Above: The team, their coaches, and older youth mentors pose with Portland Trail Blazers TV analyst Lamar Hurd (in black jacket) after a game in early January.
On a Wednesday afternoon in December, nearly a dozen high-school students lined up at one end of a basketball court, the word “MacLaren” painted in gray on the wood floor beneath their feet.
They listened in near silence as Head Coach Tyler Allen explained the next drill, then quickly divided into lines to dribble up the court and practice passing.
The students, all incarcerated at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, were preparing for an opportunity that hadn’t been available to Oregon Youth Authority players in more than three decades: playing games against teams from the outside community.
The youth had a lot to prove before they could wear the MacLaren Wolves jersey. Beyond their skill on the court, they had to demonstrate they could be responsible, have good sportsmanship, stay out of trouble, keep their grades up, accept coaching from adults — in many ways, be the opposite of who they were before they came to MacLaren.
Several of the players at the practice in December didn’t make it to the end of the season. Their behavior and choices off the court got in the way and the coaches had to cut them from the team. But that provided another lesson, that being on a team means you’re accountable to yourself and to others.
“Our players were part of a program that taught them more than just the game of basketball,” said Rod Martin, OYA’s athletics and recreation coordinator. “They were able to push themselves to be better students, better community members, and better teammates while setting individual goals of sticking with something even when times are hard.”
A History of Athletics
Before 1984, OYA had a robust athletics program where youth competed in a variety of sports versus community teams, including basketball, football, track, wrestling, and swimming. At that time, MacLaren did not have a security fence and youth with certain offenses were able to leave the grounds, allowing them to travel to other schools for games or matches.
But that ended with a change to the types of youth committed to MacLaren — the facility began to only accept youth whose commitments forbade them from leaving the campus. This effectively ended the sports program.
After becoming OYA’s athletics and recreation coordinator in 2012, Martin made it a goal to re-build the facilities’ sports programs. He began running inter-facility tournaments where teams from different OYA facilities could compete against each other.
However, he recognized the important lessons the youth could learn by playing a more “normal” game against community players who are their own age. In 2017, he started working with the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA), which regulates high school athletics in the state, to secure permission to field a new team at MacLaren’s Lord High School.
The team would follow OSAA regulations as much as possible, and, in turn, OYA could invite junior varsity teams from area schools to play games inside MacLaren.
Lord High was lucky to already have Tyler Allen, the head basketball coach at South Salem High School, as a physical education teacher. Allen agreed to also coach the MacLaren Wolves.
Five community teams accepted OYA’s invitation to play against the Wolves during their first season. Martin hopes to expand that number next season to about a dozen.
“I hope we can reach more youth who can look forward to experiencing the success of being on a team while maintaining the standards and expectations of participating,” Martin said. “They have to learn to accept that being successful takes hard work.”
And it’s not just the MacLaren athletes who benefit, Martin said.
“I think opening up the campus to schools from the community provided a lot of insight to the outside players, coaches, administrators, and families of those schools about the efforts we are making to help OYA youth change their lives,” he said.
Family on the Court
The Wolves ended their season with a 2-3 record, but even in their losses, they focused and played hard on the court.
Many of them had never been coached before, including Gavin, 18. Even after the season ended, he could be seen around campus wearing his Wolves shirt. He said he missed the practices and hoped to get a spot on the inter-facility basketball team.
“I’ve learned self-discipline, working with a team, how to focus on one thing,” he said.
Fifteen-year-old Xavier, the youngest player on the team, also got his first chance to play an organized sport.
“This is the first basketball team I’ve ever played on, and it means more to me than anything else,” Xavier said. “These people are amazing. They’re good people. We bring each other up. It makes me happy to be around them.”