“The cool thing about teamwork is it can translate to any part of your life,” NY1 host and reporter Budd Mishkin says, concluding a story about Michael Jordan’s 1995 game-winning assist in a match against the Knicks. A roomful of lanky adolescents in blue and grey jerseys listen intently, occasionally interjecting good-natured jokes into Mishkin’s talk. Seated among them are adult mentors, who come every evening for a week to play basketball, eat dinner, and participate in leadership activities with the youth at the 5-year-old Hoops & Leaders Basketball Camp in the West Village.
About 40 youth and 40 mentors are participating in this year’s camp, held at the Tony DaPolito Recreation Center, and although the camp is technically only for boys ages 13-16, this year’s group includes one young woman and a female mentor, according to director Justin Weir, who says the camp tries to pick boys with potential who don’t make it into academic prep programs or elite sports camps.
“What happens to good kids who are trying their hardest in school and basketball and are superstars in neither?” Weir asks. “Those are the types of kids that we want to be in our program: the kids who don’t get picked but still have value and potential to blossom into amazing people if given the proper attention.”
Mentors say the program is personally rewarding. “Where else can you sit here and hang out with kids ages 12 to 17 and do something they love?” asks mentor Luis Valentin.
This summer, the weakening economy hampered fundraising efforts and reduced the number of teens the camp is serving, after running multiple sessions in Manhattan and a satellite camp in Brooklyn last year. Still, the program adheres to the model established in 2003, when Aaron Dworkin looked at his friends’ regular basketball game and saw a solution to mentoring organizations’ ongoing shortage of volunteers. Dworkin is now the director of programs for After School All Stars, a national after-school and camp provider.
Dworkin and Weir developed the curriculum around Values of the Game, the book by former New York Knick and presidential candidate Bill Bradley. Each day of camp focuses on a different value from the book — teamwork, resilience, discipline, responsibility — with every activity, from the drills on the court to the night’s leadership activities, oriented around that value.
A night at camp includes basketball practice drills, dinner for the mentors and campers, a guest speaker, and “double rotations” between playing basketball and doing leadership activities. At 9:30 p.m., one camper and one mentor must each hit a free throw to wrap up the evening.
Each camp session ends with either a trip or a community service project. Last year, campers from one session renovated a basketball court. This year, they will visit the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Weir recruits speakers with careers in sports who are not athletes to give the campers a variety of realistic careers to consider. Previous speakers have included television personalities, a marketing director from the New Jersey Nets, and an NBA referee.
“We learn about responsibility on and off the court,” says Jonathan Heard, 16, who will be a junior at the High School for Leadership and Public Service in downtown Manhattan. “Some of this stuff I believed in already in my life, but camp backed that up,” he said. “We meet grown men here who are mentors who did this their whole life. I’m still young so it’s just first steps.”
Valentin sees the program changing the campers’ attitudes. “I do see some of them actually grabbing onto what we’re telling them,” he said. “They let down that guard that they build up towards each other.”
Patrick Jasienowski, 15, a rising junior at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Bayside, Queens, says he’s learned a lot at Hoops & Leaders. “It’s awesome,” he says. “It helped my shot and offensive and defensive game. The leaders are very cool, too — they do inspiring things.”