- A Seattle high school basketball team spent Christmas in Vegas after a Southwest flight was canceled.
- Coaches spent days and thousands of dollars tending to players and trying to get them home.
- In the end, a businessman paid nearly $15,000 to hire a bus to bring them home.
An entire high school basketball team from Seattle, Washington, was stranded in Las Vegas for five days over Christmas after Southwest canceled their flight, leaving them scrambling to get home, spending thousands of dollars and ending up driving 18 hours on a bus through snow.
The Rainer Beach High School team, a powerhouse that has produced several NBA players under its current coaching staff, was in Las Vegas for the Tarkanian Classic, an elite annual tournament attended by NBA executives and scouts.
The trip was planned months in advance for Dec. 19-23 and more than 30 people attended, including 15 players, a coaching staff and some parents. But in the early morning of Dec. 23, just hours before it was time to head to the airport, they got a message from Southwest Airlines that their flight had been canceled.
“In most cases, the airline will go ahead and reschedule you,” Michael Bethea, the team’s head coach, told Insider. “When I contacted the airline, it basically said, ‘You’re on your own.'”
Bethea and his wife, Virginia Bethea, who also works at the school as a family support specialist, would spend the next five days traveling back and forth from the airport trying to get the boys on flights home to Seattle while covering hotel expenses. rooms, rental cars and food. The couple said they spent more than $10,000 in total.
Other coaches, including assistant coach Harold Wright, also spent money and time caring for and feeding the players, who were often sprawled out in hotel lobbies waiting to find out if they would go home for Christmas. Meanwhile, some of the parents and coaches were worried about losing their jobs due to lack of work.
After many hours of trying to get help from the airline, Southwest said it may try to separate the team and send them on separate flights — but not necessarily to Seattle.
“They would put us on flights to nowhere. They were going to send eight kids to Phoenix with no connecting flight to Seattle, eight kids to Sacramento with no connecting flights,” Bethea said. “So I said, ‘That’s your answer?’ What are they supposed to do once they get there?’
“Well, we put them on planes,” Southwest replied, according to Bethea.
They eventually worked out a situation to send the players on flights to Seattle in groups, each accompanied by an adult, on separate planes and even on separate days, but every single one of those flights was canceled as well.
Finally, after staying in Vegas over Christmas and being told by Southwest that the earliest they could fly was Dec. 31 — more than a week after their original flight — the Betheas talked to a friend and local businessman from home who wanted to help.
“He said, ‘I just want to get these kids home safe,'” Virginia Bethea said. “And he doesn’t even know these kids.”
The man paid nearly $15,000 to rent a bus they got at a discount to take the entire team, staff and family members 18 hours home to Seattle, at times through snow and unclear road conditions, on Dec. 28.
“Are we really going to miss Christmas with our families?”
When the original flight was first canceled, the coaches initially tried to be optimistic that the team would still make it home for Christmas. But reality eventually sunk in. During a team meeting, one of the coaches with two elementary school children had to leave the room because they were crying.
“A lot of the kids were honestly in disbelief, like, ‘Are we really going to miss Christmas with our families?'” Bethea said.
Still, the team tried to make the most of the situation, including taking everyone to a block table dinner on Christmas Day. Michael and Virginia Bethea even went out and bought each of the children a Christmas present.
“It kind of cleared everyone’s mind,” assistant coach Wright said. “They still felt like they were worthy of something.”
“Christmas is a big deal for most of these kids,” he explained, adding that it’s the first time they get new sneakers or other things.
Although the coaches also missed out on their family Christmas plans, they said there were many positives to come out of the situation.
“This is probably the best Christmas, honestly,” Virginia Bethea said, adding “just to be able to serve people during this time. This is Christmas.”
Wright said he also enjoys spending extra time with the players, becoming even more of a family and helping them feel better in difficult circumstances.
“That’s what I was trying to project into them: that despite the disaster, we can still manage a good situation,” Wright said. “Keep your heads up and we’ll get through this, but we’ll have to do it together.”
The team will make more trips, but probably not to the Southwest
As of Friday, the team had been partially reimbursed for the canceled flights, but was still awaiting the full amount. They also said they were told they would be able to cover some of the contingencies, but were not told how much.
“Refunds for the team’s outbound flights that were disrupted are in the process of being fully restored and refunds are currently being reviewed for consideration,” a Southwest spokesperson told Insider, adding, “We continue to process requests daily to help fix things for this group of customers and others whose travel plans have been disrupted.”
The team were among thousands of passengers across the country who suffered canceled flights over Christmas. Transport Minister Pete Buttigieg said airlines were required to refund the amounts “within seven working days if a passenger paid by credit card and within 20 days if a passenger paid by cash, check or otherwise”. He also urged them to cover ground transportation, hotels and food for stranded passengers.
The coaches said that when the original flight was canceled, they struggled to even get a Southwest customer service agent on the phone. When they finally did, the agent apologized, but there were no answers. Bethea said the first person he spoke to talked to him and hung up on him on two separate calls, and then, “The third time I called him, he said, ‘Is that Mr. Bethea?’ ” I said yes.’ And he hung up on me.”
He said the team will continue to travel for national tournaments every year. They highlighted the success of the school’s basketball program under the leadership of Coach Bethea and Assistant Coach Wright, who have coached at the school for 28 years, and the opportunities afforded to the players.
“They enroll more black boys in college than all the high school basketball programs in the state of Washington,” Virginia Bethea said. Her husband added that the program is responsible for the millions of dollars in educational scholarships the players have received.
So they will continue to support the program and travel to elite tournaments with the team. Just not in the southwest.
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