A Basketball League Where Everyone Gets a Chance
By RON LAJOIE
Chris Sheridan
The boys take to the court in a spirited game. The league includes players from children all the way up to young adults.

Some have suggested that the initials for Most Precious Blood parish, M.P.B., could easily stand for Most Play Basketball.

Because ever since parishioners put in two back-to-back outdoor acrylic surfaced basketball courts 15 years ago, the “city game” has flourished in rural Walden. Almost any day of the week during June and July, you will see children, teenagers and even young adults playing on the three basketball courts now at Most Precious Blood School.

“That first year we started with about 220 children. We’re almost at 700 now,” said John Graham, a director of the MPB Summer Basketball League, which has become one of the most successful summer leagues in the area. “We built a third court in 2002. All three are behind Most Precious Blood School. They’re all lit up. They all have grandstands, the whole deal.”

What began as a summer recreational outlet primarily for the children of MPB parishioners has become a regional magnet attracting players of all ages from as far away as Beacon, New Paltz and LaGrangeville. There are kids from Catholic schools, public schools and kids with no religious affiliation at all playing on 100 teams in age brackets ranging from six and seven year olds all the way up to young men and women who have graduated from high school but still like to shoot hoops.

“We don’t check,” explained Graham of the league’s ecumenical character. “The only thing is to coach, you have to agree to participate in the Archdiocese’s Safe Child Program.”

Participants quickly note the Catholic ethos that permeates the league. For one thing, as in Catholic school, chewing gum is not permitted, in this case to protect the well-maintained courts. Trash talking and swearing are not tolerated either.

“The first time everyone comes to this league when we tell there’s no gum chewing they look at you like you’re crazy,” said Graham with a laugh. “But we explain to them that with no gum the courts stay clean, there’s no gum all over the place. That just carries over to everything. They see we’re maintaining respect for everybody.”

There is another difference. Every kid gets an equal amount of floor time. That doesn’t mean this is a non-competitive activity where every child gets a trophy and the basketball suffers. On the contrary, the games are quite competitive. At the beginning of the season, potential players are evaluated and each is assigned a grade, A, B, or C. based on their skill level. Then the players are divided evenly so each team has an equal number of players in each category.

It is up to the coaches to manage their lineups creatively to ensure that their top players are on the floor at critical junctures. Because the teams are so evenly created, the games are very competitive.

“We’re trying to have kids who usually don’t get a chance to play team sports so they can come to this league and they’re going to be guaranteed the same amount of playing time as the player who is outstanding in basketball,” Graham explained. “That’s the mission of the league, give every kid a chance.”

If a coach does decide to become Bobby Knight he’s taken aside and talked to by the referees or a league official. No kid is left cooling his or her heals on the bench. It is, after all, a recreational league, Graham stressed.

“It’s a nice community event and it’s under the auspices of the parish, which is a nice service to the community,” said Father Joseph Fallon, Most Precious Blood’s pastor who can sometimes be seen at games chit-chatting with parishioners. “Here’s the Church providing this great program at a reasonable price. And it apparently works out pretty well because people keep coming back. The core group of volunteers are parents who had their kids in the school and now their kids have graduated but they continue to volunteer. We also have current school parents who are active as well.

“I go up there and I see parishioners, I see families together. It’s a lot of fun but it’s a lot of work too and it’s all run by volunteers,” Father Fallon said.

The league executive director is Jay Ryan, who runs the league with a committee of six to 10 volunteers, including Graham. Members of K of C Council 9254 and other volunteers operate the concessions. The league also provides a generous donation to Most Precious Blood School each year.

As many as 3,000 kids have now been “cycled” through the program, Graham estimates. Some former players are now coaches. Some have asked to be able to continue play as adults. The men’s and women’s elite teams are very competitive.

“We never kept a list (of players) from the beginning, but you got to figure there have been at least 3,000, probably more, children who’ve gone through this,” Graham told CNY. “I stay sometimes and watch the older girls play because I’m watching these young women who I coached when they were seven, eight, nine years old continue to play and it’s really enjoyable because it’s very good basketball. This is a nice safe secure league where you can come and play. And it’s not a fake thing. It’s real basketball.”

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