Peewee league raises two generations

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Dec. 22, 2010

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(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

Teddy Draper Jr. coaches his youth basketball teams recently. Draper founded a peewee basketball league in Chinle 27 years ago.

Teddy Draper Jr. still remembers the moment he decided to found a youth basketball team in Chinle 27 years ago.

He was at a chapter meeting when someone brought up Chinle's increasing alcohol and drug problem.

"Mostly what was said was along the lines of tougher enforcement, building more jails, more youth detention centers," he recalled. "Nothing was said about getting kids to avoid drugs and alcohol in the first place."

Draper got up to speak.

"Everything you people are saying don't make sense to me," he told the crowd, "but I guarantee you I will do something about this before our next meeting."

With that, he walked out.

Thinking about the things that had made a difference in his own childhood, Draper kept coming back to sports.

"The next morning I was on the phone to Father Blane (Grein), asking him if I could use the gym at the Catholic Church," said Draper, who is Naashgal&iaacute; (Mescalero Apache), born for 'Ash&iaacute;&iaacute;hi (Salt Clan).

Since then, every fall, Draper's there unlocking the gym for the Arizona Bluebirds, his girls' 12-and-under team, and the Chinle Rattlers, the boys.

"I've had some good years competitively, and some good years socially," he said as the kids warmed up last Wednesday, stretching and dribbling balls across the court. "Every year's a good year."

Those early years, Draper had to scramble to find teams on the reservation for his kids to play. These days, there's a Chinle Youth Basketball Association that at its height had 32 teams.

He also keeps his eyes out for youth invitational tournaments all over northern Arizona. He'll take his teams to statewide and national tourneys, but only if he thinks they have a chance.

"I'm not going to take kids across the country to get stomped," he said. "That's just demoralizing for them."

He and all his assistant coaches are volunteers, mostly parents, including his right-hand woman, Ophelia (who also happens to be his wife).

"You can't do peewee basketball without good, supportive parents," he said.

Draper has learned to draw a few lines over the years.

"I don't give rides to and from practice," he said. "I don't dress wounds. I don't tolerate crybabies or talking back. I coach basketball."

Actually, he does some life coaching as well. Last Wednesday, his first question for his team was, "Did you run this week?" and his second, "Did you help out at home?"
"What did you do?" he demanded of a boy whose hand shot up.

"Chopped wood," replied the lad.

"Did you fix your bed?" pressed Draper.

"No," admitted the youngster.

"You should all be fixing your beds every day!" he declared. "That's not your mom's job."

The teams are entirely supported by donations and always strapped for cash, which Draper doesn't think is a bad thing.

"The parents need to take some responsibility," he said. "If you don't want to coach, you should at least be raising funds."

Draper has been known to send donations the team didn't need back to the donors rather than carry them over to the next year, so each year's team will take responsibility for its own upkeep.

"If we have a team that's good enough to go to nationals, the money always materializes," he said.

Insurance is through the Amateur Athletic Union, of which the teams are members.

This year there are 32 children signed up for the two teams, from as far away as Whippoorwill and Rough Rock.

Kids age out when they turn 13, but some keep coming back, even after they make their junior high and high school teams.

"I don't ask them to come back and help," Draper said, "but a lot of them do. I don't turn them away. As long as they're in here, they're keeping out of trouble."

So does basketball really keep kids away from alcohol and drugs?

"I've never had a kid come back and say, 'Thanks, your program kept me out of trouble,'" Draper mused, "but I have had them come back and say, 'I just graduated from college. Thanks for letting me play for you.'
"I think that when kids have positive things in their lives, that's what they're focused on, more than thinking about staying away from negative things," he said.

Proof that basketball is a positive thing: the kids Draper coached two or three decades ago are now sending their kids to him.

"I had her mom, and his mom, and his dad," he said, pointing to various small brown bodies racing around the court. Will he have their kids, too?

"I don't know," he said. "This is a lot more work than most people realize. But then I get a call, like I did yesterday: 'Teddy, I just graduated from ASU in engineering. Thanks for being there for me.' That makes it all worthwhile."

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