A sign in front of St. Mary’s School in West, Texas, reads “Find God, Find Peace.” While the former is something that can’t be found on the basketball court, the latter certainly is — at least for one day.
That was what Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson hoped when he and other Mavericks and Texas Legends employees traveled by bus to West on Saturday to put on a basketball and dance camp for kids of all ages in the community. Later in the day, Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle and Legends assistant general manager Nancy Lieberman coached an exhibition game between West policemen and firefighters.
It’s been two months since the small city was shaken by an earthquake-force explosion at a fertilizer plant that killed 15 and leveled whole neighborhoods. The wounds the citizens of West have suffered would run deep in any city. But in a town of less than 3,000, where it seems everyone knows each other, the pain is amplified.
But for one day, the kids got to be kids and the adults got to see them smile. One Mavericks employee estimated at least 300 kids turned out. Many parents were there, too. This was a community party with an open invitation. Former Mavericks guard Rolando Blackman must have signed 300 autographs and taken 500 pictures throughout the afternoon. He wasn’t stopping. He was the afternoon’s MVP, as he smiled, spoke words of encouragement, and shook hands with everyone he saw.
“We’re trying to have some fun and give them a little relief,” Blackman said. “We do care. We do want to make a difference.”
Mavs and Legends employees coached up the boys and older girls through various basketball drills while the younger girls took dancing lessons with the Mavericks dancers. Even West police officer Michael Irving, in full uniform, joined in on a stretching session. Watching 5-year-olds try to outdo a cop was heartwarming enough, but literally every adult within earshot knew him personally. They were all giving him a ribbing. It’s easy to see why, as West Mayor Pro Tem Steve Vanek told me, there’s been a huge outpouring of support — emotional and physical — from former residents of West. They all know each other. The city is one big family.
“You hear so much bad,” he said, “but there are a lot of good people out there. A lot of good people.”
Vanek said West neighbors opened their doors to one another after houses were destroyed. His sister, for example, stayed with their brother after the blast.
“We’re just so fortunate to have what we have here,” he said. “As bad as things were, we’re gonna be okay. It’s gonna take a while, but we’re gonna be okay.”
I took a ride around town with Paul Monroe, the Mavericks’ vice president of marketing and communications, to see how the rebuilding is going. It’s become a community effort that relies heavily on volunteers and the Red Cross after FEMA recently denied major relief aid to the city. A few dozen workers were rummaging through piles of lumber and scraps of metal up and down Reagan Street, a neighborhood located a couple blocks away from the explosion. Slabs of concrete on which houses once stood were bare. Some skeletons of houses were intact, but were missing roofs, which had either blown off from the strength of the blast or simply collapsed into residents’ living rooms. The ever-optimistic folks of West leave signs in front of broken houses showing words of support and prayer. Painted on the wall inside the St. Mary’s School gym: “We’ll fight and strive with our heads up high.”
But then the street leads to Jerry Mashek Drive, where the sheer power of a military-strength explosion was felt the most. One side of West Intermediate School was missing entirely. The retirement home, evacuated the night of the blast, was missing its roof. Down the street sat an enormous pile of rubble that was once an apartment complex, arguably the building hit hardest by the devastating detonation of the nearby plant. The plant is still fenced off and monitored by security guards (one asked us to leave once she realized we were looking around) and looks like a war zone. The stench of fertilizer still hangs in the air, as if to remind any passersby of what was once there. Tractors were lying on their sides, no doubt left that way after they were picked up, smashed into each other, and strewn about the complex like toys when the plant itself exploded. A single office remains intact and in fair shape: a tiny plant, maybe a Christmas wreath or a decorative bush, hangs from one of two walls still standing. A desk sits nearby, still covered in notebooks, pads, and folders.
Ten minutes before tip-off, Carlisle strolled into the gym. He hadn’t spent the day in West, but had met his team of volunteer firemen. “If I’m coaching against [Lieberman],” he joked about the women’s hoops pioneer, “I’m sure she already has the better team.”
The fire department, of course, suffered the most casualties of any entity. Before the fertilizer plant detonated, it had simply caught fire. The first responders were on the scene, then, when the worst happened. At one point during the game, all five players from the fire department were gray and balding. This isn’t an ordinary fire department. It’s not an ordinary community. The teams of cops and firemen — aptly named the Guns and Hoses — needed the game more than anyone.
“At times like these, we’re all community,” Carlisle said. “We’re all a part of this.”
Vanek and West Mayor Tommy Muska, also a volunteer firefighter, both played for the Hoses. Midway through the game and facing a steep deficit, the Hoses recruited the West High School basketball coach (and school principal) Wayne Leek. Carlisle even literally emptied his bench near the end of the game, playing 8-on-5 at one point before a referee realized the lopsided numbers. The Hoses couldn’t crack the Guns’ defense, which looked sort of like a 2-3 zone, only much more amorphous. Lieberman, like Carlisle had predicted, had the coaching upper hand. The Guns won 38-32.
The next two months in West are sure to be just as difficult as the last two. The reconstruction project has barely begun, and with no federal relief on the way (in the immediate future, at least) the city is on its own, maybe more than it should be. There are plenty of events in Dallas/Fort Worth in the coming weeks to raise money for the city. The Texas Rangers are celebrating “West Night” at the Ballpark on July 6, where Muska will throw out the first pitch. The Rangers expect somewhere around 1,000 West residents. Although the blast shook the town, it’s obvious after spending just one day among the people there that their resolve hasn’t been shaken.
Bobby Karalla is an intern for People Newspapers.