SHALER, Pa. (AP) — Shaler High School's boys basketball team gathers in a back hallway leading to the gymnasium, standing patiently while the Titans' opponent for the evening, North Hills, warms up about 20 minutes before tipoff.
Then, the moment they'd been waiting for: Meek Mill's "Gave 'Em Hope" blares over the speakers, and they take the court forming two lines for pregame layups. Parents in the stands sit stoically. Fans lean in closer to those next to them to hear each other's conversations. A young child puts his hands over his ears.
From Allderdice to Aliquippa, from Brashear to Butler, this is the scene at many high schools across western Pennsylvania each night of the week as the regular season heats up. Before the games begin, it's all about the music the players want to hear — and oftentimes, most of the crowd could do without. Warmup music has become part of the culture for all sports, but especially basketball games, where the beats and lyrics reverberate around all four walls to provide a soundtrack to pregame routines.
"It gets our mind right because when you come out here, you want to have a good rhythm. It's helpful," Aliquippa senior point guard Thomas Perry explained, then considered a world without it. "You could hear people in the stands. You wouldn't want to hear that."
But many of the same songs that put players in a competitive state of mind can also give coaches and administrators headaches. They're well aware that you might have better luck finding a 7-footer in the WPIAL than a popular hip-hop song that doesn't mention sex, drugs or violence.
Many schools, as per tradition, have their warmup playlists hand-picked by the team's captains or senior players. It can be a rite of passage, one of the more anticipated responsibilities for the veterans — but it had better be clean.
"We give that responsibility to our captains, knowing that it's a representation of not only our team, but also our community," said longtime Hampton boys coach Joe Lafko, who approves the songs along with athletic director Bill Cardone. "Sometimes with the kids' style of music today, it's hard to find music that is appropriate. If it's not the actual language itself, it's a meaning or a connotation."
Picking a playlist
Second-year South Park athletic director Tom Kayda spent about half a day of work in early December on music. Boys basketball players were in and out of his office from second period on, trying to come to terms with a playlist that fit their warmup needs.
"I get through about 30 seconds of the first, like, six songs and they're all 'no' immediately," Kayda said, to the chagrin of his students. "Their immediate reaction is there's no cussing on it, but I'm like, 'Guys, that's not the point. Is this something you're OK with saying to your mom? No? Then it can't be on this CD.' "
Kayda's situation is similar to that of many athletic directors, coaches and sometimes other administrators. Before the players even begin picking their songs, most are told — or perhaps reminded — they must be acceptable. Once the digital playlist — or, for the old-school types, burned CD — is finalized, it's time for adults such as Lafko, Kayda and North Hills athletic director Amy Scheuneman to parse through the material.
For her part, Scheuneman — in her first school year at North Hills after stints at Avonworth and Bethel Park — has found its easier to just look up the lyrics online and read them rather than trying to make sense of the songs themselves. And yet, she continues to hear gripes from the community about the music itself as well as the volume level.
"Honestly, I've told a lot (of players) to change it or take stuff out," Scheuneman said. "Even then, we've taken things out and still get complaints, so you're not going to make everyone happy, obviously. We do the best we can."
But some schools do things a bit differently. Kayda, for instance, had an aspiring DJ in the student body at his previous stop, Ligonier Valley High School, so he was in charge of any and all music at basketball games. In the City League, Allderdice has used a DJ for big games.
Then there's Aliquippa, where first-year boys basketball head coach Dwight Hines gets a local DJ to make the team's playlist. The players suggest artists and songs they like, and Hines vets the final choices.
"Over my years of coaching as an assistant and head coach, I haven't had any complaints yet," Hines said. "But I'm sure older people in the stands probably can't relate to some of the songs. They probably ignore it or say, 'What is this noise?' "
Not all coaches — and fans, for that matter — are like Hines, who at 33 isn't far removed from his days of running out of the locker room to some of his favorite hip-hop songs and can relate to his players. Hines said Aliquippa's warmup music even gets him pumped up to coach.
That's not the case for Win Palmer, but even somewhere perceived as prim and proper as Sewickley Academy, the beats bump and players bob their heads before the game. Sure, he and his staff could select the music themselves, but he knows it wouldn't be what teens want to hear — some of the most popular acts these days include the aforementioned Meek Mill, Lil Uzi Vert, Drake and Future.
"I don't even listen to it. It's not my choice of music," said Palmer, who's also Sewickley Academy's athletic director. "But I think it's their freedom."
Palmer's not alone in his mindset that side-stepping some potential musical landmines picked by high schoolers is worth giving them the privilege of playing their own music. Mike Bariski, boys basketball coach and athletic director at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in the long-ago basketball hotbed of Midland, has gotten his share of fan complaints too, but believes this isn't a battle worth fighting.
From his team to the girls volleyball team at Lincoln Park, he sets parameters for what's OK — beyond that, it's their call.
"Over the last four years, we've eliminated one song once," Bariski said, "and after the first two words, I didn't even have to listen to it anymore."
Among the detractors, you can count Ralph Blundo. But New Castle's highly successful boys basketball coach who doubles as assistant principal has a clear alternative. The student pep band has long been part of New Castle's storied basketball history, which makes life a bit easier for everyone.
"I think the second you start putting decisions in the hands of kids, no matter how minor, you're going to get yourself in situations you don't want to be in," Blundo said. "I have a team full of kids who really like hip-hop music, and they love our pep band. They know what it brings to the event."
Not all pep bands are created equal. New Castle's is one of the most fervent around, while other schools might only get to enjoy theirs for some bigger games or when the band members don't have other obligations. For Blundo, it's a happy music medium of sorts.
"I definitely think it's possible you can find a halfway point for fans and players alike, that they can both appreciate to some degree," he said.
While the pep band may be woven into the fabric of New Castle basketball, players elsewhere are more in tune to the rhythm and rhyme.
What exactly is it that makes a good warmup song? Is it the words, the bass, the melody? Well, that's in the ear of the beholder.
"I'm a lyrics guy. I'm a deep-thinking-type guy, so I need to know what they're talking about," said Lincoln Park guard Nelly Cummings, one of the WPIAL's top players. "But as long as the energy's good, I think that's what gets everybody going before the games."
For Pine-Richland, where the boys and girls teams entered the week still undefeated this season, it's not a major topic. The boys captains barely put any effort into their playlist this year, lifting some instrumentals off of YouTube. They worked on a CD for about three hours last season, but found it's too difficult to either find songs that aren't explicit or remove all vulgarities.
Sure, what they hear while getting ready provides a spark, but for them it's more about what they listen to in the locker room before and after games, or on the team bus — when they can play whatever they want.
Coaches and AD's acknowledge that much of the disconnect is simply generational. The music they listened to when they were in high school wasn't necessarily liked by their parents, either. Pine-Richland coach Jeff Ackermann recalled that the pre-eminent warmup song of his time was LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out." At Hampton, Lafko's still fond of Guns N' Roses hit "Welcome to the Jungle."
It's a different era now, one in which the adults in charge still let kids be kids, but have to be careful about doing so.
"A few years ago, we had a tape that was submitted to me. I said, 'Guys, are you serious? I could lose my job over this,' " said Palmer. "It shows that kids are just numb to it. They're just numb to it, and I think that's why you've got to censor it yourself to make sure."
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com