Hoops and Dreams
For Bob White, teaching kids basketball is only the carrot. The real game is life.
BY MARGO PFEIFF
Canadian Readers Digest
The moment Special Correspondent Margo Pfeiff walked into the Trevor Williams' Basketball Academy in Montreal, she could
feel a sense of warmth and fun that made the simple gym so much more than a mere basketball camp. "It's a happy refuge where
children from all backgrounds are encouraged to realize their potential."
"Scissors! Let's go!" coach Trevor Williams's voice booms across the muggy gymnasium as more than 200 youngsters perform
jumping jacks in unison. As always, they finish their warm-up with Williams shouting, "The harder you work?" and the children
bellowing back, "The easier it gets!"
It's 9 a.m. on a sweltering Monday morning in Little Burgundy, a Montreal inner-city neighbourhood. Another weeklong summer
basketball camp is off to a slam-dunk start in
a local high school. Giving the kids no chance to rest, the coaches break
them into teams, throw 200 basketballs onto the four courts and put them through round after round of rapid-fire drills.
Within the first hour, harmony begins to blossom. A youngster wearing a yarmulke throws his arm around a boy with dreadlocks
after a good shot; a girl wearing a Muslim head scarf reaches down to help a blond teammate after a fall. This part of town
has had a reputation for being tough and crime ridden, yet there is no way to distinguish the children from broken homes too
poor to pay the camp fee or those on leave from a juvenile detention centre from those chauffeured from wealthy suburbs in
Porsches and Mercedes. Whatever the case, the attraction is the stellar reputation of the Trevor Williams' Basketball Academy
"It's like a loving family, there's such a sense of community here," says Elyce Russell, the mother of two boys who have
attended the camp for six years.
Pacing the sidelines, a small, intent man watches every move from beneath a tennis hat pulled low over his eyes. For more
than 25 years Bob White has been the heart and soul of the nonprofit Westend Sports Association (WESA), which has helped thousands
of youngsters stay out of trouble through sports programs like the TWBA.
"This is no ordinary basketball camp," says White. "It's an oasis that springs up every summer in the heart of the ghetto."
By mid-afternoon, temperatures have soared to 36ćC and Williams blows his whistle so the "campers" can gather around for
a talk. There is a buzz of recognition as Williams introduces them to Alvin Powell, a former Seattle Seahawks and Miami Dolphins
"I'm not here to talk ball," says Powell. "I'm here to talk about crack cocaine." As he tells the children about the addiction
that destroyed his career in the NFL and almost destroyed his life, the gym grows silent, all eyes riveted on the speaker.
Over the course of the week, the camp's six- to 18-year-olds will hear from other sports heroes-about the importance of
staying in school or of preventing teenage pregnancies.
"They think they're here to learn basketball," White chuckles,
"but that's only the carrot. What we really teach is the game of life."
Born and raised in Little Burgundy himself, the 67-year-old White is a familiar sight in the neighbourhood. His Jamaican-born
father, Benjamin, was also a Little Burgundy institution-the owner of a grocery store and a club called Whitey's Hideaway.
The club, in the heart of the city's black community, was a popular meeting place. As a boy, White remembers seeing black
entertainers such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey when they came to perform in local clubs. He also remembers
his father handing out bags of groceries to the hungry from the back of his shop and reaching into his pockets to help needy
Young Bobby swam and played water polo competitively and, in 1955, left home to pursue a degree in social work at The City
College of New York, paying for his education with a job as aquatics director of the Harlem YMCA.
New York opened his eyes to racism and human rights. On Saturday evenings he would listen to sidewalk lectures by a then-unknown
Malcolm X. He met Martin Luther King, Jr., and worked closely in his YMCA job with the nearby Protestant church, where the
civil rights leader Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., helped thousands in the community find clothes, food and jobs.
White returned home in 1966 and worked in his father's store. As he walked the streets of Little Burgundy, it made him
angry to see so much poverty and lack of opportunity in such a rich country. Like his father, he helped out where he could.
At that time Little Burgundy was a close-knit community, and White had a large circle of friends, including successful
businessmen. "We've got folks down here who haven't got Christmas dinners," he told them one December. "Can you help?" Next
morning he awoke to a pile of turkeys lying in the snow outside his house.
White soon learned he could achieve much with a single phone call. When a local school principal reported that many of
his kids didn't have pants without holes, White called Earl Devine, a friend in the garment industry. Hundreds of pairs of
jeans arrived at the school. When a woman without relatives died, he found money for a funeral. Time and again he bailed youths
out of jail in the middle of the night and found them lawyers. If a meagre paycheque couldn't stretch to feed a family at
month's end, he sent them to a local butcher friend.
From his days at the Harlem YMCA, White knew how important sports were to a poor community. They provided not only entertainment
and distraction, but discipline and focus-skills youngsters needed to find and keep jobs. Sports could also lead to scholarships
and a higher education.
White needled community leaders to set up sports programs to keep kids busy in the summer, when Little Burgundy's crime
rate sometimes soared. Little happened, so in 1976 he started the WESA. That summer Trevor Williams, a lanky 11-year-old,
was walking down the street when a car pulled alongside. "You play basketball?" White asked.
"Yeah," Trevor replied.
"Meet me at the court tomorrow at one o'clock. And," White added before driving off, "you need a haircut."
Next day Trevor and his friend Wayne Yearwood went to the "court," a weed-strewn, unpaved lot where kids had rigged baskets
out of plastic milk crates with the bottoms cut out. White arrived and unloaded a bag of cement, a car tire, a pole and a
sheet of wood.
As he had learned in Harlem, he filled the tire with cement, into which he planted the pole and attached a backboard with
a rim. He also brought out a ball and a shopping bag filled with records and movie tickets for prizes. "Okay, let's play one-on-one."
Coaching from the sidelines, White pushed the boys hard. Some days they played for six hours. Soon they eagerly awaited
the daily arrival of this charismatic little man who spoke to them as no adult had done before.
"This is not just a basketball," he would say, holding the ball over his head, "this could be your ticket to university
or your dream job." He challenged them to think for themselves: "What are you going to do when you finish school? What do
you want to do with your life?"
White became like a big brother to the boys. Often they saw him reach into his own pocket to help someone in need or to
pay for a boy's haircut, insisting, "If you look good, you'll feel good."
By the summer of 1976, White had found sneakers, jerseys and sweat suits for his boys. He rented a gym and started four
WESA basketball teams. That first year, ghetto teams no one had ever heard of beat established city teams by as much as 150
points. White would meet sports stars in town for a game and lasso them into coming down to the court to talk to his boys,
shoot a few baskets, sign a few autographs, stoke a few dreams.
One lesson White instilled in the kids was an obligation to pass on their skills. Soon the older kids were coaching the
newcomers. Trevor and Wayne took 11-year-old Aubrey Merriman, a boy well on his way to clashing with the police during those
long, idle summers, under their wing. White could tell his work was having an impact: In 1975 he had bailed 25 youths out
of detention, but by late summer 1976, he hadn't had a single call.
He also knew that some of his players had the potential to play professionally.
"You've got to go where you'll be seen-they'll never find you in Burgundy," he told them. So he loaded half a dozen of
his best players in a car and drove them to basketball camps in New York State.
A year after attending such a camp, Trevor turned on the television and saw two players he had met there. They were now
playing basketball for a major U.S. university. He sat upright: Hey! he thought. I'm as good as they are; I could do that.
But White had already started phoning and sending letters and videotapes to American prep schools, asking for scholarships.
The day he received a basketball scholarship from Southern University in Louisiana, Trevor felt as if he'd won the lottery.
He went on to play with Team Canada. So did Wayne Yearwood,who, at six foot eight, was snapped up by West Virginia University
at age 19. Later, their protégé Aubrey Merriman also won a sports scholarship, going on to complete a Ph.D. in social work
and to teaching posts at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As the ranks of his kids grew up, White continued to expand the WESA's role. Using a Montreal YMCA as a base, he set up
free after-school programs to help children with homework, literacy and social problems, or just to keep them busy with sports.
But most important he continued to snatch young men from the jaws of prison, drugs and street life. In the early 1990s,
one 11-year-old, Wayne Desmond, stood out. He was quiet and polite, a good student and an outstanding football and basketball
player. An uncle had been found dead years earlier in a local bar, however, and his father was often absent from his life.
Williams would see his young neighbour walking through the streets with bags of groceries or leading his younger brother to
school. It broke his heart. He's become a father before he's even been a child, he thought. White arranged for Wayne to attend
a football camp in Syracuse, N.Y., and the youngster excelled.
But one evening in 1993 White received a call from Wayne's grandmother; 13-year-old Wayne had been arrested for robbing
a teacher and punching her in the face. White knew the soft-spoken boy, who had never been in trouble before, was incapable
of such violence. He phoned his friend, lawyer Allan Katz. "Allan," he said on the answering machine, "got trouble."
Katz often volunteered his time to help Little Burgundy youths, and this time the charge was serious; the teacher had identified
Wayne by name. Katz fought for a police lineup. Terrified, the youngster was led from his cell. Long moments ticked by as
Wayne watched the two-way mirror. He slumped into a seat when the officer told him the teacher couldn't identify her assailant.
Wayne was set free.
He continued helping to raise his younger siblings, working at a video store. In 1997 White secured a scholarship for 18-year-old
Wayne at the Hebron Academy, a prep school in Maine, where he was named most valuable player of the boys' varsity basketball
team. In 2001 he was accepted on a two-year football scholarship to study at Fresno City College in California.
Still, White can't save them all: He has lost many bright and talented young souls. "I see them drinking and smoking drugs
in the park," he says sadly. "Some of them are dead."
After finishing their sports careers, some of White's athletes have
returned to Montreal to help out their old neighbourhood. Among them was Trevor Williams, who, after three years with Team
Canada, took a job coaching basketball at Montreal's Dawson College and volunteered at some schools in low-income areas. Wanting
to do more, he sought his mentor's advice. Without hesitation, White answered, "What this city needs is a really good basketball
In the summer of 1992, Williams, Dean Smith and Michael McLean, also WESA alumni, rented a gym and, with a few ancient
basketballs, started the Trevor Williams' Basketball Academy. They based their instruction on intensive drills, individual
coaching and Bob White's philosophy-to help every child realize his potential on and off the court.
Through basketball, Williams had learned his own life skills-anger management, conflict resolution, self-discipline, tolerance-and
he wanted to pass them on to the next generation. He also adopted another unique WESA concept-to recruit sports heroes as
Eighteen children showed up for the first one-week camp. The following summer a hundred children registered; by year three,
over 250. The word was out that this new high-tempo, street-ball camp taught more in a week than most clubs did in a season.
By the summer of 2001, the TWBA was running eight one-week camps with up to 250 children a week, many of them girls. Despite
the success of the WESA over the past 25 years, the organization still runs on a shoestring of corporate and private donations
and has never received government funding at any level. It also relies on donated gymnasium space.
During camp, Bob White is always the first to arrive, and he reigns over proceedings like a curmudgeonly grandfather. Over
one quarter of the children are subsidized because their parents cannot afford the $170 weekly fee, which is a fraction of
what some of the other camps charge. There are French, English, Chinese, Arabic and Scandinavian children enrolled-an international
"This is what multiculturalism is all about!" Bob White enthuses. "Black and white coming together in harmony, like the
keys on a piano!"
Word of the camp's reputation has spread and scouts from major colleges regularly visit. Says Dallas Mavericks player Steve
Nash, "This is one of the best basketball camps in North America."
Today Williams has picked up the WESA torch from Bob White. In his spare time he takes underprivileged youths to tournaments,
invites them to stay with his family for the weekend and makes sure they have shoes without holes. Now his phone, too, rings
in the middle of the night with calls from kids in trouble. "Who else are they going to call?" Williams shrugs, sounding much
like his mentor.
Some 1,000 youngsters have won scholarships through the WESA. Many thousands more have been given a vital dose of self-confidence
to improve their lives. "I know a lot of people today who would be in jail if it wasn't for the Westend Sports Association,"
says Williams. "I certainly wouldn't have had the opportunities I've had in my life. Bob White never turned his back on the
White shrugs off the accolades. "We're just taking the weeds out of the cement and turning them into roses," he grins.
"From ghetto to glory."