Chris Bellard has been playing basketball for eight months ever since moving to Edmonton’s Clareview neighborhood from Uganda with his family.
The 15-year-old needed more practice before he could make his junior high school team, so he signed up for the Africa Centre basketball program.
Led by two veteran coaches, the program offers two hours of development drills twice a week — at the Africa Centre gym on Thursdays and at the Clareview Rec Centre on Sundays.
“The coach told me to come here,” Bellard said. “It’s a good place [where] I can improve my skills.”
The Africa Centre started the program in March 2019 as a crime prevention tool, funded by Alberta Justice and Solicitor General.
When provincial support ended, the Africa Centre continued the program with help from the Edmonton Community Foundation.
Close to 30 players aged nine to 24 typically attend the free practice. Participation has been consistent, despite difficulties some of the young people experience.
“We saw a lot of the youth who were either suspended or expelled from school,” said Emmanuel Onah, youth program manager of Africa Centre. “They still wanted to show up. They still wanted to come in and train and get new skills. That was encouragement to continue.”
That support reflects the program’s focus on the player, not just skills development. Africa Centre staff check in with participants to see how they’re doing off the court.
“We’re making sure that they’re not going through any issues at home or school,” Onah said. “If they are, we find different ways to support them.”
‘A growing sport’
The program has teamed up with Ameba Starr Basketball, which supplies two coaches. Ameba is run by Don “Tex” Phillips, who also coaches the Africa Centre sessions.
Phillips played Canadian university basketball as a member of the Brandon Bobcats in the 1990s. As a coach, he has spent time with NAIT, MacEwan University and the University of Alberta.
“With the success of the Toronto Raptors, basketball is a growing sport,” Phillips said. “A lot of kids are interested in it and they want to get better.”
The program has grown through word of mouth and is not limited to players in the Clareview area.
Salome Nuako, a 14-year-old from Sherwood Park, has attended Africa Centre basketball sessions for a few months.
The junior high school player sees value in players of different ages practicing together to work on skills and mentor each other. She’d liked to see the program expand.
“I think it’d be great if we had all these opportunities for kids my age, younger, older to get better and get more developed at the sport,” she said.
As for Bellard, he plans to continue working on all aspects of his game, from dribbling to passing and shooting as he hopes to make a high school team next year.
Students across the city may also get the same opportunity as the Africa Centre is working with the City of Edmonton to offer the program in other city-run recreation centres, Onah said.