It takes a village to raise up a child, says a well-known African proverb. You’ll find an example of this principle in the Nashville Youth Basketball Association, though in their case a slight variation might be more fitting: it takes a team. Team spirit overflows in every aspect of the two-year-old organization, from the lessons in cooperation its experienced staffers offer Nashville’s younger set to the community volunteers who help staff the programs, the area schools who provide gym space, and the very manner in which the NYBA itself was birthed.
Local native David Keary, who played for All-District and All-State teams in his senior year (1998–’99) at Glencliff High, had been shooting hoops regularly with some friends when the idea to assemble a team and mentor Music City’s kids began to take root a few years ago. Local fans of the sport may recognize the names of Keary’s pals Corey Allen, Dontae’ Jones and Marcus Kinzer; all were college-ball standouts who went on to play professionally. Now husbands and dads, the men sometimes would bring their children along to the gym, where they began noticing the youngsters’ lack of development compared to those in other cities. “We said, ‘Man, we need to bring our resources together and start a league and a program that’s going to help develop our kids’—not just our biological kids, but kids in our area, the inner city, our city—and put them in a situation where even if they don’t have skills, they can benefit,” explains Keary, who put the plan into motion and serves as the association’s executive director. “But for the ones who do have the skills,” he adds, “[we want] to be able to take it to the next level, and hopefully get some exposure for them so they can go off and get college scholarships.”
The NYBA already has a jump on this goal: in their first year, a team of 7- and 8-year-olds took second place at the Nike Super 100 in Atlanta and ended the year 13th-ranked in the country. This past July, a team of advanced 4th-grade girls coached by NYBA Program Director Corey Allen netted the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) National Championship. In addition to making impressive showings in various national and regional competitions, the NYBA teams are being exposed to a level of competition that grooms them to become assured older players. “We definitely want Nashville to be recognized as a basketball city just as much as it is football and baseball,” says Keary, “and it starts with developing a good foundation at an early age.”
The NYBA’s year-round seasonal camps, leagues and weekly Sunday afternoon skill-training sessions are made available to all interested youths, K through 12, as affordably as possible. (The nonprofit currently covers its expenses with program fees and fundraisers; all its staffers maintain other full-time pursuits for their livelihoods.) The broader mission, though, doesn’t stop at athletic training. “The majority of our kids are inner-city kids,” says Keary, “so just with that comes a responsibility of teaching them more than just basketball and trying to mentor them as well. And from a standpoint of just life and learning, we want to teach discipline, we want to teach responsibility, and we want to teach the concept of team and family,” he says, noting that many participants lack stable, traditional two-parent homes. “We give them a family atmosphere, somewhere where they know they’re safe, where they know they’re loved, and they know what they’re doing is appreciated. We can be the ones that say, ‘Hey, how you doin’ today? I see your new shoes, you look good.’ They may not get that every day,” says Keary. “So if we can just give them a little bit of that, to help them improve their self-confidence, man, that’s one of the main things we want to do.”
Building confidence, affirms Program Coordinator Dontae’ Jones, is “the biggest thing team sports and group activities can do. We know not many of these kids are gonna go to college for basketball; that’s understood. But down the line,” says the 1996 Southeastern Conference MVP and former Boston Celtics member, “the diversity that we have, the demographic of people that we have involved in our program, it’s going to benefit kids in ways that they don’t know right now.” That demographic includes participants from comparatively affluent neighborhoods who show up for the superior-quality training offered. A unique dynamic emerges when they share the floor with inner-city youths, who, Keary notes, expose suburban kids to more aggressive playing styles but, in exchange, get an opportunity to pick up certain social skills. “They learn from each other, which is a good thing.”
Students also learn, of course, from knowledgeable coaches who are committed to helping each young player reach his or her respective potential. Dontae’ Jones tells of one particular program participant, Michael Cox, who, against daunting odds, made his 8th-grade team—the city-wide runner-up—at Head Middle Magnet School last year. “He may have been the least gifted kid, as far as a middle-school kid, that we had,” Jones says. “No one gave him a chance—no one. This kid is a gentleman of a kid: never complains, just comes into the gym and wants the best out of what he can get today—the epitome of what I’m trying to get across. You feel obligated to give him everything in your power to help his situation, you know?” Michael Cox’s breakthrough, Jones allows, made him “blush a little bit, because sometimes, you don’t have time to think about whatever advantages you’re giving anybody. You know, you’re just so glad to be in a position to do what you do. But some days you can laugh and say, ‘I really did do something,’ because this kid has advanced. And it makes me feel real good. It’s been 20 months of just pure joy on my end,” he says, “but honestly, someone on the outside looking in, they probably don’t realize how we’re doing so much on so little.”
Jones, who attributes much of his own success to “a really long list” of supporters, finds it sweetly invigorating to pay it forward. “You know how when a little kid goes bowling? And they use those things on the side, to make sure you always hit the pins? I always had those buffers along the way,” says Jones. “The city of Nashville—just to not leave anyone out who’s very important—the city of Nashville was really taking good care of its own kid, Dontae’ Jones. There’s a lot of people that kept me from being a gutter ball, and allowed me to strike, two or three times in a row.”
For Jones, Keary and all the other committed coaches and volunteers who provide an athletic-based context for much-needed mentoring at the Nashville Youth Basketball Association, keeping Nashville’s at-risk kids clear of the gutter zone isn’t merely a possibility—it’s right up their alley.