The bus arrived in the parking lot and the Lewisville Lions’ boys basketball team unloaded. This could have been any preseason scrimmage for the team.
Except, after parking, the Lions left all their belongings behind on the bus and boarded a different one. They drove through the dark, through a fence topped with barbed wire and into the Birchwood Campus. They were searched. When they eventually walked into the school’s gym, they were greeted by a team unlike any other in South Carolina, the teenage inmates of the state’s largest juvenile detention center.
Lewisville senior Torian Edwards had heard about Birchwood, located in Columbia, but he had never been there. His father, D’Angelo, is the principal, overseeing about 120 students.
D’Angelo Edwards was one of the catalysts for this basketball game between the Lions and a dozen or so of the Department of Juvenile Justice’s inmates. Church league teams occasionally come to Birchwood for games, but Wednesday’s contest against Lewisville was the first time a public high school had come to play.
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“I try to do something every year with the basketball team that’s outside of the box,” said Lewisville coach Michael McCray, who works in the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department. “When (Edwards) presented that to me, I was like, ‘yes. Why not?’”
You better believe that Lewisville’s players were unsure of what they would encounter when they walked into the Birchwood gym.
“I expected a lot of physical play, trash talk,” said Lewisville senior Maurice Grant. “They tried to intimidate us, yelling and clapping when we walked through the door.”
That would happen in most gyms, though.
The game proceeded. Once both sides got their competitive juices pumping, realized this was a basketball game and not an alley fight or court appearance, it felt like a normal occasion. There were hard fouls, players on both teams diving on the floor in a non-air conditioned gym, each team had on uniforms. Normal, right?
“It was like going to another school,” said Torian Edwards. “Except they just don’t get to go home.”
It was normal until the game ended. That’s when the two groups sat down on chairs and bleachers and talked about their very different realities for almost 30 minutes. More than working on offensive sets, this was the part of the experience they won’t forget.
The Birchwood kids shared stories of how they ended up in juvenile prison, stuck on their gym’s permanent home team. The facility houses repeat offenders and kids that committed serious crimes, including one who played Wednesday that had been involved with a triple murder. He calmly recalled the circumstances that led him to a life-altering, and life-ending, decision. It jarred Edwards, the Lewisville player, to see kids the same age as him in such serious trouble.
“We make the same decisions they make every day,” he said. “I could be in the same place they’re in. I could be in the same predicament as them.”
D’Angelo Edwards said the Birchwood basketball team has been an important carrot for some of the juvenile inmates because many of them struggle to regulate their emotions and behavior, or don’t respect authority figures and work well in team settings. Only the best-behaved Birchwood kids get to play on coach Ted Blanding’s team.
The Lewisville players talked about their own lives, their future plans. Birchwood’s associate deputy of institutional programming, Andy Broughton, said their visit brightened his kids’ lives, even if only for a couple hours. After so many nights playing in the steamy gym against each other, the Birchwood boys were excited to face some different competition. After Lewisville’s successful visit, Broughton thinkk efforts will be made to bring more high school teams to the campus in the future.
“To me it’s inspiring to watch our kids, who tend to be thought of as outcasts, coming together, working together as a team,” he said. “It was touching, to me, to watch them, even though they were not winning, to play as hard as they could.”
As for the Lewisville guys, they were happy to leave when the night was over, feeling good about uplifting their incarcerated peers, but their eyes also widened by what they had seen and heard.
The two biggest things Grant took from the experience: “keep my head right and enjoy my freedom.”
And remain on the visiting team.