Photos by Joseph Swide.
Leave Pike Place Market or the Space Needle. Venture outside Capitol Hill’s collection of bars and coffeehouses and record stores and get away from the waterfront, where seagulls and cruise ship tourists wage an endless battle over endless buckets of seafood. Get away, far away, from South Lake Union’s “Local, Organic, Sustainable!” luxury apartment wasteland. Head south.
Pass Pioneer Square, the launch point for the Yukon Gold Rush, and Chinatown and Century Link Field (home of the Super Bowl Champions!) and Safeco Field (home of the world’s biggest video screen!). Then east around the northern tip of Beacon Hill and into the Rainier Valley, an area that, nationally, has been called the most diverse ZIP code in the country for its near equal mix of white, black, Asian, and Hispanic populations.
Locally, it's known as the best place to get Vietnamese food. It is perhaps less well known as an astonishingly fertile cradle of basketball talent, although it's that, too. This is a place that has produced more current NBA players than just about any other place on Earth—as many as Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx combined. That's where we're going.
It doesn’t look like much. On the western side of the valley, Beacon Hill obscures the industrial warehouse expanse of SODO; beautiful Lake Washington is just out of sight to the east. The immediate view from Rainier Avenue, the de facto highway of South Seattle, is of a long corridor of low-slung strip malls. The signage is in English and Spanish and Vietnamese and Amharic. It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Seattle, but does not look it. Everything in the Rainier Valley is destroyed and rebuilt and repurposed at jarringly regular intervals.
A Lowe’s Home Improvement stands on the lot that once housed Sick’s Stadium, home to the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League and, for one season, the Seattle Pilots. A few blocks further south, an empty building and fading sign is all that remains from The Silver Fork, a longtime family-run diner that was a community institution serving home-cooked breakfasts to the well-dressed after-church crowd on Sunday mornings, and was especially popular among the local basketball stars. Soon it will be a gas station.
A few Italian storefronts—Borrachini’s Bakery here, “Oh Boy! Oberto” there—hint at the valley’s “Garlic Gulch” past. Beginning in the 1880's, Italian immigrants settled here and quickly established a business district on the northern part of Rainier Avenue. Some tilled farms to the south. But by the 1980s, they were pretty much gone, dispersed to the suburbs. You know how this particular story goes. The old Italian Catholic church became a refuge for refugees from Laos and Vietnam, who fled war and found a home in the Rainier Valley. The neighborhood became increasingly black.
Seattle’s African American community had long been confined—I mean that literally, as Seattle has an ugly history of housing restrictions and passive segregation—to the Central District, a neighborhood just to the east of Capitol Hill that would become an enormous, if overlooked, cultural influence on the city. It was in the Jackson Street clubs, once housed a vibrant jazz scene, that the young Ray Charles first met a 14-year-old student at the Central District’s Garfield High School named Quincy Jones. Today, Garfield’s Quincy Jones Performance Center is home to a nationally recognized jazz band. It, too, has its own storied basketball history including Brandon Roy and Tony Wroten, but Garfield also notably continues to fuel Seattle’s local music scene, with alums ranging from Jimi Hendrix—who was actually expelled from Garfield in his junior year—to, um, Macklemore.
The Central District first began to shift in 1968, after the passage of civil rights legislation that opened up housing availability across the city to more people of color. But in recent years, the neighborhood’s whitening has accelerated. Real estate developers have sought to extend the definition of “lakefront property,” knowing that people with tech-industry salaries and Microsoft stock returns are ready to believe it.
From the west, under-employed Millenial pioneers push the frontier of Capitol Hill eastward, driven out of its core by young start-uppers willing to happily pay inflated rents to live within walking distance of their favorite artisan cocktail bars. Hence, the Central District has gradually moved south, where it mixes with the longstanding white population and immigrants from Mexico, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and the Horn of Africa. With the wealth of Seattle and the city’s quickening growth, eventually the steady march of condominium developments will reach all the way to Rainier Beach. But not yet.
Sandwiched between the southeastern portion of Rainier Avenue and lovely Beer Sheeva Park, on the shore of Lake Washington, sits Rainier Beach High School, home to a student body of about 400 kids, a drop out rate of about 40%, and the second-ranked high school basketball team in the country. On this night, the parking lot is already beyond capacity an hour or so before the scheduled game time. On the final day of the regular season, fellow South Seattle powerhouse and rival, the Franklin Quakers, are here to take on the home team, the undefeated and back-to-back defending state champion Rainier Beach Vikings.
“Hey, either get in or get out.”
An important-looking man wearing a white Rainier Beach t-shirt and orange Nike running shoes stands in the doorway to the gym, ordering the kids milling around in the foyer to either come inside or go out to the lobby, with the sort of kindly assertiveness that either comes from many years of working among high-schoolers or is inherent in those who can survive many years working among high-schoolers.
Inside, everything is drenched in Beach basketball's blue and orange. On the far wall, retired numbers for Phil Heath—a basketball player from Beach who later played at the University of Denver before becoming a bodybuilder and winning three straight “Mr. Olympia” titles from 2011-2013—Terrence Williams, Nate Robinson, and, of course, Jamal Crawford line the space next to the “CRAWFORD COURT” scoreboard. There is no doubt as to who paid for the renovations to the gym. Everywhere is branded with “CRAWFORD COURT” signage, as if a populist emperor had rechristened his capital.
When the scoreboard dies during a timeout late in the Franklin-Beach girls’ undercard, the funny guy sitting next to me shouts, “Call Jamal! He got that at the pawn shop!”
The funny thing is, Jamal might actually answer.
Crawford still lives just walking distance from the court bearing his name—there are actually two Crawford Courts, since he also funded the renovation of an outdoor court at a local park—and he spends just about all of his off time here. Crawford was, for instance, at the Vikings' win on February 15th. Even when not here, he tweets support after every Vikings game for his #BeachBoyz.
Crawford's mythic high school career at Beach as a guard-slash-demigod culminated with the 1998 state championship— the second in the school’s history—and sparked the school’s era of dominance. Rainier Beach has won five state championships over the last 12 years. In that time, Crawford has done as much as anyone to support Seattle basketball and cultivate the familial bond among the community of local stars from here to Tacoma that calls itself “The Home Team.”
It’s difficult, at times, not to wonder if the school would even still be here if not for its status as a national basketball power. Beach had long struggled with poor funding, a poor reputation—for reasons deserved and undeserved—and poor standardized test scores, although it’s worth noting the accepted biases of such tests in the context of the majority of Beach students being minorities, for whom many English is not a first language. In any case, enrollment dwindled to just 366 in the fall of 2011, despite a capacity of about 1200, and rumors grew that Beach may have to shut down. No one wanted to go to school there, except basketball players.
Those most recognizable student is 6’7” senior and Louisville commit Shaqquan Aaron, who moved all the way from California to go to high school at Beach. Strange as it this seems if framed in a non-basketball context, such a thing would have been entirely unthinkable a few years ago.
As something of a last-ditch attempt to turn things around, the school began offering classes from the prestigious International Baccalaureate program, a route that had actually found relative success at similarly ailing schools elsewhere. Though admittedly a small sample size, test scores and enrollment have shown slight improvement in the years since adding the program, and, according to a recent article in the Seattle Times, “95% of juniors at Beach are taking at least one IB class.”
The newly strengthened emphasis on academics is evident in the pregame Senior Night festivities for the senior cheerleaders. Each girl is announced by her name, where she will be studying next year, and what the focus of her study will be – answers include radiology, anesthesiology nursing, and biochemistry. For a school that continues to struggle to move its students successfully through 4 years within its walls, the focus is noticeably and admirably beyond the confines of both the high school and the neighborhood.
Yo Gotti’s “Act Right” blares over the PA system as the two teams go through lay-up lines. The Beach players all wear warm-ups emblazoned with their names and numbers, and brand new orange Nikes that I overhear are recent arrivals from their sponsor. Franklin, meanwhile, wears road green and doomed hope, and seem like unusually athletic seals that desperately want to believe they could be the lucky ones to successfully navigate a shark-infested channel.
Behind me, a college student from the University of Washington finds a seat in the quickly filling bleachers. He has a friend who is from South Seattle and he’s heard the stories about this Beach team, as everyone has. He had to come see it for himself.
Next to me is the jokester from earlier, joined by his friend. When I ask if they’re here for Franklin or Beach, he tells me that they both went to Franklin, “A long time ago,” he says, emphasizing “long” as he points to the gray in his beard. As for a rooting interest, he shrugs, “Fifty-fifty.” They’re here for the game.
Watching top-level high school basketball is weird. They’re just kids, after all—tall, skinny, baby-faced kids. But it’s nearly impossible to watch them move and shoot and jump, and not see them as the projections of what they hope to become. It’s with those imaginative eyes that my new friend and I watch Beach warm up in front of us.
He marvels at the jump shot form of David Crisp, a 6’1" muscle-block of a point guard who will be a Husky next season. I point out Dejounte Murray, a junior wing listed at what would seem to be a dishonestly modest 6’4". I tell him that I think Murray already has a better-looking jumper and looks like a slightly better athlete than Aaron and that I think that Murray will be even better than Aaron next season when the offense is turned over to him and that at the last Beach game I went to, against West Seattle, Murray had something like 35 points and 30 rebounds and—he cuts me off, “Man, that’s my little cousin!”
Sometimes Beach will start a game relatively sluggish before appearing as though they woke up in a dream and realized their omnipotence within the format. Tonight is not one of those times. They’re brilliant from the opening tip. Aaron pulls up for three, Crisp rips the Franklin point guard at mid-court and finishes the run-out with a two-handed dunk, then another bucket and all of a sudden it’s 21-4 as Franklin calls its second timeout in the first quarter, grasping at twigs as it plummets toward a sure and dismal fate. The explosion when it hits the bottom is spectacular.
Aaron, flanked by two teammates, surges down the court on the fast break. But instead of finishing at the rim himself or laying the ball off to a teammate, he sort of just tosses a lob into the empty space towards the basket and leaves the scene—like a referee tossing a jump ball or the machine from Jurassic Park delivering a hapless cow to velociraptors— trusting that one of his teammates will finish. He was correct. A couple possessions later, someone throws a lob to a cutting Murray that looks far too overcooked and surely he can’t get to—and oh my God how is he still climbing higher and how is he catching that and yeah he just dunked that didn’t he yikes. Behind me, that college student seems to be realizing that the truth is surpassing the legend. “I haven’t seen real basketball like this in a long time,” he says.
But this isn’t real basketball. It can’t be. This is like one of those over-the-top sports movies in which every play is a thunderous alley-oop or swaggering pull-up three. In the second quarter, senior forward Dajuan Piper gets out on a fast break with no defender in front of him and unleashes a ridiculous two-handed rock-the-cradle number. As he lands and turns to run back up the court, he stays hunched over low with his arms outstretched, staring into our section with a confrontational expression that says something like, “Oh word? You didn’t think I could do that?”
In the fourth quarter, with Beach ahead by something like 50 points—the game would end 92-40—I wander over to the other side of the gym. In an alcove not far behind the Beach bench that contains the basketball coaches’ office, a few small kids play and a uniformed Seattle Police officer looks on, while another vaguely affiliated looking guy in a Beach t-shirt and white and orange Nike Air Force Ones remains totally locked into the game, muttering observations to me or the police officer or no one in particular. He shouts a well-timed “Go Beach!” with a Quaker at the free throw line, doing his part to keep a 50-point lead from shrinking to 49. When Aaron misses an attempt at a through-the-legs dunk on a fast break, the cop and the man in the Beach shirt discuss what Aaron could have done better to put that dunk down.
Soon, the conversation shifts to whether Aaron could do The Jordan Dunk, the one involving the foul line and a few seconds of graceful flight. “Or maybe Dajuan,” adds the police officer. Finally, sympathetic to the plight of the Quaker, I turn around and ask the man in the Beach shirt, “Isn’t Franklin supposed to be pretty good?”
“They was," he says. "Until tonight. But then again, Beach is a different type—a different breed of boys.”