Kate Harman (@KateHarmanCoBL)
“How are you?”
That was the question Beulah Osueke asked her West Catholic player as she was coming off the bus.
Not a particularly unique question for a high school basketball coach to ask, but maybe not the first question one whose team had just suffered a loss to a beatable conference foe would pose.
After the most successful season in program history last year, Beulah Osueke (above) stepped down as West Catholic coach last March (Photo: Krystal Williams, Pixbykrys Photography)
“Mortified and annoyed” about the outcome of a contest the defending Catholic League champions should have won, Osueke asked anyway, as her squad walked off of the bus. How was that player? It turns out that she had had a pretty difficult week - one where she had been in a bad car wreck and attended a family member’s funeral.
So, that basketball game - it really wasn’t at the forefront of that player’s mind that day.
“Thank goodness, I didn’t push her about that loss,” Osueke, 31, says now, mentioning that the player was pivotal to the Burrs championship run later that season. She’s also currently playing at the Division II level in college.
Osueke, who is originally from the suburbs of Houston and played collegiately at Arkansas, refers to this coaching approach as having the “courage to see them [her players] as people.”
She is conjuring up a different type of courage now - courage to change the systems and institutions holding certain groups back while lifting others up.
After capturing the program’s first ever state title this past March, Osueke stepped down from her position at West Catholic, something she knew she would do a few years prior, when she made a promise to see through the careers of a special freshman class.
Last year, West Catholic won the team's first ever state title (Photo: Krystal Williams, Pixbykrys Photography)
Instead of helping one group of players, she wants to use her knowledge and experience to benefit greater numbers, through the launch of a new initiative.
The initiative known as PILR Training - which Osueke describes as a social enterprise - will hold clinics for coaches, as well as integrate lessons about racism, sexism, and classism into mentorship - all while using sport as a vehicle for change.
“I feel that if you’re a coach, you’re a coach for life. So, it’s not coaching that I’m walking away from” said Osueke, who is currently taking part in a 10-week long fellowship with Do Good X . “I’m actually just walking away from coaching at just one school. The project that I will be rolling out is basically working with schools, working with teams, working with coaches, to optimize their mentorship.”
Osueke took over the Burrs for the 2013-2014 season, a year where West Catholic went 0-18 — an inauspicious start for a team that consistently had little success in one of the premier leagues for girls’ basketball in the state.
But, things slowly got better for the Burrs, including a berth in the 2018 PIAA state championship game. In all, Osueke compiled an 80-72 record with West Catholic, meaning her teams went 80-54 after that difficult first campaign.
Her current project goes beyond the X’s and O’s, however. It speaks to Osueke’s existence as both a Black person and a Black woman, a lived experience that isn’t unique in the world of basketball but largely isn’t represented in positions of power.
In fact, during her eight years at West Catholic, there were only two other Black women who held the position of head coach in the conference. And those coaches didn’t last very long, making Osueke the longest tenured by quite a few years.
That’s one reason Osueke is putting “cultural competency” at the forefront of her new venture, an endeavor that will take her to work with schools, teams, and coaches to “optimize their mentorship.” She already has three teams she will be working with as a consultant this season - all of which play in different leagues and consist of players from a variety of backgrounds.
“Essentially what I’m trying to do is be a team whisperer,” she said.
After resigning, Osueke created PILR Training, a social enterprise that aims at changing structures within sport (Photo: Krystal Williams, courtesy PhiladelphiaSportsDigest.com)
The goal for PILR Training is to become “pillars in the community” — hence the name — where the plan is to “offer a systemic approach to leadership development that causes our athletes to rise in the leadership they desire, for coaches to be good mentors, and to empower parents to ask the right questions for their kids.”
The inaugural event for the organization, called A Convening, will be held on November 6. A four-hour long summit for student-athletes, coaches, athletic directors, mental health practitioners, public health experts, business owners and elected officials, the goal of the event is to provide a space for vital conversations about sports, resources, and the dynamics present within the “sports ecosystem.” Osueke envisions this as the first of many “convenings” through PILR.
While coaching, what continued to strike Osueke — whose day job is as Operations Director for New Voices — was the disparity she saw everywhere. The disparities between public and private schools, the disparities with regards to opportunity and access, the disparities between how officials officiate teams who comprise predominantly of Black or predominantly White players.
She also saw what impacted her players on a daily basis — the insecurities, experiences with sexual trauma, conflict, murder — and the fact that their former teammate, Akyra Murray, was killed in the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting.
“I feel uniquely positioned as a Black woman, as a relatively younger coach, a coach that has psychology background, as a coach that has immigrant parents and knows what it feels like to grow up feeling ‘othered’ and not wanting kids to feel that way, to be able to put forth a service that can do harm reduction, to have more empathetic coaches and teammates,” she said.
“There’s a Black universal experience. I can go to Maine, I can go to Seattle, I can go to Atlanta, and the racism that I feel will be familiar because ... it is not always malicious,” Osueke continued. “It isn’t people saying the n-word or putting burning crosses on your lawn. It’s you getting 10 or 15 more fouls when the other team is more aggressive. That stuff cannot be measured. The moment I was able to identify it, I immediately started working against it.”
That’s why a friend said that she wasn’t inspired to do this, but rather called to.
“I want to start something that is going to be around 100, 200, 300 years,” Oseuke said. “So, I see myself as the first person creating a necessary infrastructure that is going to impact sports as a whole. The reason I am focusing on female athletes is, when you talk about race, the conversation is usually about Black men and boys.
“When you talk about sexism, it is usually about White women and girls. Black girls are often an afterthought. Uniquely sharing the experiences and voices of Black girls is going to be refreshing, and again I feel like when you cater to the needs of Black girls, all are impacted.
“When you are operating from a position of privilege, you don’t think about what’s missing,” she continued. “What if we deconstructed the norm and said that if you’re leading any group of kids, study that group of kids, mindfully coach and lead them so that they aren’t having to make certain concessions for you as an adult. I’m looking to revolutionize how we all interact with sports. Not looking to, I will. I will actually do it.”
You’d think someone with her resume would get an opportunity to coach somewhere else after she stepped down at West Catholic.
Not true, Osueke said. She didn’t get any coaching offers after resigning from her post.
What did she get?
“I did get a lot of praise and compliments.“
The first Catholic League title in over two decades.
The only state championship in program history.
Turning a program around in less than 10 years.
Building something that will last longer than any of those accolades.
“Yes, this is ambitious, but necessary,” Osueke said. “I believe that a child that is a product of PILR will be the one to take these ideas to the next level - future generations will take this project on. I know I won't see the end of what I want to see but I think it is a necessary beginning.”
She paused to reflect on the beginning of a different journey she took - one that was also difficult and filled with obstacles.
“What excites me the most, is that right now I feel the same way as when I was 23 and starting at West Catholic. I enter another mode - you know, breathing is not an option, you just have to do it,” Osueke said. “I have the same kind of thrill, determination about this that I did for West Catholic.”
How’s Beulah Osueke?
She's ready for her next chapter.
Contributions to this were made by Rebecca Benjamin