Nativity Jesuit Middle School uses basketball and other activities to teach its boys lessons about life and the game.Coach John Meuler congratulates his 2011-2012 fifth grade basketball team after a hard fought game in February 2012. Walking behind him is alumnus McGuiver Lopez-Rodriguez who served as the team’s assistant coach. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

“When they’re playing basketball, for a lot of the guys, it’s their first time playing any kind of organized basketball,” said John Meuler, fifth grade coach and teacher at Nativity. “Certainly at the fifth grade level and even throughout all four grades, we’re not so much concerned with winning as we are with learning the game and learning how to be good teammates and good players.”

Nativity Jesuit Middle School is a fifth through eighth grade all-Latino boys’ school. Many of the boys come from difficult backgrounds.

“Many of them are coming from low-income families who really need an education in order to kind of break that cycle of poverty,” Meuler said.

Meuler said while most of the boys have grown up with soccer, they are open to learning about basketball.

Meuler said he enjoys watching the boys new to the sport improve.

“When you see a kid who couldn’t make a basket in the beginning of the season who is making shots at the end of the season in a game, it’s a really exciting thing,” Meuler said. “Those skills that we teach them in athletics and school help them adapt to that and help them be successful.”

That’s the idea: to expose the boys to things they have never experienced.

“Not only with the sports program, but we have a dance program for the fifth graders, we do forensics, we do all of this stuff,” said Chris Banach, Nativity athletic director and teacher. “We expose the kids to as much opportunities as possible and we feel that same way about sports. We push to have the guys participate in as many sports as possible, to try new things, to do things that they’re not comfortable with to expand their horizons.”

The sports program at Nativity has a broader agenda.

“Our interest isn’t in winning championships and winning basketball games, it’s turning out good outstanding men,” Banach said.

“The romantic idea about our athletic program and things like that is these kids are tough fighters and they’re going to fight for everything they’ve got. They’re going to work hard and try to get better at everything they do because a lot of them realize that they’re behind in other aspects.”

The coaches teach the kids to be leaders and to work with others through sports.

“We’ve used our sports program to develop their leadership skills, both at practices and leading certain types of drills or even during the game,” Meuler said. “When we didn’t work as a team or one person tried to do too much, we usually ended up losing. Whereas, when we did a better job passing the ball and got more people involved in the game, we usually ended up winning.”

The teachers and coaches understand the competitive drive of middle schoolers and focus that drive in other areas.

“(Competition) can go in all aspects of education, whether it’s wanting to compete well in some kind of contest or whether it’s raising money,” Meuler said.

Last year the students participated in a “penny war” to raise money for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

“We’ve set up a fundraiser like a competition so that the boys can feel more enthusiastic about raising the money and everything but at the same time they recognize it’s not just a competition. It’s for a greater cause for a greater purpose,” Meuler said. He added that competition brings out the “spirit of wanting to do your best.”

For Nativity Jesuit alumnus McGuiver Lopez, coming back last year to volunteer as assistant coach for the fifth grade team was something new.

“At first it was kind of nerve-wracking because I didn’t really know what to expect,” Lopez said. “They just accepted me and accepted my role. I’ve never been in such a big role like that where a student looks up to me. I was amazed at the respect that they showed me.”

Lopez, a member of the Nativity Jesuit eighth grade basketball team in 2003, said when he was a student he never realized how much time and money the teachers and coaches sacrificed for the students.

“I appreciate the time, you know, when I was young that teachers and coaches put toward me. And I just feel like it’s my responsibility to give back,” Lopez said. “These are things behind the curtain that you really don’t see about the coaches and that’s what I took for granted. When I was young, there must have been things that they gave up to be with us. So I’m giving up my time to help them out.”

Lopez said he learned to talk to the kids in a way they could understand.

“You got to act in a different way than who you are,” Lopez said. “You got to show them we’re here to have fun but we’re also here to get focused and learn the basics of basketball.”

Lopez said he got involved by approaching Meuler about mentoring one of the kids through high school. Meuler asked him to be on his team as an assistant coach and he accepted.

Being a role model has made Lopez feel important and that he’s making a difference, he said.

“It’s always good to come back and help out. When those kids grow older they come back and help out,” Lopez said.

Coming from the same background, Lopez understands some of the hardships the kids face and how to get over them.

“They’re having fun (playing basketball) and they forget about what’s going on at home and what problems they have,” Lopez said. He added that some kids have come to him to vent their problems.

Overall, Lopez said it was a learning experience for him and the players.

“The kids learned how to work as a team. They learned they can become better by practicing and a lot of guys improved,” Lopez said. “I improved my social skills by talking to them.”

Last year the eighth grade basketball team won a bid to the Padre Serra tournament, the biggest Catholic basketball tournament in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

“In terms of skill and ability level, (we’re) behind most teams in our league,” Banach said. “But our kids work harder and they have a better grasp of the fundamentals than most teams we play so we’re actually pretty successful.”