Important lessons about life and basketball were shared by kids at a free Mavs Academy clinic last Friday.

“I learned to pivot today,” said Samiyah Branch. “I learned to be a triple threat.”

The ability to shift directions — and protect the ball to create scoring opportunities— really is the secret to success.

Although Branch was talking about basketball, she was unknowingly telling the story of the Mavs Academy and how they ended up here this July morning.

By here, I mean Uplift Academy in southwest Dallas, nestled along I-20 in an area where many children have never attended organized basketball events. The parents are so thrilled they have come along, too, piling in the stands to mark the special occasion. The energy is palpable and laughter beats from the walls.

Event organizers tell us that exposure from the outside, especially from an NBA team like the Mavs, gives the kids a huge boost of confidence. It communicates to the children that people really do care.

Last year, the Mavs Academy opened more — well, scoring lanes — for children in many underserved and overlooked communities across North Texas.

For one thing, rising costs of sports, along with tough economic times, puts children in low-income areas at an even greater disadvantage.

Many families can’t afford groceries, much less pay for camps, but the kids still have a great love for the game.

That’s when the Mavs Academy decided to pivot, led by one determined former high school teacher and coach named Ronard Patton.

Patton, who is embarking on his fourth year with the Dallas Mavericks, understands that sound coaching in basketball and sports can parlay in the classroom.

The two go together, and as a Black man, he also knows that representation matters. So, Coach Patton proposed an idea last year for the Mavs to create more free or low-cost clinics and events in southern portions of Dallas to reach children from low-income communities.

This would be different from the other camps and clinics the Mavs host at community events.

Patton’s vision was to give the kids the same one-on-one instruction and opportunities that children at paid camps receive.

The dream came to life over the summer as the Mavs hosted several free clinics and camps in South Dallas.

The camp at Uplift Academy was the final showcase of the summer and with all the parents in the crowd, the kids and coaches dazzled on the court.

Fun was the name of the game.

“I learned to always be positive and cheer on people,” said fifth-grader Joshua Noel. “We learned to set goals. I like cheering people on, I like to compete.”

Later, Samiyah shared a similar experience. She showed up early to get in extra shots and made it clear that she rarely misses.

“I’ve been playing basketball since kindergarten and I fell in love with the game,” she said. “My dream is to play in the WNBA.”

Phillip Gomez serves as the director of athletics at Uplift Academy. He noted how basketball coaches played a surrogate father role in his own life and he understands the importance of positive exposure for youth.

“More exposure to organized sports and getting exposure from professional teams like the Mavs (is huge),” Gomez said.  “I think it speaks volumes…when you get someone from the outside exposing them to what their potential is and where they can go with it. It just opens the world for them.”

He’s describing a scenario that experts call socioeconomic integration. Just this week, an academic journal backed by Harvard published an eye-opening study that said youth sports “have become more segregated, as affluent families have flocked to so-called travel teams.”

The results showed that children exposed to equal opportunities with sports, school and friendships have a better chance at succeeding later in life. They propose institutions and organizations around sports address “the particular roles of race, too” and give more racially diverse opportunities for young people.

The study emphasized how cross-exposure across socioeconomic lines is more important than ever.

This is part of the reason Coach Patton, and the Mavs Academy staff, continue to pour out hours at the free clinics, even as they rush across town to manage multiple other camps the Mavs host each week. They have a mighty vision and big heart towards young people. They want to equal the playing field for minority and at-risk youth.

“I also think representation matters,” Patton said. “It’s important for kids to see a Black coach that was planted in Oak Cliff who now has a position in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks. It allows them to dream about their own pathway into the league and know that anything is possible!”

Perhaps no one understands this more than Dallas Mavs star Dorian Finney-Smith. Earlier this summer, he attended one of the free clinics at Youth World and spoke to the kids and worked with the youth.

“All the camps, I love doing them,” he said. “I love kids. I love seeing kids smile. So, if I can have any positive effects on their day, that’s what I’m here for.”

This past weekend, he hosted his own summer camp in Virginia. One of the biggest messages Finney-Smith often shares is the extraordinary financial burden basketball and sports had on his single mother growing up.

However, he often shares how people stood in the gap to help create opportunities. He wants to be the same kind of change and that’s why he often works with the Mavs Academy.

He’s doing the same in Virginia.

“The city of Portsmouth, [where] I’m from, it’s struggling right now with crime,” Finney-Smith said. “So, I’m trying to give the youth more possibilities to be successful.”

These are the stories that really capture the heart and mission of the Dallas Mavericks and Mavs Academy as the franchise moves into the future. The Mavs Academy is celebrating its 29th year and the franchise hosted 34 paid camps this summer (basketball, dance, gaming) and gave back to the game at countless community events and clinics.

Having a successful team like the Mavs this season sparked newfound love and passion for many young kids across the area.

It’s been a remarkable summer, but this is just the start. The ability to hit more low-income areas will be a priority as the organization embarks on the 2022-23 season. It’ll require more work and a willingness to step outside the boundaries and pivot to reach more diverse children.

“For years, I’ve wondered how I could make a difference,” said Patton. “Being a former teacher and coach in DISD gives me a unique perspective regarding the needs of the community. God has called me to be a resource for this community.”

After all, he says, kids are counting on us to get it right.

Story: Tamara Jolee, Dallas Mavs

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