A lot of times, being a black coach, you have to deal with a lot of misconceptions. Your team, a lot of times, is deemed as “aggressive,” deemed as “undisciplined,” and a lot of that is how they may look or how they may wear their hair. There’s a lot of perceptions out there before you ever get to the court. Those are things that you’re always talking about when you go into different venues that can sometimes be hostile.
How are you gonna react to the kid or the fan that heckles you or has some kind of racially insensitive sign that’s hanging up, all those things that are really meant to remove the focus of what you’re there for, which is to win a game? You have that to deal with. And then I think, as a black coach, if you coach your team hard or you’re very aggressive, or perceived to be aggressive, toward the referees, you’re deemed as “militant,” deemed as possibly a “troublemaker,” where you can take another coach that’s white, he coaches his team hard and he’s hard on the refs, and he’s deemed as “passionate.” Those are some of the things that you have to deal with, and you’re always trying to prepare your kids for those situations, which sometimes I think takes away from some of the other things that you really need to focus on, which is the Xs and Os of the game, the sportsmanship of the game. That gets taken away from you because you gotta focus on other things.
Some places are better than others when it comes to that. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been around for a real long time, so a lot of the places that we play in our conference, I have a pretty good relationship with the coaches. I’ve not gone anyplace where I felt like there was an issue with my team and the other team, or the other coach and me. But I’ve been some places where there is very little police presence. I’ve been other places where they come out in riot gear. And you sense that. You sense that fear that, “Well, a team with a black coach and black players is coming to town, so therefore, we need to show up in force.”
Being black, you have to be very conscious of your surroundings and where you’re at and where you go. We have integration, but we’re still very segregated. Our churches are segregated. Where we live is segregated. Our social groups are segregated. And so you have to be very conscious of that. Now, I’ve coached basketball for 30 years, so being in a coaching profession, you’re around all different types of people. Our social setting is different. But at the same time, you always gotta be conscious of, if you’re in a social circle, you can’t get out here and drink four or five beers and get in a car and drive. And I’m a guy that doesn’t drink, but there are certain bars and certain places that you just don’t go because you know you’re not welcome, and you don’t want that issue or that potential problem, and now what you’re seeing is, not only could you potentially be having a problem with someone in a bar, you’re gonna have a problem when the police pull up.
One of the first homes my wife and I purchased, my wife worked as a registered nurse for the Department of Energy. Every morning she would leave early in the morning. At the time, we had a new luxury car, and every morning, our license tags would be run, and it would come up on the scanner. Every morning, she would get followed out to U.S. 23. Never got stopped, but she was always followed and our tags were always run. I happened to have a white friend that was on the police department here in Portsmouth, and I said, “Hey, your guys are running my license tags every morning, and my wife is simply driving up Waller Street trying to go to work.” And then once that information got relayed, they quit running our tag. But coming down through a predominantly black area at 5 o’clock in the morning heading to work in a luxury car, she met somebody’s profile.
I think the responsibility as an African American coach is to show my kids that you can overcome situations through hard work and understanding and building relationships. Even though I’m probably the only black head coach in the Southeast District now that Mark LaFon is retired, I have a pretty good rapport with the other coaches in the Southeast District. We’ve been having to break down barriers that may have existed prior to me being the head coach at Portsmouth, just because we have our own expectations as far as how we represent our team, our community, our school. In 12 years of being a high school coach, knock on wood, I’ve never had a technical foul. I don’t berate officials. I don’t let my kids berate officials. Our motto is, we get to the next play, the next situation.
We really try to work on managing situations, because I have a lot of kids who grow up in tough situations, and my job is to try to teach them how to navigate and manage situations, how to de-escalate situations instead of making those situations worse. Therefore, if I lose a game, I don’t feel like, “Well, we got cheated; the referees took the game from us because I’m a black coach or I have black kids.” We just see it as, “Hey, we might have missed a free throw, or a blockout, or we might not have run this play right; here’s things we can go back and look at and say, the loss was self-inflicted,” and not, “Well, we lost because of race.”
I think right now, in the crisis that we’re in, white people are saying, “What have we missed?” or “What can we do?” White people have to go back and deal with the educational system. I don’t feel minorities get the same expectations and the same drive and motivation to educate our people as some white people. That expectation is not the same. Therefore, you continue to have people who are being exploited because of the lack of education. And I think white people have got to go back and say, you know what, I need to start having true dialogue, true relationship-building, true friendship with other races of people, so that we can sit down and talk about differences or why people do certain things. And I think it all begins and ends with education.
The fact that people are not being educated, it just keeps getting worse and worse and worse. So the answer that I see people using now is private education, building a charter school or a private school, because they don’t believe public schools are working. I would argue that public schools don’t have a option. Public schools must educate all kids and they cannot use separators like private schools can, such as tuition lottery systems.
Everything is about separation. We separate people, and I’m not necessarily talking black and white, I’m saying educated and non-educated; people who have wealth and the ways and means to do things, and people who don’t. And this is why we are where we are right now, in this situation that we are in.
GENE COLLINS is the boys basketball coach at Portsmouth High School. The Portsmouth native has held that position since 2009.