When Coach Chiené Joy Jones steps onto the basketball court, her enthusiasm is contagious. Jones runs Grow Our Game in New York City, a free program that encourages girls to play basketball. When it closed out its program on June 30, Grow Our Game had worked with 140 girls between the ages of four and 10 from underserved communities in the city. The program met the challenges of being hit hard by the pandemic by moving to a virtual platform for much of the year.
“Girls basketball is just as important as boys basketball,” Jones said. “Young girls should be looking up to other women who are doing really well.”
Jones, who was named the 2020 Knicks Junior Coach of the Year, believes teaching girls the sport of basketball empowers them to achieve their dreams. The programs start with Little Ballers, allowing players to learn the fundamentals of the sport while building confidence and developing social and emotional skills.
Basketball was started in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith, a physical education instructor at the YMCA International Training School, now Springfield College in Massachusetts. Developed to keep athletes in shape during cold weather, it first consisted of peach baskets and a soccer style ball.
With this year’s Tokyo Olympics underway, men’s basketball is a sport dominated by the U.S. team. USA men’s basketball team has won a medal in all 18 Olympics in which they competed—15 gold, one silver, and two bronze. The USA women’s team has earned the gold in six consecutive Olympics and boasts a sterling 58-3 record (results of this year’s Olympic games were not available at print deadline).
With the fanfare and hoopla of the international Olympic Games, and NBA and WNBA seasons, it’s easy to forget those dreams start on neighborhood courts, school gyms, and YMCAs, like where the game was created. More than 24 million players shoot hoops in the U.S. each year, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association 2020 report. While many other team sports saw drops in participation rates, basketball slightly increased overall at 2.4 percent. But the increase was higher among children—the same report showed an 11.4 percent increase among those ages six to 12.
Aspen Project Play estimates four million children ages six to 12 play basketball each year in the U.S., and another 3.4 million ages 13 to17 participate in the sport. Another million players participate at the high school level. Keep in mind, these are pre-pandemic numbers.
It’s no longer just a sport to keep athletes fit during the winter. In fact, basketball tournaments, competitions, and workshops are now held year-round. As a result of slightly increasing popularity, Jones is seeing enthusiasm for the sport grow with youth in NYC.
“We are seeing more and more families give permission for their daughters to learn the game of basketball at a much younger age,” Jones said. “Our responsibility is to continue to build community and love for the game of basketball, while championing multi-sports participation in general.”
A Crucial Need
Among the first steps is identifying affordable and available gyms. “New York City has a plethora of sports facilities, specifically gyms, yet the access to them are extremely rare because most are owned by the NYC Department of Education,” Jones said. “Identifying key partnerships with community-based organizations has been a real solution for Grow Our Game when it comes to the crisis of low-cost gym spaces.”
Tom Farrey, executive director of Sports and Society Program at The Aspen Institute, agrees more accessibility is essential. “I would say there is a need for more basketball facilities, given the demand for the sport,” Farrey said. “The real need is for basketball facilities in communities of need, more than facilities primarily constructed for sports tourism. Kids need places to play that are near their homes, limiting transportation barriers to entry.”
The Crenshaw YMCA in Los Angeles recently transformed its facility, re-opening its doors in June to a reimaged space. Donations from Jordan Brand and Russell Westbrook’s Why Not? Foundation helped reinvigorate the facility, with brightly colored walls, inspirational quotes, and designs inspired by its members throughout the process. Westbrook, an NBA All-Star who hails from the neighborhood, attended the opening with his family, unveiling the brand-new basketball court and taking photos with the kids. Westbrook, a nine-time NBA All-Star and the league’s 2016-17 Most Valuable Player,plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, previously playing for the Washington Wizards, and famously spending time with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The transformation of the Crenshaw YMCA means local kids have a place to exercise, participate in team sports, and just hang out with friends. The collaboration also includes a six-week Jordan Brands Academy that teaches youth leadership and offers tech training. On a recent weekday, participants were learning filmmaking. Team sports are, after all, about more than what happens on the court.
For Jones, Grow Our Game is about helping girls thrive off the court as well. She says the program is creating a new narrative for girls basketball in New York City.
“Identifying the importance of development first, and then looking into the future for possible outside competition, has been key,” Jones said. “Additionally, our philosophy around basketball participation is that we need to make room for our participants to play and sample other sports.” That means Grow Our Game takes several breaks throughout the year so girls can explore other sports and activities such as swimming, dance, and playing musical instruments.
“They do just about anything that they can possibly do because we’re empowering young girls to be future leaders,” Jones adds.
Not Your Grandpa’s Gym
The demands of increased participation in basketball along with growth in sports tourism have also created a need for more high-end basketball facilities that are now opening across the country. The $50 million, 150,000-square-foot Bridge Sports Complex in Bridgeport, W.V., for example, held its grand opening the last weekend of June. The facility boasts six beautiful hardwood courts that can be used for basketball or configured for other sports including volleyball and pickleball. The fieldhouse is ideal for tournaments, practices, league play, or a quick pickup game. Facility staff said they are excited about the possibilities the complex opens in terms of partnerships to host tournaments.
Over in Hamilton, Ohio, the $156 million Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill is under construction in a former paper mill. Upon completion, expected later this year, the facility will offer 14 hardwood courts for basketball and other sports. The other half of the sports center will have an open floor that can be transformed for basketball, as well. Organizers say the site has enough space to host 30 basketball games at a time.
Midway Central Station at Bedford Park in Illinois, set to open this month, bills itself as the Midwest’s premiere destination for sports, events, and recreation. The multi-sport complex will have eight high-school size hardwood courts, and a championship court. The venue, boasting 116,000 square feet, will have the ability to seat up to 4000 spectators for future games.