Web Extra: Elite youth basketball's throwback mentor
In the course of reporting our youth basketball story in this week's Voice, we met many interesting people. Unfortunately, we couldn't get everyone into the paper. So here's our piece on Hammer Stevens...
In a world where 9-year-olds compete in "national championships," where rich guys form their own boutique all-star teams and fly them around the country, where parents jump their kids from team to team, Hammer Stevens is a throwback.
Stevens, 60, stubbornly sticks to the idea that basketball is simply a fun sport that can be used to develop kids socially and academically.
For 20 years, Stevens has coached kids in a small gym owned by the Children's Aid Society at the Douglas Houses on 104th Street and Columbus Avenue. His brother, Kelsey, is a founder of the program, which serves working class families.
Sure, he has a girls program that is one of the best in the country. One of his former players now plays in the WNBA. Three seniors on this year's team have earned Division I scholarships. But he says he would rather work with 2nd-graders on Saturday mornings than travel to some big name tournament out of state.
"We have kids who don't want to leave," he says. "If they are supposed to be here at 11, they come at 9, and stay all day until the program closes."
We spoke a couple of days after my 12 and under team played a game in that small gym. It was a typical Saturday. Dozens of kids were there, playing ball, being tutored in academic subjects, bustling from one place to the next.
Stevens, who is still lean but graying at the temples, has an impressive basketball resume is impressive. He was an all-star at the Rucker tournament, playing alongside greats like Earl Monroe, Julius Erving, Gus Williams, and street ball legends like Pee Wee Kirkland, Joe Hammond and Earl Manigault. In his first game in the Rucker, the most competitive summer tournament in the country, he scored 36 points. He once scored 66 in another summer tournament game. After college, he played six seasons for Maccabi Tel Aviv, a top professional team in Israel.
His social resume is equally interesting, if not moreso. Stevens is of the generation that never could have imagined this nation electing a black president.
A Harlem kid, he moved to Savannah, Georgia to finish high school. There, he experienced institutional racism, when he and his brother were refused entry to a restaurant. The restaurant even called the police.
"Culture shock," he says. "We paid for the food, but didn't take it."
In 1967, Stevens was one of the first black athletes ever to attend Georgia Southern University. At the school, anti-black feelings were so palpable that he kept his guard up all the time.
On his way home from the library at night, he was careful never to allow a car to approach him from behind.
"I was the only black in all my classes," he says. "The first day, I walked into the cafeteria. You could have heard a pin drop. Every eye was on me. They had fried chicken, but I wasn't going to eat that in there. I had the lasagna. I couldn't even enjoy it. I just wanted to get out of there."
Later, he took a white co-ed to a basketball game, and once again, felt those hostile eyes on him. His coach actually reprimanded him.
"He goes, what were you thinking," Stevens says. "Are you crazy? Do you know what they will do to you down here? We were just friends, but I didn't really think it through."
On the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, Stevens came home to his dorm to find students laughing at news reports of the assassination. He says he lost it, and got into a fight. He was suspended, and subsequently left the school.
A couple of other colleges followed. He worked for the telephone company and a pharmacy. He played in pro-am tournaments, and got signed to play in Israel. When his pro career ended, he returned to Harlem, found work as a drug prevention counselor, and eventually agreed to help his brother develop kids in little gym at Douglas.
After a lifetime in basketball, having worked with so many kids, Stevens has developed strong views on elements of the world of youth basketball.
"There's no real loyalty to any one team," he says. "Teams don't stay together and grow."
In 1992, Stevens stopped coaching boys because he got sick of other programs poaching his most talented players.
The exposure at the national championship might help might help a high school kid build interest from college coaches.. But for the younger kids, it is basically a sham, he says.
"There's nothing to it," he says. "You go because you get to see the best players in the country, but I don't know what kind of recognition you get for 10 or 11-year-olds."
The high pressure and intensity of this world, Stevens says, can take the fun out of it. "We were at Disneyworld with the girls team one year, and I remember seeing a team which had just lost, and they were just emotionally destroyed. They were in Disney World and they couldn't even appreciate it."
Stevens' coaching style is more hands off. He's not a yeller, and he's a little uneasy when he sees coaches screaming at their players.
"The yelling and screaming actually frightens me sometimes," he says. "It's a double-edged sword. It may toughen some kids, but it might have negative consequences for other kids. Sometimes, I tell my girls, 'see, you could be over there, being yelled and screamed at.'"
While Stevens is grateful for the support of the Children's Aid Society, he still struggles with raising funds for his program, and often pays for things out of his own pocket. But it's not uncommon, he says, for coaches, tournament organizers and program directors to make a good living off of youth basketball, simply because parents are willing to spend whatever it takes. Youth basketball was once organized solely by non-profits, but there are plenty of for-profit companies out there now.
Tournaments cost $400 or more. Some programs charge huge participation fees. Taking one kid to the national championships can cost $2,000 or more.
"It's a big business, which I think takes away from the sport," Stevens said. "I had a parent who came to me who had to pay $600 just to try out for a team. And then $1,000 for the season. Parents think it's their kid's ticket to college, and they'll pay it. She asked me what I charge, I said 'nothing.' She couldn't believe it."
Stevens says that parents can spend as much as they want, but the child will only improve if he or she wants to.
"Listen, you can spend a lot of money on personal trainers, and your kid may not improve at all," he says. "You can give your kid a ball, and show him where the park is, and if he wants it bad enough, he'll get there on his own."
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