By Michael Canfield:
The Pratt Willard Community Center on the east side of Buffalo is alive with activity on Saturday mornings, with boys 12 and under taking part in a basketball league that combines basketball, respect and life skills.
The Buffalo Basketball Club, a partnership between Buffalo Youth Advantage (YA), Community Action Organization (CAO) and Sports P.L.U.S., runs the league for the boys. The boys practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Although valuable basketball skills are taught, the program sets out to teach the boys the importance of respect, discipline and life skills. “Buffalo Basketball Club is our non-religious, secular leadership and mentoring program,” says Russell Kingsbury, the director of Buffalo Basketball Club. “The point of this is to get them before they get into trouble, before they get in front of a judge, or before they are in a coffin. We have to keep them out of the system by giving them something to do with their time.”
Before every game, the players gather around center court in a circle, grasp hands, and listen to Kingsbury as he explains the virtues of being respectful, having values and working hard to achieve their goals. The program has a strict code of conduct, and most of the players follow it, for fear of not being able to play. “These kids can’t go to sleep the night before, because they are so excited to play in our league,” Kingsbury says. “If you misbehave, you’re not going to play, buddy. If you don’t do your school work, you’re not going to have this privilege.” Although a recreation program, it does much more than show kids how to play a sport. To Kingsbury, recreation programs are more than just rolling out a few balls and letting the kids play. “Recreation is a key component in helping young people avoid destructive behaviors,” he says.
The boys receive instruction from real coaches, who volunteer their time. The games are refereed by high school and college referees, lending the games structure. Each team also receives uniforms, representing different college teams. All players, coaches and parents in the crowd are expected to remain respectful throughout the game, and display good sportsmanship. If a player knocks down another player, there is no trash talk, he simply helps him get up. All of this leads to a sense of genuine enjoyment on the part of the players. “He loves it, it gives him something to do, and gives him exercise,” says Crystal Stover, the mother of one of the boys playing in the league. “They enjoy it, he and the other boys, and I think he looks forward to it.”
Mark Price, who played in college for Sienna and for the Buffalo Stampede in the Premier Basketball League, runs the practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays. To him, it’s important to give the kids playing an opportunity to learn the vital skills necessary to become functioning adults. “Number one, they develop social skills,” Price says. “You know, that’s the problem with our inner city youth, they don’t develop social skills. It carries over in the house, it carries over in the job or whatever.” Price believes the program gives them the confidence to succeed in life. “It’s bigger than basketball. You got kids out here who can’t play the game at all, but socially, this will give them the confidence to shake hands and meet with people, look eye to eye, and try things in life that aren’t basketball, but might be good.”
The Buffalo Basketball Club provides more than just the 12 and under boy’s league. They also provide programs for boys 13 – 15, 17 and under, and 18 and over, as well as girls programs. The bottom line is showing the kids that there is more to life than hanging out on the streets, getting into trouble. Rashawn Crule, one of the volunteer coaches in the program, echoes a familiar theme. “Catch them young, before they get into stuff,” he says. The programs are free. More information on the programs can be found here: http://www.eteamz.com/youthadvantage/index.cfm?
Photos: Scott Canfield