In February 2013 four fifth-graders at Wallace Elementary School in Lake Highlands touched a basketball for the first time.
It happened right after Saturday school, which is offered to Richardson ISD students seeking a little extra academic help.
“We just saw a ball there and wanted to play,” says Ranger Bae, now in sixth grade.
A year later, Ranger and ten other boys who constitute a basketball team that just won their Spring Valley Athletic Association division gather in the Wallace classroom of Ashley Nick, one of their coaches. They talk about basketball and its impact on life following their move to the United States from a war-torn and politically chaotic country (and in the process unwittingly spin a classic underdog success story).
From Burma to the United States
These boys are a fraction of the estimated 500,000 political refugees driven from their homes in the Asian country Burma, according to the office of Refugee Resettlement. Burmese immigrants make up some 20 percent of Wallace’s student body.
Perpetual grins and cheerful chatter hide the boys’ history of poverty, instability and discomfort — childhoods often spent in hiding or in refugee camps.
They speak near-perfect English; many of them have also learned the languages of their friends, since they hail from, essentially, three different ethnic groups — Karen, Karenni and Chin — each with a different native tongue.
They were eager to move to the U.S., they say, but a few things here caught them off guard.
“I thought everyone would be giants”; “I thought it would be snowing all the time” and “I thought I would live in a house with a swimming pool” are among the misconceptions the boys report, laughing.
The bulk of their information on American life, they explain, was delivered by way of Jackie Chan movies.
They lived in bamboo and hay houses without utilities, they say, but most knew someone who had electricity and a television. They attended school, but sporadically.
Today most of them are concentrated in a few Lake Highlands apartment communities. Ranger, who has been in the U.S. longer than the others, lives with his family in a house, to which the whole team was recently invited for Ranger’s birthday party.
Prior to that early-spring Saturday last year, an Asian movie called “Kung Fu Slam Dunk Fireball” had been the boys’ only exposure to basketball.
It was a little different than the real thing, they say, giggling. “It was like a combination of basketball and Kung Fu. But they kill each other.”
Nick shoots them a look of mock shock, and after a pause she says, “Oh! So that’s what you guys were pretending to do that one night at practice.”
Last year Nick was the first adult to notice the boys’ obsession with basketball, which probably overshadowed their serious lack of know-how.
When she asked them if they were getting ready for Hoops in the Highlands, a competitive three-on-three basketball tournament for first- through eighth-graders held here each spring, they said they hadn’t heard of it. But once she told them about it, they were eager to participate. Only they didn’t know how to register and did not have the $65 entry fee.
No problem. Nick contacted the tournament organizers and secured a sponsorship. Ranger, Ti Reh, Shar Lew Wah and Ka Liah — Asian Invasion — were officially a Hoops in the Highlands Team.
But then, a minor snag.
“After they found out they were in the tournament, they were so excited,” Nick says. “But then they go, ‘Miss Nick, you are going to teach us how to play, right?’ And I didn’t know how to play either.”
The coaches are ‘our family’
She turned to fellow teacher and friend Allison Beene, who had some experience.
Both Beene and Nick had counseled at sports camps, so they had some coaching capability, though none in basketball. (Later on they also employed the help of fellow Baylor alum Shelton Smith, a much-needed male role model for the young men, Beene says).
They had just a month or two to learn the basics, they practiced every day after school.
They were good natural athletes. Exceptionally teachable, Beene says.
“They literally had never played basketball, but they had speed, endurance, and though they were smaller than a lot of boys their age, strength.”
Asian Invasion only made it through the second round of Hoops, but they gave their last opponents — far more experienced players — such a run that impressed spectators asked, “Who are those kids?” Nick says.
Everyone, coaches included, wanted to continue, and other kids from the tight-knit Burmese community were eager to join.
Nick approached the Spring Valley Athletic Association, where many Lake Highlands-area students participate in extra-curricular sports, seeking financial aid for her students. SVAA generously covered most of the cost to register a team through scholarships, and the players’ families along with another Wallace family paid the difference, Nick says.
The teachers explained to the students what it would take to be on the team — hard work, consistency, reliability — and altogether 11 boys expressed serious interest.
With them, they continued to practice one night a week. The coaches — utilizing all three of their respective vehicles —chauffeured the players because the parents worked late hours and in many cases did not have transportation.
“These are very hardworking families who want so badly for their children to have the best opportunities,” Beene says. “They were very supportive of what we were doing, and grateful, and some of them were almost as excited as the kids.”
The boys practiced like crazy, the coaches say.
“They are so enthusiastic and dedicated. They have incredible endurance,” Beene says. “Every practice lasts an hour and a half, and they are on fire the whole time.”
Some of the boys say that playing soccer, which many have done since early childhood in Burma, helped them prepare for the demands of basketball.
However, learning the finer points of the game was tough.
The boys all agree that they were “nervous and scared” before the first league game.
They looked the part in their crisp new uniforms but, team member Benjamin Lian says, “We didn’t know what we were doing!” Another says the other team looked “so big.”
“We were not comfortable,” he adds.
Despite racking up some fouls — “We had a lot of double dribble,” one teammate says — they won their first game by a point.
“It was wonderful,” Ranger says. “And after the game we were not nervous anymore.”
When they played the same team later in the season, they won by 10.
They also won just about every other game of the season, losing only in the playoffs.
Their success is a result of teamwork, friendship and good communication, the boys say.
All that, and incredible coaches, they agree. “They are our family,” Benjamin says.
The coaches say the sentiment is mutual.
“This has been a huge blessing for me. They are incredible. This is such a blast. Getting to know them, their stories, what they have been through, their families — it is a gift. It is the highlight of my week. They play hard, laugh a lot and work so hard,” says Beene, who transferred to Wylie ISD this year but who still coaches practice here in Lake Highlands each Wednesday.
In addition to coaching the boys’ basketball team, Nick and Beene also mentor a group of Burmese girls, with whom they hold a weekly Bible study. Fellow teachers say that while selfless acts are prevalent at Wallace, these two teachers are extraordinary.
“There are stories all over our building of teachers taking students to do activities on weekends or after school to give those students experiences they might not ever have the opportunity to experience,” teacher Tricia McCoy says. “But these two teachers are going way above their job description.”
This year as they prepare for Hoops in the Highlands, the group has divided into three teams — Believe In, Eagles and KDT Firebirds. Wallace Elementary families sponsored the teams, assisting with entry fees and team T-shirts. In fact, Nick adds, this is but one of many things the Wallace parents do for the Burmese community, including helping to teach ESL classes, which the Burmese parents faithfully attend.
“Splitting up into teams was a little hard,” Nick says about dividing into small Hoops in the Highlands teams.
But the boys seem fine with it. “We have friendship, no matter what,” Benjamin says.
And while the boys might be focused on winning and advancing, Nick says there is much more at play.
“Culture, language and finances can create barriers, at times, that decrease opportunities for many families. These kids are our future leaders and world changers. I want them to have opportunities to learn, dream, and experience new things that will help them further assimilate into American culture and succeed in school and, later, in the working world — they’re learning important lessons: teamwork, honesty, perseverance, humility, communication,” she says. “I have learned so much from working with these incredible kids, too. It brings me so much joy to invest in them and see them learn, improve, and have fun.”