Coach and Athletic Director
School Divided After Team's Mass Walkout
By Silicon Valley Mercury News, Julia Prodis Sulek
The defining moment of the season for the Gunderson High boys basketball team didn't come on a last-second free throw or an impossible buzzer beater. It came on a frosty morning just before Christmas, when a group of players confronted their coach.
Days earlier, coach Mike Allen had suspended the team's top five players for what he described as late arrivals, back talking and a lack of respect. Now those who were left made their stand, imploring the coach to reinstate the starting five.
"He told us, 'You're wasting your morning,' " said senior Lamar Smith.
As Allen unlocked the gym, 13 players -- including the suspended starters -- turned their backs together on the coach and walked away.
A month later, the mutiny at San Jose's Gunderson High has left a school divided, both sides digging in and a debate raging about whether the coach or the castaways went too far.
Undaunted, Allen called up freshmen and sophomores from the junior varsity team to keep the Grizzlies going. The team hasn't won a game since the walkout, getting blown out at Branham High by 48 points and ending a game against Overfelt with only four players left on the floor when two fouled out. After tying for first place in their division last year, the Grizzlies have dropped to 3-16. But the lessons -- and controversy -- are changing lives this year at Gunderson High more than soaring three-pointers and hard-fought victories.
Not the first time
It echoes a similar showdown in 1999 when coach Ken Carter famously locked the gym on his undefeated Richmond High basketball team and threatened to forfeit the rest of the season until his players showed the same commitment in the classroom that they showed on the court. The coach's stand won him national praise and led to a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson.
But while school administrators side with Allen, support for his decision at Gunderson is far from universal.
Former players call it "embarrassing" and "karma" for the coach, who has been left to balance the pressure to win with doing what he believes is right -- no matter how painful.
"I refuse to win at all costs," said Allen, who took over the program last year. "I knew I needed to take a stand or it wasn't going to be a worthwhile season."
Allen said he had given his players "two, three, four chances" to turn around their attitudes and prove their commitment to the team before suspending the five for what was supposed to be the winter break.
Instead, he said, they continued to talk back, disregard his instruction and showboat on the court.
"These kids nowadays feel they are privileged and have a right," Allen said. "But they fail to realize what being part of a team is about."
Parents, however, believe their children have been unfairly criticized and abandoned by yet another coach in a school that has lost too many of them.
"It's not fair for the kids as a whole. They want to be out there competing," said Linh Tran, who says he was never given clear answers about why Allen suspended his son, Ryan, who earns straight A's. "From the coaches' standpoint, they're supposed to help the kids, not hurt the kids."
The mutinous players say the coach's accusations were exaggerated and his decision rash.
"We weren't being that disrespectful," said Eddie Perez, a senior who walked out with the suspended players. "He wants to run the team his way and doesn't listen to our own opinions."
In a Dec. 20 letter to the principal, the players blamed a "power-hungry" coach who demanded respect but didn't show it to them.
"I'm angry that the coach would go to this extreme. I'm angry at the administration for treating us like we're nothing but little kids and only listening to what the coach has to say," said suspended player Lodi Vertilus, 18, an honor roll student. "It's understandable to cut players for disciplinary action, if they were rude or cursing or saying anything disrespectful to the coach, but none of us were doing that."
Principal Dominic Bejarano supports Allen's decision. He said Tran was the only parent of the Renegade 13 who contacted him.
Other parents, however, said they thought approaching the principal would be futile after Tran told them he was stonewalled. The suspended players, Bejarano said, broke a contract they signed at the beginning of the season, which is to follow the code of "Grizzly P.R.I.D.E." -- which stands for personal responsibility, respect, integrity, diversity and excellence.
Well regarded as a coach in the Bay Area, Allen agreed to take on the JV team as well after both coaches were let go.
The 38-year-old coach, steeped in his Christian faith, passed on a basketball scholarship at the University of Washington to attend what is now William Jessup University, a Christian college in San Jose. He later played pro ball overseas.
Under his "Mike Allen Sports" brand, he runs his own league and clinics throughout the Bay Area, teaching not only basketball, but honesty, integrity and sportsmanship.
"He's been very influential in my life," said Kevin Toth, 23, a Mitty and UC Davis basketball player who played on Allen's teams since the third grade. "He taught me a lot of core values about hard work and how to stay disciplined."
Allen had remade himself from his days as a troubled youth and son of a single mother growing up in a tough part of Cincinnati. Like the coaches who mentored him, he hoped to have a positive influence on the young men at Gunderson. He said he often gave players rides to early morning practices, paid for required insurance premiums if their parents couldn't afford it, and offered them jobs as coaches in his clinics.
Allen says the walkout was heartbreaking. "I love these guys," he said.
Now, he's giving his all to the six players on his young team, including sophomore Mohamed Ali, who says Allen is like a second father.
It's been tough to play, Mohamed said, when a couple of former players jeer them from the bleachers. "Some support us," said Mohamed, 15. "Others just laugh about the game score and all that kind of stuff because we lose every game."
But the challenge, he said, is becoming a leader. Still, he wishes the best for the former players. "I love them to death," he said, "but things have to change."
The principal said the door is still open for the players who walked out to discuss rejoining the team. At this point, though, it's uncertain any want that chance.
"I feel it's too late," Perez said. "I hope the team does well without us."