its basketball team is on a quest for sporting redemption 

Bryan Kay in Waco, Texas / The Guardian / Wednesday 8 February 2017 06.00 EST


Nothing about the yellow school bus seemed out of place. Parked next to a high school gymnasium, the driver was grabbing a few minutes shortly after his precious cargo had filed inside, and the sun was going down on another normal Thursday. A regular after-hours high school basketball game was about to take place. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Except, perhaps, the floor-to-ceiling cage separating the driver from the passenger seats.

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Waco’s Reicher Catholic high shool were playing host to Gainesville state school, a juvenile correctional facility near the Texas-Oklahoma border. The school bus belonged to the visitors, a small team of student-inmates on the three-hour journey south for the latest chapter in a quest for sporting redemption.

High school sports are serious business in Texas. In some places, fans turn out in the tens of thousands. Teams can attract big-money sponsorship deals. But Gainesville State doesn’t figure in that mix. The Texas juvenile justice department facility is home to about 270 teenage prisoners, locked up for felony crimes like robbery. The school doesn’t have a home arena for basketball, nor a stadium for football. Their uniforms are state-provided. Almost everything else is raised via an associated non-profit.

Critics might suggest these young offenders don’t deserve much more. Dotty Luera, the maximum security center’s community relations coordinator, disagrees. She has a picture on her wall of a squad of 16 boys, who played both basketball and football. Luera says only one has reoffended. “That’s one thing,” she adds. “Another is so many of these kids have not had a chance in life; you know, if you don’t know who your dad is, mom might not be around either.”

They take to the court wearing the Gainesville State black and white, the school’s Tornadoes nickname festooned across their shirts. Not much marks them out. Attendance at the game is spotty, but that’s not unlike a Gainesville State home match. Then, juvenile correction officers, school administrators and volunteers make up the Gainesville State fanbase at their borrowed home: Gainesville middle school for basketball, Gainesville high for football. Tonight, it is almost exclusively the guards dispatched to keep a watchful eye who make up the visiting support.

The Tornadoes are having a difficult season. They’ve won four games, but none of them district match-ups, so the playoffs look unlikely. Gainesville start well but soon begin to slip. They trail by seven after the first quarter, a gap that opens up to 12 by the beginning of the fourth. By the middle of the fourth, they cut the deficit to seven, and Luera, seated on the front bleacher, is growing excited. The team is in the ascendancy and Reicher look ragged. Then the pendulum swings once more. The game ends 70-58 for the Reicher Cougars. Earlier, Luera painted a picture of the struggle. “It takes great courage and integrity to go and play when you’re outnumbered and out-furnished,” she says. “These are some strong kids – and good athletes. They hang in there.”

This season, the basketball roster started out with 10 boys, but was down to eight by tonight. This year’s football season started out with a roster of just 18 – some of whom are playing tonight – to cover offense, defense and special teams. Incredibly, they made the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Many team members are coming to the end of their sentences. To be able to play, th