Young basketball players hustle up and down the court at the Holy Cross Church in Flatbush. The sound of squeaky sneakers and the constant dribble of the basketball vibrate off the walls of the gym and rattle the stained glass windows.
“Move the ball down the court. I want to see rebounds,” shouts coach Lyle Friess of the Brooklyn Badgers, a team in the Amateur Athletic Union, the largest non-profit sports league in the country committed to the development youth.
The season is just beginning and the players of the Brooklyn Badgers have a few weeks to prepare for the six-month season that lies ahead. But first, they must pass their high school classes, attend tutoring and participate in community service.
The Brooklyn Badgers traveling team is an extension of the Brooklyn Youth Sports Club, a non-profit organization that serves underprivileged youth in the Brooklyn area. The club aims to expose high school students to college through the game of basketball so these student-athletes can learn the importance of an education and becoming good citizens.
“Here they provide you with tutoring in any subject that you need,” said Denzel Wilson, a junior and a player on the Badgers squad. “If I don’t understand something I usually bring it here.”
In 2009 brothers Harris and Lyle Friess founded the club and began recruiting players. Lyle, the executive director and head coach of the program, graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in history and political science in 2008. Before he became the head coach of the program, he was an assistant basketball coach at Trevor Day School in New York.
Harris, the associate director of the program, began his professional career as a real estate agent before starting the youth club. “Very quickly we saw there were kids without structure in their lives,” said Harris “Basketball became that hook that we decided to use to get them interested in academics.”
Though the idea of playing for a summer team is exciting, the prerequisites do not appeal to everyone. “If you want to play for the team, you have to go to tutoring,” said Harris “Some kids end up going to other teams and some are hesitant to tryout.”
Rosemary Carroll, the mother of the Friess brothers, began working as a tutor for the Brooklyn Badgers shortly after ending her 38 year-old career as a lawyer. “I wanted to do something of value,” she said “I know the circumstances for these kids are quite difficult so if I can help, I will.”
Carroll explained that the program continues to grow from its humble beginnings when they only had two tutors to work with the student-athletes. Now, there are 20 qualified tutors who have college degrees said Carroll.
“We want the kids to know that education is essential to having successful futures,” said Carroll “We don’t have an Amare Stoudemire in each group, but we do have a group of young men committed to improving on all levels.”
For Badgers, like Wilson, Arkeem Joseph, Kadeem Stanislas, and Mohamed Dansoko, waking up early on Saturday mornings for tutoring and SAT prep classes is worth it. This year the program enrolled 12 seniors all of which have dreams of going to college. This past fall, Harris and several of the program’s volunteer tutors walked the student-athletes through the entire college process; including helping them fill out the common application and financial aid forms.
“Our goal is to get every last one into a school that is best for them,” said Harris, adding that all of the club’s members qualify for fee waivers and waived application fees. “When they don’t [get fees waived], we pay for it.”
Seniors Joseph, Stanislas and Dansoko said they would have never thought about applying to college had it not been for the Brooklyn Badgers.
“At first I thought my only ticket to college was through basketball,” said Dansoko, who has four siblings. But he acknowledges that his thought process during the past two years as a Brooklyn Badger has changed. “After visiting Ball State and Providence College, I started looking at schools outside of New York”. This school year, Dansoko applied to over eight colleges.
During the summer, the Brooklyn Badgers travel across the nation to play against other teams in the athletic union league and to tour colleges. Harris believes traveling to play games on college campuses exposes these players to recruiters, college life and a world beyond the confines of the city.
When school is in session and in season, the players spend six to seven days on the court and in the basement of churches for tutoring sessions. Harris said this type of demanding schedule keeps the players off the streets and out of trouble.
My parents are okay with me being out with the team every day,” senior Stanislas explained “They know when I’m here, I’m not out there on the streets doing anything wrong.”
The Brooklyn Badgers program doesn’t just aim to keep players out of trouble; it also encourages the players to form lasting relationships with their teammates. Joseph, Stanislas, Wilson and Dansoko call each other family. “We are like brothers,” said Dansoko “We are always together and we look out for one another.” Though three of the foursome is graduating, each says they will always be in contact with one another.
“We will always be Brooklyn Badgers at heart,” said Joseph.