Among my role models was Tony Rodriguez, a coach and mentor at the Wesley Community Center. Wesley, as we call it, was located on the corner of Colima and S. Leona and served the community with health and dental care. It had a gym on the second floor and that’s where we learned how to play official basketball. I say “official” because we would play each other in a makeshift basketball court outside next to the gym. No rules.
Tony was a tough coach who took no back talk from anybody. This was the time when we were not a team but, he made us into a team by playing us against each other. There were no uniforms. We were “skins” and “shirts”. The older kids like Johnny Gamboa and Edward Garcia, future Voks at Lanier High School were the ones who we emulated and also try to beat. There was no stopping them. They played to win.
As a coach, we respected him. He would go beyond the gym and talked with our parents and let them know that he was proud of us. He even went to the bar where my dad would hang out and let him know how I was doing. He didn’t just coach, he invited us to learn how to sing. So we sang in one of the rooms with piano accompanying. He played well and I wanted to learn how to play piano. However, my uncles who were in the group talked me out of it. Calling me a sissy. I lived with them so, I had to take it.
Every year there was a basketball city tournament which all the recreational centers competed. When Coach Tony thought we were ready he got us a few games with the Denver Heights team and some with the Boys Club on Monterrey St. We didn’t have uniforms yet but, we did well enough that he convinced the Wesley Center to get us some hand me down uniforms. Later he registered us to play in the City Wide Tourney and compete with the other centers like Good Samaritan, House of Neighborly, Boys Club and others in the city wide competition. Most of the games were played outdoors on asphalt. The centers didn’t have an indoor gym. That year (1954-55) we won the City Championship.
Tony was an all-around person. He taught crafts and when I was 7 years old he convince me to join the Cub Scouts with him as a leader. With that experience in scouting I matured and later on I became a scoutmaster. Not only did Tony have us play basketball. We played flag football and softball. We use the parking lot as a field. It was mostly gravel and we did have skinned knees and elbows.
When I joined the military, I lost track of Tony. I never did find out where he lived or if he was married. After I retired from the military I went back to Wesley to volunteer my services. It was then that the city decided to tear up the whole community surrounded by Wesley. It was called the Vista Verde Project. Wesley Community Center was moved to the Southwest side on Fitch St. When they had a Grand Opening they named the new gym after Tony Rodriguez and they unfurled a large picture of the 1954-55 City Champs. They were Domingo Gonzales, Julio Gonzales, Fred Medina, Carlos – and myself among the others whom I can’t remember their names.