The team that Philly built could use some help again

Posted: March 07, 2014

IN A LOT OF ways, the Philly All Stars are the team that Philly built.

Around this time last year, I wrote about two coaches determined to overcome huge financial obstacles to bring their scrappy North Philadelphia basketball team to an international tournament in Florida.

Things didn't look good until people responded to that column - big time. Sixers players and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady each kicked in $10,000. Berwyn lawyer Rob Weiser gave $8,000. Overbrook Market, on 63rd Street near Overbrook Avenue, put out a jar for the team. New Hope Temple Baptist Church, on 12th Street near Bainbridge, took up a collection.

And countless other city residents - many of whom said they were on fixed incomes - donated whatever they could. Coach John Dennis said one day a young man walked into the barbershop where he works and tried to donate his $15 weekly allowance. The coach was touched, but didn't take his money.

The rookie Small Fry team (for players 9 to 13 who are 5 feet 1 and under) didn't do as well as they would have liked against more established teams. They ranked seventh out of 32 teams in the consolation round. But for many of the kids, the experience was priceless.

They met teams from Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, a huge deal for many kids who've never ventured much past Philly. They visited Disney three times. They went to a steak house, compliments of Brady. "That was the first time many of them had ever been to a restaurant, or had a real steak," Dennis said. They even got to see an alligator in a nearby swamp.

Come April, the All Stars are headed back to the Small Fry International Basketball Tournament at Disney World, twice as big and with hard-earned lessons under new uniforms. (Not to mention their eye on the championship.)

Dennis and fellow coach Tim Hood dreamed up the team on a prison basketball court when they were both serving time in Pennsylvania. Over the years, the two talked a lot about forming a basketball team for young kids in their old neighborhood, before the streets determined their destinies.

In 2012, they decided to stop talking and do it.

It wasn't easy, and not just because of limited resources. They pooled their money to rent a gym for a couple of hours a week. They fed kids who showed up to practice hungry. They drove players to and from practice. They tried to keep the kids from distractions that led them astray. One player briefly left the team; he thought the coaches were too strict. He wanted to hang out in his neighborhood. Two other players lost relatives to gun violence.

But despite whatever else pulls at them, the boys don't miss a practice or mandatory after-school tutoring. Dennis said most made the honor roll at least once this year.

"I choose to do the right thing," said Jaleel Christian, a 12-year-old point guard. And, he said, his team has quickly become family. "We're close. We're like best friends."

Dennis said he was humbled by last year's overwhelming response and the continued support of the community, including Weiser, the Berwyn lawyer, who grew up in Philly.

"They wouldn't be the first kids who had a great season not be able to go to a tournament if people didn't help," Weiser said. "But for some kids, sports are their salvation, their ticket to a bigger world, a better life. I've been to a couple of practices, and they are really impressive. Some of it is seeing what a positive impact a coach can have on a child in a community. Frankly, I don't know if I ever had a teacher or coach like that, so these kids are lucky."

Dennis says he's the lucky one. "I think a lot of people have a dark perception of kids in the city," he said. "But these kids have all the potential in the world. They just need people to invest in them, to believe in them."

When the team held tryouts in November, so many kids showed up, they now have two teams headed to Florida - a rookie team and a varsity team. It says something about what this team means for the kids and the community. But it also means they are in fundraising overdrive because, as Dennis said the first time we met, no player will be left behind.

The team saved as much as they could from last year's donations and fundraising. They also held fundraisers throughout the year. Two upcoming fundraisers include a skating party March 21 and a fish fry March 29.

But they can use all the help (including permanent sponsorship) they can get to get the boys back to Florida. To attend a fundraiser or to donate, contact Dennis at philly.allstars@yahoo.com or at 267-800-3564.

Go, Philly All Stars! We're rooting for you.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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