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Everybody’s a Winner : Skid Row Basketball League Gives Youngsters a Break

Times Staff Writer

One player walked on his hands better than he ran the fast break. Two others specialized in doing back flips. And the last place team had “drive, determination and heart,” its coach said. “Next year we’ll work on dribbling and shooting.”

Handstands and back flips notwithstanding, the Union Rescue Mission staff members who organized 60 youngsters who live in Skid Row hotels and the nearby Aliso Village housing project into the Inner City Basketball League are convinced that all the 9- to 12-year-old boys are winners.

Equally convinced are Los Angeles Lakers forwards A. C. Green and Billy Thompson and USC center Rod Keller, who journeyed to the Mission’s dining hall on Main Street on Thursday night to present medals and trophies at the league’s first basketball banquet.

‘You’re All Very Special’

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“There are no losers here,” Keller told the youngsters. “You’re all very special. Keep that in mind.”

The league provided a respite from the grim reality of downtown streets for many of the youngsters, and their parents recognize that the games offered more than just a chance to play basketball one night a week.

“I feel the games definitely help motivate them to stay off the streets and away from those corners where people are selling crack,” said Deborah Welch, whose 12-year-old son, James, played in the league.

“He’s really a sports person, but there are no other activities in our area. The mission is doing a great job for the kids.”

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James Walkins 12, said the games made him look forward to Tuesday nights.

“We have an opportunity to come out and play,” he said. “Without the league, we wouldn’t have that opportunity. The games made me feel like I really want to learn to play better.”

The league’s appeal is perhaps best illustrated by Coach Mike Vasquez’s “Celtics,” whose players turned out every week, only to take a sound drubbing.

“Even though they kept losing, they didn’t drop out,” Vasquez said.

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The league is an outgrowth of an earlier disappointment. In June, the mission put up a basketball hoop in an adjacent parking lot where men in its programs could work off tension in half-court games. Plans were under way to organize games for neighborhood youngsters when the lot’s owner halted the games because his insurance company objected, mission chaplain Jim Bray said.

Had Some Help

Mission staffers are still trying to find a way to start a men’s basketball program, but they were able to launch the league for youngsters in September with help from Laker broadcaster Keith Erickson, Los Angeles City Councilman John Ferraro and Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 3300 Wilshire Blvd.

Erickson and others donated money for uniforms and equipment, and Ferraro arranged for a bus to carry the teams from the mission to the church’s gym. A key ingredient, one that surprised mission staffers, was the support provided by parents.

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“The families came out to watch the games every week,” said Mike Brodie, the mission’s youth services coordinator. “That meant more than anything.”

And they turned out again on Thursday, enthusiastically applauding the presentation of each medal and trophy, and seizing the opportunity to get an autograph or have a photo taken with the basketball stars.

“I shook A. C. Green’s hand,” one ecstatic teen-age girl told her friends. “I’m not ever going to wash it.”


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