ST. PETERSBURG – Shades of the next LeBron James or Magic Johnson are really scarce in the early morning hours on Saturdays at the Thomas Jet Jackson gymnasium, which plays host to the South St. Pete Youth Basketball League.
The early games feature the younger four to five-year-old kids whose major task is going in the right direction of their basketball goal. Coming out of halftime when the teams change goals becomes even more challenging since for the first eight minutes the rehearsal was to go in one direction.
Oh, how hilarious for the common fan who understands that Paul Morrison’s vision for the children is simply to introduce them to the concept of working as a team, discipline their mind to be committed to something, and of course, having fun doing it.
Morrison’s heart is to make it affordable so that every child in Pinellas County can experience playing the game of basketball. If the truth be told, at five years old, having the opportunity to put on a uniform jersey with your name on the back like the professionals is more than rewarding for them.
When parents start demanding basketball perfection, the basic kid game takes on a whole new dimension that most often is beyond what the little star can produce.
“I love the kids and I love the game of basketball,” said Morrison, the founder of the South St. Pete Youth Basketball Program. “To watch the kids and their excitement, especially when they accomplish a goal, is really fun to see.”
Morrison feels the game of basketball is a family activity where parents can share time with their children in a safe, inexpensive environment. The children experience having family and friends encourage them and everyone gets to learn a little more of the value in basketball.
Twenty-six years ago, Morrison started the league, which has experienced several changes.
In the early goings, the Lakewood Jr. Spartans organization operated the program with the games being played at Lake Vista Recreational Center. In 1998, the league went independent and changed the name to South St. Pete Youth Basketball League.
The league currently has 32 teams, serving 325 players at four locations. The players range in age from 4 to 14 with various skill levels, “everybody is welcomed.”
Morrison’s love for basketball is deep rooted. He grew up playing on the courts in the Bronx in New York City. After high school, he moved to Florida where he attended Eckerd College and became an All-Sunshine State Conference player for the Tritons.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in human resources and leisure recreation, he joined the Eckerd College men’s basketball team coaching staff where he served for three years as an assistant coach.
As a sports father, Morrison enjoyed watching his three sons excel in basketball at Lakewood High School under the now retired legendary Coach Daniel Wright. At Lakewood, Marcus, Sean and Michael accomplished eight state championship appearances winning three titles.
Marcus and Michael are currently playing professionally in Mexico and Germany, respectively and there are many other players who have come out of the league that have gone on to play high school, college or professional ball.
In 1999, Monica Mitchell joined with Morrison to help navigate the league and brought a passion and love for basketball that is a perfect fit. She serves as the vice president but her duties and involvement far exceeds her title.
Mitchell’s passion for children and love for basketball leaves no task un-done and no need unmet. Her son, Derrick Mitchell, Jr., plays on one of the teams. Because she wants the best for him, she is driven for it to be best for everyone. She is the administrator, secretary, uniform coordinator, scorekeeper, league mom and will meet any other need that arrives.
“I’m in my happy place when I’m helping kids. I know what I do make them happy and gives them the feeling that someone cares,” said Mitchell. “Mo loves the kids.”
Although the league receives some discounts to operate, the cost to operate with a vision to continue and expand is challenging. The two greatest needs that the league faces are sponsorships to help offset operating costs and mentors who can also coach the players. The emphasis is on developing the youth to become functioning citizens who make a positive impact in their community.
The writing on the back of the team’s shirts speaks to the founder’s vision: “Train up a child in the way that he should go…” Especially when the little ones are going in the wrong direction.