By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – When it comes to community success stories that teach children morals and sportsmanship, you need to look no further than the story of Upward Slidell basketball.
It was 20 years ago at First Baptist Church in Slidell when a church member, Ken Bramlett, told others about something called Upward Basketball. He had heard about the growing league that started in North Carolina. It utilized the game of basketball to teach Christian principles, but still offered young kids a chance to learn about the game and improve their skills.
This year, Upward Slidell is celebrating 20 years of success with the program that has seen thousands of kids learn about the game, have great fun with other kids, but more importantly said League Director Jody Scharfenstein, teaches team sportsmanship, grace and Christian principles from the Bible.
“Don’t be mistaken, we don’t discourage competition,” Scharfenstein said. “But we teach it with grace and passion.”
This year the league has 42 teams and 340 players. The boys teams include first through eighth grade, while the girls teams include first through sixth grade. They purposely wait until Slidell’s original little league basketball—Slidell Youth Basketball Association—finishes its season before Upward starts.
“A lot of kids go from SYBA to Upward and still want to play more,” Scharfenstein explained. “In our early years we focused more on equal playing time for all kids, but we have slowly changed to have more competition. However, we still like the spirit of what the league is about so our focus is really about having fun and teaching sportsmanship.”
A tryout day is held for coaches to make notes about the players who sign up, then the information is put into a computer, which drafts players on the different teams so the talent is evenly spread around—hopefully with the idea of making the teams pretty competitive.
After each game there is a 5-star system of awards given for sportsmanship, best defense, best offense, effort and “Most Christ-like.”
Each game includes an individual giving their Christian testimony at halftime, usually no more than five minutes, and somewhere during the season the coach tells the players about the salvation message from the Bible.
Karen Kelly, a standout prep player at Slidell High, got involved in the league with her husband Brett Groom in the early years and is still active today.
“I think Upward is perfect since it is more of a ministry than focusing on the game,” Karen said. “I don’t know if I would still be involved all these years later if it was just about basketball. Seeing these kids and how they have been affected by what we are teaching has made it something I want to continue doing.”
But as much as anything, the league is pure fun for the kids, something that is abundantly clear in watching the games.
“We make a point to get every kid to score at least one basket during the season and if it gets near the end of the season with someone not scoring, the coach will talk to the other coach and let them know about it,” he said.
Scharfenstein said there have been many stories over the years about players needing a little help to finally get that first basket. He said it’s not unusual for the other team to give the ball to a certain player on the other team trying to help them have a chance to score.
But no story could be as good as the one the league director told of a young girl he had on his team who had Cerebral Palsy. The girl was in the fourth grade and had never played competitively before, and had to do so while dealing with her disease.
“I ended up having her on my team three years in a row. The first year she couldn’t get the ball up to the 8-foot goal, but we worked with her and finally she could get the ball up there. It was the last game of the season and she still hadn’t scored so I told the other coach to see if we could all help her,” he said.
Scharfenstein said that time was ticking away in the game so finally the opposing team would clear out to let her have a direct path to the goal. She shot, and shot again, and shot again. Still she couldn’t get the ball to go in.
“As this went on with the other team giving her the ball over and over, everyone in the gym began to notice and cheer for her. I think they must have given her the ball 30 times,” Scharfenstein said, now with tears in his eyes. “Finally she made it and everyone in the place erupted,” he added. “She had the most incredible attitude all the time she played, even though she couldn’t get that goal. She never got negative and I think her story really tells you what Upward is all about.”
Scharfenstein said there are several kids in the league each year who have disabilities of various kinds, along with many playing the sport for the first time.
“Not only that, but we get our share of kids from difficult home situations so there are many ways we believe we are helping kids,” he said. “While the league is certainly about spreading the Gospel, it’s more than that—we build relationships with these kids and their families and help them in any way we can.”
The league games are played mainly on Saturday mornings at the First Baptist gymnasium, but each team is also given a Friday night game that is turned into a lot of extra fun with the lights turned off just before the game starts, followed by loud, thunderous music and player introductions.
The season ends with a banquet, guest speaker and entertainment.
For more information on the league, contact Scharfenstein at First Baptist at 985-643-3456.