Shirts tucked in and socks pulled up, basketball players arranged themselves for a foul shot. The referee handed No. 3 a ball nearly twice the size of his head. No. 3 is a 6-year-old player for the Hunting Park Aztecs, just one of eight teams in its league.
The 8-and-under division of the Liberty Youth Athletic Association league plays on winter Saturdays at the Hunting Park Recreation Center.
Steve Irving, assistant recreation leader in Hunting Park, said that the basketball league is six years old, the same age as most of the 8-and-under players.
“With the 8-and-under, they’re all babies,” he said, “Most of the kids are 6 years old, so they’ll be back next year.”
Irving said that Liberty Youth Athletic Association is actually a conference of football teams.
“This is the first year that I combined the league from only the football teams to the entire recreation district,” Irving said, “All teams are welcome.”
The North Philadelphia Aztec Youth Program was established nearly 20 years ago to provide healthy activities that nurture an atmosphere of teamwork and dedication. The partnership with the Liberty Youth Athletic Association is young, but like the players involved, growing under the Aztec’s founding principles.
The league begins with 8-and-under players as young as 5 years old. Each division prepares players for the next. Ages vary in divisions, depending on birthdays, but players generally move up every two years into consecutive age divisions that end at 16 years old.
A player could potentially be in the league for over 10 years, building relationships with peers and coaches in addition to learning the skills of the game and competitive sports. The younger leagues are coed, although boys far outnumber girls.
While Hunting Park Recreation Center offers plenty of activities, from cheerleading to baseball, most activities for youth take place during warmer months, leaving the winter schedule as barren as the park itself. Indoor sports provide a popular service to parents and youth across the city.
Kim Worley’s daughter has played in the Triple Threat Foundation for three years, often coming up against the Hunting Park Aztecs. Although some games take place on weekdays, Saturdays are especially convenient for Worley, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia and drives 20 minutes to get to Hunting Park.
“It keeps the kids busy,” Worley said. “We run our own league during other times of the year.” Her daughter sat beside her, hood up and pink basketball shoes ready.
“And it is on a Saturday, so it does not really interfere with anything,” Worley added.
Worley said that the coach at her daughter’s school recommended her to the league.
Ibin Ingram, a parent and coach from Olney, has been involved in the league for four years. He drives his 5-year-old son 15 minutes to play at the Hunting Park Recreation Center.
“My team, we come from all over the city,” Ingram said, “A majority of us come from Mount Airy or Germantown area. That is where we practice.”
Ingram said he stays involved to help players learn and have a good time. “Teaching teamwork, responsibility, dedication and following direction — that’s the best part about it,” Ingram said.
Ricardo Monteiro helps coach the Oak Lane Wildcats. He heard about the league after years of coaching throughout the city.
Monteiro said that even Oak Lane players come from all across Philadelphia.
“We get a decent turn out,” he said, “Frankford, Northeast, all over.”
The Oak Lane Youth Association and the Hunting Park Aztecs collaborate through a variety of sports. Both organizations provide options for youth around the city to be involved throughout the year and throughout their childhoods.
“We do football, basketball, baseball and track,” Monteiro said, “This league allows us, especially at this level, to teach the game.”
Robert Sullivan has been coaching the 8-and-under division of Oak Lane Wildcats for five years. He said that players begin young, and work their way up to higher divisions.
“I have a few kids that just turned 6-years-old, and a couple of 7-year-olds, but they will be in the program for about three or four more years,” Sullivan said, “We try to build and build until they are ready for the next level.”
Sullivan said that the league is not just about building players over time. The league is about empowering youth to build foundational life skills as they grow into young men and women.
Eric Smith is 8 and in his first year playing for the Hunting Park Aztecs. He said that his favorite part of the game is rebounding.
Chauncey Presley is also 8, but he has been playing for the Hunting Park Aztecs for three years. He said that his favorite part of the game is shooting. Presley scored nine points in the last game he played on Feb. 23.
“I have been playing basketball since I was 4 years old,” he said.
During the game, families squeezed onto benches running along the length of the court, inches from the sideline. A player tried to pass the ball into play while standing three feet over the line. A referee slowly pushed him back into spectators’ feet. Parents hastened to shift bags and make room.
He may be 6 years old, but he still needed to learn for next time.