By Victor McMillan
Every Friday from 4.00pm to 6.00pm, without fail, Helping Hoops North Melbourne is up and running. Operating out of the North Melbourne Community Centre on Buncle Street, this free weekly clinic is always packed.
Local kids and teenagers from the Melrose Street housing estate, ranging anywhere from six to 17 years old, attend the clinic every week to work on their basketball skills.
“We run it all year. Unless I am going on holiday, we are doing it,” said Steve Bacash, head coach and overseer of the program since 2014.
The program is provided by the Melbourne-based non-profit basketball charity Helping Hoops, an organisation that offers free basketball clinics, training and events for those in local communities most in need. With regular clinics running in a wide variety of locations around Melbourne, the charity primarily provides programs for disadvantaged young people living in Housing Commission flats, including those from refugee backgrounds. It also runs programs for those with an intellectual disability.
Now in its fourth year, the North Melbourne program is going from strength to strength. With an emphasis on creating an inclusive environment, age, gender and ability are no barrier to participation.
“Basketball is an easy game. All you need is a ball and a ring and anyone can participate, especially with Helping Hoops, where it is not always competitive. You can isolate all the drills and help them work on any little thing that will help them. If they’re better they’re better, but if you’re not, you’re not; you can all participate,” Bacash said.
The program is far from just symbolic, however, as Bacash, along with a number of volunteer coaches, works hard to help participants improve their on-court skills. Helping Hoops believes that instilling the right habits on the court also translates to creating the right habits in life, off the court.
“We are teaching them about life. I mean, the way they execute their basketball skills is the way they execute what they do for work. If they’re sloppy, that’s going to affect the result of what they’re trying to do.”
The participants work not only on individual skills but also on how to play the game together as a team. Well-behaved kids and more challenging kids are all held to the same standard, as they have to learn to work together and stay on task.
“The program is really important because it engages all the kids. This is one opportunity for them to all come together, get to know each other, hang out and sort of participate with each other on a level where they’re doing good things. It’s positive, and creating a community within that instead of being segregated in the same place,” said Bacash.
Coach Steve Bacash (back left, white t-shirt) with a group of regulars at Helping Hoops North Melbourne: Source: Helping Hoops
The North Melbourne program is just one of many run weekly across Melbourne. Helping Hoops currently has clinics in Richmond, Fitzroy, Werribee, Dandenong, Croxton and Broadmeadows and has plans to start one in Footscray. On average, eight programs run across Melbourne every week and approximately 350 over the entire year.
Setting it up initially as a single basketball clinic for kids with an intellectual disability in Footscray, Adam McKay and a group of volunteers went on to found the Helping Hoops organisation in 2009.
“It became apparent pretty quickly that there was a huge demand for this kind of program out there, a program that included kids, engaged them positively and took the focus away a little bit from the competition and focused more on developing them as people,” said McKay. “Once we realised that there was a demand and we had a model that serviced that, we thought, okay, let’s actually make this a thing.”
Their many different clinics, programs and training sessions cater for a vast variety of basketball levels. Whether it’s a program for kids with an intellectual disability or a program for future star-level players, all participants’ skills can be developed according to their level, allowing them to progress.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that any ability level, any situation, whether you have money, whether you don’t have money, you’ve got a good home environment, you can dunk or you’ve got a disability and you can’t even reach the hoop, sometimes the game can really service everyone in any situation.”
In November last year, led by Steve Bacash, Helping Hoops ran its first ‘Battle of the Burbs’ tournament in Richmond. Battle of the Burbs pitted Helping Hoops participants against each other in a friendly yet competitive three-on-three format, with each team representing their suburb and program.
The teams, each wearing their own custom-made uniforms and representing suburbs that included Richmond, Fitzroy, Werribee, Prahran and North Melbourne, contended in both girls’ and boys’ competitions.
‘Fitzroy vs North Melbourne’ at ‘The Battle of Burbs’, Nov 2016: Source: Helping Hoops
“I think it went great,” said Bacash, enthusiastically. “It can still build to even greater things, depending on how I execute it, but I think it’s definitely got room for growth. We’ll have kids coming from Dandenong next time. I think it can really build and maybe even get some better prizes and some shoe sponsors.”
Plans are also underway for the creation of a regular cross-program Helping Hoops league, in which participants would get together regularly to play ball against each other, suburb versus suburb.
“It would be an inner-city league, where kids 15 to 18, living in Commission housing, get to represent their suburb and play one night in one stadium. We’ll take stats and everyone will have a uniform to represent.
“It’s about giving opportunities to guys that don’t get them. Money is always an issue, and it costs a lot of money to go to clubs and pay for uniforms and things like that. They’re also good enough to play against each other and have a really high-level competition.”
A majority of the participants who attend the North Melbourne program and the other programs are kids from an East African background, primarily Somalia and South Sudan.
In recent years, the South Sudanese basketball community has flourished, both in Melbourne and throughout Australia. A large number of South Sudanese players are currently making waves in the NBA, NBL, US High Schools and US Colleges, notably Thon Maker (NBA), Deng Adel (NCAA) and Majok Majok (NBL).
“I think it’s great. We always want members of the community to stand up and really be those role models and give back as well. Someone like Majok Majok here in Melbourne is starting to understand the influence he has on the community here and it’s exciting to see what he is going to do.”
McKay believes their success lies not only in their athletic ability and skill on the court but also in the strong values they live their life by.
“If you look at Deng Adel — great athlete, but he’s also a really nice kid who has a good work ethic, treats his friends and his family right, is professional and is on time, so we can look at that and say it’s no coincidence that Deng Adel’s success was because he has these values and attributes, and those go beyond basketball,” said McKay.
The highlight of the Helping Hoops calendar is their annual fundraising event, the 24 Hour Charity Shootout, which is now entering its sixth year. Scheduled for 1 and 2 July at Albert Park College, the event invites participants of all ages to shoot as many free throws as they can for charity.
Last year, the event raised a total of approximately $1900. The event was attended by famous sporting stars such as Peter Siddle, Chris Goulding, David Barlow and Chris Anstey. It even attracted NBA superstar Kyrie Irving back in 2013. Ben Shewry, world-renowned chef and owner of the acclaimed Melbourne restaurant Attica, also attended. Shewry is a long-time contributor and supporter of Helping Hoops, both in public and behind the scenes.
“The 24 Hour Shootout (number 6 for us) is a really simple concept. Everyone registers their own shooting time and they have 15 minutes to shoot as many free throws as they can in that 15-minute time and they raise money for Helping Hoops,” McKay explained.
“It’s also sort of a big party, there’s a festival around the event, so for us it sort of ticks the box for fundraising but also community building as well, to get our supporters together and we can get to know them a little better and vice versa.”
For more information on the 24 Hour Charity Shootout, visit http://www.helpinghoops.com.au/24resources/
You can also visit the Helping Hoops Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/helpinghoops