Hector (not his real name) is an optimistic 16-year-old Latino at East High School who lives for basketball and says he uses the game as motivation for better grades and staying out of trouble. He works hard physically and mentally when it comes to preparing for a game. His pre-game ritual is an exercise in focus, narrowing down his world to a basketball in his hand and music in his ears.
“I like to play music—pretty crazy music—and I just palm [the ball] around and get the sweat glands in my hands going,” Hector says. He applies a similar focus to basketball in general, ignoring, he says, the things kids in his neighborhood have told him about basketball at East.
“Ever since I started playing basketball, all anyone has ever said to me is, ‘Don’t go to East and try out because you won’t make it,’” Hector says. He stopped listening to that and has focused on just being noticed for his game. While assistant coaches familiar with Hector acknowledge he’s had some trouble with petty crime and is working with a sometimes-difficult home situation, his game, they say, is incredible.
“I worked my butt off my freshman year,” Hector says. “The way college and high school coaches would look at. I always want to work harder, always try to be something better than I was trying to be.”
Devin, also a pseudonym, is a former East basketball player, now graduated, also with a Hispanic background. He looks back on his playing career with frustration, even though he started it with as much enthusiasm as Hector has now.
While Devin has not faced the challenges other players like Hector have, he says he felt East High School head basketball coach Steven “Skip” Lowe made up his mind about him from the very beginning. Devin came into his senior year at East having put on easily 10 pounds of muscle. He took a weight-lifting class and showed up an hour early to nearly every practice. He regularly ran laps around other players in practice, kept his mouth shut and didn’t goof off, according to one of his other coaches. Still, Devin spent his season largely sitting on the bench before he quit the team three-quarters through the season.
“He made me feel like shit,” Devin says of Lowe’s treatment. “You make one mistake, and he yells at you. But if a player he likes makes a mistake, he doesn’t even blink.”
Sour grapes from a jilted player? Maybe. But it’s not just students who worry that Lowe’s playbook favors some students at the expense of others. It’s a complaint shared by multiple coaches who have worked alongside Lowe in recent years. At the end of the 2011 season, two assistant coaches went so far as to suggest his favoritism was racially motivated. Assistant basketball coach Gianni Ellefsen heard Lowe say the team had fewer problems when it was “whiter”—a statement Lowe does not deny making but that he says was taken out of context. Lowe says he said things were “different” when the team was whiter.
Handling criticism from disenchanted coaching assistants as well as players goes with the territory in high school coaching. The pressure to win is strong, with administrators champing at the bit for the school to win championships and “helicopter” parents second-guessing coaching decisions.
So, at East High School, where the varsity Leopards have yet to have a winning season in all of Lowe’s seven years coaching at the school, coaches and students who complain about the basketball program could simply be playing the blame game. Then again, the criticism could suggest something deeper, something more disturbing, such as a racial bias.
When assistant coaches Terrence Lord and Gianni Ellefsen complained to the administration about Lowe’s racially charged comments and behavior, however, they would not even discover the results of a school investigation into the alleged bias. Ellefsen, who has previously written a sports blog for City Weekly, says he was fired in retaliation for complaining, and Lord—who is black—was so upset by the administration’s handling of the complaint that he quit and left the state.
“This isn’t White High in Utah County”
While East High sits among the foothills of Salt Lake City in the mostly affluent East Bench, it’s a school that also draws heavily from Salt Lake City’s low-income and heavily Latino-dominated Glendale neighborhood.
Mike Matheson, who has coached junior varsity with Lowe for the past five seasons, says East’s diversity provides an interesting team mix. “We’ve got rich kids, poor kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, white kids, kids whose parents are worth scores of millions of dollars—all mixing on the same teams—it’s a real management issue,” Matheson says. “This isn't White High in Utah County.”
East’s white students, 914 of them in the 2009-10 school year, made up slightly less than half of the student body, compared to 1,187 non-white students, according to the Utah State Office of Education.
With more than 800 Latino students at East in 2010, former assistant coach John Willkom finds it amazing more Latino players aren’t on the team. In fact, according to Lowe’s own estimation, only nine Latino players have made the team since Lowe started as head coach in 2003.
Willkom, whose hoops history includes playing college ball at Marquette University and promoting the Milwaukee Bucks before serving as assistant coach at East High for the 2009-10 season, describes East’s program as the “worst basketball situation” he’d experienced, due to Lowe’s leadership. He left after the 2009-10 season and now coaches youth basketball in Southern California.
Lowe considers Willkom to have been “very good for the program.” But Willkom complains the program wasn’t good for him or for students at East. He says Lowe failed to connect with his players in a meaningful way.
“With Skip at the helm, I can’t see them ever having a winning team,” Willkom says. “Too many misunderstandings from the standpoint of [Lowe] learning to respect players, respect each other and get along. It never felt like the players bought into what Coach Lowe was trying to do.”
Willkom was discouraged hearing from Latinos that they didn’t believe they could make Lowe’s varsity team. “There was kind of a vibe there from the kids, like we’re telling them to work hard, and they just fire back at you that, ‘Even if I’m the best, I’m still not going to have a chance to be on the varsity team next year,’ ” Willkom says.
Willkom would have dismissed the sentiment more easily if it weren’t for the comments Lowe made about Hector, whom Willkom considered to be the best player on his freshman team.
“I remember having conversations with the rest of the coaching staff about [Hector] and how he fit into the big picture of the program. [Lowe] would say, ‘I don’t think we should worry about [Hector]. He could get killed in a gang fight tomorrow.’”
“There may have been something to that effect said,” Lowe says of the comment, adding, however, that the context of the conversation likely would have been him suggesting to other coaches that if certain players like Hector could commit more to the program, he would work with them more in the future.
For being in his mid-30s, Skip Lowe seems to have aged little from the yearbook photos of his days playing basketball at East High in the late ’80s. Lowe transferred to the school in his junior year and says the diversity of East was striking compared to growing up in Sandy. It’s also part of the reason he’s stayed at East for the past 19 years, 17 of them in a coaching position. In 2003, he began as head basketball coach, working with all players but primarily coaching the junior-varsity and varsity-level teams.
“I’ve worked with hundreds of kids in the basketball program,” he says, “and I want them first of all to have a good basketball experience, but I [also] want them to help us win basketball games. I can’t do that if they’re not there. I can’t push them to make basketball a priority.”
Not all students can make high school sports a priority. Latino students from the lower socio-economic spectrum and others may find the demands of the sport daunting—from the practices across town before and after school, expensive summer camps and the major time commitment.
East High principal Paul Sagers says the concerns raised against Lowe are overblown. In his experience, he says Lowe has worked hard to offer a hand to underprivileged players, noting with one black player, Lowe would “give him gas money and tutor him after school.”
“If he was a true bigot, he wouldn’t make that investment in the kid. I haven’t seen any [other] coach help him, help his family and help the team,” the way Lowe did, Sagers says.
Head to Head
What former East High assistant basketball coach Ellefsen heard, he didn’t want to believe. What he wanted to believe his former boss, East High School head basketball coach Lowe, had said was that the team had fewer problems when they were “wider.”
“I was shocked when he said that,” Ellefsen says. “I looked at him and said, ‘Do you mean wider?’”
“‘No, whiter. We had less problems when we were whiter. Less brown,’” Ellefsen says was Lowe’s response, recalling a conversation that still makes him visibly angry months after the exchange took place.
Lowe sees Ellefsen as a disgruntled subordinate seeking to have him fired over comments he says were never brought to his attention when they allegedly happened. All this makes the exact wording of his alleged comments questionable in his mind—he remembers saying that things “were different.” He also said that he “may very well have used” the term “whiter.” That’s the term also heard by Ellefsen and Lowe’s No. 2 coach, Mike Matheson. For Ellefsen, it’s hard to justify tying student behavior—whether it means being different, or having fewer problems—to the term “whiter.”
“There’s no gray area there,” Ellefsen says.
“If he never says anything as it’s going along, it’s as if he agrees with it,” Lowe says. Ellefsen, however, says that he did complain about the remarks during the season to his supervisor, Matheson. He says he didn’t complain to Lowe directly at the time because he didn’t want the issue to become a distraction during the team’s season; that’s why he and Lord brought the concerns up at the end of the season.
Matheson can see why Ellefsen saw the “whiter” comment as a “big red flag” but believes the comment was taken out of context. He sees the issue as a clash of personalities between Ellefsen’s “blood and guts” motivational coaching style versus Lowe as being the more analytical “strategy-meister.”
“When you’re developing a staff, it’s real important that you work well together, and this was not a match made in heaven,” Matheson says.
Ellefsen worried that bringing the allegations to the administration would be “career suicide,” given that Lowe is a salaried coach, earning $84,341 a year, according to the public information Website UtahsRight.com, while Ellefsen was a paraprofessional—an assistant coach paid a meager stipend, he says, of roughly $1,100 per season. While Ellefsen had coached at Kearns-Saint Ann Catholic school for more than 19 years, he knew that he and Lord were still newcomers to the program at East.
Once he and Lord blew the whistle, however, it was game over. During a tense April 7 meeting with Lowe and East administrators about the allegations, Ellefsen says Lowe fired him in the meeting while Lord decided to walk away from the job. In an e-mail Lowe sent to Ellefsen the next day, Lowe confirmed that he had fired him.
“I cannot have coaches on staff who actively try to have me removed from my position,” Lowe wrote. “We are obviously not working toward the same things.”
Ellefsen says he and Lowe were working toward the same things, but says Lowe seems to operate from a different playbook. He says Lowe’s failure to connect with his players is why Lowe has coached only 40 wins out of 170 games since he became head coach in 2003, for a winning-game average of just 24 percent, according to the Deseret News’ prep sports records.
Ellefsen remembers one game in late January 2011 where the dysfunctional team dynamic became especially clear to him. The team was getting slaughtered, and it was scrub time when, with a couple minutes left on the clock and East’s Leopards down significantly, they started taking players off the floor to keep them from potentially injuring themselves. Ellefsen says when he tried to put one of Lowe’s preferred players on the floor, the player reacted heatedly, slapping Ellefsen’s hand from his shoulder and cursing at him.
The player faced no consequences for nearly shoving Ellefsen while, a week later, two Pacific Islander players who showed up late to a game practice were suspended for the next game. Lowe argued that it was a written rule to be suspended for a game if a player showed up late for practice.
“We need a written rule that if you have a physical altercation with an assistant coach, then you get suspended?” Ellefsen asks.
Ellefsen and Lord say the incident shows Lowe treats certain players differently, and Lowe does not disagree.
Lowe says that the point of discipline is to correct the problem, and because he talked with the player and it didn’t happen again, the problem was corrected. Lowe says how he would handle the issue again would depend on the player.
“It depends on what kind of relationship I have with that individual—not with a member of the team, but with that individual,” Lowe says matter-of-factly. Still, Lowe says that he does not favor players to the harm of those who are willing to work hard and that race is not a factor in his coaching. If anything, he says, East’s diversity is part of why he loves his job.
“There’s something that draws me there that I love, and I think part of that is the diversity,” Lowe says. “Sometimes, those things present some challenges.
“I have never said anything [like], ‘Boy, things sure have gone downhill,’ or, ‘Boy, I hate coaching now,’” Lowe says. “I love my job, and I love the kids that I work with. Sometimes there’s different issues that are part of … ” Lowe says with a pause, “who we are now and who we have evolved into.”
In a written statement Lowe drafted for the school administration in response to Ellefsen and Lord’s allegations, he listed some of the new issues diversity has brought such as “teenage fatherhood,” “parole officers” and a “culture that exists in some parts of this school” that doesn’t value attending school and striving in academics.
Lowe says these issues can happen to white teenagers, but that has not been his experience.
“They’re not things I’ve dealt with in the past; I’ve dealt with other issues.”
Ellefsen maintains that Lowe’s comments went too far, alleging also that Lowe said during the past season that the “black and brown kids” couldn’t handle Lowe’s program “academically.” Ellefsen put the statement in writing for East principal Paul Sagers, and it’s one that Lowe adamantly denies saying.
The administration concluded the investigation after the meeting, having determined that Lowe was not discriminatory against players on the team and that he would undergo cultural sensitivity training. Sagers says the comment about Hector dying in a gang fight was not brought to the administration and was not part of their investigation.
Matheson regrets the loss of Lord and Ellefsen.
“You don’t just find people like [Ellefsen] who have basketball experience like he does, who understand the game like he does,” Matheson says. “Both he and [Lord] had a huge value.”
Principal Sagers, however, says Ellefsen was not fired by Lowe, but it was his decision (see adjacent sidebar). Sagers says he questioned Ellefsen’s loyalty early on, saying that Ellefsen approached him during his first season to suggest he should be the head coach, not Lowe.
Ellefsen says that a meeting did take place, but that he met at Sagers’ request to speak about the program in general. He says he made a different recommendation: “I said flat out that Mike Matheson should be the head coach,” Ellefsen says.
Lord is reserved in his comments, not wanting Lowe to be labeled a bigot. He does, however, challenge East’s handling of the investigation and questionable firing of Ellefsen. “If there is an issue of preferential treatment or bias, it should really be known and stated,” Lord says, “especially since the school and the district didn’t seem to want to do anything about it.”
For Ellefsen, Lord and Willkom, the attitude of the coach does have an effect on whether or not students try out, especially minority students. In Ellefsen’s statement he drafted to Principal Sagers on March 8, he argued that Lowe’s favoritism discourages students from trying out.
“They have to buy into the system 100 percent, and the system is broken,” Ellefsen writes in the e-mail.
The issue of Latino players on the team is one Lowe challenged in his written statement to East administration, listing nine Latino players as proof that Latinos have made his team before. But in an interview, Lowe acknowledges that only two of the players listed have actually played as starters on Lowe’s varsity and junior-varsity teams.
Despite having a student body where Latinos have been the second-largest racial demographic for years, Lowe says there’s nothing unusual about only having had two Latino starters throughout his eight years as head coach, arguing that players have to be able to put in the effort for him to work with them.
If other things become priorities in their lives, Lowe says, he can’t work around that. It may have been these kinds of conflicts that lead to his remarks about Hector dying in a gang fight, a misinterpreted comment that Lowe says was not dismissive of Hector’s athletic future.
Ranee Tademy has spent the past 25 years working with underprivileged youth, especially minorities, through his nonprofit athletics program, the Boys to Men Foundation, in Salt Lake City. Tademy, who is acquainted with Ellefsen and Lord, is sympathetic to their quarrel with Lowe but in general terms, worries that both players and coaches struggle with the economic reality of high school athletics.
He says many underprivileged kids who can’t afford summer-conditioning camps are priced out of developing their full potential. They also struggle with team participation because of competing interests.
“Some of these kids don’t even have a ride to school,” Tademy says. “Or they may have a younger sister and have to babysit—there are so many issues.” Going the extra mile to develop the performance of these students is not easy, he says.
“It’s difficult, it would take programs and it would take money,” he says, echoing Lowe’s concern.
“I face challenges now from a socio-economic perspective,” Lowe says, “as far as getting kids to and from practice and workouts and other things are concerned.”
Joseph Fangalua, a youth instructor who runs Glendale Middle School’s after-school program, is well aware of the challenges of engaging underprivileged kids in high school sports.
“There’s a difference between our west-and east-side kids in actual organized sports,” Fangalua says, noting that many kids of economically stable homes can afford to be enrolled in conditioning camps from as early as age 6. “Unless [underprivileged] kids are involved at the Sorenson Rec Center, they’re usually only playing sports on the streets, so there’s obviously a disadvantage.” Another aspect that may affect Latino participation, Fangalua says, is that many Latino youth generally aren’t as interested in basketball, compared to sports like soccer.
Tademy, a licensed social worker, accepts hundreds of applications every year for his summer program, which gives underprivileged youth the chance to improve their game—so long as they also improve themselves. He says coaches who care about their players—all of their players—get a team that will play their hearts out for their coach, arguing that the most exceptional coaches “established relationships with their players. From the player that starts to the player that sits on the bench, now they have family, and they care for them like a family.”
But Lowe emphasizes that he has reached out to youth at Glendale Middle School to recruit players, especially Latinos, for East.
“The past two or three years ago, I and an assistant coach would spend a couple days down at Glendale,” Lowe says. “We were doing that as a way to make everyone feel that as long as you’re a good basketball player and do the things required of a basketball player … that you can play.”
Fangalua is also impressed by the outreach from East, but remembers differently about who it was who reached out first. He says it was Matheson who set up a clinic with Glendale’s after-school program three years ago. “He’s super helpful,” Fangalua says of Matheson. “He kind of just came on his own, really, because he saw some of our better kids who are super-talented and super-smart that, when they get over to East High, they kind of get lost in the shuffle.”
Fangalua says after the first year, Matheson brought Lowe into the recruiting and in subsequent years, they’ve arranged mini-tournaments for some of the after-school teams as a way to show off their talent and get to know the coaches at East.
“[Matheson] just wanted to get connected with our kids,” Fangalua says, adding that the first kids Matheson approached at Glendale are “still hanging out with [Matheson] to this day. He’s super-connected to them.”
The Leopard’s Spots
Among East High’s Leopards, Lowe remains the top cat in the food chain. But can a leopard change its spots? Lowe says his coaching style is a continual learning process, but, ultimately, he works with those who work with him. But that also means he won’t be working with Lord or Ellefsen, the only basketball coaches who could claim a winning season for their freshman team from the 2010-11 season.
Ellefsen now sits sidelined from the game he loves, looking for another coaching gig while awaiting a response to his May complaint to the Salt Lake City School District for being fired for retaliation. “I never wanted this to happen,” Ellefsen says. “And I know it sounds Disney-movie cheesy, but I only did this for the kids. I just wanted to coach basketball.”