May 08, 2017
It’s six o’clock on a Friday night and a couple dozen teenagers make their way into the gymnasium inside the Aspira Educational Campus, located in a building that Cardinal Dougherty High School once called home.
The sounds of basketballs echo off the walls as these 12- to 14-year-olds work on dribbling, shooting, defending and other intricacies of the game with a pair of volunteer coaches.
This is important work considering those players in La Liga del Barrio (LLDB) will head to Westfield, Indiana late next month to compete in USA Basketball’s Inaugural 14U National Tournament.
For many of these young men, the nearly 700-mile bus trip will mark the first time they’ve left the city. For most (if not all) of them, it will mark the first time they’ve competed against peers from across the country.
That’s why supporters of the league – with a name that translates to “The Neighborhood League” – continue to raise money to cover the trip for players in a league that, on a “shoestring budget” for the past 17 years, has focused on guiding youths who haven’t gotten very many breaks in life.
Since starting a GoFundMe effort to raise $10,000 in March, they’ve drawn a shade over $6,000 in donations.
That they raise enough to fully fund the trip means a lot to Esther Alvarez, the league organizer who works as a paralegal with Community Legal Services.
Sitting on the bleachers as the teams practiced on Friday night, she made it perfectly clear why.
“When people ask my husband Ray and I how many children we have, I always say we have 360,” she said, noting the number of youths who participate in the program. “We’re one big family here.”
The LLDB was founded in 2000 when then-City Councilman Angel Ortiz and a group of “Latino sports enthusiast and educators” met with representatives of the Philadelphia 76ers.
They hoped to tap into the pro team’s “passionate interest in reaching out to the Latino community (and) to engage young people from the inner city in an organized after-school activity.”
To this day, the Sixers still sponsor the league that, located in the heart of Philadelphia’s Latino community, consists of 32 teams (12 for girls and 20 for boys) and requires players to provide progress reports from school to ensure they can play.
While youth sports teams are plentiful across the city, this one’s unique in its Latino-youth basketball focus, organizers said.
After years of bouncing around from gym to gym – they were based out of Edison High for a while but couldn’t afford the $75/hour fee after the district cut back on sports program funding – they found their home at Aspira about five years back.
Since it’s a developmental league, there are no tryouts. If a kid wants to play, the kid just has to show up and buy into the program, which they do from across the city, said Alvarez.
Speaking about the program’s successes, she noted that one player – Jose Ortiz – made it all the way to a professional basketball team in Mexico. (“He hated sports, hated school, when he started,” Alvarez recalled with a laugh.)
“Even if we don’t win a game in Indiana, we’ve already won.” – Michael Henry, volunteer coach with La Liga de Barrio
But here, it’s not about creating a pipeline to the pros. It’s about giving youths a positive outlet in their non-school hours, and providing structure for lives that sometimes lack it.
Tutoring is available, as is translation help for parents who – because they don’t speak English – can’t read the notices that their children bring home from school.
There’s no better example of LLDB’s positive impact than the story of Brian Morales, a 14-year-old student from the nearby Antonia Pantoja Charter School who’s been with the league for eight years now.
When he was six, he pulled one of the organizers aside and admitted he was having difficulty with his behavior, always being on the cusp of lashing out – with no father figure in his life at the time.
“Being here has helped me control my anxiety, control my anger,” he admitted.
Thanks to that grounding, he’s decided to take a huge step toward helping fund the trip: He’s trying to sell his Xbox 360.
“I wanted to sacrifice something to help my team get to Indiana,” he said on Friday.
Hearing things like that make all the personal sacrifices worthwhile for founders like the Alvarezes and volunteer coaches like Michael Henry, a prison guard who’s been involved for the past 14 years as his own children have played in LLDB.
“They’re not just boys on a basketball court. They’ve become a family,” Henry said of his players. “Even if we don’t win a game in Indiana, we’ve already won.”
Esther Alvarez feels the same way, that what LLDB does transcends mere game scores.
“When they’re playing here,” she said, “we know that they’re safe.”