Aiming high

Hoops for Kids brings professional basketball players to volunteer with at-risk kids and those from low-income households around Netanya.

Hoops for Kids 521 (photo credit: Abra Cohen)
Hoops for Kids 521
(photo credit: Abra Cohen)
It’s not every day that you get to have a pick-up game with professional basketball players after school, but that’s exactly what students involved with Netanya’s Hoops for Kids get to do.
An arm of the Barak Netanya basketball team and the Netanya Foundation, Hoops for Kids brings professional basketball players to volunteer with at-risk kids and those from low-income households around Netanya, in after-school programs, sports clinics and camps.
“It’s a great outlet that offers exercise and structure, and teaches kids important life skills through sports,” says Hoops for Kids director David Lasday, who has been working with the nonprofit for two years.
What started out as a ticketing program for at-risk kids to attend professional basketball games has grown into a mentorship that helps over 300 pupils between first and sixth grade. Lasday says the program provides children with stability and skills that families appreciate.
“Many of the single-parent households really need and value the after-school programs Hoops for Kids provides,” he says. “Often, they are juggling a lot of kids, sometimes different jobs and other issues at home.”
The 29-year-old Lasday, who is originally from St.
Louis, has a background in basketball, but got into youth sports leadership when he moved to Israel five years ago to work with PeacePlayers International, an organization that helps bring Arab and Jewish kids together through sports. He says that when kids are part of a program like Hoops for Kids, it builds confidence, and “they are able to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
Barak Netanya, a Division 1 team in the Israeli Basketball Super League, is made up of Israeli and American players, including some veteran NBA athletes.
Deron Washington, who played in the NBA Developmental League in the US and in Spain is ranked third in overall effectiveness and is second in the Super League for minutes played. He caught up with some sixth-graders recently for some one-onone.
Standing at 6 feet, 7 inches (about 2 meters), he towers above the kids. They smile and get shy as he walks into the school gym. Leading them through warm-ups and practice with other Hoops for Kids volunteers, the pro player helps the kids learn firsthand how to be part of a team.
“I think Hoops for Kids has a big impact, because the kids see a brighter future when they see where a lot of us came from and understand how we got to where we are now,” says Washington, who is originally from New Orleans.
While a language barrier may be the biggest challenge to some of the players, Washington says basketball quickly becomes the common language on the court.
“It’s easy to go out there and teach kids how to play basketball without having to speak the language,” he says. “Everyone pretty much understands it if they like sports.”
After some warm-ups and practice drills, Washington presents a fifth-grader from the city’s Shazar Elementary School, who has won an essay contest, with his own personal basketball, explaining – in English – what pupils learn through sports.
Beaming with a big smile, the boy, Imanuel, accepts the basketball and stands next to Washington for photos.
Hoops for Kids not only brings volunteers from the community to work with at-risk youth, but also partners with other non-profit organizations within Israel to make more opportunities available to low-income families. Lera Yavech, from Colorado, who is currently living in Israel, teaching English on a MASA program says she started working with Hoops back in December and, despite not being a basketball player, really enjoys working with the kids. “I can now dribble one-handed,” she says laughing.
Though he shies away from political or social issues surrounding Netanya, which has a large Ethiopian population, Lasday acknowledges that issues of race do come up not only between groups, but also within the Ethiopian communities. However, he says Hoops for Kids works to bring pupils together to find common ground on the court. And aside from mentorship, the program also works to provide positive male role models for kids.
Lasday believes strongly in the idea of having role models for both boys and girls involved in the Netanya Hoops program. When he was young he says he had mentors that he looked up to and admired.
“On the court, I looked up to Allen Iverson, but my camp counselors who got me interested in sports were great mentors.” Lasday says, as he organizes the afterschool program at Shazar Elementary last week.
Bringing in basketballs and setting up the court for practice, he says he sees the value of building great relationships between the children, the professional athletes and the volunteers at Hoops.
Washington, who now has a child of his own, explains that his father, who played professional football in the NFL, was his role model, but that “growing up, [kids] always need a figure to help guide you and show you what you have to do to get to where you want to be.”
After signing autographs for the children as they circle around him, he says working with the kids is a great experience: “Seeing the kids happy is the best part.”