Above the Rim Jose Gil 'created something from nothing’ in East Salinas

Gil Basketball Academy youth takes a shot  | Provided photo

By Mike Hale

Born in East Los Angeles in 1971 and raised in East Salinas as the son of Latino farmworkers, Jose Gil lived on the wrong side of demographics

Numbers on a spreadsheet suggested he would grow up poor and disenfranchised. He would stumble along a path strewn with obstacles, and surely take a wrong turn. He would be stuck, stooped in muddy fields next to his parents. He would certainly not attend college. There was a good chance he would either live a long life behind bars or a short life on the streets.

Instead, Gil found his path amazingly straight and narrow. Despite growing up in one of the poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods in Monterey County, surrounded by youth violence, openly dealt drugs and gang-related crimes, Gil not only survived, but thrived.

He made it out and then made it count — returning home with his family’s first-ever college degree, in education from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, to help make a difference.

Today, the 48-year-old Gil teaches and coaches varsity boys’ basketball at his alma mater, Alisal High School. In between those long hours he joins his wife Eva in running Gil Basketball Academy, a local nonprofit with a mission “to help kids grow up to be healthy, caring, competent, responsible and resilient.”

Gil knows that’s often a tall order.

“I was right in the heart of everything,” said Gil when asked about his life growing up in East Salinas. “Many of my friends ended up arrested or dead. In summer, kids were especially vulnerable, hanging out, experimenting.”

Not Gil. He spent those long days cutting lettuce with his parents. Not out of desperate financial necessity, but out of a desire to steer an eldest child in another direction.

“When I was a freshman my parents said they had a job for me, so I got my work permit and I spent summers working in the fields,” he said. “I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was to motivate me to stay in school and set my goals higher.”

When he wasn’t working to help fill America’s salad bowl, Gil could be found down at Closter Park, shooting hoops until dark. Then he was expected home. After-hours spelled trouble in East Side Salas, or The Alisal, or to those who read crime reports, “the youth murder capital of California.”

For a city of roughly 160,000 people, Salinas has endured a high ratio of gun violence in the past, including a record 103 shooting victims in 2015 —  (31 of those died, with almost half of them 23 years or younger). Violence in the city has dropped dramatically since then.

Gil remembers the fear, even back in the 1970s and ’80s.

“You had streets like Kilbreth, nothing but trouble,” Gil said of Kilbreth Avenue, a dead-end in so many ways beyond the obvious. “I had a friend murdered on that street. Fourteen years later I’m coaching his son in high school. I knew I had to be there for the kid. It was deeper than basketball.”

The right coach has the power and license to provoke, prod and persuade. It’s indisputable.

For Gil, he just wanted to go to school and play basketball (his passion) — and not disappoint certain people in his life who believed in him.

That included Alisal High School basketball coach Jim Rear, a transformational leader of boys who won eight league titles and made three Central Coast Section championship appearances in his 20-year stint. In Gil’s senior year the team went 27-3.

“There was virtually no chance of Jose straying the wrong way,” said Rear. “He had way too much family support. His parents were very loving and provided great guidance.”

Rear’s assertion is true, but it omits the impact and influence of a sport taught by a caring coach.

“Because of him I am here,” Gil said of Rear. “Because of him we’re doing what we do at the academy. I’ll never forget where I came from, and stay grounded in that way. It took a village to get me out of here and that’s why I wanted to come back and do this.”

Gil Basketball Academy does much more than roll out balls and teach kids to shoot, dribble and pass.

“Basketball is the common denominator keeping it all together,” Gil said. “But what we do is create well-rounded kids who are surrounded by positive role models and influences.”

As GBA prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, it now includes more than 400 boys and girls ages 4 to 17. The academy uses the guiding framework of Project Cornerstone, a community initiative from the YMCA that creates an environment where all adults support and value children and teenagers so they grow up to be healthy, caring and responsible adults.

“The educational component of GBA is what our youth needs at this present time of turmoil,” said Gil, who believes many of the homicides in Salinas could have been prevented “if a program like ours was in their lives and someone showed them that the community cares about them.”

While GBA suits up elite travel teams who make far-flung trips to places such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Italy and New Zealand, the more common scenario finds Gil and his coaches teaching and mentoring on the ground in Salinas, leading community service projects or loading up buses to make college campus visits — all at no cost to anyone.

“Finances will never be an obstacle,” Gil said. “No excuses. That’s where fundraising and grants come in. When we do these college visits, to see their faces … from there it’s a conversation. This is what it takes to get there. We plant that seed, the motivation, the self-drive.”

Junior Pulido never thought he would attend college, but GBA-organized campus visits shined a light on a path he couldn’t see before.

“It helps kids like myself who weren’t so strong in school to think about furthering our education, just by visiting colleges and talking about how important it is to get a degree,” said Pulido, 19, who is now attending Sacramento State to study kinesiology.

Vincent Gonzalez started at GBA its first year, when the program faced skepticism from a largely cynical community. It supported his love for basketball and instilled in him a desire to succeed off the court.

“You can’t disrespect Coach Gil,” said Gonzalez, 18, a forensic behavioral science major at Fresno State University. “He really did create something from nothing that is only going to get bigger. I will forever have love for the only person I will continue to call coach all through my life. He helped me become who I am today and influence who I become in the future.”

Gil can’t help but get emotional when he hears those words.

“Sometimes people wonder how I get the energy, to come back at night, to coach and lead a couple hundred kids on Mondays,” he said. “The heart of what we are doing still drives me daily to continue. It’s the joy and the look in their eyes when they wear the uniform, to see the bounce in their step, it motivates me.”

Each uniform has the same number. “They are all number 1,” he said. “We treat them all the same.”

Girls, too. Victoria Cabrera started with GBA at age 9, and ended up on a travel team that required her to obtain her first passport, and experience other cultures.

She remembers those trips abroad as life-changing. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but what helped make these trips not just vacations were the amazing people involved,” said Cabrera, now a 19-year-old pre-med/economics major at UCLA. “Every parent treated every child as their own and overall there was always a great sense of family. I will always be extremely thankful for the memories and opportunities GBA gave my sisters and me.”

All these success stories and scores more will be celebrated on Nov. 9 at the Salinas PAL Center during GBA’s 10th Anniversary Awards Banquet. The gala includes a live band and DJ, no-host bar, dinner, dancing and a silent auction, with prizes ranging from tickets to Disneyland to a paint night with Coach Gil. Tickets are $65 and available here.

The heart of the event features the first-ever Court Heroes Award, given to someone who has best helped elevate and inspire local youth through the tools of coaching.

The recipient is Rear, Gil’s former coach and biggest fan.

“(Jose) has always put in the work to be successful,” Rear said. “Once he realized his dream of the Gil Basketball Academy, nothing was going to stand in his way to make it succeed. He (along with his wife Eva) worked an enormous number of hours … and after 10 years neither has slowed down.”

The humble Rear will accept the award, but quibbles with the word hero, believing it should be bestowed upon soldiers, veterans or emergency responders. Not basketball coaches.

Yet as a coach for more than 30 years, Rear impacted countless lives, teaching basketball skills that translate seamlessly into life skills.

“If, as a coach, I was able to teach the players about hard work, being helpful to others, accountability, being on time, discipline, being part of a team, and following instructions, then I feel very gratified,” he said. “All those things carry over to adulthood.”

“When you’re 15 or 16 years old, you don’t realize the impact a coach has on you until years down the road,” he said. “Coach always offered support on and off the court. But what had the most lasting impression on me, as I got older, was the discipline he instilled in us. Coach knew that his tough love would help us overcome obstacles. This resilience is what got me through life.”

 For more information on Gil Basketball Academy, visit www.gilbasketballacademy.com.

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Mike Hale

About Mike Hale

Salinas native Mike Hale is a freelance writer who shares his time between the Monterey Peninsula and Europe.