The gymnasium at Alisal High School in Salinas is loud and hectic. Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” blares from the sound system as more than 100 boys and girls age 4 to 12 shoot, dribble and practice their crossovers. In the middle of the chaos, Coach Jose Gil, wearing a tracksuit and microphone, leads the warm-up exercises.
The kids stride across the gym, doing a series of lunges. “Now reach for the stars,” Gil says and the kids, each wearing a black-and-yellow jersey with the number 1 on the back, stride and leap, stretching their hands high in the air. “Eyes! Ears!” Gil commands and the hubbub quiets as his voice echoes across the gym.
Welcome to Monday night practice with the Gil Basketball Academy, where Jose Gil, a son of East Salinas, is “living the dream” and sharing it with his hometown. Gil, a graduate of Alisal High, came back to spread his passion for basketball and provide alternatives for the young people of Salinas. While he’s at it, he aims to change the city’s image.
“There’s this perception—this misconception—that everybody in East Salinas is a gang member and it affects the kids tremendously,” Gil says. “We believe through our academy we can instill some values and steer kids away from gangs. We’re about more than basketball, we’re a prevention intervention.”
The academy—known to all as GBA—is a family affair. Gil, an all-star player on Alisal High’s 1989 championship team, returned to the school in 1997 as an art teacher and basketball coach. Eva Silva, Gil’s wife and GBA co-founder, played varsity ball for the Alisal High girls’ team and was the 1990 class valedictorian. Their three children, 13-year-old Josue, 9-year-old Samuel and 6-year-old Nayeli all play in the academy.
In 2009, Gil and Silva were thinking about ways to use basketball to provide after-school activities in a community where large numbers of parents work long hours in the fields. “We decided to start a basketball academy here in Salinas because there is none,” says Gil. “We thought, let’s try to give these kids another avenue besides soccer.”
With the support of friends and family members, who donated money, graphic design and legal services, they distributed flyers and recruited volunteer coaches. “We said if we can get 50 kids in year one, we’re great,” said Gil. “The first night, 75 kids registered. And by the second week, we had 130.”
That first group of kids included Ulisses Mendoza, then a 1st grader and now a 13-year-old point guard with an easy dribble and smooth moves. “Coach got me into basketball and I didn’t stop,” Ulisses says, as he waits for the second part of the night’s practice, for kids 13 to 17. He credits his passion for basketball—and his need to get good grades to be allowed to play—for helping him stay motivated at school.
Being part of the basketball program gives kids like Ulisses more confidence and “that transfers into the classroom and into their lives,” says Silva. The academy also gets academic progress reports from the teacher of every kid in the program. If kids aren’t doing well, the academy’s coaches will talk to them and their parents. Sometimes, Silva says, parents will have kids come to the practice and do their homework instead of participating as a reminder of what they’re missing.
Eighty girls and 265 boys took part in the Academy this year, three-quarters of them from the 93905 ZIP code of East Salinas, an area that is becoming known for something else: basketball.
“There was always this invisible barrier that existed around the 93905, and people from South Salinas or the peninsula wouldn’t come over here,” says Gil. “Our academy has broken those barriers and now we’ve got kids coming from Carmel to be part of it. The 93905—that’s our core. But we’ve got kids from different areas that mesh together and they’re buddies.”
The program has also organized trips to Costa Rica, New Zealand, Hawaii and the Dominican Republic, where kids get to play basketball and experience other cultures. Parents, board members and volunteers do fundraising to help pay travel expenses.
The academy is “the best thing that ever happened to Ulisses,” says his father, Cris, a Salinas native who owns an auto-body repair shop. “This is a big family for these kids. If he wasn’t doing this, he’d probably be on the streets. I grew up around here and I saw a lot of stuff—gangs, shootings, drugs. Now these kids—they don’t see all that because they’re a part of this and they have a goal in life, to be better.”
Over in the school’s multipurpose room, Gil and Silva are chasing the “little dribblers”—the 4- and 5-year-olds—as parents smile from the sides. “You gotta dribble,” Gil shouts. “What’s it called if you don’t?” “Traveling!” yell the kids. The number on their backs is no accident: In their coaches’ eyes, they’re all equal, and they’re all number 1.
For more information about Gil Basketball Academy, visit www.gilbasketballacademy.com