St. Cloud School Boys Team Provides Opportunity for Youth to Continue Their Hoop Dreams [VIDEO]
Every year hundreds of kids play youth basketball in St. Cloud in traveling or in-house programs that run through eighth grade. However, after eighth grade the cost of playing basketball at a high level increases exponentially, which can limit the number of kids that can afford to play.
That’s where Chris Underwood, Sr. steps in. Underwood founded the “School Boys” basketball team aimed at allowing at-risk youth the opportunity to play the game they love at a high level, thanks to the generosity of sponsors in the community.
The players are in eighth grade and are looking to catch the eye of scouts at AAU tournaments in the area. Many of the players have high school and college basketball aspirations, and a few even dream of playing in the NBA.
“Once you get past St. Cloud Area Youth Basketball Association-aged, you don’t have anything but AAU, and a lot of the kids on our team simply can’t afford to pay $700-$1,000 to play,” assistant coach Chanel Lewis said.
Underwood, a former Stride Academy coach, knows these players’ stories all too well, as he was once one of those kids on the outside looking in.
“I was one of these boys growing up,” Underwood says. “They are less fortunate and do not have the opportunity to play for those more expensive teams and I want to do something good for them.
“I knew they didn’t have the ability to afford the city teams, so I said ‘let me try,’ once I found out how easy it was and that I just needed to go out and make it happen…. I did it,” Underwood said.
Underwood, along with assistant coaches Lewis and Tabitha Wood, stresses that the kids’ success off the court is just as important to the School Boys’ future as their performance is on it.
Wood says her personal goal was simple in starting the team.
“We wanted to give them something positive to do with their time, and to give them positive role models in their community, “ Wood says. “We wanted to give them people they could rely on and trust.”
Lewis says that she and Wood take care of a lot of “behind the scenes” things, while Underwood does the coaching on the court.
“We don’t do just basketball,” Wood said. “We get bi-weekly progress reports from the schools, we look at their grades and check any missing assignments to make sure they get them completed.
Keeping up with the team’s schoolwork has proven to be a challenge at this age, as the kids have learned that they will get away with doing the minimum amount of work possible to get through a course.
“The kids turn in…what they turn in,” Lewis said. “Because of the No Child Left Behind Act, they realize that everyone will pass with a (score of) one up until ninth grade, so they try to get by with the bare minimum.
“Meanwhile, we are sitting here on the other end telling them that school is very important. It makes it hard for us to find a happy medium. We understand they are 15-year-old boys and I don’t expect them to get up in the morning really excited to go to school,” Lewis said.
While most of the parents have been very supportive, some have been a little difficult to get on board.
“You don’t always get the best parental support, and some don’t really know where their kids are at a given time,” Lewis says, adding that a majority of the parents have been very helpful.
Underwood is hoping to grow the program over the next few years by adding teams to provide more opportunities for even more kids interested in continuing to play the game they love.
“My vision is for this to grow huge, I want to have at least two and maybe three teams next year,” Underwood says. “We are getting a lot of support from the community.”
On the court, the School Boys are growing as a team with every practice.
“We took second place in our first tournament last weekend, and the growth from the first practice until today has been huge,” Underwood said.”We lost to another St. Cloud-based team and got invited to play in the big St. Cloud tournament a couple of days later. I think people are supportive of us, which is huge.”
Underwood uses one special tool when teaching the team the finer points of the game: special goggles that prevent the players from watching themselves dribble in practice.
“I don’t know of any other teams that use them consistently,” said Underwood.
The players are appreciative of the coaches’ efforts to allow them to play the game they love.
“I think quite a few of the kids appreciate it and realize what we are doing,” Lewis said. “I know they are happy to be able to be a part of this, to have the opportunity to play.
“If it wasn’t for us doing this….kids are just going to go home, maybe going out and doing whatever it is they do. They usually simply just don’t have anything to do,” Lewis said.
North Junior High’s JJ Doboul says that he loves playing basketball because it’s intense.
“I love the game, and this gives me a chance, Doboul says. “I love everything about it. It’s intense, the way people run down the court, close games and the competitveness.”
Doboul has high praise for his coach both on and off the court, and can tell when Underwood wants to get serious.
“Coach is fun. He’s a funny guy, but when he gets serious that’s when you know you have to play hard,” Doboul said with a bright smile. “He gets really close to his players and that is a really good thing.
Javon Ashfeld, also from North, says that he has NBA aspirations.
“I like basketball, it’s something that I have always liked to do because it’s fun,” Ashfeld said. “I’d like to play in the NBA for Oklahoma City.”
Maurice Barr of South Junior high found out about the team from a pair of friends, Elijah and Renell Edwards. He has found the team to be a lot of fun and a great way to stay busy.
“My friends, Elijah and Renell, told me about the tryouts so I decided to try out. When I tried it, it was fun…it’s my kind of thing,” Barr says. “I love playing with my friends because I know how they play and we get along.”