Cairo basketball team wins without all the extras

Sunday, March 2, 2003

CAIRO, Ill. -- Their rivals on the basketball court enjoy the trimmings of high school athletics, from training facilities and letter jackets to the roar of a hometown crowd.

Not this team.

The Cairo boys basketball team didn't have matching uniforms until recently, much less jackets. The school can't afford extras -- not even a weight room -- and the team rarely plays games at home.

But none of that matters when the Pilots get on the court.

Armed with little more than a ball, their own athletic abilities and a coach who calls the team his family, Cairo regularly beats teams with more of everything -- money, help from parents, even fans willing to attend games on the road.

"Opponents think we're not competitive when we come out on the court -- they kind of write us off," said 17-year-old shooting guard Brandon Childs. "Then we beat them," he said, smiling.

The team has a 23-4 record and No. 3 ranking in the state Associated Press poll. They beat Meridian on Wednesday and beat Century in Friday's Class A regional championship.

Postseason success is nothing new to the Pilots, who made it to the sectional championship the past two years only to lose to Pinckneyville.

The Pilots are a bright spot in a town where victories of any kind can be scarce.

The city of 3,600 on the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers once boomed with river and rail business. But as the nation turned to interstate highways and air travel, Cairo's major employers started leaving. The exodus got worse during the race riots of the late 1960s, when many white residents left, too.

Today the town is populated by abandoned industrial buildings, dilapidated homes and a shuttered hospital. Joblessness and poverty rates dwarf state averages.

The shrinking tax base can barely support the schools. Administrators last month told the state the school district would go bankrupt in 60 days if it doesn't get a cash infusion. A bailout plan is in the works.

Through it all, "being a Pilot has always been kind of a badge," said Cairo native Bobby Mayberry, 41, administrator for the Alexander County 911 system and member of the class of 1980.

Most of the time, the team has maintained a winning record. The height was 1993, when the Pilots finished third in the state and were led by Tyrone Nesby, who later played for the Washington Wizards.

Richard Corn, who has coached Pinckneyville's basketball team for 28 years, credits Cairo coach Larry Baldwin.

"Coach Baldwin ... takes those kids under his wing and gives them guidance," said Corn, whose Panthers lost to Cairo twice this season.

Baldwin, 51, who grew up in a low-income housing development in the city, also is dean of students at the 200-student high school. The father of four, who is known to take medicine home to players sick with the flu, said he feels like a "dad, a buddy, the police and the coach" to his 15 players.

Unlike many Illinois school districts, Cairo has no structured summer basketball program. In its place, Baldwin unlocks the high school gym for a few hours in the summer "to give the kids something to do."

There's no public pool, no mall, no movie theater, not even a fast-food chain restaurant in town. So the kids come to the gym.

"We play basketball year-round, all the time," said A.J. Mackins, a senior who has known most of his teammates since childhood.

Baldwin and assistant coach Arthaniel Davis use their own money to send players to basketball camp if they can't afford it themselves, and many can't.

"A lot of our parents work hard to provide for their kids," he said. "When they fall short, we try to pick up the slack."

Few parents attend games. The team's booster club disappeared three years ago after dwindling to two members.

"We have parents who just don't care," said Lovella Newell, a longtime club president whose four grown children attended Cairo schools. "Or they don't take the time to come to the games."

Part of the reason is the games are rarely at home. All but three this season were on the road -- a not-unusual result, Baldwin said, of the Pilots' status as an independent school with no conference affiliation. That will change next year when the Pilots join a conference with its own schedule.

"Teams just don't like to come down here," Baldwin said. He said he thinks that's partly from fear of the nearly all-black city isolated at the far end of the state.

"If we didn't have to drive 60 miles to play a game, we wouldn't either," he said.

Fringe benefits are few. As recently as last year, the Pilots wore matching jerseys, but paired them with whatever shorts they could find. A group of alumni spotted a picture of the team's rag-tag uniforms on the Internet and sent a check for new outfits, Baldwin said.

Baldwin is trying to get Cairo's few remaining businesses to start supporting the team with donations. "I think we've earned enough honor and respect" to warrant the support, he said.

He said he also hopes his players' success will lead to jobs over the summer that will help them earn money for the extra things they want.

"My boys can cut grass and paint," he said. "They just want to earn money for the team."

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