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When Willie Hutch Jones finished his professional basketball career and returned to Buffalo 29 years ago, a few friends approached him with an idea. They wanted to create programs to help fill a gap for kids in the city.

Not everyone could afford the registration fees for summer camps but everyone could benefit from them, whether they were elite athletes or just needed a productive outlet for their youthful exuberance.

That’s how Willie Hutch Jones Educational & Sports Programs was born.

“Initially when we started, we wanted to give things to young people who may not have the economic background to be able to pay for some of the pricey types of camps in the summer,” Jones said. “We felt we could keep it free and be one of the most unique camps in the area with a very good staff of professional people involved to teach.”

The program has expanded to year-round activities ranging from basketball to rowing to math and computer skills.

The summer program offers 15 activities at sites in Buffalo and Lackawanna. The activities for children 7-16 are free and include tennis, golf, basketball, football, baseball, chess, soccer, track and field, volleyball, rowing, math club, science club, computers, Spanish and creative dance.

The format is shaped by Jones’ experiences both as an athlete and educator. The Bishop Turner alumnus played at Vanderbilt, earning a degree in physical education. He added a master’s in sports administration from Wayne State. He was drafted in the third round in 1982 by the Los Angeles Lakers and played parts of two seasons with the then-San Diego Clippers.

He returned to Buffalo and worked at several public schools before joining the faculty at Burgard.

Jones takes his approach from the school year into the summer. The emphasis of his camps is on skill development and fundamentals, then learning how to apply them to games, competition and life.

“They all think they’re going to the NBA but they can’t dribble the ball,” Jones said. “They all have dreams of going to the NBA, but if you can’t dribble the ball, you can’t go to the next level of basketball. Many of them don’t have the basic fundamentals and that’s what we tend to stress.

“We teach all the kids and break it down by skill levels. We have kids coach groups and ask them what they would do as a coach in this or that situation. It makes the kids more analytical. … We teach them how to dribble, pass and think the game. If you want to just go run and play, there are other places to go for that.”

But the kids learn more than just dribbling, passing and the fundamentals particular to their sport.

The programs bring in guest speakers from the community – athletic trainers, elected officials, judges, lawyers – because not everyone is going to the NBA or getting a college scholarship. Everyone won’t make the varsity squad in high school. But these sports experiences are valuable beyond playing at any “elite” athletic level.

“We keep it real for you for two hours,” Jones said. “You may not be a good volleyball player or the best baseball player, but somebody might say something that sparks your mind, that can help you build your career further down the road.”

The non-profit organization takes donations from parents and community members while finding funding through grants and corporate sponsorship. It serves between 375 and 500 children each summer.

While the Willie Hutch Jones program is unique in its approach and commitment to remaining free, it shares some characteristics with another popular summer program for kids in the city of Buffalo, the Police Athletic League.

Buffalo P.A.L. has evolved into a year-round organization and partners with the City of Buffalo Recreation Department to offer low-cost camps and clinics. Activities offered include summer basketball leagues, baseball leagues, tennis lessons, bicycle safety programs and boxing.

“We have clinics and talk about sportsmanship,” said Orv Cott, PAL Athletic Director. “We’re also diversified. We take kids from all over the city. Kids from the East Side who have never gone to the West Side. Kids who have never interacted with suburban kids play with kids from Orchard Park and Hamburg. We’ve had kids from as far away as Dunkirk play in our leagues. The kids are exposed to different cultures, races and social and economic backgrounds.”

Buffalo P.A.L. has also worked to get kids active and involved in the community. It has partnered with Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s Summer Reading Challenge. It takes kids to Buffalo Bisons games and Fantasy Island. It has partnered with Independent Health on a fitness program that encourages kids to track their daily activity and food intake to create a balanced, healthy lifestyle.

“We’ve had steady growth with our programs and participation,” Cott said. “We’ve expanded in certain areas. We’ve had so many kids go through the program that when they’re 17, 18 years old, they want to stay involved and keep coming back. We have some leagues now that go up to 19 for kids who haven’t found themselves yet and need an outlet to stay involved. They’ll keep coming back and we’ll try to have them back as long as we can. But somewhere along the line, you have to cut the string, especially when money is tight.”

For information on the Willie Hutch Jones Educational & Sports Programs visit www.whjsc.org or call 912-5888.

For information on the Buffalo P.A.L. programs, visit www.buffalopal.com or call 851-4615.

email: amoritz@buffnews.com