ELKHART — The sounds of dribbling in the dark could be heard as the lights atop the old Roosevelt School gymnasium lagged behind the enthusiasm of the teenage boys.
A half dozen teens, some carrying their own basketballs, had been waiting for about 10 minutes for the doors to be unlocked Thursday night. Their eagerness to hit the hardwood was evident as they raced onto the court the same time the lights were being flipped on.
The guy who turned on the lights, Jason Moreno, community organizer for LaCasa Inc., was soon sitting atop the gym bleachers and predicted frigid temps might limit the turnout.
But within 20 minutes, Moreno’s prediction sounded like an errant shot clanking off the rim as the 93-year-old gym began to buzz with nearly 50 young people warming up for another night of basketball.
Six months after it began, Ballers 2 Scholars is hitting its stride and bracing for the next phase in an attempt to not only get kids off the street but also help them stay in school.
“We got ’em,” Moreno said. “Now it’s a matter of transitioning them into a parallel program.”
In addition to basketball games on Mondays and Thursdays, Moreno intends to open the gym on Wednesdays beginning Jan. 8 and offer tutoring.
On Thursday night the dozens of kids were urged to register for tutoring, which would be required if they want to return on future Mondays and Thursdays.
But to do that, they’ll need some tutors.
“We’re in dire need of tutors and people that are just willing to help these young men out,” Moreno said.
The program is open to any students enrolled in high school or a high school equivalency program. There is no cost to participate, but the youth need to be willing to work with a tutor and participate in community service in the neighborhood.
Desmond Butts, 13, a student at Pierre Moran, was first to show up Thursday night. He said he likes it because organizers demand a sense of respect.
“Other places, you can get in fights and stuff to hoop. It ain’t like that here,” Butts said.
Establishment of the league last summer coincided with a rough year for the Roosevelt neighborhood. A 16-year-old boy was shot and killed in June just a few blocks away, and an 18-year-old man was shot to death a block or so from the Roosevelt complex on Dec. 23.
“Every time a child dies, it creates a sense of urgency. I just hope this time, people will start latching on to the alternative programming that we’re offering,” Moreno said.
Moreno has elicited the help of Alexander Williams and Vinnie Roundtree to oversee the league. Mitchell Grant, owner of Total Look Barbershop, has agreed to serve as a referee once a week.
Williams and Roundtree live in the adjoining Roosevelt apartments.
Roundtree, a standout with the Rutgers University basketball program in the early 1970s, is retired and says working with kids is something he loves to do.
“I just wanted to do something for the community to be able to stamp out some of the gang violence,” he said.
He said he uses a casual approach with the kids that he believes opens the door for talk about problems at home, school or dating.
“If I can just help one, two or three kids, I’ve done my job,” he said.
Roundtree suspects some of the kids have connections to gangs and some have already had run-ins with police.
From Roundtree’s perspective, he wants to focus on their future.
While the league is gaining momentum, it needs more support from the community.
In addition to tutoring, the league needs money for uniforms and basketballs. It also needs somebody to shore up a weakness in one of the backboards, and Moreno has somebody trying to revive an antique scoreboard so it once again functions.
Anyone interested in helping should call Moreno at 574-361-9782.