Full Court Press

Last spring, Paul Coty left his Young Life office in New York City at the end of the day and hopped onto the E Train for home, unaware that he was about to take part in changing the lives of two kids from Queens.

A small group of kids on their way home from school jumped on board at the first stop, talking and laughing about something that brings urban teens to city parks from New York to Los Angeles; something that held great interest for Coty as well. Basketball.

Among the kids were Rajiv Dewar and Akins Simon. Coty listened to their chatter, drawn to the playful debate of the sport he knows so well. He finally slid over and joined the conversation. “I would not have even intervened had [basketball] not been a part of the dialogue; something I felt confident that I could be a part of without being intrusive,” Coty said.

Rajiv and Akins weren’t sure what to make of this visitor, but they quickly accepted him. “At first I was like, ‘Ah, he knows his basketball,’” Akins said. By the time everyone stepped off the subway, Coty had established a fortuitous connection with the two boys. Coty was looking to open up a gym, he told them. They exchanged numbers, and Coty asked Rajiv and Akins to keep in touch — once the gym opened, they could meet and play some ball.

Coty had wanted to bridge the inner-city basketball culture with a Young Life club for some time. The goal was to create a comfortable environment where teen athletes could encounter the Gospel.

A month passed as Coty negotiated around a few delays, and when he finally secured the gym, he picked up the phone and gave Rajiv and Akins a call. They showed up for club at the gym on the first Friday in June and brought some friends along as well.

Taking camp to basketball

Rajiv and Akins were living a typical urban life. They had avoided falling into serious trouble, but while both had grown up with some experience with the church, neither was very familiar with Christ. “When I went to church [before], I didn’t understand what they were saying,” Rajiv said. “They made life seem like something other than what it is.”

To Coty, the boys were “normal kids without Christ. They were very much into athletics, fashion, girls, but really had no direction and had never heard anyone talk about the Lord the way we do.”

Coty’s relationship with the boys continued over the weeks as they showed up to club to play ball and learn about God. Eventually, Coty extended to them an invitation to attend Young Life’s sports camp in Erie, Pa. Rajiv and Akins signed right up.

Coty helped establish the sports camp in the summer of 2005. On the campus of the Family First Sports Park in Erie, Pa., kids attend a Young Life camp specifically geared for the teens whose lives revolve around athletics. “The camp gave us another level of influence because we were tied to one of the things they love to do the most, and that’s basketball,” Coty said.

More than 120 kids — from cities including Minneapolis, Minn., Washington, D.C., Danbury, Conn., Prince George’s County, Md., Chambersburg, Pa., and Syracuse, N.Y., as well as New York City — joined Rajiv and Akins at camp to participate in basketball clinics taught by college coaches, while still enjoying the Family First camp’s collection of activities.

Any kid who loves the game is welcome to come and play at camp, regardless of skill or athleticism, Coty said. During the week, a camp tournament brings the kids together in the spirit of friendly competition. “Kids who come from various cities do not play together,” Coty said. “This removes city rivalry from the picture and allows kids to get to know folks from other cities, with other similar experiences.”

As camp progressed, Rajiv and Akins began to open themselves to the message of Christ. “I had some good cabin times with them,” Coty said. “Our relationship began to get a little more in-depth.”

Mike Burbage, area director of Young Life Norfolk Urban, came up to Erie to serve as camp speaker. The kids called him “Mike B.” For Akins and Rajiv, Burbage quickly became the star of the week. “He was the best,” Akins recalls.

Burbage’s messages entertained, but also told about Christ in a way the guys could begin to understand. “He made church fun,” said Rajiv. “I used to not like going to church, but he made it fun. I could play basketball any time, but that experience was the best part!”

Akins said that Burbage “told you everything up front and straight, he didn’t try to sell it to you.”

On the day of the Say-So, Coty said, Rajiv and Akins both stood up and committed their lives to Jesus Christ.

Redefined understanding

Since camp, Rajiv and Akins have continued to grow, working to redefine their character and maturity. Rajiv’s mother immediately noticed a change in her son. When he stepped out for his first Bible study, she placed a quick call to Coty, just to be sure. She was surprised that he would choose to spend his time doing something like that, Coty said.

Both Rajiv and Akins remain active in club and participate regularly in Campaigners. Rajiv still remembers his earlier experiences with church, and the difference he sees with his experience now. “Now that I understand what they’re saying, it’s much clearer,” he said. “I wasn’t really doing anything with my time. I’m doing something active with my time [now].”

Coty still keeps a close relationship with Rajiv and Akins. They work hard, he says, growing in a deeper understanding of the Scriptures, asking questions and developing a life of purity. As the kids have begun a new school year, work is underway for them to start a new club in the Jamaica/Queens area. Rajiv’s enthusiasm shows. At Young Life, he said, “You learn new things; you learn the right things based on what life is about.”

“They relate to you,” said Akins about Young Life. “They understand what you’re going through because they’ve been there before. It’s fun, and it’s serious at the same time, because they try to change your life. They use basketball as a tool to get you into Christ.”

And Coty hopes that a love of basketball will continue to draw more kids like Akins and Rajiv.

“The game is the universal hook to provide a life-changing message,” said Coty, who will return to Erie at the end of next June to help facilitate another special week of reaching out to urban teens through basketball.