A Harlem Globetrotter, a Tampa Bay Buccaneer and a professional basketball player who is now one of the county’s top basketball coaches came together Saturday at the behest of longtime Boston Celtics chaplain Bill Alexson, to spread the word of God and share their gifts with kids from Youth Haven and the local community with a one-day youth basketball clinic.
Many of the attendees came from Youth Haven, Southwest Florida’s only emergency and residential shelter for boys and girls ages six to 19 who have been removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Other participants were from the community at large. Basketball hoops were installed in the parking lot of the Fairway Bible Church to host the clinic.
Alexson is president of SportsPower, working primarily with former NBA players with a strong emphasis on God’s word.
“Today we have this basketball clinic for the kids,” Bill Alexson said. “They’re having a lot of fun. Some of them are from Youth Haven, some of them are orphans, some of them are at-risk youth. I’ve enjoyed it so much just seeing how much they’re loving it. We did drills and basketball skills in the morning. We’re just lovin’ ‘em up special. Yeah, it’s about the basketball, but it’s more about reaching them.”
Scott Stewart, 49, is the highly successful head basketball coach at First Baptist Academy, where he’s coached for 13 years. After graduating from Lely High School in 1989, Stewart accepted a scholarship from Norm Sloan to play at the University of Florida. When he graduated, the six-foot guard held three school records.
“After 25 years records get broken,” Scott Stewart laughed. “Whenever Bill Alexson asks me to help out, I do it if I can. I ran a basketball clinic for the kids. A lot of the kids are at risk, challenged teens in one way or another. We created a lot of fun for them. We played games, we worked on fundamentals. We ran relay races. We played knock out. We played shooting games. We just tried to create a safe, fun environment for the kids. There were some pretty good little ballers there. Some sixth and seventh grade girls. There might have been some high school girls there. A boy who played JV basketball for Lely. We had Harlem Globetrotter fun where Jonte Hall did some of his tricks.”
Hall was known to Harlem Globetrotter fans worldwide as Jonte “Too Tall” Hall during his 10-year stint with the famous exhibition basketball team that has been touring the world since 1926. The Globetrotters have played in 126 countries and territories.
“I’m the first shortest player in Harlem Globetrotters history,” Jonte Hall said proudly. “I did it for 10 years, visited 57 countries and all 50 states. I loved every minute of it.”
Hall shared his story with the students. Growing up in the McCulloh Street projects in Baltimore taught Hall some tough life lessons. Basketball was his refuge.
“I received my first basketball when I was six years old,” Hall smiled. “I took that basketball everywhere I went. I fell in love with basketball. I even gave my basketballs names. My first basketball’s name was Susie. I don’t know why I chose that name. That’s when I fell in love with it.”
But Hall only grew to be 5’2”.
“My height was always an issue,” Hall said. “People always told me, ‘Why are you playing basketball, you’re too small.’ That made me work harder. When I was younger, I used to get mad at my mom and dad. I asked my mom, ‘Why am I so short?’ My mom said, ‘Son, look at us. I’m 4’9” and your dad’s 5’3”; you’re not going to grow much. You’ve just got to work hard.’ That’s where the love came from. I still get told I’m too small. Look at me now, I’m known for being small on an iconic team.”
Playing for the Globetrotters was a dream come true for Hall.
“The Globetrotters name does a lot,” Hall said. “Not just in the United States, but around the world. The red, white, and blue. That name means a lot. Everybody knows about the Harlem Globetrotters. I still can’t believe I played with the Harlem Globetrotters—such an iconic team. They were selling my jersey at the arenas. So, when I saw a kid with my jersey on, it was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s my jersey!’”
Hall was about to give up the game he loves before securing a roster spot with the Globetrotters’ longtime opponents, the Washington Generals.
“I was about to give up on basketball,” Hall admitted. “I got tired of doors being shut in my face. I tried out for a bunch of professional leagues. It was my height. They didn’t tell me I was too small. But I knew they thought I was too small. Finally, I contacted the Washington Generals—the Globetrotters’ opponent. They gave me an opportunity. I played with them for a year and a half. Then the Globetrotters gave me a try-out. I made history with the Generals. I was the third Washington General to cross-over to the Globetrotters in 50 years.”
Hall’s message of perseverance surely resonated with the kids who attended the clinic.
“He left the Globetrotters to reach more kids,” Alexson said of Hall. “To use his platform. Telling the kids to never give up. Put their faith in Jesus Christ – he’ll never let you down. Tell them some of his stories of how he overcame adversity.”
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s defensive back Corey Lynch, who starred at Evangelical Christian School in Ft. Myers, was a featured speaker in the afternoon session of the clinic. Lynch pulls no punches when asked about his purpose.
“When I speak to kids like this,” Corey Lynch asserted, “I like to tell them there is the world view and the word view. The world view is what you hear on the news and see on the internet every day. The word view is the Bible. It’s exactly the opposite of that. Bill Alexson asked me if I could talk to the kids. Our culture is pushing so hard, even on the news, to change family values and the morality of this country. When they push hard, you have to push harder.”
Perhaps Lynch’s most famous gridiron moment came when he blocked the potential game-winning kick in Appalachian State’s famous season-opening 34-32 upset of Michigan—widely regarded as the biggest upset in college football history.
“You always think of the story of David and Goliath,” Lynch told the kids. “They were ranked Number Four. There were 110,000 people in the stadium. It was crazy. They score right away and we’re thinking, ’this is going to be a long game.’ Because they’re really good. But then we scored. We thought, ‘Well, maybe we’re better than we think we are.’ So, we battled it out. What was funny was the whole game, you have 110,000 people there and it was dead quiet. I could hear my mom in the 100th row yelling, ‘Go Corey!’ Everyone was silent the whole game.”
Lynch continues the story. “It came down to a field goal with six seconds left. It opened perfectly, I blocked it and ran it back. I got tackled. And again, it was dead silent in the stadium. After the game, the people sat there for like 30 minutes. People were crying because they lost. It was an upset for the ages, they called it. The block heard ‘round the world.”
Lynch enjoyed a six-year NFL career. One of his career highlights came when he intercepted Hall of Famer Brett Favre.
“My first interception was Brett Favre,” Lynch said. “That was a cool one. I was 21 years old. It was great. I started playing football when I was five years old, and he was a rookie when I was five years old. I got Andy Dalton, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.”
Workers from Youth Haven were happy to see their kids enjoying the day.
“We’re just out here with the children and enjoying the basketball clinic,” said Najay Hutchins, a youth care worker with Youth Haven. “From the time I clock in till the time I clock out, I’m in charge of them. Feed ‘em. Watch ‘em. Make sure they’re being active. I’ll help with their homework if need be. Help them learn how to do chores. The daily things that a child needs to prepare for this world. The cleaning, learning how to take care of yourself, a little culinary – we teach them how to cook. Teach them how to sew.”
Hutchins said many of the kids don’t stay long. Others stay a little longer. Sometimes it’s hard to see them go.
“It’s bittersweet,” Hutchins said, “you can say that. We’re a safe haven for children who are in need at the time. We go above and beyond for these children. We’re their family away from home. Our mission is the children. I see amazing things happen all the time. All the time. We glorify these children to continue to do better – when they are doing better. When they feel that they can’t – we know that they can. Can’t is not in our vocabulary at Youth Haven. We want them to do better. To be better. That’s our mission—that’s the whole purpose for Youth Haven being there.
“We are stepping in to make things normal in their lives,” Hutchins continued. “These kids are hand-in-hand with one another. It’s like that. It’s like having a sister or brother. If I’m having a moment, my brother’s going to step in there and let me know, ‘Hey, let’s get back on point.’ That’s the way these kids are.”
It’s important for Hutchins to have an impact on the kids of Youth Haven. But he makes it clear that it’s all about the kids.
“Having an impact is a great thing,” Hutchins admits. “At the end of the day it’s the same as being a parent at home. You know what your job is and what you’re supposed to do with your kids. I think for me as a parent, I just hope that by me sowing the seeds, my son is growing into a beautiful fruit. It’s the same thing with these kids. I don’t look for the thank you’s. That stuff’s great, but that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to make sure these kids continue to live a good life – a great life.”