Bobby Selkin still winces when he thinks of the first practice he led as head coach of Charlotte Secondary School’s lacrosse team — which initially included kids who had never even seen a lacrosse stick before.
“When I put the kids out on the field, not one could catch a ball, not one could throw a ball,” Selkin says of that afternoon during the 2014-15 school year. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is a mess. We’re the Bad News Bears.’ Like, we’re never gonna be able to play a game. ... I didn’t know what was gonna become of it, ‘cause I just thought we were terrible.”
But there’s a reason documentary filmmaker Ron Yassen was drawn to the story of this team, a reason for ESPN Films deciding to partner with Yassen to fund production of the documentary, and a reason why the movie has been met with cheers by audiences at film festivals such as Tribeca in recent months.
And it’s not because Charlotte Secondary’s team stayed terrible.
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In fact, this team — populated with a number of African-American kids with troubled backgrounds — became almost improbably successful over the course of the three seasons documented in the film. And along the way, Selkin, a doctor living with his wife and two kids in a big house outside of Charlotte, developed a deep and enduring bond with the boys at this tiny school of fewer than 400 kids off Monroe Road.
The resulting 77-minute documentary feature is “Crossroads,” which premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.
Now, we realize how this all might look on the surface: the same way it did to members of the Charlotte Secondary administration and some parents of students.
“They just saw a rich white guy bossing us around, trying to teach us a new sport, and they’re like, ‘What’s his motive? Why’s he devoting so much money to this? Why’s he devoting so much of his time to this?’” Xavier Hare, one of the players featured in the film, told the Observer. “Everyone felt like he had an ulterior motive.”
Hare says even he himself initially had reservations when he first participated in the fledgling squad’s practices.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way this man’ll be able to understand me, because we come from two totally different backgrounds.’ But as our time together went on, I realized, ‘Wow, this guy’s one of the most sincerely nice people I’ve ever met. He only has my best interest at heart and he wants to see all of us succeed not only on the field but in life.”
How it all got started
It’s important to note that there would be no story at all if not for Teddy Walker.
As athletic director at Charlotte Secondary — a charter school for grades 6-12 that has no gymnasium, no athletic fields, and struggles to fund sports — Walker had been in search of creative ways to build up the athletic program, because he believed fielding teams of any kind could help build character and spirit.
One of the opportunities he explored was applying for a US Lacrosse equipment grant. When the sport’s governing body unexpectedly decided to give it to him, Walker suddenly found himself with boxes and boxes of lacrosse sticks, lacrosse helmets and lacrosse pads — and no idea what to do with them.
While informally searching around for someone who could take it from there, he mentioned it to Stacey Selkin as she waited in the carpool line for her daughter one afternoon, and asked if she knew of anyone who might be able to help.
He’d happened to ask the right person. Selkin’s husband, Bobby, had experience coaching their son’s youth lacrosse team. And he was gravitating toward helping other people and away from his job as a LASIK eye surgeon; he’d started to say it was no longer fulfilling.
(In case you’re wondering why the daughter of a wealthy doctor would be attending a school where many students come from families living below the poverty line: Skylar Selkin has learning disabilities, and “really didn’t fit into a mainstream school,” Bobby Selkin says. Charlotte Secondary — which has fewer than 400 students and offers a curriculum that focuses on problem solving, innovative thinking, conceptual understanding and the sharing of ideas rather than memorization — was the best match they found for her.)
After agreeing to take on the task, he “started looking for kids who looked like they might be good athletes, and I said, ‘Come on, you’re gonna be on my lacrosse team,” Selkin says in the documentary.
Those recruits included Brendan Mobley, a kid who’d been trying to overcome a stuttering problem and was at a third-grade reading level; Kevin Dean, who was born addicted to crack, to a mother with AIDS, and who nearly died from a pill overdose as a boy; and Isaiah Lott, a former drug dealer who was born to a 13-year-old mother and grew up in a house with bullet holes in the walls and windows.
The film shows Selkin opening his home to his players, serving as an authority figure, and pointing them firmly toward college. It notes he is a volunteer tutor at the school, but doesn’t explain further, so for the record: Selkin became an SAT/ACT tutor — after spending an entire summer becoming an expert on the standardized tests — hoping to help kids on the lacrosse team (as well as other students at the school).
“One of the struggles we had initially was optics,” says Yassen, the director, returning to the issue of race and how the situation might be perceived on the surface. “First, it was the coach-who-saves-the-kids cliche, but the big one that we were worried about was, yeah, the white coach who’s saving these African-American kids. ...
“But I think what we did was we just put it off to the side, and we just wanted to allow the filmmaking to happen and to verify, over time: What was the nature of the relationship that the coach had with the kids? Is it a true relationship? And then, how do we present that to the audience so that it just becomes a fait accompli? That it’s not a white coach saving a group of African-American kids, it’s just a coach and kids. ... I think you can see in the scenes that there’s a real relationship.”
You can probably guess that the movie is building toward an inspiring climax. What you might not be able to predict, however, are the outcomes of some of Charlotte Secondary’s big games, including a suspenseful showdown under the lights at Providence Day School.
“When you bank everything on how great the team is going to be, you end up in a certain kind of movie,” Yassen says. “And actually, the losses and the adversity were better for the movie than had they just been winning all the time. But certainly, you’re looking for enough talent and skill that the audience can feel like there’s a chance to win. And even though they’d just started playing lacrosse, they were talented enough in picking the game up in a way that we felt like they had the chance. Turns out they did.”
“Crossroads” closes with a tear-jerking coda that won’t come as a huge surprise to viewers, though revealing it would ruin a crucial plot twist. That said, an important fact was left out at the end, and it bears mentioning here — although, if you’re wary of minor spoilers, you may want to come back and read the end of this article after you’ve seen “Crossroads.”
Here it is:
This past May, in its third trip to the North Carolina State High School Club Lacrosse Championship, Charlotte Secondary School finally took home the title, after falling short in 2016 and 2017.
“It wasn’t part of the film, because it was probably a year after they finished (production), but we finally achieved what we were shooting for,” says Selkin, 50, who continues to coach lacrosse and volunteer as an SAT/ACT-prep tutor at Charlotte Secondary.
“And we’ve continued our streak of getting all of our kids into college. One hundred percent of the seniors who’ve graduated our lacrosse program have gone onto college. And that streak is still continuing.”
One of the many success stories? Xavier Hare.
Now a 20-year-old junior at Catawba College, he’s still playing lacrosse (it looks like he’ll start as a midfielder this coming season), he’s a pre-med student (as the film suggested he would be — he’s hoping to become a dermatologist), and he is as close to Coach Selkin as ever.
“I practically talk to him every day, if not just a text,” Hare says, between classes on the first day of fall semester at Catawba. “And I’ll probably FaceTime him at least once a week. ...
“We go on vacations out of the country every summer — he takes me with his family. He’s set me up with countless internships. ... I go over to his house every opportunity I can. We’re always spending time together. It’s an honest human relationship. ... He definitely looks at us as companions, and as someone that he needs to take care of — someone that he honestly truly cares and loves.”