A line of boys in red jerseys sprints across the floor. The fastest ones reach the gym’s wall and turn back, then begin clapping for their teammates who still are running.
“Hoopfest ain’t over!” their coach, Tommy Williams, yells as the boys shuffle and run grapevines to warm up.
The dozen second- and third-grade boys are part of the Ballers Club, a basketball program designed to give kids from low-income neighborhoods a leg up so they can participate in sports. Williams is the founder and executive director of Operation Healthy Families, a faith-based nonprofit serving low-income families.
The Ballers Club is a year-round program that focuses on teaching kids how to be good student-athletes through basketball. Williams hosts weekly classes, divided by age group, for boys and girls from second to eighth grade at the Spokane Fitness Center’s Spokane Valley gym. His focus is on five core values – honesty, respect, integrity, sportsmanship and leadership.
“We shouldn’t wait until middle school. It starts when they’re impressionable,” he said.
After warming up, the boys moved on to dribbling drills. Williams had them work on dribbling from one side of their body to the other while standing still. Then, he broke them into two teams and challenged them to dribble through a line of chairs before shooting a layup.
“Going fast doesn’t help you! I want you guys to do it right,” Williams called out.
Williams has seen the transformative power of sports in his own life. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where gangs were commonplace. He said he was stabbed on Christmas Day in 1989 for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Soon after, he left to play football at Eastern Washington University.
“Football was my ticket out of that,” he said. The Ballers Club grew out of his more informal coaching of his six sons and their friends.
Jessica Trejbal enrolled her son Kolby, 8, in May after he finished a YMCA basketball camp that lasted a little over a month. She said she’s been impressed to see her son repeat lessons from Williams at home, including telling his parents that “practice makes permanent,” not perfect.
“It’s fantastic. He’s a great leader,” Trejbal said of Williams.
Trejbal and another mother, Bambi Groeper, said they liked the program in part because it’s much cheaper than other summer camps and programs.
“We just pay for the gym fee, which is pretty affordable,” Groeper said.
Many kids in the program want to play youth basketball through the YMCA’s leagues, but they don’t have the skills to get there. Signing kids up for skill-building programs can be expensive because of class fees, uniform costs, gym memberships and travel to and from games.
Williams charges $35 per month for a child to play basketball, a cost that includes a uniform. The program’s other costs are covered through donations and private sponsorship. Though the program is open to anyone who wants to sign up, Williams wants it to help level the playing field for lower-income families.
“There are a lot of clubs and AAU teams that cost a lot to play basketball,” he said, referring to the Amateur Athletic Union, which organizes competitive youth basketball leagues. “We don’t want the have-nots to say they can’t play because they have not.”
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