Thursday, February 7, 2002

A New Player

Memphis Athletic Ministries matches inner-city and suburban youth through sports.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2002 at 4:00 AM

When it comes to youth sports, the haves have never had it so good.

The area's best private and suburban high school facilities rival the ones at some small colleges. Megaplexes like the Mike Rose Soccer Fields and Snowden Grove baseball diamonds are among the best in the country. Competitive athletes can find a team, a league, and a school to suit their abilities from the time they're 7 or 8 years old. Their parents will move heaven, earth, and a large SUV to get them there.

The have-nots, lacking in either ability or money or both, have never been so overmatched. Promising kids get recruited, for want of a better word, to elite teams and schools. Or they find their own way. The stay-behinds often get smacked, that is, if they can muster a team at all. The prep scores in the daily paper record the carnage. Sixty-point margins in basketball. Losing teams scoring fewer than 10 points. Soccer scores that look like lopsided football scores. Baseball and softball, mercifully, have a "slaughter rule" that can end games after three innings. You can bet it will be exercised many times this spring.

The Memphis Athletic Ministries hopes to level the playing field a bit.

Last year, MAM involved over 2,500 boys and girls from 226 teams in basketball, soccer, and baseball. With private backing, it is refurbishing an abandoned nine-hole golf course at the Defense Depot and building a new gym and outdoor athletic complex on Ball Road between the Defense Depot and the airport. Two similar sports complexes, each costing in excess of $2 million, will be developed in other lower-income neighborhoods that have not been announced yet.

Its board includes University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari, Memphis Grizzlies part-owner Staley Cates, former pro athletes Kyle Rote, Reggie Williams, and Elliott Perry. But the guts of the program are directors like Lee Cummings, Howard Eddings, Roger Maness, Larry Lloyd, and Gib Vestal who, while unknown to most Memphians, are familiar names in Memphis youth sports from their work with churches and community centers.

Vestal left his job as an investment banker at Morgan Keegan for 17 years to become president of MAM a little over a year ago. He has been a volunteer coach for nearly 30 years, mainly in basketball, which is the flagship sport of MAM and runs nine months a year.

"It wasn't lost on us that basketball is the major lifeblood of this community," he says.

Soccer and baseball were selected because of the ease of entry, low cost, and attractiveness to kids of all ages and sizes. The mix of basketball with two traditionally white sports also fits MAM's mission of linking suburban and inner-city churches. About 60 percent of MAM's teams come from Christian churches, the rest from schools and sports organizations. The churches have the gyms and, sometimes, the playing fields. At four of the older churches, MAM has agreed to invest in gym improvements in exchange for access to unused court time.

Like other parents, MAM's directors wrestled with the question of how competitive they should be. They opted not to take the bend-over-backward approach of leagues that have banned score-keeping altogether. But they try to even up the teams by matching kids by ability instead of age groups in basketball and moving them up or down if they consistently win or get creamed by more than 10 points. Except for the winter season, there are no tournaments and no ultimate winners.

"Just playing games is a hard concept," Vestal says. "One team won all 18 of its games and the kids were asking, 'Where are our trophies?' Well, there were no trophies."

One coach got suspended for a game because he lost his temper.

"He was acting like what he has seen on TV," says Vestal. "We talked to him about it. We try to change people, not just kick them out. The root of what we're doing is not sports, it's character and spiritual development."

Scheduling is a problem. One of MAM's goals is to utilize resources to the fullest, especially gyms. The haves have cars and carpools. The have-nots have vans and buses. Lining them up now occupies Vestal's time the way financing deals did a few years ago.

MAM is an explicitly Christian program.

"MAM believes that athletics can serve as a 'hook' to attract children to its programs to enhance the child's life with educational and Christian spiritual training," according to its program description.

As it partners with public parks, community centers, and possibly public schools, it may find itself navigating church-and-state issues as well. And its fund-raising could compete in some cases with agencies such as United Way which have no specific religious mission.

Churches have been the backbone of recreational youth sports for decades in Memphis, playing a role once filled by community centers and the Memphis Park Commission for older generations. They have too many human and physical resources not to. The excesses of competitive sports, the bad behavior of coaches and players and fans, and the lifestyles of today's parents accelerate the trend. MAM could be around for a long time.

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