In an abnormally quiet room well after school let out, members of the North High boys basketball team sat with their eyes closed, some holding pieces of bear skin, or maybe an ancient rock found in a Middle Eastern desert.
“Get comfortable. Sit back and do your breathing,” said Jane Barrash, who teaches the team-only course and who has become somewhat of guru and therapist for the team. “It is a magical and friendly universe, depending on how you choose to see it.”
One kid made a wise crack and there were some giggles.
“Cut it out, man,” said Edo Walker, a sophomore who went from junior varsity to co-captain of this city champion varsity team over the course of this season.
The kids were mostly silent, focused on “diaphragmatic breathing,” something that they learned would help them calm down and get focused.
For the team, which went from worst to first this year, the normal sports success formula has included the usual: a good defense, fewer turnovers and better shooting.
But it has also included the nomenclature of New Age-y thinking based on science. During Thursday’s pregame class, they discussed such topics as consciousness, paradoxes, subatomic reality and making the quantum leap.
The quantum leap is what North has taken this season. The team finished dead last in the Minneapolis city conference last year, and started out this year with three wins and seven losses. Then something magical, perhaps transformational, happened. The coach and players give some credit to their decision to dig deep into their guts — for a deep breath, followed by some visualization techniques and the approval to realize that they can create their own reality.
The outside world may see them as black kids from north Minneapolis with suspect futures, but they don’t have to buy into that stereotype.
They brought in Barrash, a longtime teacher, human development coach and executive director of the Continuum Center (www.continuumcenter.net), which works with scientists and cultural leaders to teach everyone from CEOs to prisoners how to “use the other 90 percent” of their brains.
Barrash, a small, thin woman with a confident presence, commanded the gathering of young men. It seemed like an odd fit, but what would you expect from a woman who returned to figure skating after 36 years away and won the state title at age 54.
On Thursday, Barrash walked them through exercises that must have initially seemed like something from a suburban self-help group. She talked about a blind concentration camp survivor who lived by finding a light inside himself. She talked about the difference between confident and cocky. They talked about the power of placebos.
“So that’s like when you think you are playing better because you drink the same thing Michael Jordan drinks,” one student volunteered.
When class turned to personal triumphs and challenges, the kids were disarmingly open, offering stories of absent dads or anger at their moms. One kid talked about how he cried after an incident, and Barrash told them such display of emotion was OK, even good.
“Kids were skeptical at first,” said coach Larry McKenzie. “Who is this crazy coach and all this New Age stuff? But because they had to be there, they started to listen and take to it.”
McKenzie said almost all the kids are new to the team, and it leans young with underclassmen, many of whom made A and B honor rolls.
“I could see their potential all along, it was just a matter of maturing,” McKenzie said. “This group is amazing. They are very resilient and very open to new things.”
In class, Barrash asked them for their quantum leap moment.
“I started math class late and nobody thought I’d be able to pass it,” said Walker. “I was playing JV ball because I had trouble turning the ball over.”
He worked diligently on his math, and his game, and became a confident leader on varsity.
“Edo was probably the only kid that bought into it at first,” said McKenzie, who came to North this year despite constant threats that the school could be closed down in the near future. At a game in Bemidji, he was sitting quietly by his locker, McKenzie said. “I asked if everything was OK. He said, ‘I’m just doing what Miss Jane taught us.’ ”
Now, before games, they do visioning, seeing themselves in their mind making free throws or perfect jump shots.
In class, Walker’s story prompted others.
“People said I’d never play for coach McKenzie because I’m too hot-headed,” said Isaac Johnson. “Now I’m starting.”
“I took my quantum leap by coming to North from Osseo,” said Randy Mathews. “Everybody said North wasn’t nothing and it was going to close down.”
The universe has indeed been magical and friendly to the North High team, and the kids have made their own reality.
But they also learned Friday night, at a game to determine which team would continue on to the state tournament, that the universe also has a say, and sometimes the other team is creating its own reality too. They lost in the final seconds, 67-65, to perennial powerhouse Maranatha.
Those tears and emotion Barrash talked about Thursday seemed entirely appropriate Friday night.