The language of basketball is a mix of signals and code words, both of which are integral to the on-court chemistry of any team.
For the Lee Academy Pandas, the language of basketball is complicated by the languages of different lands.
Lee has five players on its boys varsity basketball roster from China, part of that town academy’s growing relationship with the Asian nation.
Of 88 boarding students at Lee, 38 are from China and 20 are Korean, and while some of the international students are familiar with the English language before coming to Maine for the first time, others are not.
“Some kids arrive here fairly proficient in English and don’t require [English as a Second-Language] classes, and some take two or three ESL classes,” said Lee headmaster Bruce Lindberg. “We also have two interpreters, one Korean and one Chinese.”
Four of the varsity basketball players from China are taking ESL classes at Lee, but when they are on the basketball court, quick changes in defensive schemes or offensive plays aren’t as simple as hearing the call from Pandas coach Randy Harris.
“Four of the kids didn’t know English when they got here, so when we try to tell them you’re down low in the 1-2-2 or you have to front someone, they look at you like you’ve got three heads,” said Harris.
Harris does have one secret communications weapon in senior Brian Zhang, a backup point guard from China who played on Lee’s junior varsity last winter.
“His English is good, so he helps a lot,” said Harris.
Basketball truly has become an international sport at Lee, where nearly half of the 26 players who tried out for the boys varsity and junior varsity are dormitory residents, Harris said.
And that by itself is a learning experience.
“I might put a couple of the kids in and then I have to take them right back out because we’re playing a 1-2-2 zone but they’re chasing guys around man-to-man or they’re in the wrong spot,” said Harris, who is considering the use of flash cards with English and Chinese translations to help bridge the communications gap.
“I can’t tell them that because they don’t understand me yet. I guess I’ve got to learn some Chinese to be able to yell some words out.”
Like officials at several other town academies around the state, Lee administrators say its rise in international students, which has increased overall enrollment from 194 several years ago to 283 this year, has been crucial in enabling the school to remain solvent amid declining school enrollments and strained traditional financial resources.
Before Lindberg’s arrival and the recent growth in its dormitory population, Lee offered just one advanced placement class. Today, nine AP classes are offered at the school.
Harris, a Lee graduate who has coached and taught at his alma mater for more than two decades, has heard the complaints about alleged recruiting of student-athletes.
He sees the situation as no different from a Maine-born student-athlete transferring from one school to another, a fairly common occurrence.
“We don’t recruit them,” he said. “I’ve never talked to one kid I’ve ever had on a team before they got here. No one says anything when kids go from one school to another. The kids we have here have every right any other kid has and I tell our own parents or people from Schenck or Howland or anywhere else that these kids are Lee Academy students whether they’ve been here four years or four days.
“I’m not going to apologize for the fact that our school, like a lot of other small schools, was in a situation where we were going under, people were losing positions, and we were maybe going to have to close down or combine with someone else, and instead we had a headmaster come in who had some foresight and opened a dormitory and now he’s got it full of 50 or 60 international kids.
“I’m supposed to apologize for that? No one worried about our tennis team being 0-12 last year with all Asian boys. It’s just that basketball is kind of out in the limelight.”