The old basketball hoop in the Wright family driveway was beat up, small, and simply not useful to teenage boys.
Isaiah and Elijah had made great use of the hoop since they were 5 or 6 years old, but the boys’ mom, Amina Wright, knew it was due for a replacement. What she didn’t know was that a pandemic was about to strike and that her home borough of Queens, New York, would be among the hardest hit by Covid-19.
“I bought the kids this new hoop for Christmas (2019) and my husband assembled it,” Wright said, nodding at a beautiful full-sized basketball hoop nestled in the driveway of her home in Jamaica, Queens. “With how stressful things were at the beginning of Covid, it was a great investment!”
Wright’s son Isaiah is serious about basketball. A sophomore at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, his life changed abruptly last March.
“I was a freshman, the best player on the JV team, and we were getting ready to play in the city championship,” recalled Isaiah. “We were at practice on a Friday and they told us there was no more school. Then our coach told us the season was done. At first, I thought the virus would just slow things down for a couple of weeks.”
Nine-plus months later, Isaiah still can’t play interscholastic basketball. There were even large stretches of time when gyms and outdoor courts in the community were closed. That’s why he and his mom are so grateful for the family’s new hoop. “There was a time we couldn’t play anywhere,” Isaiah said between driveway dribbles. “So I was just out here, to be honest.”
Youth sports, which includes about 36 million American youth between kindergarten and high school, may not be top of mind when people think about the pandemic. Yet it has been hit like many other now-ailing industries, adding to the decline in participation and support youth sports had been experiencing prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
One organization that has spent significant time and resources addressing this issue is the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. The initiative was launched in 2013 with a mission to see the power of sport help build healthy children and communities.
“As soon as states started to shut down, we knew there were going to be a lot of challenges,” said Jon Solomon, Project Play’s Editorial Director. “We figured it would further the divide between the haves and the have nots.”
Solomon is referring to a trend where budgets for local, inclusive sports leagues have generally been reduced while expensive travel options have blossomed. Many kids who play simply for fun saw opportunities dwindle. Project Play released a study in October finding that three in 10 kids who previously played sports are no longer interested in participating. And even the kids who kept with it are spending about six hours less per week on sports during the pandemic.
If Isaiah plays high school ball this school year, it will be for Cardozo High School’s Ron Naclerio, a local coaching legend who has won 850 games, the most in New York State public school history.
“From June through October, when it was warm and the courts had reopened, I would pop by and see the kids play a little,” Naclerio recalled. “Try and tell them what to work on, keep them motivated. But now it’s cold, and we still can’t practice inside. Normally, we’d get 35 days of practice in the fall. We’ve had none. A lot of kids have suffered.”
Some of the community’s top athletes have transferred to prep schools or moved to states where less strict Covid-19 guidelines allow for organized sports. For the average player, there’s nowhere to play. Others with enough talent to earn college scholarships have just moved on from the game, alternatively changing their focus to finding a job. Some are on a bad path now, Naclerio said.
“There are kids I know personally that stopped playing. Good players,” Isaiah said. “I think it was too hard for them to stay motivated. They weren’t getting the proper training and stuff.”
Interstate competition has provided playing opportunities for athletes like Isaiah. He played a lone AAU event in Pennsylvania last fall, a far cry from the extensive traveling he’d do in a “regular” off-season. The reduction of travel, though, can create positive change, Solomon and Project Play argue.
“There are actually some new opportunities for community-based, local play (and leagues),” Solomon said. “Our studies show that even where travel events have been legal, many parents are concerned about letting their kids play. And anecdotally, I’ve heard from youth sports parents that are happy to have the break from traveling, the time and money it requires.” These new local leagues help communities serve middle-tier athletes.
Good Sports is another national organization closely monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on youth sports. The organization’s supporters, which include several professional sports franchises, have donated more than $8 million to the Restore Play campaign. The initiative provides sports equipment for children from high-poverty communities that have lost school physical education and after-school active play programs. The campaign is about halfway to the $15 million goal.
The future of youth sports in New York is still uncertain, as of late January. In other states, guidelines that include wearing masks while playing have allowed for competition to be reinstated. Organizations such as the New York State Athletic Administrators Association are getting frustrated, as are local coaches and parents.
“I understand why things shut down in March. It was scary here,” said Naclerio, whose dad worked in the medical field as a thoracic surgeon and is famous for helping save Dr. Martin Luther King’s life after he was stabbed in New York City in 1958. “But two weeks has turned into 10 months. It’s a mess. The vaccine is coming. I think (Governor) Cuomo’s gotta figure it out and get us a season, even if it’s only May through June.”
Nathaniel Wright, Isaiah’s father, is thankful for the outlet the family’s outdoor hoop has provided his sons. But for the greater health of his community, he’s hopeful youth sports will return soon.
“They should figure out a protocol and work it out. I think they should play,” Nathaniel Wright said. “It’s important for kids to have that.”
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