Helen Ubinas: Youth basketball squad needs help making championship dream a reality

Posted: February 20, 2013

AT THE END of Saturday's basketball practice, coaches John Dennis and Tim Hood offered a little advice to their pint-size players: Better pack enough underwear for the Small Fry International Basketball tournament at Disney World, they teased. Or they'd have to borrow some from the coaches. And nobody wants that.

What the coaches didn't say is that the players might not be going anywhere.

When Dennis and Hood formed the Philly All Stars last year, a lot of people made a lot of promises to the Small Fry team: sponsorship, donated gym time, jerseys.

But nobody came through.

Small Fry leagues are for players ages 9 to 13 who are 5 feet 1 and under. They use smaller-than-regulation basketballs and lower rims. In the league's 45 years of existence, this is Philly's first team.

The team of mostly North Philadelphia kids gets help from the Change 4a Dollar nonprofit organization. Parents help where they can. But mostly it's the coaches who keep the team afloat. Not that either of the guys are complaining. Dennis, a barber who is also a volunteer assistant coach for the standout Math, Civics & Sciences Charter basketball team, picks up the kids who would otherwise have to walk, bike or take a bus to practice. He and Hood, a former barber who works in construction, feed the kids who show up hungry. Although opposing teams practice several times a week, Hood and Dennis can afford to rent a West Girard Avenue gym for only a couple of hours each Saturday. When the team went to Newark, N.J., last month to get measured, the coaches had to borrow jerseys from another team. They'll likely have to do the same when the teams compete in March to see who they end up playing in Florida. "We make do," coach Dennis said. Maybe that's why so many people made so many promises they didn't keep. Expectations are too often set too low, if at all, for kids in this city. Who would have thought that a rookie team that could practice only a couple of hours a week would be shooting for an international championship in April?   "I did," said Daral Cresswell, a strong-willed (says his mother) 10-year-old they call CP3, after NBA player Chris Paul. "We're good," he said, carefully watching his teammates running drills on the court. "We're real good." His mom, LaTanya Davis, comes to every practice. She is organizing a fish fry to raise money for the Florida trip. The coaches have already optimistically made train and hotel reservations. But it's going to take a lot of fish to fund the $12,000 the team needs to get to Florida - even with the money they've raised through raffles, Sunday church dinners and the coaches' tax refunds. When I asked the coaches if they would prepare the kids for the possibility of not going to Florida, they couldn't respond. Partly because they didn't want to discourage young boys who've already had to deal with more than their share of disappointment. And partly because they weren't ready to deal with the depressing possibility, either. "They're going," Hood said. "We can't think that way. We can't give up on them." "Some way, somehow, they are going," Dennis said.   To understand why they're so adamant, we have to go back to 1997, when Hood and Dennis were inmates at the state prison in Somerset, Pa. Dennis is 20, and in for robbery. Hood, 22, is in for assault. Before doing eight years in prison, Dennis was headed to college on a basketball scholarship, he said. Instead, he ended up playing prison ball. Hood was his coach. They played ball together. They got their barber certificates and their GEDs together. Over the years, in and out of prison, they talked about forming a basketball team for kids in their old neighborhoods. They wanted to work with young kids - "before they formed their identity on the streets," Dennis said. It took a while - they had to get their own lives in order after they were released from prison. But last year, they decided to stop talking about it, and just do it. Dennis was a Small Fry player in Florida and remembered how much it helped form his sense of self-worth after his father died. "My coaches became my father figure when I didn't have one anymore," Dennis said. In North Philly, they recruited kids from the neighborhood, from street games and from barber shops. Some were too tall. Some show up only to watch. Dennis and Hood don't turn anyone away. Care to make a dream come true for a bunch of kids who dare to dream? Make a bunch of broken promises whole. Contact coach Dennis at philly.allstars @yahoo.com or at 267-800- 3564.

The team of mostly North Philadelphia kids gets help from the Change 4a Dollar nonprofit organization. Parents help where they can. But mostly it's the coaches who keep the team afloat.

Not that either of the guys are complaining.

Dennis, a barber who is also a volunteer assistant coach for the standout Math, Civics & Sciences Charter basketball team, picks up the kids who would otherwise have to walk, bike or take a bus to practice.

He and Hood, a former barber who works in construction, feed the kids who show up hungry.

Although opposing teams practice several times a week, Hood and Dennis can afford to rent a West Girard Avenue gym for only a couple of hours each Saturday. When the team went to Newark, N.J., last month to get measured, the coaches had to borrow jerseys from another team. They'll likely have to do the same when the teams compete in March to see who they end up playing in Florida.

"We make do," coach Dennis said.

Maybe that's why so many people made so many promises they didn't keep. Expectations are too often set too low, if at all, for kids in this city.

Who would have thought that a rookie team that could practice only a couple of hours a week would be shooting for an international championship in April? "I did," said Daral Cresswell, a strong-willed (says his mother) 10-year-old they call CP3, after NBA player Chris Paul.

"We're good," he said, carefully watching his teammates running drills on the court. "We're real good."

His mom, LaTanya Davis, comes to every practice. She is organizing a fish fry to raise money for the Florida trip. The coaches have already optimistically made train and hotel reservations.

But it's going to take a lot of fish to fund the $12,000 the team needs to get to Florida - even with the money they've raised through raffles, Sunday church dinners and the coaches' tax refunds.

When I asked the coaches if they would prepare the kids for the possibility of not going to Florida, they couldn't respond. Partly because they didn't want to discourage young boys who've already had to deal with more than their share of disappointment. And partly because they weren't ready to deal with the depressing possibility, either.

"They're going," Hood said. "We can't think that way. We can't give up on them."

"Some way, somehow, they are going," Dennis said.

To understand why they're so adamant, we have to go back to 1997, when Hood and Dennis were inmates at the state prison in Somerset, Pa. Dennis is 20, and in for robbery. Hood, 22, is in for assault. Before doing eight years in prison, Dennis was headed to college on a basketball scholarship, he said.

Instead, he ended up playing prison ball. Hood was his coach. They played ball together. They got their barber certificates and their GEDs together. Over the years, in and out of prison, they talked about forming a basketball team for kids in their old neighborhoods.

They wanted to work with young kids - "before they formed their identity on the streets," Dennis said.

It took a while - they had to get their own lives in order after they were released from prison. But last year, they decided to stop talking about it, and just do it. Dennis was a Small Fry player in Florida and remembered how much it helped form his sense of self-worth after his father died.

"My coaches became my father figure when I didn't have one anymore," Dennis said.

In North Philly, they recruited kids from the neighborhood, from street games and from barber shops. Some were too tall. Some show up only to watch. Dennis and Hood don't turn anyone away.

Care to make a dream come true for a bunch of kids who dare to dream? Make a bunch of broken promises whole. Contact coach Dennis at philly.allstars @yahoo.com or at 267-800- 3564.

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