Coach Mike Bethea sits on a folding chair after he has dismissed the Rainier Beach boys basketball team from practice. He slouches back, content to watch the mayhem that has taken over the Rainier Beach gym.
“See ya,” he says to his daughter, Angela, the Vikings’ girls varsity coach, as she walks past him on her way out the door.
Bethea turns his attention back to the court, where his son is leading his grandson’s elementary school team through stretching exercises. He’s soon interrupted by another grandson, one of Angela’s, who announces that his mom is letting him stay for a while.
This makes Bethea smile — family is important.
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Bethea’s family has found a way to converge on the court in South Seattle. But he also has the family he forged through the game, one that has helped him turn the Rainier Beach boys basketball program into a Washington state powerhouse. Bethea has coached talented players — Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson, to name a couple — but this season, he has perhaps his best team yet, one that may go down as the finest in the history of the state.
No team from Washington has ever won a national championship, but the Vikings have put themselves in position to play for one. Although multiple Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rules prohibit its teams from participating in a postseason event, the organization last week granted Rainier Beach a waiver to participate in the 2014 Dick’s Sporting Goods High School National Tournament.
The tournament, which takes place April 3-5 at Madison Square Garden in New York, has already extended an invitation to the team, one that is contingent on them finishing the season undefeated. The Vikings (26-0) have at least six players that are on track to play in Division I. Seniors Shaqquan Aaron, David Crisp, Naim Ladd, Djuan Piper and Elijah Foster, as well as junior Dejounte Murray, have all been offered scholarships by D-I college programs.
But it’s not just the individual talent that has elevated Rainier Beach basketball. While getting an up-close look at the program over a two-week period during the regular season, it quickly becomes apparent that family is the backbone of Rainier Beach basketball, with Bethea as the patriarch of a program that has thrived for almost two decades under his watch.
Bethea doesn’t know any other way. His day job at Boeing forces him to wake up at 4:30 a.m. He’s had more nights than he can count when he’s kept the gym open past midnight so a player can continue to work out. He subsists on cat naps and copious amounts of caffeine, but is driven by his desire to be there for the kids that depend on him.
“As adults, sometimes we kind of forget, we just figure they’re kids and they don’t have nothing to worry about — school’s a breeze and this is a breeze,” Bethea said. “We look at it from our eyes. Man, I got to get up every day and go to work and do this and my life is so tough. We don’t look at it from these kids’ eyes.”
Bethea added: “I’ll be honest with you, I look at it not so much as a basketball coach, it’s being a life coach. Basketball probably comes second.”
People remember the past in different ways. Coach Mike, as everyone calls him, loves to tell stories.
More than anything, Bethea likes to talk about Rainier Beach basketball. Bethea, 57, is Vikings basketball and Vikings basketball is Bethea. Bethea, a former point guard who spent time at Yakima Valley College and Central Washington, looks like he can still hold his own on the court — he sometimes jumps into drills.
The stories vary, but usually concern a former player. This particular story is about Rodrick Stewart, who had been asked by Kansas coach Bill Self to transfer away before his senior year before becoming a key role player on a national championship team.
“Coach Self said, ‘We would have never won a national championship without him,’ ” Bethea said.
That’s the side of Bethea to which he grants the public access. There’s also the private side. For as much as Bethea loves talking about the success stories, the collegiate stars and the NBA talent, he can’t shake the feeling of losing those who don’t make it in life.
Bethea pushes past a table alongside the far wall of the coach’s tiny office and starts looking at a photo taken right after Rainier Beach won the 2002 state championship. He finds who he is looking for, lingers, and then explains how the player died.
“Everybody looks at my success stories,” Bethea says quietly. “I mean, I’ve had some heartbreakers, too. Kids that I love to death that I’ve lost. There’s kids that I’ve lost. For every success story you have, some heartbreaking stories, too.”
It doesn’t hurt because it is a kid gone down the wrong path, but because it is one of his kids gone down the wrong path. That’s how Bethea views them. The bonds he builds with them through hours on and off the court make them feel like his own.
There is no need to look further than the carefully assembled assistants Bethea entrusts to understand the family values important to the Rainier Beach basketball program.
Harold Wright, who played basketball at Washington State and overseas, has been with Bethea from day one.
There is Dave Belmonte, who coached Bethea at Franklin High School in the mid-1970s and was talked into joining the staff a few years ago.
Belmonte is the calming presence on the staff. He claims to only deliver good news to the team, and if he is the bearer of bad news, “The kids really know it’s bad.” Belmonte is the one who counts layups under the basket during warm-ups before practice and makes sure everyone has the right uniform combination before games.
Robert Delgardo has known Bethea since their childhood. Delgardo leads the team in prayer before games. There is always a prayer and everyone in the locker room — a grandkid, a sibling, it doesn’t matter — joins hands while Delgardo, usually in a vintage hat with a Bluetooth in his right ear, leads the spiritual ritual.
Then there are the former players. Dave King, who helped Bethea to his first of a Washington record six state championships in 1998, is the head JV coach. Assistants Gary Ladd Jr. and Ricky Frazier also played under Bethea.
Every single coach on staff has a personal relationship with Bethea. Loyalty and trust are everything.
The familiarity is evident when watching them work together.
The locker room at halftime is a prime example. Wright will be pointing out a defensive strategy an opposing team is employing. It’s not the advice that Belmonte or Delgardo or King interject that is impressive, but the instinct that Wright has to pause at the right moment to allow another assistant to offer an idea.
“All those guys, you know the reason I let them have the input I let them have is because I’ve taught half or three-quarters of my assistants,” Bethea said. “They all know what I’m thinking.”
Bethea knows when to step in, and it’s rarely right away. Eventually, though, he will, quietly sketching a play on a whiteboard or pleading with his team to just make the easy play.
Oh, and to rebound and play defense. Always to rebound and play defense.
There’s one more aspect to Rainier Beach basketball that tends to be forgotten — the program was almost axed. Seattle Public Schools staffers recommended in 2008 that Rainier Beach High School and Cleveland High School be merged.
Much reasoning went into this proposal, including low enrollment and inadequate test scores. Thanks in large part to community uproar, the suggestion was taken off the table. It did nothing to fix the problems at Rainier Beach, though.
In 2011, Dwane Chappelle was hired as principal. Chappelle hired more than 15 new teachers in his first year and has made other efforts to improve the school.
“I wanted to bring the academic focus here to the school because I think everyone knows … the sports are here,” Chappelle said. “I just wanted to make sure we brought our academic laserlike focus on reading, math, science and so forth.
“I just think changing the culture of the school and expectations of what would be tolerated, what does learning look like in classrooms, I think that was probably one of the most challenging things I had to face here.”
The short-term stats look good. The student achievement numbers from the 2012-13 school year are up across the board from 2010-11, the year before Chappelle arrived. Students graduating in four years or less has grown from 51 percent to 72 percent in that same time frame.
The school now offers classes that can be applied to the outside world, like development of mobile applications, aerospace science and computer science. Most important, perhaps, is the arrival of the International Baccalaureate program — which offers college-level classes — introduced at the start of this past school year.
“We want to make sure that every kid doesn’t go without an opportunity to get into a two-year university, a trade school, a four-year university,” Chappelle said. “We just want to make sure kids have options when they leave.”
There are two gyms upstairs at Rainier Beach. It is where the players used to go to scrimmage each other, in contests that quickly turned into heated affairs. On one wall near the door to the secondary, smaller gym there are marks that denote players’ heights, the kind you’d find in a family home to keep track of a growing child. The white paint is chipping, but the names are still visible, a record of those who pioneered the program’s successful transformation.
The Vikings won their first state title in 1988, a team led by retired NBA veteran Doug Christie. When Bethea took over in 1995, though, the team did not have the same talent.
Then Jamal Crawford entered the picture.
“Jamal took the city by storm,” Bethea said. “The stuff he was doing, people never seen before.”
Crawford, now an NBA veteran and a favorite this season to win his second Sixth Man of the Year Award, helped lead the Vikings to the 1998 state championship. That team also consisted of King, Bethea’s son Dion, and Phil Heath, better known as a three-time Mr. Olympia, one of the highest honors in bodybuilding.
That was the nudge the program needed.
Then came NBA veteran Nate Robinson. The twins, Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart, were close friends with Robinson, so naturally they wanted to play for the Vikings.
With talent generally comes great egos, though. Perhaps what has made Bethea so successful is the way he handles egos. There is no coddling, no bending over backward to please one player. Rainier Beach is a family, and no one comes before the family. If Bethea will force Crawford to run six miles before he lets him into the gym, he certainly won’t be afraid to punish one of his current stars.
This past Jan. 15, Crawford sent out a tweet to his more than 469,000 followers.
“So proud of ALL my #beachboyz. Everyone steps up on the court at different times, even better kids. #proudtweet”
Crawford and other former Vikings remain as invested in the Rainier Beach program today. They return during the summer and early fall to train at Rainier Beach. Instead of playing in leagues this past offseason, Bethea had his team face alumni, including NBA and college players, in controlled scrimmages.
Each one of the current players has Crawford’s number. If they need advice or just want to talk, Crawford is there. That, more than anything, shows the importance of the Rainier Beach family.
It’s not about basketball and it’s not about being superstars. It’s about family and it’s about brotherhood. It just so happens that basketball is used as the vehicle.
“Ever since I’ve taken over, that’s been one of the things (we’ve said in the huddle): ‘Family on three,’ ” Bethea said. “I tell them don’t say it unless you mean it.
“ I’m serious. It’s all about family. You got to always take care of family.”
|Most state titles in Washington state history|
|6||Mike Bethea||Rainier Beach||1998, 2002, 2003, 2008, 2012, 2013|
|5||Phil Lumpkin||O’Dea||1993, 1997, 2004, 2005, 2007|
|Al Hairston||Garfield||1980, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1991|
|Ray Ricks||NW Christian (Colbert)||2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011|
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