Boys stand against a wall while waiting their turn. Photo by Scott Ball.
Boys stand against a wall while waiting their turn. Photo by Scott Ball.

It’s an oft-repeated, and usually true, adage that there are no free lunches in life. Last week 75 middle school students from the Westside were treated to free lunches, free T-shirts, and best of all, free basketball and life lessons from local scholastic coaches and student-athletes affiliated with the local nonprofit BALLER Camps.

Founded by former Lanier High School basketball coach Lance Lewis, BALLER Camps started with a simple goal: to provide free basketball camps to at-risk, economically-disadvantaged kids in order to ease their transition from elementary school to middle school and increase their chances of success in the face of the many health, behavioral, and academic risks that accompany the transition.

“A lot of times we have to talk to the parents because they think there’s a ‘catch.’ We say this camp is completely free: they’re going to be fed, they’re going to get shirts, they’re going to get basketballs; and — understandably — they’re somewhat skeptical about that,” he said.

This is the second summer BALLER Camps has provided basketball and life lessons to dozens of male and female students from the second poorest ZIP code in San Antonio. That ZIP code, 78207, is home to Tafolla Middle School and Rhodes Middle School, this year’s host sites and the schools that will soon welcome the campers back as new students in the fall.

Lewis had a model for these camps in the similarly tuition-free Slam Dunk for Life organization that he served with for a decade until the program “sort of faded away” in 2012 after a change of ownership and philosophy. BALLER Camps was created to help fill the void.

The camps allow district elementary school coaches to nominate 15 boys and 15 girls, each, as candidates for the camp participants. “We tell them, because they know the kids better than we do, ‘The criteria is up to you. Is it a kid who has potential but hasn’t lived up to it? Is it a kid who’s shy around other people? Maybe it’s your best athlete.’ We leave that up to the elementary school P.E. teachers.”

BALLER Camps Executive Director Lance Lewis. Photo by Scott Ball.
BALLER Camps Executive Director Lance Lewis. Photo by Scott Ball.

The organization’s board of directors, which includes beloved former Lanier head boys basketball coach Rudy Bernal and others, is well aware of the threats facing kids at this crucial stage in their lives. Their website notes that 32% of kids aged 10-17 in Texas are overweight or obese, that kids who are not involved in athletics are 57% more likely to drop out of high school, and that kids who aren’t involved in extracurricular activities are 49% more likely to use drugs and 39% more likely to become teen parents.

Of course the fundamentals of team basketball are covered during the week, but that’s just the beginning.

“A lot of the kids have never been a part of a team, so we teach them teamwork, responsibility, how to interact appropriately,” Lewis said. “We’re trying to teach them life skills, you know? If they get better at basketball this week, that’s great — but that’s not really why we’re here.”

Girls listening to coach Negrete-Fernandez at Tafolla Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.
Girls listening to coach Negrete-Fernandez at Tafolla Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.

BALLER Camps coaches Joseph Martinez and Laura Negrete-Fernandez, the current boys and girls head basketball coaches at Lanier, say another important aspect of the camps is that they offer an opportunity for coaches to begin building relationships with their future students long before the they even step foot on their high school campus.

Lanier girls basketball head coach Laura Negrete-Fernandez. Photo by Scott Ball.
Lanier girls basketball head coach Laura Negrete-Fernandez. Photo by Scott Ball.

Negrete-Fernandez, a lifelong athlete, knows what wonders athletic participation can work on developing kids’ life skills.

“Athletics brings out another side of people. It opens a new door for them because you have to learn sportsmanship, you have to learn to get along with other people, you have to learn that if someone pushes you, that’s part of the game,” she said.

Ashlyn Lopez, 11, is entering 7th grade, but the coaches brought her and a few others back to help lead the new campers. It is also an opportunity for her to prepare for her first year of athletic eligibility. Photo by Scott Ball.
Ashlyn , 11, is entering 7th grade, but the coaches brought her and a few others back to help lead the new campers. It is also an opportunity for her to prepare for her first year of athletic eligibility. Photo by Scott Ball.

She also notes that, for these kids, the opportunities to encounter these lessons are all too rare. “Kids from this area can’t afford to go to big camps, so this is ideal for them,” she said.

Cheryl Pell-Fernandez, a BALLER Camps coach and the coach for the Lady Toros, the Tafolla girls’ basketball team said the lessons also extend to what the students can expect in their new schools and the world at large.

“We talk to them about what to expect, about the type of kids you hang around with at school — if you’re going to hang around with bad kids at school, your teacher is going to associate you with them,” Pell-Fernandez said.

Tafolla Middle School girls basketball coach Cheryl Pell-Fernandez. Photo by Scott Ball.
Tafolla Middle School girls basketball coach Cheryl Pell-Fernandez. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Westside was the natural place to start for Lewis, a Lanier basketball coach from 1998 to 2001 who won Texas Assistant Coach of the Year as a coach of the highly successful Lanier men’s basketball teams that made the Class 4A state semifinals in 2000 and the state finals in 2001. The all-Hispanic 2001 team was notable for its two-point victory over a Dallas Lincoln team led by NBA All-Star and two-times Champion Chris Bosh in the semifinals. Bosh still ranks that two-point loss to Lanier as on par with his Miami Heat’s 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Mavericks.

Lewis enlisted three players from the state finals teams, all of whom came from the Westside and went to college on athletic scholarships, to help coach the camps and be positive examples of what is possible through hard work and commitment. In addition to the examples of former student athletes, the campers took a trip to the University of the Incarnate Word to hear from their student-athletes about the difficulties they overcame as kids growing up in poor neighborhoods.

Lewis envisions the camps eventually moving beyond the Westside, to serve hundreds of kids throughout the city, starting with the most impoverished neighborhoods. He says the goal is to find professional scholastic coaches and student-athletes from within the kids’ own neighborhoods to provide the camp instruction.

The nonprofit organization receives funding from Lanier alumni groups, former Lanier faculty, and private donors. Spreading the free camps to other parts of the city will likely require similar intra-district support, but Lewis believes the direct benefits to both kids and coaches make it a worthy venture.

If you are interested in learning more about the camps or making a PayPal donation, visit ballercamps.org or call (210) 386-1202.

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Hunter Bates

Hunter Bates is a native San Antonian. He teaches developmental English at Palo Alto College, where he also directs the student literary journal. Make a fast friend: talk to him about the Spurs, '60s music,...