CALUMET PARK, Ill. – For the kids who participated in a clinic of basketball and life skills Saturday in south-suburban Chicago, the mere fact that they were in a gym and a classroom all day meant the event was successful at its most fundamental level.
“You take away the opportunity for the kids to be recruited by the gang members, who are out there recruiting every day. So now they’re in here with us,” said Marco Johnson, a 29-year veteran of the local police force and representative of the Police Athletic League.
More than 100 at-risk youngsters took part in the event, hosted by the National Basketball Retired Players Association in conjunction with the National PAL and the National Urban League. Former Chicago Bulls and NBA players such as Bob Love, Dave Corzine, Jeff Sanders, Kenny Battle, Emmette Bryant and Casey Shaw logged eight hours or more at the Calumet Park Recreation Center.
The clinic – one of 14 already staged or coming to cities across the country – rotated young players through various skill stations, with enough classroom time to address some of the more pressing issues in their daily lives, ones they might not talk about if not for all the fun and star power Saturday.
“The biggest part is, give the kids hope,” said Chris Hill, president of the NPAL. “We’re going into communities where there’s a lot of violence, a lot of drugs and alcohol and a lot of bad education. We’re trying to let them know there’s a way out. The way to get them here is to bring in athletes.
“Once they get here, we also let them know there’s more to life than what they see every day.”
Seven-foot giants such as Corzine, Roger Brown and LaRue Martin aren’t part of the kids’ everyday scenery. “The size automatically gets their attention,” said Johnson, a sturdy man with a wide smile and, though he kept them holstered for this event, a mean stare and a backup scowl. “But what’s amazing is, a lot of these kids know the history of the game. One of the little kids was like, ‘Is that Bob … Bob … Bob Love?’
“I said, ‘How’d you know that?’ ‘My dad told me about him.’ ”
Some of the NBRPA “Legends” who volunteered were done playing before some kids’ parents were born. Still the name recognition was high, especially those who crossed paths with a Michael Jordan Bulls’ team. And with basketball’s prominence in many of the youngsters’ worlds, the former players’ stories resonated.
“I was talking to my son,” Johnson said, “because they showed on TV the other night that LaRue was ‘the worst [No. 1] pick ever.’ I said, ‘You tell me, would you rather be the worst draft pick in the NBA or no pick in the NBA?’ My son was like, yeah, I guess you’ve got a point.
“If these kids perservere, they will make it, whether it’s in sports or something else.”
Corzine, who played 13 seasons in the NBA, is back at his alma mater of DePaul as an assistant athletic director working in community outreach. He and Brown offered instructions on post play, while finding ways to stress ambitions beyond basketball.
“The earlier we can get the message to kids, the better,” he said. “Without being too much of a dream buster – everyone’s entitled to pursue their own dreams – so many people focus on the ones who make it and are successful. They’re a very small percentage but they’re the ones everybody sees.
“The value, really, of athletics is physical fitness, healthy lifestyles – people take that for granted. Anything they can do to stay active is important. But also, you want them to be able to translate those skills they learn into what they can use academically and eventually in a career, as far as working hard and teamwork and being persistent, having integrity for the people you play with and work with. All those skills are transferable to their lives.”
Said Battle, who is supervising seven of the 14 clinics: “A kid knows, if he’s part of a sport or an organization, there are rules and regulations. I guarantee you, every one of those rules has educational value, where you have to maintain certain grades, you can’t be involved with a gang, you can’t be bringing trouble to the youth center or an organization.”
The NBRPA, NPAL and the National Urban League already has hosted events in San Diego, Charlotte, Detroit and, for tornado victims, in Oklahoma. Upcoming clinics are scheduled in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Orlando and Miami.
The messages from week to week largely remain the same. But the audience changes, so the impact stays fresh.
“We were in North Carolina this past week and Chris Washburn came in,” Hill said of the NBA’s third draft pick in 1986, a notorious bust undermined by drug addiction and behavioral issues. “We had no idea what he was going to say, and he got up and said, ‘Listen, I made $4 million a year. I didn’t do things right. I was homeless – eating out of garbage cans. I ended up using drugs. I went to jail. Then I went to prison. But I made my way out because I rebounded back to what I learn. Now I own my own business, but look at what I went through.’
“This was the message he said to kids. We’re trying to stop them from going through that.”
Particularly those who never get that far, yet learn to cope without ever bouncing a ball in college or the pros.