East Washtenaw Basketball League offers kids more than just a chance to shoot hoops

Seventh-grader Jamere White-Brown dreams of playing in the National Basketball Association or the National Football League. But through his participation in the East Washtenaw Basketball League (EWBL), he's started to think beyond sports and identify engineering as a potential backup in case his athletic career doesn't pan out.


"They told us that you’ve got to have a plan B in life because anything can happen," Jamere says. "In basketball and other sports, you can get an injury and it can end your whole career, so you’ve got to have a plan B."


EWBL provides a safe space for Washtenaw County kids between the ages of 11 and 18 to play basketball two evenings a week at Ypsilanti Community Middle School, 235 Spencer Lane, in Ypsi Township. The program uses basketball as a tool through which participants can forge relationships with caring adults, interact positively with law enforcement, and learn about valuable community resources. EWBL's spring season started Wednesday, April 4, and will run through Friday, June 8.


The Ann Arbor YMCA (the Y) launched EWBL at the beginning of 2017. The Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation, and Ypsilanti Community Schools partner with the Y to support EWBL by providing volunteers, financial support, and space for the program. Other collaborative partners, like the Corner Health Center, help by informing kids of the wraparound services and resources available to them in the community.


Kids of any playing ability are invited to participate, from beginners who need to learn the basic fundamentals of the game to experienced players who want to be challenged. Since the number of participants fluctuates each night, the program utilizes a facilitated pickup format instead of placing kids on set teams. Steve Petty, the Y's vice president of healthy living and social responsibility, says the Y tries to make the program as flexible as possible, so kids can just drop in and out whenever they feel like it.


However, there's much more to the program than just shooting hoops. Each night, the basketball playing briefly pauses for the Good Word component of the program, which features a 10- to 15-minute presentation from local adults who share relevant information about their profession, childhood, or organization. The goal is to highlight various educational and vocational opportunities, and then connect kids to them through the program's collaborative partners and mentors.


Emmanuel Jones, executive director of local nonprofit Mentor 2 Youth, got involved in EWBL as a volunteer last year when he led a Good Word presentation on entrepreneurship. He's now serving as EWBL's program coordinator because he wanted to see the program continue and add value to it.


"I think you can never have enough resources for kids in the community," Jones says. "This is just another opportunity for kids to be involved in something positive, something productive. It’s not always an option in some of the neighborhoods these kids are coming from. They don’t always have that productive or positive environment."


Jones hopes to inspire kids who are in need of mentorship and personal support to help them continue to grow as young men or women. Since many of the kids who participate in EWBL are black, he believes it's especially important for them to be around black adults who can set a good example.


"Being able to build relationships with these kids so they can have someone to talk to about things happening off the basketball court and to help steer them back on track is an added component of EWBL," Jones says. "So it goes beyond just being a place for these kids to come play basketball."


EWBL originally offered coed programming for middle schoolers and high schoolers during its winter and summer seasons. In its second year, the focus is shifting to gender-specific programming during the spring and fall seasons, based on the community's wants and needs. Middle school boys play on Wednesday evenings and high school boys play on Friday evenings. Middle school girls play on Wednesday and Friday evenings.


Petty says it was difficult for the girls who participated in the first two seasons to feel like they were the focus of the activity when they were greatly outnumbered by the boys. He says the Y decided to hire three female coaches to run programming specifically for girls, so they can take ownership of an offering that's just for them.


This season, middle school girls will have the chance to play twice a week in an effort to build a core group of consistent female participants. Once that's happened, EWBL will begin focusing on building programming for high school girls as well.


"When we think about how we get kids to show up, we recognize that oftentimes there needs to be some trust built ahead of time, and (we can do that by) showing kids that we’re there and we’re going to show up consistently," Petty says. "When we do that, I think we give ourselves a better opportunity of building those relationships and having the kids feel like they can approach the staff with questions beyond employment or education."


Toriana Easley, who played on the Eastern Michigan University (EMU) women's basketball team for four years, wanted to be an EWBL coach because she knows the value of having someone to look up to and following in someone's footsteps. When she was growing up in Toledo, Ohio, she had mentors who could advise her on athletics and academics. Now she's hoping to give back by mentoring and coaching kids through the program.


"We come from the same background, so I know what they’ve been through and they know me personally," Easley says. "I’m always open to talking to them, so just being able to be there for them as a friend rather than as a coach, and then being able to relate to me on a certain level, makes it easier."


Seventh grader Kerina Espinosa recently got involved in EWBL because it's a chance for the aspiring Women's National Basketball Association player to keep playing and improving her game. She enjoys being able to learn from peers and adults who are more experienced players. She looks up to her female coaches, two of whom played on the EMU women's basketball team, because they're good role models who can share with her the things they did on and off the court to get to where they are today.


"I like to hang out with the girls who played basketball for a long time because then I can learn new things about what they did in the past," Kerina says.


Kids who participate in EWBL are expected to be respectful, follow the rules, and uphold the program's code of conduct. Jones believes those expectations often teach kids what it means to be disciplined and accountable for their words and actions. He's already seen kids experience growth in their soft skills or personal character as a result of their involvement in the program.


Jamere has learned a lot about teamwork and leadership through his participation in EWBL. He's realized it's important for basketball players to remember to pass to their teammates because the game isn't all about them.


"I teach my teammates to encourage other teammates even if they miss or are doing bad in the game," he says.


EWBL is still recruiting kids and volunteers to participate in the program and will continue doing so throughout the spring season. Kids who are interested in participating can find a registration form online, or pick up and drop off a registration form at a number of local schools. The only fee is a $5 suggested donation. Adults who want to volunteer can help facilitate, play basketball, and share impactful stories or information. Volunteers can sign up online through the Y's website.


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Photos by Doug Coombe.
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