Never underestimate Brooke Kalama and her Roybal boys’ basketball team

Never underestimate Brooke Kalama and her Roybal boys’ basketball team

The winter wind whipped through the courts. Loose gravel crumbled under the soles of the boys’ basketball players. One of the nets hung by a few threads, the tattered nylon swaying in the breeze.

It was part of a horrid year for a struggling Roybal High basketball program. In early January 2020, legendary coach Danny O’Fallon died of colon cancer, leaving a coaching vacancy and a devastated roster. When COVID-19 hit, the team was locked out of its gym, forced to practice outdoors.

Tasked with righting the ship was Brooke Kalama, a mortgage lender, veteran actress and mother of four.

Kalama was unconventional, both in identity and in style. She heard the comments that came with being a woman coaching a boys’ team. She never has been one to back down from a challenge.

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After a 2021 season during which they finished 0-5, the Titans are 8-3 this season.

“She didn’t give up on us,” co-captain Isaiah Moreno said. “She had faith in us.”

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They feel it whenever they walk into the gym.

Roybal’s opponents will see Kalama and assume she doesn’t know what she’s doing, Moreno said.

“We tell each other, like, ‘They don’t think we got it,’” Moreno said. “‘Let’s show them.’”

Kalama is used to being overlooked. She was adopted at birth, classified as special needs, and not expected to walk.

“Ever since I could remember, I’ve had the thought that if you tell me no, I’m absolutely going to prove that I can,” Kalama said.

She was not only able to walk, Kalama could run, and eventually played college basketball for a couple of years at Utah Valley University. A childhood passion for acting turned into a career appearing in films alongside the likes of Fred Willard and Gary Coleman. Now, she’s on to her next pursuit, which has lasted 12 years and counting: coaching. It brought her to Roybal after a recommendation from a former colleague.

Gerson Fonseca, now Kalama’s assistant, knew the program needed someone great to follow in O’Fallon’s footsteps. He was a coach who’d piloted the Titans to a City Section Division III championship in 2018-19 and had inspired his players to win for him while fighting for his life.

“We were confused, and we were at a loss for words,” said Jessie Lara, a junior who played for O’Fallon in 2019, upon hearing of his coach’s death before a practice. “We didn’t know what was going to happen next.”

When Fonseca heard Roybal was hiring a woman, he was stunned but intrigued.

“I’m like, ‘If Roybal hired her, it must mean she’s really good,’” Fonseca said. “She must have something special.”

Yet the start of Kalama’s tenure, holding those tepid practices on outdoor courts, wasn’t the walk in the park hoped for by Fonseca.

“I’m like, ‘How is she going to make these kids believe?’” Fonseca said.

Not many outside the program believed in Kalama. Other Roybal students would tell players that with a female coach, they’d never be as successful as the O’Fallon days, Lara said.

Kalama was never fazed.

“It isn’t about Brooke the girl — it’s about Coach Brooke, and can she do it or can she not?” Kalama said.

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The team and Kalama had something in common — they were often taken for granted. Only two players on Roybal’s roster stand above six feet tall. They aren’t physically dominant in any conventional basketball sense.

But they were fast, like Kalama herself in her playing days, and she figured they could outwork opponents until they spun around in circles from exhaustion. Roybal did so much conditioning at the start of Kalama’s tenure that now-senior Javed Feliu referred to her in one practice as “Coach Carter,” after Samuel L. Jackson’s intense character in the 2005 film.

“I actually giggled,” Kalama said, smiling as she remembered the nickname. “I’m like, ‘Well, you’ve got a point.’”

Off the court, she built trust with her players — same as O’Fallon once did with his teams — by coming to care for them like a family.

She has helped the sometimes temperamental Moreno to control his emotions — to understand the team follows his attitude as a leader. She has comforted Lara, who was injured for much of the 2020-21 season because of a chipped bone in his ankle, through periods of anxiety and depression in his recovery.

“She’s told me that I’m going to be OK,” Lara said. “She brought me to the side, talked to me and made me feel like if there’s anybody I can trust, it’s her.”

Players have bought in, particularly after an early season win over Hollywood, which led by double digits much of the game before the team ran out of gas. With fresh legs and full lungs, the Titans mounted a furious comeback in the fourth quarter to win 72-63.

“That was just one of the moments of our hard work paying off,” Moreno said. “We were like, ‘Damn, coach, you were right.’”

Kalama doesn’t like to participate in scrimmages with her team. But in one practice back in the murky days of outdoor courts and frayed nets, only nine players showed up.

So she loosened up her old college legs, and promptly drove to the rim for a smooth finish over a Titans player.

The team erupted in celebration.

“We all went like, ‘Coach ain’t got it like that’ — she came on the court and balled us up,” Moreno said. “I was like … ‘my bad, Coach!’”

Underestimate Kalama at your own risk.

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