Youth Basketball Initiative in Pittsfield keeps kids' heads in the game

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PITTSFIELD — "Make yourself available!" coach Wayne Pitt yelled from the sideline as two teens went toe-to-toe for a basketball.

"Mineshka! You've gotta move without the ball," he called to one player. "Don't get comfortable just staying out there."

In turn, Mineshka Montero, 15, sank a shot into the northern hoop at Dorothy Amos Park.

"I want her on the team, too," Pitt murmured to a fellow coach.

About 20 kids signed up this week for the free Youth Basketball Initiative, and Imaran Mayes said he hopes the sign-ups keep coming. It's his first year running the program, he said, so it might take time to spread the word.

Mayes relaunched the initiative while following in the footsteps of his honorary aunt, Valerie Hamilton, who previously spearheaded the program before she passed away last year. It runs from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at the West Street park.

Mayes, 39, participated in the program in the 1990s, when Hamilton originally got involved. Now, he said he feels driven to give back.

"A lot of it's human nature," he said. "You give back to things that gave to you."

Kids in the community need a hand, he said. They're not getting watched by the whole neighborhood in the same way he said he was as an adolescent.

They need someone to show them how to be better teammates, he said, and how to respond to authority.

"When you see talented kids with no support — that's when we've got to step in as a community," he said.

Coaching basketball lends itself well to mentorship, he said, and that's something many young people in Pittsfield need.

"No smoking by the court, man," Mayes said to Austin Thomas, 16, and a few others with lit cigarettes in hand on the program's first day. "We're going to have to cut that out."

Thomas slowly snuffed out his cigarette and headed back to the court.

He said he signed up "just to keep me out of trouble."

"During the summer, there's nothing else to do," he said.

Jose Pantoja and Pitt have coached at other city clubs, and they decided to help out Mayes this summer on a volunteer basis.

Pitt said he enjoys pointing kids in the right direction. He said he likes to see them go home, help their parents and just be "a complete kid."

For kids who don't have a lot, he said one slip can quickly send them down the wrong path.

"If they say yes to the wrong thing, you know which way they're going," he said.

For some of these young people, he said "this is all they've got."

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He said he works to teach them to play better basketball, to be more organized and sportsmanlike.

"I love doing it," he said. "I get the joy of seeing the kids have fun and watching them develop."

Pantoja said he likes to show kids how to be dedicated to something. He has lived here three years, after moving from Holyoke, and said it seems to him there needs to be more outdoor activities during the summer for young people who aren't committed athletes.

"Once schools get out, it's all bad," Pitt agreed.

He said the community needs to throw more support behind programs that attract teens who might otherwise get into trouble.

"I've been here 14 years and I see nothing for these kids to run to," Pitt said. "They need a building."

Without something better to do, the coaches said, kids will gather and make mischief instead.

"[With] 10 kids chilling in the park — that's trouble," Pantoja said. "You're asking for something to happen."

"You've got to get their attention, let them know we're here for you," Pitt said.

Existing facilities in Pittsfield don't go far enough, he said.

"We gotta do something," he said, because we're "losing these kids."

Too many kids don't have strong foundations at home, they said, which makes them susceptible to gang recruitment. Pitt said he has had gang members end up on his teams while coaching for other Pittsfield organizations, and it "went south fast." He said he had to start requesting police supervision.

"I know you gotta help them, but they gotta make a choice," he said.

Elijah Beamon, 15, sat on the sideline during the games. He watched intently while nursing fresh stitches on his right hand. He was running from a dog and cut his hand on a fence, he said.

He said he signed up because "I love basketball."

"I still feel like I could be on the NBA," he said.

Davids Attah, 17, who moved to Pittsfield in December, said he played a ton of basketball in his native Ghana and is trying to get back into it.

Jose Sanchez, 20, lives next door to Dorothy Amos Park and said he and his younger siblings signed up together. They recently moved here from Springfield and were looking for people to play basketball with.

"I just wanna play for the fun," Sanchez said.

His sister, Mineshka Montero, said she, too, was looking for something to get involved in for the summer.

"I just sorta moved here; I don't know any other teams," she said. "And they look like nice people."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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