Isaac Young didn’t always have a passion for basketball. As a 5-foot-10-inch 8th-grader, he simply was not interested. One year and a 6-inch growth spurt later, a basketball coach at Benjamin Franklin High School recognized Young’s potential and gave him an ultimatum.
“He said I would definitely be playing basketball for him, and if I didn’t, he’d fail me in health,” Young recalled. Considering his limited options, Young decided it was in his own best interest to concede. He’s been hooked on the game for the past 29 years.
Young’s commitment now involves being a volunteer basketball coach, a position he’s practiced for nine years. He started using the Washington Center gym at the Church of the Advocate one year ago as a practice facility for his recreational youth basketball league. The team, called the Warriors, is open to boys ages 14-18 years-old. He was already part of a program in West Philadelphia for 5-14-year-olds but wanted to provide a similar opportunity for older youths.
The 21st Street and Erie Avenue resident began to develop a relationship with the church, located at 1801 W. Diamond Street, through a friend who was involved with its Art Sanctuary program. She invited him to bring a team to one of her tournaments and through this connection he was able to secure practice time at the gym.
“The program gets kids to use their energy in a positive way,” Young said. “They’re more competitive, and they seem to want to do better in school. It makes you grow being a part of it.”
In addition to Young, the Warriors have another coach to help them hone their basketball game skills. Chris Shearer of Pomona Street and
Germantown Avenue heard about the program through Young and decided he wanted to donate his time and knowledge of basketball as well. The two have been coaching the Warriors together for four years.
“I just come down and helped out whenever I’m needed. I feel I have to give back,” he said.
To say that there is a height discrepancy between the coaches is an understatement. While most men would probably have to lift their gazes to meet Young’s eyes, Shearer is built with a shorter, leaner frame. However, they seemed evenly matched as they dodged and weaved around each other during a game with two of their teenage players.
Shearer believes Philadelphia’s school budget cuts augment the program’s importance for city youth. “Kids in the city have nothing else to do. Programs aren’t getting funded. For this, kids don’t have to pay anything, they can just come out if they choose to,” he said.
Shearer himself started playing basketball 20-years ago only because of his proximity to the necessary facilities. “It just so happened that I lived across the street from a court, and really had nothing else to do, so I just picked it up,” he said.
One of the Warriors’ players is Young’s 17-year-old son, Duron, who started playing in a West Philadelphia youth league at age nine with the help of of his father. Having a special relationship with the coach yields no favors though because the practice on this team practice is fairness not nepotism. “He treats me like the other players,” Duron said about his father, the coach. He added as a message to other boys who might be interested in joining, “Come play on my team. My dad’s a good coach. He helps you out and gets you better at the game.”
Sixteen-year-old Saleem Irvin of 60th Street and Chester Avenue joined the Warriors because his friend Duron was on the team. “I always loved it but never was good at it,” he said of the sport. “Around sixth grade I started getting really good.” Now, he enjoys basketball so much that although he had the opportunity to graduate from the High School of the Future this spring, he decided to stay another year so he could continue playing on the school’s team.
For Saleem, participation in the basketball program helped boost his confidence on the court. Players get a lot of floor time instead of sitting out on a bench, and his coaches are always encouraging, he said. Moreover, the family-like atmosphere the team created for its players has allowed him to grow in a number of ways, and not just in his free throw and jump shot. “I became a better person, a better player, and a better friend,” he said.
Young said he is driven by the desire to inspire others the same way his coach inspired him. “Coach was there to keep me out of trouble,” he said. “Whatever I needed, he was there for me.”
One day when Young called his former coach’s residence to catch up, his wife informed him that they had separated because of her husband’s drug problem. “We lost contact,” Young said. “I don’t know to this day if he’s alive or dead. This is the only way for me to give back what he did for me.”