PARADISE, Calif. — It’s probably safe to say that the teenagers who make up the Paradise High School boys' basketball team have never looked so relieved. Or elated.
All 18 had been driven from their mountain town by the deadliest fire in California history. All but two knew they would never return to their old homes, which burned to the ground, forcing them into motels or guest houses or apartments, often crammed in with parents, siblings, grandparents and pets.
Now they had come together for their first practice four days after the fire, and you would have thought they were taking the floor for the state championship. There were high fives and broad smiles, and their hugs were tighter and more meaningful than they had been before.
“It was an ‘I feel your pain’ hug, an ‘I am here for you’ hug,” said Assistant Coach Ryan Wright, who is also youth pastor to half a dozen players on the team. “It makes me proud, to be part of something like this.”
The hell fire of one month ago took not just 86 lives and thousands of homes but a pine-shrouded haven of serenity and replaced it with an uncertainty that seems to have no end.
The Butte County sheriff let residents return to some Paradise neighborhoods in early December, mostly to pick through ashes or to grab belongings from the few homes left standing. It’s unclear how many people will return for good.
A community now scattered across the Sacramento Valley and beyond is looking for hope and a reason to feel whole again. A few people think they have found a measure of both in Paradise High basketball.
Implausibly, despite losing three players and missing half their planned practices, the Bobcats are playing basketball. And not just playing, but focusing and “getting after it,” as Coach Jerry Cleek demands. And winning seven of eight games, through Wednesday, by an average of more than 25 points a game.
A team dominated by seniors, who have played together since grade school, had been dreaming of the year they would finish high school together. Now they are taking all their classes online, playing every game on a foreign court and still believing they might do big things.
That would mean Paradise winning not just league but a championship for the region that covers most of California, north of Sacramento. It would be the first basketball title in 25 years for the town that’s now mostly deserted but numbered 26,218 a little more than a month ago.
“We have all gotten closer than ever, having this traumatic situation," said Joe Lawrie, a senior guard and the team’s purest shooter. “And we have something to fight for … fight for our season. Fight for our school. Fight together.”
No one on the team or among the coaches and parents will deny that their dreams are audacious.
Cleek, 75, in the last of his 52 years of coaching, says his team’s season could be “totally storybook.” Nicholas Baker, the 6-foot-5 center who leads the team in rebounds and pre-game prayers, called it “an opportunity you only get once in a lifetime.” He adds, “It may sound cliché, but I feel that way.”
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
The firestorm came on a Thursday morning in late fall and every member of the Paradise High team seems to have a harrowing story.
Lawrie, his three sisters and mother can mark the moment better than most because dad Curtis Lawrie is a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. His phone logged the moment, 6:29:55 a.m., when Cal Fire dispatched him to a blaze in National Forest land near the town of Pulga.
He became the first incident commander on the Camp Fire. His wife, Tessa, soon got a message that this fire was not like all the others that burned in and around Paradise. “Get the animals and get out,” the text read. “This is real.”
Many players drove through flames and terror, but every member of the Paradise team made it down the mountain safely to tearful reunions with family and friends.
For a month since, junior Ethan Swart has been crammed into a hotel suite with his mom, dad, brother and sister. Baker commuted, three hours round-trip, to practices until Dec. 5, when his family found an apartment in nearby Chico. Most every other player is living with a crowd, doubled- or tripled-up in a room.
Cleek had been around teenagers enough as a coach and a long-time teacher at Paradise High that he knew they would be dying to break out and return to their friends. He didn’t coach them at all, those first days together in a borrowed gym, just let them run and sweat and play together. Among the thousands of dispossessed from their town, they were the happy few who had no doubt where they needed to be.
“It wasn’t as important for them as players, as it was for them as people,” Cleek said.
Basketball can cure a lot, but not everything. And these are still days of whipsaw emotions, like the one when the Bobcats learned that a teammate who they thought was missing had turned up in Modesto. But that relief did not come without a shadow. The boy’s father and grandmother did not make it off the mountain.
November rushed past, a kaleidoscope of highs and reminders of loss.
The Paradise High boys traveled, along with the girl’s team, to Sacramento and Oakland, guests at a pair of NBA games. The fans greeted the kids from the distant mountain town with standing ovations. One-time arch-rivals have offered their courts for practice sessions. The hosts of this week's tournament outside of Redding bought the team a pizza dinner. Each player got a $1,000 check from a San Diego real estate developer, who came north to offer his money to all 980 of Paradise High’s students and to more than 100 staff members.
But that can’t entirely make up for the way many of the boys’ parents still look, as one coach said, “like they just got punched in the throat.” And it can’t reopen beloved teen hangouts, like the Dutch Bros. coffee shop or the AM-PM mini-mart. And no amount of outside generosity has yet been able to lure back nearly 300 students, who have transferred to other schools or districts, or not yet found their way back to school at all.
“I don’t know if we will ever be back on feet totally,” said Wright.
Going into the season-opener at rival Chico High School the Monday following Thanksgiving, the team had managed to meet for only a handful of practices. “I knew everything that the kids must have on their minds,” said Cleek, who lives on a fruit tree and almond ranch his family homesteaded nearly 160 years ago. “In all those years of coaching, I have never gone into a game so unsure of what was going to happen.”
He need not have worried. With Lawrie and fellow guard Lleyton Rice leading the way, the Bobcats were never threatened, winning, 80-62. It would prove to be one of their closest games. The team is burying most opponents by relying on no single individual to carry the load.
The seniors can’t hide their joy and a bit of wistfulness. While Paradise High survived the flames, it still reeks of smoke and ash, unusable for now. The school plans to open a temporary campus at the Chico Municipal Airport for its second semester, starting in January.
That means the Paradise teens won’t play a single real home game, in front of rabid “Paradisians,” who loved to pack the claustrophobic little gym known as “The Den.” That’s where every local seemed to wear the green and gold, except for the many students who donned flannels, overalls and hats — embracing the stereotype of Paradise as town of bumpkins.
Paradise could do worse than its temporary home court in Orland. Yes, the gym is a drafty old lumber warehouse, hidden off a rural side road. But inside, the floor carries a touch of magic. It once belonged to the Sacramento Kings, the original floor of the team’s old Arco Arena — a gift given roughly a decade ago to help out Providence Christian High School.
With a wink and a mischievous smile, Cleek tried to establish a bit of mystique for the Bobcat’s home of just one game. “We’re here on the Sacramento Kings’ floor,” he told his players. “We’ve never lost a game here. Ever.”
With the beloved coach in his last year and a dispossessed team scrapping for its town, Paradise's story hardly needs another cinematic flourish. Nonetheless, it has one. Two assistant coaches played for the high school the last time it won a Northern California section championship.
Wright and Nate Johnson, now a chef in Chico, were at the heart of that 1994 squad, recalled still for “Paradise grit.” They think the 2018-2019 Bobcats have a bit of the same. But a little good fortune doesn’t hurt. In a key game on the way to the ’94 title, Paradise got a remarkable gift when an opponent went in for a final, showboating dunk. He missed and the Bobcats got the ball, in time to make a pair of game-winning free throws.
Unsure what the coming months will mean on many fronts, Paradise families cling to basketball. “A lot of them don’t know where they will end up. They don’t know the answer yet,” said Johnson. “They just want their boys to have this season.”
Cleek feels like he and his players have been given a gift.
“We are going to be together, we are going to stay together,” said the old coach. “I told them, ‘You are going to have one of the greatest years you are ever going to have in your life.'”
James Rainey is a reporter for NBC News, based in Los Angeles.