The handful of Leonardo da Vinci boys basketball fans in the stands did their best to provide support during a recent Yale Cup II game against Buffalo Arts at Waterfront School.
After Arts took a 2-0 lead, one said: “That’s OK, guys, you’re trying.”
As the deficit grew — as it often does rather quickly — another shouted: “Come on guys, try harder!”
To the Dragons' credit, they did. And they lost, 84-11.
Da Vinci's players don’t have a problem trying hard. They take the court on game day with a goal of playing their best. But, unlike most high school programs, they also know that their best is unlikely good enough to win.
For these seven players, though, it's not about the wins – or the losses. It's about the joy of the game.
"They’re having fun. They’re scrappy. They don’t give up," said principal Greg Lodinsky. "I give them props for doing a good job whatever the outcome. I think it builds pride. I understand there is disappointment with the score, but I don’t see it with them. I see a group that wanted a basketball team."
In the loss to Arts, the Dragons tried to execute a zone defense. They tried to find the open man when pressed, only to have passes get picked off. They tried to make the open shot when they earned scoring opportunities only to miss much more often than not.
The da Vinci players don’t have the overall skills to challenge the competition. The team has lost all nine of its games this season, but what's been stunning is the scores.
A 54-point blowout against Riverside has been da Vinci's closest game. The Dragons have lost by scores of 100-7, 116-8 and 94-11. The fewest amount of points they have allowed in a game has been 75. The most they have scored is 25.
The season per-game averages: 91 points against, 13.1 points for.
To the average fan and most competitors, losing a lot to a little isn't a fun experience. But there is something to be said for effort, learning and how to deal with adversity. And while the Dragons' players may not be the most talented on the court, they enjoy playing.
"We just want to get better," sophomore forward Rabiul Islam said. “We could be doing all the right things and still not win. (But) if our defense is getting better and we have chances on offense. ... If we can maybe double our scoring and maybe half the number the opponents score against us, I think that’s one (good) thing coming out of the season.”
The vibe is positive among the players, even as the score deficit grows. Whenever frustration threatens to creep in, either coach El Hadj Seck or assistant Spencer Gervase calls a timeout to help the team regain its composure.
"They are a nice group of kids, who are mostly happy regardless of the outcome of the game," Seck said.
According to Buffalo News records, da Vinci has lost 36 consecutive games since a 49-41 triumph over Lafayette on Feb. 4, 2016.
The few Dragons fans in attendance against Arts clapped politely when da Vinci scored its first point of the game with 73 seconds left in the first quarter to make the score 25-1. The crowd was respectful. Even Arts players and fans did their part, cheering whenever the Dragons made a basket.
“I feel like when they cheer for us, I take it that they too want us to get better," Islam said. "They see the effort."
Aubrey Lloyd, the district athletic director, said: "That is sportsmanship. This is Section VI at its best."
Upon further review
Being part of a team and playing the game are important to sophomore forward Abdourahman “Rocky” Sami and his teammates.
“I just like coming here to play," Sami said. "I don’t care about losing or losing by a lot. As long as we’re playing the game, I don’t mind."
The players' desires are how this season came about.
Six of the nine players from last season's team that failed to win a game were not expected to return. With no junior varsity team to aid player development, former coach Nick Todaro, who had been reassigned to South Park and was named girls basketball coach, recommended to Lloyd that da Vinci not field a varsity team.
But then a larger than anticipated freshman class enrolled at da Vinci, a college preparatory school with 272 students located within D’Youville College.
Although roughly three-quarters of the students are girls, according to principal Lodinsky, several boys inquired about playing basketball. Lloyd suggested playing a junior varsity schedule because the playing abilities of the incoming freshmen were unknown.
“Historically, because we’ve always had a varsity team, it seemed we should continue to do that,” Lodinsky said.
The expectation was the school could field a team of about 13 players, so Lodinsky and Lloyd signed off on reviving the program, provided a coach could be found, which proved to be difficult. Seck, the school's boys soccer coach, eventually agreed to take the gig.
While Seck watches basketball as a fan, he had never coached or played the sport. He agreed to coach so the kids could have a team. He added former da Vinci player Gervase, who is a senior at Medaille College, as an assistant coach.
Gervase is the one on the bench who generally directs the players against some tough competition. Even the Yale Cup's second division, which does not include recent past state champions and perennial powerhouses East, McKinley and Middle Early College, is one of the most competitive in the area.
Now he and Seck are trying to win with seven players. Seck said the roster number dwindled for various reasons, with some due to poor grades and others for personal reasons.
Lodinsky said athletic teams, specifically basketball, can be a rallying point for a school and can teach life lessons.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn what it's like to be on a team ... take direction from a coach and have competitive experience with other guys," Lodinsky said. "I’m not going to say no to that experience and I’m glad I said yes. They deserve that experience."
Winning vs. participation
But can losing every game by an average of 78 points be a good thing?
Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, said the question should be do the players who wanted the team feel inferior because of the results or do they enjoy being part of the action?
"It only becomes an ethical question if the participants are feeling as if they are being demoralized," Lebowitz said. "It doesn’t seem like that’s the case. When you think of the positive elements of youth development, a lot of it comes from participation and being able to belong to a community of inclusion like the basketball team. Let’s say these students have an unbelievable love of the game. Has anyone asked them whether that love is still amazingly strong and fulfilled despite the results?"
"'This is a group of kids getting slaughtered every game, but they seem to experience the joy of sports," Lebowitz said. "This could benefit other people who think there is no joy in participation and there's only joy in winning."
Seck said he and Gervase keep the morale up by emphasizing the importance of believing in one's self, commitment and teamwork.
"We also tell them to stay positive, learn from mistakes and show improvement in future games," Seck said.
Until recently, scheduling practices had been a challenge due to the school’s late dismissal time and the fact it isn't able to freely schedule practice time at D'Youville College. The team has an arrangement to hold joint practices with I-Prep/Grover, which is a short walk down the street, when each schedule permits. (The last few days have been a challenge with Grover's gym unavailable due to students taking Regents exams in the venue.)
I-Prep, which plays in the Yale Cup's top division, understands da Vinci's struggles. The Presidents opened the season with a win, then suffered 13 losses in a row. They ended the streak Jan. 18 with a 50-46 triumph against WNY Maritime Charter in the MLK Classic at City Honors.
“I would think it’s been mutually helpful," I-Prep coach Pat Foster said. "I think da Vinci is trying to improve. I saw some skill development over the holiday break. It’s gone along swimmingly being able to work the two teams together."
The Dragons need as much practice time as possible to improve their skills. But the added benefit of practice is that it gives them chances to learn and play the game they love.
The team has been off since losing to Arts on Jan. 15. The Dragons have five games left in the season, beginning with Tuesday date at MST Seneca.
They will try their best. They may suffer another blowout loss. But they will have a good time despite what the scoreboard reads.
“It’s just the experience,” Sami, a forward, said. "Playing basketball is fun."