J-Dub: The Gym of American Dreams

Fans cheering Tatyana Calhoun | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

The gym was rocking at J-Dub on Tuesday night. That's the old-school basketball court at John W. North High School in Riverside, my alma mater, and as my brother-in-law puts it, "Ain't no shame in our game."

Something many Americans believe about Southern California is that people here came from somewhere else -- that we're a more mobile, transient population than other places in the nation. But I know people in Culver City and El Monte, in East L.A. and Crenshaw, in Pasadena and Anaheim, who live very close to where they were born, and who still love their old high schools with a fierce and undying passion.

In Riverside, every day I see people I've known since kindergarten, and every time I go to a North High game, it's like a family reunion. Even if we see each other twice a week during basketball season, we hail, wave, hug, and get ready to scream. John W. North High, named for an early founder of Riverside, has that kind of great sports legacy like many high schools in different parts of America. Think football in small-town Texas, baseball for guys who dream of playing for the Red Sox or White Sox, and basketball in iconic New York gyms.

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J-Dub has sent track stars to the Olympics (Joanna Hayes won a gold medal), baseball players like Alvin Davis and Adam Kennedy to the Major Leagues (last year's team won the CIF Division 1 championship) and countless basketball and football players to college. On Tuesday, the Lady Huskies played Palisades High in the semifinals for for the CIF Southern Section Regional title. It's a big deal. It's huge. To get to Tuesday's game, the Huskies beat Yucaipa, then Ventura, lost to Lynwood for the CIF Division title, then beat Monache (Porterville) by twenty.

Simone DeCoud reaching for the rebound over 'the bigs' | Photograph by Douglas McCullohLast year's North girls went 1-13 in league play, and morale was low. Then the school hired Leonard DeCoud, his first high-school head coaching job. Before this year, he had been an assistant coach at Riverside Poly and Riverside King, but he's also coached travel ball for years. His daughter, Simone, has played since she was four -- I remember one of her first games, since she was playing against my own two daughters. She was like an elf in knee pads, the youngest player in the league, stunning opponents with her fearlessness.

Coach Leonard ended up a family friend, not just transforming the games of my two eldest daughters, but passing on confidence and humor and a work ethic like no other. Simone is now a junior guard, and at 5-5, not an elf unless the elf is Derrick Rose. Okay, she's short. And Tuesday night, she scored 31 points and got 11 rebounds, and this against two "bigs," as she and her father called them -- a Palisades forward and center who went 6-0 and 6-1, respectively.

The bleachers were packed, as they are for every game here in Riverside's old Eastside neighborhood. It's always fascinating to watch the faces of visitors -- and to listen to their reactions to this place. For these thirty years, I've heard people say, "We're way out here in the country," if they were from L.A., and others say, "Oh, my God, we're in the ghetto," if they were from more rural or suburban schools.

We always thought it was funny -- the way North couldn't be categorized. When I look at my yearbook photos, of these same bleachers, it's clear we have always been everything there is in America.

There are Mexican-American families who've been in Riverside since 1900. There are Armenian families, and Japanese-American parents, and friends I know whose parents were born in England or Germany. There are countless
men and women in these bleachers who migrated to California from the South during the 1940s and '50s in that great journey taken by so many African-Americans who left behind segregation and violence and dead-end jobs, who wanted their kids to have a Southern California chance.

Leon Culpepper, longtime announcer for the Huskies, introduced senior guard Tatyana Calhoun as "one of the legendary Calhouns." He isn't kidding. There are Calhouns on many of the championship football and basketball banners in the gym. There are so many Calhouns and Calhoun-in-laws in the bleachers I could never keep count. Mama Calhoun, as she's called, came to Riverside from Mississippi, and still attends football and basketball games now, in her eighties.

There are Chathams, as in Trent, whose name is on the banners, too, along with his brother Brent. Their niece Danyell plays now for North. The Chathams' mother was born in Columbus, Georgia, their father in Gary, Texas. Also born in Texas was the legendary Mama Bonds, whose son was Bobby, whose grandson is Barry Bonds.

The Jones family came from Louisiana, and sometimes I'm lucky enough to sit with Mr. Jones, who still attends at 80, whose sons and grandsons are on the banners, too.

George Chiranian and me | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Dwayne Sims waiting for the rebound, in 1978 | Photograph by Douglas McCullohBut even if their names are not on any fabric, North fans will come to cheer the children of now. George Chiranian went to school with us -- he graduated in 1975, played on the soccer team, and managed the football team for years. (He has three huge CIF champ rings.) I see him at every game, often with his granddaughter. Ours is a community that might not always have what is immediately measureable. But that's why we have each other, like those same fans in gyms all over California.

Back in 1978, when my future husband Dwayne Sims played forward for the Huskies, I worked the scorer's table, tallying stats. I became a sportswriter in college. We were the mongrels, the tough guys, the hard-to-categorize. (Just like Barack Obama, back then!) Our star guard, George Smith, had a Japanese-born mother and a black military father. (At 5-7, he could dunk. Really.) Our star forward, Richard Box, was the son of a German-born mom and a black military father, and other players were Mexican-Irish, Egyptian-Mexican, Alaskan Native-white.

My mother clapping, lower right, in 1978 | Photo via John W. North High School yearbook

My mother, born in Switzerland, sat in the same bleachers where I sit now. My father-in-law, born in Oklahoma, sat on the opposite side, top corner, a spot everyone knew was his, where he sipped from a flask concealed inside his large coat and yelled "Fall, ball!" when the players took a shot.

Trent Chatham and Husky fans | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Now my ex-husband is that guy, he and Trent Chatham. D. Sims shouts his mantras -- "Look up! Get back!" And plenty of people in the bleachers have a particular way of talking to refs -- "You're missing a great game, ref! She's camping in the key! They're putting up a tent!"

D Sims -- his name on the 1978 CIF Finalists banner. I can look up at his father's old haunt now, though he is buried in the same cemetery with Mrs. Yoshiko Smith, with so many other Californians who came this way to begin new lives. Behind us are my ex-husband's two elementary school teachers, both men fixtures at North games, and David Frost, "Uncle Frosty," whose daughter played here for four years. He's famous for buying tacos to feed a hundred at a time.

CIF banners - D Sims, T Chatham and their teammates on the wall | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

On the court, Simone DeCoud really does look like Derrick Rose, dishing out no-look passes, cutting to the basket to float in a layup, somehow getting another rebound. Pricilla Brooks goes out with a bloody nose, and Tatyana floats in a jumper, and the Calhoun crowd roars. Coach Leonard DeCoud in his suit, palms up if someone misses a layup; his wife Nedra came straight from her veterinarian clinic, and her relatives are here, too. Her parents left New Orleans decades ago for opportunity in Los Angeles, and here they are, three generations in a Riverside gym, watching these fearless girls win.

The Huskies will play their next game at Citizens Bank Arena in Ontario, against Santa Ana Foothill, on Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Southern Regional title game. The winner takes on Northern California's title winner. State championship.

The DeCoud family, three generations | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

As my ex-husband puts it, the big arena is harder on a team, because it's not home. And as we stream onto the court, it's easy to see that this is truly home, in the best way America offers. Coach Leonard eventually sits down on a bottom bleacher, eats a hamburger, and watches the swirl of fans around his daughter. He tells me, "I never came into a gym like this -- on the first day, they told me I was family. And they weren't kidding."

Update, March 20: The JW North girls team beat Santa Ana Foothill 57-49 at Citizen's Bank Arena in Ontario, the first regional title for girls' basketball in North History. In the stands - plenty of Calhouns, George Chiranian, Trent Chatham and Dwayne Sims, and a lot of Riverside fans. The Lady Huskies take on San Jose Archbishop Mitty in Sacramento on Friday for the California State championship.

Susan Straight's novel "Take One Candle Light a Room" will be released in paperback in March. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.

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