Christmas is tearing Ignacio Chavez apart.
There are not going to be nearly enough presents under the tree, and he is a 21-year-old man with a wife and a baby boy. And a mother who does all she can to help out. And siblings and cousins. Ignacio simply wishes there were more presents.
The car broke down recently, and that has been a burden. He was up at 3:30 a.m., banging on the fuel tank, trying to coax one more drive out of the thing. Basketball practice was going to start soon, and he was not sure if he was going to make it on time. Mom had to drive him to meet coach, just so they could drive the hour-plus to Sells Boboquivari High School, where Tohono O’odham Community College practices.
Gas is expensive, and diapers. Oh man, the diapers.
It all adds up, every last penny, and there’s not going to be enough left over for Ignacio to give his son all he wants to give.
What he does not realize, not quite yet anyway, is that he is already giving little Spencer Dario Chavez the best gift of all.
• • •
The way Ignacio Chavez describes the 18-year-old version of Ignacio Chavez, you wouldn’t want to meet him. A bum, he says.
School meant little to him, so little, in fact, that he just up and quit in October of his senior year at Cholla High School. Just up and left. Smart kid, good grades, but moody ever since his parents divorced. Sullen. Wore baggy clothes and a hoodie, always pulled up to conceal the headphones he used to tune out the teachers who’d nag him about his whereabouts.
He stopped going to class, but he picked up sporadic maintenance work down at the sports park. To make extra money, Chavez threw parties at his house, collected beer money, always rounded up, and pocketed the change. He says now that he didn’t realize he had a problem with alcohol, but really what he had a problem with was life.
A beautiful girlfriend, Claudia, did little to inspire him. She threatened to leave him time and time again, but he loved her, and she loved him, and she could see inside to the soft side of him, and that made her stay.
In November, a month after he quit high school, his girlfriend, a fellow senior classmate at Cholla, told him she was pregnant.
“You could tell she was real scared; I could see it on her face, but raising a kid wasn’t scary to me,” he said. “I was excited I’d get to see an extension of me.”
Even the life-altering news of impending fatherhood at 19 was not enough to jar him out of his funk, though.
It took the death of his beloved paternal grandfather, Dana Spencer Chavez, to spur him into motion.
Ignacio was heartbroken; of everyone in his life, his grandfather was the closest. He died on December 31, 2013, of all days, bringing a terrible end to the year.
Ignacio spent most of January in a haze.
“OK, you’re about to be a dad, no type of education, not making too much money, living at home with mom … what am I supposed to be doing?” Chavez said. “That’s when I got scared. I knew I wasn’t ready for a child.”
No, he wasn’t. But he was ready to not be one himself.
His father implored him to get his GED, and suggested he try the Tohono O’odham nation for guidance. One of his uncles was a fan of Matt Vargas’ burgeoning Jegos basketball program, and recommended it.
Chavez, who played junior varsity basketball his sophomore and junior years at Cholla, reached out to Vargas and former player Drew Harris.
They met at an open gym.
“He looked chubby, like a little chunky monkey, and I thought, ‘Are you freaking serious?’” Vargas said. “But there’s one thing he could do: He could shoot. I thought, ‘All right, I can work with this.’”
TOCC had recently been approved as a GED testing center, and Chavez became the first person to take the test there and pass it. He joined the basketball program, and as a member of the T-O nation, he’d have school paid for.
“Then I got that fateful text: ‘Coach, I want to talk to you about something, but I want to do it face-to-face,’” Vargas said. “I said to myself, ‘Please don’t drop out.’”
Chavez had been terrified about telling his coach about his family situation, but at a certain point, well, little Spencer was coming, and he couldn’t hide it much longer.
Vargas, who has four kids of his own, understood.
“I knew he was going to have a tough time, and I told him straight up, ‘If you ever need time to do something with your kid, just let me know; don’t not show up,’” he said. “The shock of it? Little Nacho is having a baby? We’ve had plenty of players who’ve had kids, but they’ve dropped. They’ve dropped like flies.”
If you’ve ever seen TOCC’s gym — or lack thereof — you might understand.
The campus is a set of classrooms and some dorms, which house the Jegos women’s and men’s basketball players, mostly. The closest thing to a gym is a Nerf hoop over a door.
The team’s home court is at Boboquivari High, almost 50 miles roundtrip. The Jegos have to practice before school starts, so that means 5:20 a.m., six days a week.
It’s not easy without a kid, much less with one.
• • •
Most days go something like this:
Wake up at 3:30, get dressed, check on the baby, drive to meet Coach for practice, practice, get to the dorms at 8:45 for class from 9 a.m. until 11, at which point Claudia, Ignacio’s now-wife, has her first class and Ignacio takes over watching Spencer. Then it’s back to class at 3 p.m. for two hours, and a drive back to Tucson, where Claudia works at Old Navy in the Tucson Spectrum shopping center.
When they’re not at Ignacio’s dorm, they live with his mother, Lupita, who set one strict rule.
“One thing I made clear to him is if you keep living with me, you’re going to school,” she said. “The both of you.”
Claudia had already been accepted and planned on attending UA before she learned she was pregnant, so college was always in the cards for her. But Lupita said she’s seen a spark in Ignacio since he began at TOCC.
“I’ve always emphasized the importance of education, but kids listen with a filter,” she said. “I was the same way. When he dropped out (of high school), I have to tell you, I took that news harder than finding out they’d have a baby. College is out of the question, what is he gonna do? I’m gonna be 80 and he’s still living with me? Those thoughts cross your mind, and they terrified me.”
Now, Claudia says, Ignacio comes home from school and can’t stop telling her about what’s he’s learned.
It’s become a real family affair, particularly when schedules collide and there is no one to watch the baby.
“Baby Spencer is in advanced calculus!” Lupita said. “You tell me that’s not going to impact that little baby. I have to think it’s going to stay with him. This little one, he already has the two best role models.”
• • •
Ignacio says now that he was all sunshine and roses when he learned that he’d be a father. To be honest, panic set in the night Spencer was born.
Visiting hours were coming to an end, and the families had to leave; they said their goodbyes with kisses and hugs.
“Where are you going?” Chavez asked his mom. “Why are you leaving? You’re supposed to be here to help me watch him. She was like, ‘Well, you’re the dad. You can handle it.’”
Claudia rolled over and passed out. Chavez was there all alone, a young boy holding another young boy.
“I’m looking around in this quiet, dark hospital, and I was like what the heck?,” he said. “Where’s my mom? When are they coming back? It was scary. Now what?”
He returned to practice later that week, and he’s persevered.
Chavez doesn’t play much, if at all, appearing in six of the team’s 12 games this season, playing scant minutes. He’s hit one shot, a 3-pointer, and that was important to him.
TOCC gets good crowds, and it’s a thrill. Chavez dreamed of playing college basketball since he was a boy, even if he never really wanted to go to college. His mother says he used to walk around at family parties spinning a basketball on his finger and conversing.
He loves playing, being on the team, even if, as he says, sitting across the table from his head coach at lunch, “The word fun doesn’t come into mind with the way our practices are.”
For some basketball players, the court is a sanctuary, the place where everything else melts away.
“Coach Vargas has a way of making basketball … not fun,” Chavez said with a laugh. “It’s rough. At his practices, I don’t even worry about the struggle, the stress. I’m just trying to make it through two hours.”
Vargas laughs; there is no better compliment for a coach than to know his players see the court time as no cakewalk.
But there’s nothing like a college basketball game, in front of friends and family and friends, and particularly in front of the T-O nation, which embraces the players and their cause.
The one person not in the crowd, though, is who keeps Chavez going.
“I’ll never know what my grandpa wanted to say to me,” he said. “He saw me at my worst, and that’s how he left his life. That disappoints me every day of my life. I don’t get to see him at my games, and out of all the people who go to the games, he’s who I want to be there the most. Every day I try to just be better and I try not to disappoint him. It is hard to know that I’ll never get to show him what I am today.”
And what he will be, because he persists.
He credits the motivation of his grandfather and his parents for keeping him going, as well as his wife and child.
Said Chavez: “Without her and without him, I don’t think I’d be in college.”
Recently, he said, he saw a couple of his high school friends.
“They’re, they’re homeless,” he says, almost with a gasp. “I had to buy them a drink. They asked me to buy them a drink, which blew my mind. That’s me. That’s me in a different life.”
• • •
It’s hard, don’t get him wrong. This isn’t an easy thing to do.
The 21-year-old man — a man who is now raising a boy — is beginning to understand there is beauty in the struggle.
That is a gift, in and of itself, even if he doesn’t know it in his heart just yet.
“Nacho isn’t some superman, this perfect kid,” Vargas said. “He has his meltdowns. You can see it when it’s frustrating him he’s not getting playing time, or he is playing and he’s hesitant to shoot. But he’s realized, and we’ve told him this, that he’s inspiring people around him. Whether it’s a cousin, a younger brother, someone in the community, he’s saying, ‘Hey, if I can do it, and I have all this, you can do it.’ A kid like Nacho is more important and more vital to our program and what it is about than a kid who gets MVP of the conference or goes Division I.
“He’s literally making a statement every day he wakes up and does what he sets his mind to.”