Scoring life lessons, fun

Basketball: A Baltimore nonprofit's tournament is aimed at teaching youths sportsman- ship and teamwork -- all while having a good time.

December 29, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Seventeen-year-old Tanner Agent was at Sinai Hospital early yesterday morning while his sister delivered a baby boy, but he couldn't stay long before he had to catch a bus.

He was needed in the gymnasium at Baltimore City Community College for a basketball tournament.

"I love the sport," said Tanner, who lives in a group home run by the nonprofit agency TuTTie's Place. "I always make time for it, even if there is a baby being born."

TuTTie's Place organized a holiday tournament during the weekend for about 100 boys, most of them living in group homes or attending alternative schools for high-school dropouts. Many said the tournament gave them an opportunity to forget their problems and was the best time of their winter breaks.

The goal of the tournament was to teach the boys about sportsmanship and teamwork while enhancing social skills and self-esteem, organizers said. Some have behavior problems that prevent them from playing on sports teams at their schools, while others attend alternative schools that do not have organized sports. Tanner is an exception in that he plays basketball for Milford Mill Academy.

Twenty-four boys from TuTTie's Place, which runs four group homes in Baltimore, had been practicing for the tournament a few times a week since Thanksgiving. Ages 10 to 18, they wore navy shorts and white reversible jerseys with their team name, The Tribe, emblazoned across the front and back. They divided into a varsity team and a junior varsity team.

Junior varsity team members sat in the bleachers yesterday morning cheering on their varsity teammates as they played against the Malcolm X Youth Center, which works with young people who have dropped out of school. But the cheering was to no avail. "We didn't want to run the score, but we could've," Malcolm X player Raynard Johnson, 17, said jokingly after the game, in which his team scored 38 points, compared with The Tribe's 14.

The Tribe's junior varsity team was expecting better luck in the junior championship game that followed.

"We're definitely gonna win," said 14-year-old Brandon Rivers, explaining that The Tribe junior varsity team had defeated the opposing team, from the Peace Project after-school program, twice the day before.

What Brandon didn't know was that the Peace Project had an "A" team and a "B" team. The Tribe had defeated the "B" team but had not faced the "A" team. When The Tribe lost to the "A" team, 22-9, Brandon put things into perspective.

"We made it to the championship," he said. "That's all that matters." Anyhow, he added, he would have played better had he not been sore from Saturday's games and had trouble jumping. But he got to take home a trophy, and he had a good time.

"It's fun and it keeps you out of trouble," he said.

One of The Tribe's smallest players took the loss harder than Brandon did. And to add insult to injury, the wrong trophies -- the ones reading "champion" -- were distributed to them, and the boys had to give them back in exchange for the ones reading "runner-up." So when someone started teasing the boy about his lackluster performance on the court, it was too much to bear. He broke his trophy and began to cry.

Tanner immediately stepped in, taking the younger boy for a walk, reminding him that they're just there to have fun. Tribe coach Walter Dyson saw what Tanner was doing, and he was proud.

"I see a little bit of myself in each one of those kids," said Dyson, 40, a TuTTie's Place counselor who was raised by his grandmother. "They see the harder part of the world."

Derrick Barnes, 16 and on The Tribe varsity squad, said activities such as the tournament make living in a group home "better than being at home," where he said he had nothing to do. He was also looking forward to watching the fireworks with other TuTTie's Place residents at the Inner Harbor on New Year's Eve.

The Tribe's varsity team members were determined to recover from their loss yesterday afternoon as they took on the team from the Maryland Sheriff's Youth Ranch, a Frederick group home. At halftime, The Tribe was down, 7-6. Bouncing around the court in a royal blue headband and gray New Balance sneakers, Tanner kept reminding his teammates to keep their hands up.

"It's all right, it's all right," he said. "We got 'em."

And they did. The Tribe came back to win, 28-15.

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