By Mac Cerullo
---- — NEWBURYPORT – What started out as a small way to give back to the community has blossomed into something much more, and now the brains behind Community Hoops are gearing up for what they hope will be their biggest year yet.
For the past two summers, local college students Nick Welch and Evan Petty have offered free basketball mentoring to local Newburyport youth players. They called their initiative Community Hoops, and their mission was to give every child a chance to learn the game or practice with an older role model, either one-on-one or in a group setting.
“I’ve always loved coaching and Nick wanted to do something with his basketball background, so we just kind of advertised ourselves as Community Hoops and offered lessons to anyone who wanted it,” Petty said. “Younger kids, older kids, we just bought a bag of balls and coached at Cashman Park for free.”
Though the two come from very different basketball backgrounds – Welch plays for Emerson College while Petty has primarily coached – the two share a passion for the game. Initially, the two coached only a handful of kids, but as time went on the two gained wider recognition, and soon their Community Hoops initiative began to take off.
“The first summer we had no idea where this was going, but people trusted us and we saw success,” Welch said. “We felt that there was more we could do, that’s how this was all formed, there wasn’t this one big plan, what we have now isn’t what our plan was originally, it all molded into its own, and that’s the coolest part.”
By offering their services for free, Welch and Petty allowed kids from families who couldn’t afford a more expensive AAU coaching a chance to develop their skills and learn the game. The program also gave Welch and Petty an opportunity to develop their own coaching ability, organizational leadership and people skills.
“I realized how much it helped me through learning how to be professional, talk to adults, come up with a lesson plan, execute it for 45 minutes and be professional around kids,” Petty said. “Not only does it do all those good things but it teaches you about the game.”
Somewhere along the line, Welch and Petty realized their efforts could help more than just local players too. Though they don’t charge for their services, they do accept donations, and last summer they decided to partner with PeacePlayers International and use some of that money to help sponsor youth basketball players in South Africa.
Their goal is to sponsor 25 children in the country, and after raising enough to cover six children last year, they hope to meet their goal this coming summer. The only problem is that with their impending graduation from college, they may not have the time to coach all summer anymore if they end up getting jobs.
In order to maintain the growth of the program, and also to help give older players a chance to benefit, they reached out to Newburyport High School coach Tom L’Italien and asked if they could recruit some of his players to be coaches. L’Italien let the pair give a presentation to his team following practice, and seniors Drew Bourdeau, Caleb Stott and junior Jake Berger signed on to coach for the summer.
“After one of our basketball practices, they came up and told us about the opportunity,” Bourdeau said. “I really wanted to give back to the community because it’s done so much for me, so I applied and luckily they gave me the job.”
Bourdeau has previous experience coaching at L’Italien’s basketball camp, as do many other players on the varsity team, and he said he and the rest of the team was very impressed by what Welch and Petty have done over the past few years and is excited to be a part of it.
“I just think they did an incredible job setting up the whole thing,” Bourdeau said. “They started with just 10 guys and now it’s grown to be hundreds. It’s just a great thing they’re doing and I really hope more people get involved and help us fundraise because it’s really going to great places.”
This year, Community Hoops is tentatively scheduled to begin on June 23 and culminate with its big Hoop-a-Thon fundraiser on Aug. 23, in which players shoot free throws to raise money and win prizes.
“It’s eight weeks, it’s succinct, it’s hopefully going to end before our college students go to college,” Petty said. “It’s going to start after everyone is out of school so it’s easier that way.”
To learn more about Community Hoops, visit www.communityhoops.net.