Sitting in a cab on the way to the Bronx at 3:30 in the afternoon is not typically how I spend my Sunday afternoons. I had just got back from Scranton, Pa. where I was visiting my cousins and was exhausted from the car ride back – which may or may not have included a carsick dog named Betty. But hey, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get a firsthand glimpse at young Kobes in the making.
You see, the program I was going to check out was called the A.T.R. Project (Assisting The Rise), a unique collaboration between Above The Rim, Beyond Basketball and the True Ballaz Middle School Winter League. ATR selected community leaders/coaches from across New York, Los Angeles and Seattle who are dedicated to mentoring and assisting the individual rise of young players in their communities. They provide support and funding to get the tools and resources that will assist the youth these ambassadors support.
Exiting the cab at the Middle School 302 location, I was not sure what to expect. Led through a tunnel of scaffolding by an ATR rep, I didn’t know if I was walking towards a gym or some sort of construction site. It turns out neither. After a couple minutes of wrong turns and dead ends, we finally reached the parking lot of the school where I was met with A.T.R. Project Ambassador for the Bronx, Bernard Bowen, who told me a little more about the foundation.
“Beyond Basketball is basically a foundation that we started up probably six years ago,” said Bowen while his daughter shoots baskets on a net behind him. “It wasn’t about having the best kid or the best ball player, it was about grooming young men into becoming better young men and than good ball players. It’s just about helping kids out and putting them in a situation where they can benefit from it and be better young men at the end of the day.”
The project does a lot more than just provide a gym for kids to play and uniforms to wear. They take a somewhat holistic approach when it comes to molding young athletes.
“We have a scholarship fund that we use if families are in financial trouble to help pay tuition,” says Bowen. “If the kid has good grades we might help the parents or whoever their guardian is at that current time with tuition as well. We teach kids how to interview properly, how to shake someone’s hand, how to smile in front of someone, just regular manners. It seems like nowadays parents neglect it and don’t think it’s important. So a lot of that stuff we try to instill into the kids.”
I was then ushered into the gymnasium â€“ game in-progress â€“ and found a seat along the baseline. Playing in front of me was a group of kids 12-and-under: Team 914 out of New Rochelle and the Metro Hawks out of the Lower East Side. Listening to a DJ play a mix of top 40 hits in the corner and an MC giving the play-by-play of the game, it made me reflect on my less eventful playing days as an adolescent in a small dingy gym and a scoreboard comprised of construction paper and a sharpie marker. I guess the times are changing. But some things do stay the same, as the competition was fierce, the coaches were animated and the environment was lively. What more can you ask for?
I quickly found out this isn’t your typical middle school basketball league, these are some of the nation’s top young talent. I had the privilege to talk to one of these talents, a seventh grader named Malik out of Holy Family School in Castle Hill, who enlightened me about what the program means to him.
“This program helps you be a better person on the court and off the court and makes sure your academics are correct,” says Malik. “My favorite part about it is the competition and I like to get my teammates involved too.”
Malik went on to say that in case a career in the NBA doesn’t pan out, he’d like to pursue sports medicine.
Taking place every Saturday and Sunday between 10:00am and 5:00pm, the A.T.R. Project gives kids an outlet to play and provides a certain family love that is refreshing to see.
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