Coach Kurt Keller never has to worry about that dreaded call from the cops informing him that one of his players is in lockup. Everyone on his team is already there. Several boys who try out for his high school basketball squad each year have been on only one other "team" in their lives: the Bloods or the Crips. "At the start of a season," Keller says, "some of my guys would rather shoot at each other than pass to each other."
As you may have gathered, this is not your typical high school program. Keller coaches at Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile detention center for boys that is improbably tucked in among the vineyards, horseback-riding trails and wildflowers of postcard-pretty Malibu in Southern California. Preseason practice began this week, giving Keller, a 49-year-old probation officer, his first look at the talent the Los Angeles County juvenile court system has bestowed on him this year. Boys usually serve sentences of three to nine months, unless poor behavior extends their stays. "I've never had a player for more than one season," says Keller, a veteran probation officer who's in his fourth year coaching at Kilpatrick, "and I hope I never do."
Just as Malibu isn't a likely setting for a youthful-offenders camp, Kilpatrick isn't where you expect to find a model of team unity and community building. Most of the boys in the 112-bed, fenced-in facility are here for an offense such as petty theft, vandalism or marijuana possession; they're not hardened criminals, but they're not known for working well with others, either. Yet when they trade in their gang colors or spray paint for the black and yellow of the Mustangs, amazing things sometimes happen.
That was never more evident than last season, when Kilpatrick, which plays other L.A. area high schools, won the Division 6A championship and advanced to the state playoffs. The year came to a disappointing end when Kilpatrick was disqualified and had to forfeit the title because it inadvertently used a player who had completed his high school eligibility, but no one doubted that it was an honest mistake. Wins and losses have never been the point at Kilpatrick, which had been 6--39 the previous two seasons. "Seeing the boys working together, putting aside their differences for something they cared about, was the best thing about the season," says Stephanie Sydow, whose son James was a senior and three-point shooting specialist on last year's team.
The season didn't begin with such promise. In the first few weeks Keller wasn't sure his daily lectures about becoming a family were working. Players scuffled in practice, and some were kicked off the team. A few finished their terms and left the facility, while others arrived, causing new friction.
"I used all my best speeches on them," says Keller, who was a walk-on football player at Colorado. But the game showed the players the benefits of working together in a way that words never could. The Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs were small but quick, and they soon saw that double-teaming on defense and sharing the ball on fast breaks led to points for everyone. As the wins accumulated, the racial, ethnic and gang divisions faded. This willingness to coexist spread even to the spectators. "You could look up in the stands and see Bloods sitting near Crips, all of them cheering for our kids," Keller says.
Last season's success earned the Mustangs some publicity, but if you worry about juvenile offenders getting star treatment, don't. Players aren't allowed to give interviews, and Keller doesn't use their last names when talking to the media. The program also doesn't offer many of the luxuries that other teams take for granted, like, for instance, a gym. Kilpatrick's has been out of commission since it suffered earthquake damage. In 1994. "We practice outside on asphalt courts," says Keller. "Thank goodness it didn't rain much last spring, or we might not have made it to the playoffs."
Despite all that, most of the players clearly consider it a privilege to be on the team. Last year the leading scorer in the playoffs was released from Kilpatrick a few days before the championship game and was disappointed he couldn't finish the season. That kind of abrupt roster change is typical. Players come and go at the discretion of the legal system, and they can be pulled from the team at any time because of poor grades (there's a school within the facility) or misbehavior. Only three of the original 10 players on last year's team were still there at the end. "One night I went to bed having 10 players," Keller says, "and I woke up with six."
Since the Mustangs have no gym, all of their games are on the road, where they quickly put to rest any fears by home fans that the games will turn ugly. "The kids know how easily this can go away," Keller says. "They don't want to jeopardize it." The Mustangs conducted themselves so well last season that they got a surprise at the end: their league's Sportsmanship Award.
Do you ever doubt that troubled kids can change? Do you ever wonder whether there are adults committed enough to help them do it? Kurt Keller's Mustangs will restore your faith. "Give a kid enough love, give a kid enough hope, give him something he cares about, and you'll be surprised what can happen," the coach says. "I could go on for hours. Don't get me started." Too late. The Mustangs already have something special going. Don't get Keller started? Don't let him stop.