For 30 years, discipline reigns as name of game Basketball camp uses youths' love of sport to teach life skills.

Posted: July 28, 2003

AMBLER — The youth of today need something, and Sonny Hill says he has it.

It's disguised as a legendary youth basketball camp Hill founded with Temple Owls coach John Chaney in 1973.

And as the 30th anniversary class of campers rolled onto the courts yesterday, basketball guru Hill, 67, took a moment to make his lesson plan - unchanged for 30 years - crystal clear.

"Discipline," Hill said. "It's a catchy word. Parents these days throw it out there. But we don't take the time do it. . . . This isn't a basketball camp. It's a life camp."

By noon yesterday, the strange science of molding young lives was well under way. The courts at Temple University's Ambler campus were popping with basketballs and bodies like a frying pan full of corn kernels.

Camp counselor James "Big Dog" Gray surveyed the scene, ribbing every child in earshot.

"Taylor!" he shouted at one little fellow. "You shot that like a 30-pound weakling. And now you want to cop an attitude? You should try football!"

By ribbing them, Gray gets to know them. And since they all get ribbed by him, every camper at the John Chaney-Sonny Hill Basketball Camp immediately has something in common to talk about. The youngsters shyly trash-talk back at him, basking in his attention.

"It's sort of an us-against-them mentality," Gray said with a laugh. "I want them to sort of come together against me. They get to know each other; they get to like each other. . . . Pretty soon we've got what we call fundamental teamwork."

After Day One bonding, the 150 campers from as far away as Hawaii and Texas will spend four days waking up at 7 a.m., listening to lectures, running endless drills, and scrimmaging, with breaks for swimming, meals and movies.

The tuition is $450. A second session will begin Sunday.

Boys and girls play together here. Ages range from 6 to 18. Graduates include the NBA's Alvin Williams, Jerome "Pooh" Richardson, and WNBA great Dawn Staley, who is Temple's women's coach.

The campers go to sleep on time in college dorm rooms, they wake up on time, and they appear on the courts at 9:30 a.m. sharp, well-fed and ready to play.

"Right away I am seeing this is gonna be a little like boot camp," said father John Rodriguez, 43. "This is perfect."

Rodriguez had spent the morning in his Vineland, Cumberland County, kitchen coaxing his 9-year-old son, Jonathan, to eat. "He was so excited he wouldn't eat," he said, astonished.

Now, the boy was leaping around on the court with players twice his size, apparently oblivious to the beating sun that had driven his parents into the shade.

It is this enthusiasm that makes basketball a powerful teaching tool, said Hill - and he should know.

Since retiring from the old Eastern League in 1968, the man often called "the Mayor" of basketball has gradually built an empire of five amateur basketball organizations in Philadelphia, from the Developmental League for sixth graders to the Charles Baker Memorial League for adults. With 74 teams, the leagues involve 800 players.

Once a sports commentator for CBS, Hill now does the same work for WIP-AM (610), where he has a Sunday morning talk show.

Children followed him around the camp calling "Mister Sonny." They said they saw him on TV, talking about the sex scandal involving Kobe Bryant, who came up through Hill's junior leagues.

Hill doesn't like to discuss the Bryant case, but it is one more teaching tool: "It shows kids you need to stay out of the gray areas. Even if you are doing the right thing, other people may not be."

Professional dreams are alive among the campers, from the NBA to the more free-styling And 1 street-ball competitions.

Like most others, Clayton Long, 14, believes he has "a chance" at the pros. He loved the sport enough to carve his jersey number "23" into his forearm, despite the grief it caused his mother.

But does he need the kind of discipline Hill's camp is about to deliver?

"Well," he said, unsure, "I'll just listen to Sonny Hill. I mean, I could learn a lot from him."

Contact staff writer Matthew Blanchard at 215-702-7814 or mblanchard@phillynews.com.

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