Bitter Ahwatukee basketball rivals reflect on why they marched for justice

Mountain Pointe basketball players Michael Pola-Cadena (left) and Zereoue Williams were among the players that participated in the Rivals for Justice march in Ahwatukee along with Desert Vista players. (Photo courtesy Eric Newman)

PHOENIX — Kaimarr Price recalls the night, as a student and basketball player at Mountain Pointe High School, that police pulled over a car he was in after a high school party.

Now the varsity basketball coach at Mountain Pointe, Price was with friends and his brother, all of whom are Black. His brother’s girlfriend, who is white, was also in the car.

She was the one police officers addressed when they approached.

“Are you OK?”

“Do you want to be here?”

“Are you here by force?”

After questioning her, the officers phoned her parents. Assured that her parents knew who she was with and that she was there willingly, the police allowed the group to go.

“They just assumed the worst, automatically,” Price said.

The officers never did give the students a reason for making the stop.

*****

Gino Crump’s friends implored him not to take the job.

A prominent basketball coach in the Washington, D.C. scene, he interviewed for the boys varsity opening at Desert Vista High School, Mountain Pointe’s rival in the Ahwatukee area of Phoenix.

Those friends back in Washington cautioned him against the move.

“Everyone in my orbit had reservations but me,” Crump said.

Then came the T-shirt incident.

During a senior photo event at Desert Vista, several students wore T-shirts inscribed with “”BEST*YOU’VE*EVER*SEEN*CLASS*OF*2016” and other pre-approved slogans.

But at some point, six white girls gathered wearing a different and disturbing combination of letters and asterisks on their shirts and posed for a photo. Their shirts spelled out a racist pejorative, the N-word.

It was the same year Crump, who is Black, accepted the Desert Vista job.

A common cause

It was common experiences like these, as well as the recent tragic events involving George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake – all Black and all shot by police – that brought Price and Crump and their Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista teams together for “Rivals for Justice,” a march through Ahwatukee in June.

The two schools were scheduled to play Friday night at Mountain Pointe High, but the game was canceled after a positive COVID-19 test on Desert Vista put the team on 14-day quarantine.

Before the march, the teams had faced off for the 6A state championship in the spring months earlier. They conceived of the march as a way to make a statement about unity that can exist between those with different backgrounds and to demonstrate the strength of diversity in the Ahwatukee community.

The multi-mile trek started at Mountain Pointe and wound its way through the Ahwatukee foothills to Desert Vista. It was the culmination of a spring filled with conversation within the two teams about police brutality and racial injustice.

Players on both clubs were instrumental in pressing the issue and organizing to make a statement.

“One of the things that really motivated me was the players, the kids,” Crump said. “And a couple of them on separate occasions asked me about taking a knee during the anthem.

“And I said, ‘Well, that’s probably not gonna be a good idea. I don’t think we would get the support from the community, or maybe from the district.’

“And I said, ‘I think it’s just a hot button. But I think we can do something.’ And it was just the kids that motivated me to say, ‘We got to do something. We have to take a stand and make our presence known in the community.’”

Price was experiencing something similar at Mountain Pointe. Routine communication with his players led to a lot of discussions about issues facing the country.

“We asked our teams what they wanted to do about the situation, just normal talks of how they were feeling,” Price said. “And the march is kind of what we came up with.”

It was a typical scorching June day in Phoenix, but community members coordinated with the coaches to supply the marchers with refreshments. March organizers also coordinated with the city to place designated stops along the route for water breaks.

Price, who graduated from Mountain Pointe in 2007, enjoyed seeing some of his former classmates along the route.

“What stood out to me was seeing some of the people who stopped and gave water, things of that sort, are my generation,” he said. “And so it’s people who … I recognized some of them from elementary school, middle school, high school. They grew up in Ahwatukee, just as I did.

“And things weren’t always like that there. We still have some issues there. I mean, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. But to just see it started to change as the generations progressed, and my generation is homeowners now there, and having families there, sending kids to the schools there now.

“And it’s just like it’s a lot more tolerable place, it seems like, right now. And it seems like things have hope of getting better as generations continue to be more educated and more exposed to people different than them.”

Crump enjoyed the march, if not the weather.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better day,” Crump said. “The only thing, it could have been a little cooler. But other than that, it was great.”

Former Desert Vista coach Gino Crump (left) and Mountain Pointe’s Kaimarr Price (right) thought it was important for the two schools to unite for the Rivals for Justice march. (Photo courtesy AZfamily.com)

History and change in Ahwatukee’s high schools

As Price suggested, Ahwatukee has had its issues with race through the years.

Crump recalled knowing little of the Phoenix neighborhood besides its nickname of “All-White-Tukee,” which he “thought was pretty funny,” during the interview process for the Desert Vista job.

“Ahwatukee has a little bit of history when it comes to race. And I thought, since the two of us just competed for a championship, it would be a good idea for us to do something to show solidarity, unity,” Crump said. “And that was the whole thought, to show that two opposing rivals could come together for something positive.”

During his playing days at Mountain Pointe, Price would sometimes return to his car and find ugly messages written on it.

“The N-word. That’s usually the go-to. So yeah, things of that sort,” he said.

Dating also became an issue at times.

“Sometimes dating at an all-white school could be a little different,” Price said. “You might date a white girl and it might not be as tolerated or looked at as being OK by some people in the community. Whether it’s people at school or when you go out on dates, being looked at and certain remarks being said. So that’s just, you know, the life that we grew up in.”

Reportedly, the T-shirt incident came about when one of the girls thought the photo “would be funny to send to her boyfriend,” who was Black, according to a 2016 report in The Arizona Republic.
The article notes that the couple used the word “with each other playfully, so why not heighten the joke with a photo?”

The story made national headlines and all six students in the photo were suspended. It wasn’t a lone incident.

A former Black teacher also sued Desert Vista in 2014 for allegedly ignoring her complaints of discrimination, according to ABC15.

Desert Vista students are 61% white, 18% Hispanic, 8% Asian and 6% Black, according to U.S. News and World Report

By comparison, the school was 66% white, 13% Hispanic, 10% Black and 7% Asian in 2016 when the T-shirt incident unfolded.

Mountain Pointe has become more diverse, also. The school’s student population is 32% Hispanic, 31% white and 25% Black.

The school was 46% white, 27% Hispanic, 16% Black and 5% Asian in 2016.

Price said some things have changed.

“Our numbers now, we’re a heck of a lot more diverse than when I was in school,” he said. “You know, when I was there, you could count on one hand the amount of Black kids you had in your classes, if any in some classes. So it was definitely a different experience than it is now in school.”

Price pointed to the relationship junior guard Mason Hill had with his teammates. Hill, who is white, is sometimes the target of playful ribbing from the coaching staff.

“Before all this stuff happened, we’d always joke around with Mason, because if you go over to his house, you may see three or four Black kids there and not even see him,” Price said.

Price added that when the Mountain Pointe team discussed the social justice issues going on in the United States, Hill’s words stood out as some of the most impactful.

“I won’t go into what exactly he said,” Price said, “but his statements – being that it’s from a young white man rather than a young Black man – and sharing some of the same sentiments, feeling some of those same feelings, the outrage and the pain being felt from someone who’s not ever going to have to face those issues.

“But he gets it, because he’s genuinely around it enough. Those are his brothers to him, so it’s no different than me being scared for my brothers to walk out the house every day. He feels that.”

Hill said the Rivals for Justice march was the first time he had taken part in a demonstration.

“It was my first time doing something like that, so I never really experienced it before,” he said. “But (I was) doing it with people I care about and I love and making sure they’re good, and just walking with them and doing what’s right for this country and for everyone.”

He enjoyed the experience, as well as the camaraderie shown by the players from both schools and the other marchers.

“It was a cool experience,” Hill said. “Just doing what we did. And we just came together as everyone should to march in protest for something that needs to be known and heard for everyone.”

A pivotal moment

When NBA players briefly decided not to play after restarting their season in the Orlando Bubble this summer, it might have been a defining moment in sports history.

The teams were led by the Milwaukee Bucks, who announced shortly before tipoff that they would not play Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic. Jacob Blake had been shot by police only days earlier in Kenosha, Wisconsin, igniting protests in the Milwaukee area and around the country.

The NBA postponed two other playoff games that evening, and all other active NBA teams followed suit that day and the next, bringing the playoffs to a halt. Several teams in other sports, including the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club, also postponed games or paused team activities.

After two days, the players agreed to return to the court after partnering with the league to establish a social justice coalition composed of players, coaches and owners. The NBA also promised to work with the players to create advertisements during game broadcasts related to civic engagement and the importance of voting, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix reported.

The strike impacted the hearts and minds of both players and coaches at Desert Vista and Mountain Pointe.

“It was just more confirmation that we’re in a different time. And that, I’m hoping that it’s going to really affect the way we look at our community, our society,” Crump said. “It’s just a changing time that we’re in, and I just want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of making the whole society better. And I’m watching NBA guys do it and I think we should do the same thing. That was part of the march, the whole idea of just being a part of history. The NBA is showing that it can be done in sports.”

Price said the impact of what the NBA players did resonated with his players, who count NBA stars among their role models.

“From a standpoint of being around young men a lot, seeing them being able to see some of their role models, some of the people they look up to – you got Giannis (Antetokounmpo), LeBron (James), (James) Harden, any NBA player they look up to and idolize – seeing them be able to show that they’re more than just an athlete,” Price said.

“Just being able to actually see that, that it’s OK to think about something other than sports, to talk about something other than sports, to be about something more than sports, and to actually try to make a change in this world, I think was huge, it was a huge motivation.”

Jason Kimbrough, Price’s senior point guard at Mountain Pointe, noted that the players took action when they felt like their voices were ignored, which inspired him to do the same.

“They stood for what’s right,” Kimbrough said. “And they weren’t going to put on an entertainment-based thing like big primetime basketball games without people knowing what message they were trying to get out: Justice for Breonna Taylor, justice for George Floyd, all the rest of them.

“So that little spurt where they didn’t play, and they were just there to get out messages, they were fighting back. It kind of spoke to me, seeing what those dudes, people that I look up to, doing stuff like that. It was big. To me, it was like an inspiration.”

Hill agreed, citing how the players demanded action from the NBA. The league agreed to open voting centers in several NBA arenas for the 2020 election, something the players pushed for during the strike.

“I feel like they were doing the right thing, because they felt like their voices weren’t being heard, and they feel like the NBA should have done something about it to make sure their voices were heard,” Hill said. “And over time, their voices were never heard, so they had to do what they had to do, I guess. I respect what they did.”

More than a motto

Black Lives Matter is a phrase that has multiple meanings.

It is a motto. It is the name of an organization.

But what does it mean to a player who stands with his brothers?

“It means, to me, that their lives matter, and people, like police and other people, act like they don’t matter. They treat them with disrespect because of their race and the color of their skin,” Hill said. “And everyone should just be treated equally. And they don’t treat them like they matter. So, I believe people should start treating them like they matter, and that’s why they say Black Lives Matter, because they do.”

“Bigger than basketball” has been a common refrain as the NBA supported social justice initiatives during its restart. But what does that mean to a high school basketball player who looks up to those in the league?

“Everybody knows, especially as a basketball player, that basketball isn’t forever,” Kimbrough said. “So there’s things that – something like social injustice, police brutality, racism in America, those things – should be heard first. And then using basketball as kind of like an output, as a source to be heard.

“And it means that the sport is doing something bigger than you’re watching it for entertainment. Now you’re seeing something that’s extremely positive. You’re seeing something that should be here for the better. So I think using basketball as that output has allowed it to become bigger than basketball.”

For the coaches who organized it, the march was important for different reasons.

“I think that if you listen to Black people talk right now during these times, what we’re trying to get across is that there aren’t usually too many stories that stick out, because it’s a daily thing,” Price said. “It’s just our existence.

“Like the story I just told you (about the police stop). It’s like, that’s how every police interaction goes. It’s not special.”

Crump was inspired by the unity that the bitter rivals showed in their cause.

“It was just amazing to get young kids at that age on the same page and to be focused just for one cause,” he said. “It was really great to see our young kids come together. From both teams! That’s the beautiful thing about it. They were just arm-in-arm together.”

Takeaways from the march

The march ended in June. But those involved hope conversations continue and the sentiments expressed during the march resonate throughout the community in Ahwatukee and beyond. According to them, the problem is not going to simply go away.

“Just please hear us. Hear the voices. Everyone needs to hear our voices,” Hill said. “I just feel like we did all that protesting, and they (the police) go do it again. And I feel like it’s going to keep happening. But everyone needs to be equal, and a lot of people don’t understand that.”

Kimbrough said the march inspired him to potentially participate in similar events in the future.

“There wouldn’t be a time where I would say no,” he said. “And I think something like that showed me I don’t want to just be here. I don’t want to be just known for basketball.

“No, I want to be known as somebody that did things right in the community, stood up for what I thought was right, helped other people have a voice.”

Hill, who will be at Mountain Pointe through 2022, agreed that another march could be in order down the road.

“Who knows?” Hill said. “Because if it keeps happening, yeah, I feel like we need to do it more so everyone can hear us and hear our voices and understand what is going on.”

Moving forward, the two teams have plans to continue their activism. Crump hinted that Desert Vista has something planned for its first game.

However, Crump later resigned to become coach at Bella Vista Prep in Scottsdale.

Price, meanwhile, has emphasized an approach focused on understanding the specific reasoning behind why his players want to protest.

“My whole thing is that, I think it’s important to use this opportunity to educate,” he said. “It’s one thing, a few years ago, with (Colin) Kaepernick, people started kneeling for the anthem. And it just kind of became this cool thing to do.

“But, if a player asks, ‘Hey coach, I think we should kneel for the anthem,’ I’m not saying whether I think we should or shouldn’t, but I’m going to ask you, ‘Why? What would be your reasoning? What would you be trying to accomplish?’”

He wants his players to go deeper than protesting simply for a photo opportunity.

“Honestly, it’ll be something that whatever we do, whether we do nothing at all, whether we do something, it’ll be decided as a group. And the players will have just as much input, if not more, than I will have in that decision. Because, ultimately, it’s their program. It’s their team,” Price said. “I’m just kind of the adult here. I want them to be empowered to make those types of choices and decisions and to actually think about those types of things.”

Kimbrough said those discussions have not yet resulted in a clear plan, but he foresees one forming before the season starts.

“I strongly feel something will happen,” Kimbrough said.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Christian Babcock expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a related area in sustainability. Babcock, who has interned with The Arizona Republic, is a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.

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