My bracket was in shambles. Who knew Harvard would win its first NCAA Tourney game in 377 years? I turned my bloodshot eyes from the TV, got off the couch and found a different kind of March Madness at the Chicago Area Alternative Education League (CAAEL) tournament.

As I walked into Forest View Education Center, in Arlington Heights, I knew I was entering an alternative school but didn’t know it would be an alternate universe. The competitors were classified as “behavior-disordered.” That was on full display. I’d never seen so many players helping opponents to their feet and high-fiving them after they scored.

One of the refs, Mike Martin, saw a coach applaud the player who sank her team with a buzzer beater. Mike’s been an IHSA coach for fifteen years but that was something new. He didn’t get a single complaint about a call all weekend, which made it a “real pleasure” to do his job. No whiny players, screaming parents, or fire-breathing coaches.

One of these coaches, Serena Staszak, from SEAL South, a therapeutic day school in Romeoville, had her players gunning for their fourth consecutive Sportsmanship Trophy. Their parents were also on their best behavior, cheering on both teams. I sat with them to watch the thriller between the middle school COVE Cougars and SEAL Sonics. The Cougars scored with five seconds left to knot the see-saw game at 33. After a mad scramble failed to break the tie, the players lined up for the post-game handshake.

During the next game, a dad confided that, if his high-schooler wasn’t playing for Forest View, he’d be home surfing the ‘net, or playing video games. Right on cue, his son recorded an assist with a nifty behind-the-back pass.

Jeremy Borjas, a senior point guard for SEAL South, said it was a joy to play in the tournament. It builds team chemistry and the caring atmosphere stands in stark contrast to his rec. league. On Sunday, Jeremy picked up two sportsmanship awards for showing respect to the other team and congratulating them on good plays. Oh yeah, his team finished 2-2.

It was standing-room-only in the cafeteria for the awards ceremony. CAAEL’s director, John Martin, took the mike and described the 35th annual event as the “wow tournament” and the “hug tournament” because he had seen so much of both. The coach of St. Joseph hoisted a first place trophy for sportsmanship and said, “It doesn’t feel like a working weekend.”

Governor Quinn, a former hoopster, is also a fan of the program. During a twenty-minute phone call to John Martin’s daughter, Sarah, he vowed to attend a CAAEL event. He hopes to come to the “park with the great lights” this summer to watch their 16″ softball tournament in Forest Park. He won’t find a friendlier crowd.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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