WEST POINT – If you build it, they will come.
That’s what West Point Parks and Recreation Director James Crowley was thinking when he launched the Saturday Showcase League in January. The parks department has basketball leagues for kids ages 5 to 12, but after age 13 there aren’t many opportunities for kids with hoop dreams who don’t make the high school team.
“If they aren’t playing at the high school level, they’ve got nothing else to do,” Crowley said. “So, we wanted to offer them something.”
What he offered was free court time to learn and play basketball on.
For three hours on Saturdays this winter, 14 to 17-year-old boys came in and played at the Central School gym in West Point. Crowley said offering the boys something to do is critical to helping keep them out of trouble.
“A lot of these kids come from tough neighborhoods,” Crowley said. “To see them come out and have fun — it’s great.”
An old gym
Gary Duncan Gymnasium, like everything in Central School, where West Point fifth and sixth graders learn, is old.
The court has faded to a jaundice yellow. The green bleacher paint is fading. But the court still bounces the ball and the hoops, backboards and nets are in fine order.
On Friday night, Feb. 27, the gym is full of noise. The basketball pops off the hardwood. Sneakers screech. From the sidelines and bleachers, highlights get “oohs” and blunders elicit gentle heckles. There are about 60 teens in the gym. Ten on the floor, the rest waiting their turn to play. It’s the last night of the Saturday Showcase League, and there’s a tournament to decide the winner.
The first Saturday the league was held, Crowley said there were about 21 kids playing. Many had been personally invited by Crowley or his sons, Ryan, 16, and Austin, 14.
“The first Saturday, we pretty much had a basketball camp,” Crowley said.
He was joined by longtime parks department volunteer and hoops lover John Brown, city councilman William Binder, West Point High School basketball coach Brad Cox and parks department employee Mike Weaver to help coach. During the first couple Saturday’s players were ranked “1” through “5” and split into teams. The idea was to mix up the teams each time, and get kids working with different people.
“Sometimes sports can solve problems among kids that no one even knows about,” Crowley said. “A lot of people think kids this age are terrible, but they are good kids when treated with respect.”
Picking up momentum
Every weekend, the gym became more crowded.
The second Saturday around 30 boys showed up, then 35, then more than 40, Crowley said. By the time the end of the year tournament tipped off that Friday night, there were six teams of eight players with older and younger kids hanging out and watching.
Snoop Baskin, 17, and Christian Flowers, 17, have been coming since they heard about the league through Ryan Crowley. They are tall boys. Baskin is built like an offensive tackle and says he’s the real deal on the court. The big guy shut up a skeptic reporter by hitting three-pointers and moving with the quickness of a much smaller man.
“It’ll give you something to do on the weekend,” Flowers said.
There are lots of athletes in the stands, with varying levels of basketball experience.
Jalen Lee, a standout cornerback on West Point’s football team, said he’s been coming to the showcase league since it began. His quickness and speed lead to many explosive drives to the rim.
The tournament’s games were played with 10-minute, running halves. At the end of each game, players would exchange jerseys.
Brown, 54, coaches up each group of boys who come to his sideline. The West Point native said he has done all there is to do with a basketball.
“I know most of these kids,” Brown said. “I see them in the parks.”
Kevin Cannon, 17, has been coming since the third Saturday.
“I’ve been coming ever since I found out about it,” Cannon said. “Today’s been the best because we’ve had the most games.”
Many of the boys who showed up for Friday’s tournament were first timers, like 17-year-old Trevino Harris, who said James Crowley called him and invited him to come.
A love of the game
Crowley said he knows just about all of the boys’ parents. Raised in Webster County, Crowley has lived in West Point for 25 years. He was a firefighter before taking the parks and recreation director job seven years ago. He loves the game, and said he plays most nights when he gets home from work.
Crowley’s passion for the game is clear. His sons are among the better basketball players on the court at Friday’s tournament. He makes sure all the rules are followed and occasionally stops play to explain rules or dish out pointers.
“He does a good job as a referee,” chuckled Weaver, who operated the score board for the tournament.
West Point tries to make their youth athletics as accessible as possible. Crowley said the youth leagues run through parks and rec department are only $10 for a season. Cities such as Columbus and Starkville charge around $50. For Crowley, the more people are involved and playing, the better.
“We try to keep the cost very low,” he said. “Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, money is often low for our families.”
When the tournament ended and the winning team was crowned, Crowley handed out fliers thanking the kids for participating. After a successful but short winter, he is determined to offer the league again, and is considering doing something similar this summer.
If the opportunity is given again, the kids will come back.
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