Every Sunday, more than a hundred kids ages 11 to 18 come to south Sacramento’s Valley High to shoot hoops and let basketball change their lives.
They’re part of Crossover Basketball, a faith-based nonprofit that has been helping steer youths off the streets and away from trouble for nearly 20 years. Crossover’s squad of coaches and mentors – most of them volunteers – helps participants maintain their grades, stay in school and improve both their on- and off-the-court skills, said director Omar Turner, himself an inner-city product.
“I played for Burbank High against Kevin Johnson. We were both point guards,” Turner, 49, told players from one of his elite teams on Sunday. “Back then, I made some bad choices, did some drugs, drinking, partying.” The conversation took place at Bayside of South Sacramento – BOSS Church – on 44th Street, where players attended a youth ministry service on the birth of Moses, with a segment titled “When bad things happen, how do we respond, and how does God respond?”
Youths who sign up for Crossover’s leagues aren’t required to go to church, though Turner works for Youth for Christ Ministries. He and Robert Tolbert, a nurse at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California, and Will White, a Walgreens manager, will drive to players’ home and take them to church on Sundays before they get to play basketball at Valley.
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“Basketball is the hook,” said Turner, whose son Marcus Turner, 24, played for Crossover, graduated from UC Davis and now helps him run the program.
Yes, basketball can help youths out of poverty, drugs, broken homes and street violence if blended with character-building, academics and a firm guiding hand, said Turner, who has helped his best players get financial aid to Christian Brothers, Capital Christian and other private schools. Others have gone on to play at University of the Pacific, San Diego State and UC Davis.
Crossover, which begins a new season in March, is just one of several area programs using hoops to help inner-city kids. Oak Park natives Dino Clark and Mike Lambert have guided numerous youths onto high school teams through Davis Hot Shots AAU, an off-season program teaming them with Davis players both on the court and in study halls.
On Sunday, one of Tolbert’s star players, Isaiah “Too Tall” Thompson, threw down a thundering dunk to finish a three-man, fast-break drill at Valley High. Thompson, who just turned 15, starts for Bradshaw Christian, and at 6-foot-5 already has an NBA player’s body. Thompson, who lives with his grandparents on G Parkway, “was moving from school to school and getting in trouble, detentions, suspensions when Coach Turner found him,” Tolbert said. “Basketball’s used as a vehicle to reach out to these kids and keep them grounded.”
You can’t see it on their faces as they crack jokes, run drills and do pushups, but many players are dealing with hardships. One player’s friend committed suicide recently, another’s parents have been in jail, and a third is homeless, said one of the team moms, Rachel Parra. She said her son Gabriel, a point guard, was lonely before he joined the squad.
While many players are African American, Crossover kids are also Latino, Asian, Caucasian and mixed-race. All share an interest in basketball and improving their lives. Elementary school teams meet on Friday, and Crossover is developing co-ed teams, Turner said.
“Generally, they get lost and need some stability and counseling, and we help them become better players and better people,” said coordinator Royal Edwards, who oversees 36 volunteer coaches. One of his players, Valley High point guard Michael Murphy, hit eight three-point shots in a game recently. “They teach us how to be a better person and (how to) treat everyone the way you want to be treated,” said Murphy, 18, who hopes to play for San Diego State or Washington University.
Turner finds kids for Crossover throughout south Sacramento’s various elementary and middle schools or at The Lord’s Gym at Mack Road and Stockton Boulevard. “I was roaming the neighborhood and parks. G Parkway is a tough neighborhood, but a lot of talent comes out of there,” said Turner, who develops talent for his elite AAU squads, but is expanding his recreational leagues for kids at all levels.
Zavionne Wilson, a freshman at Kennedy High School, called the program “life-changing – I really didn’t have much.”
Wilson, 15, said he was taking care of his two younger brothers when he joined Crossover. “Now I’m doing good, I have friends, my parents are good now,” he said. “I just want to help others. Without Coach Omar, I’d probably be in the street making bad decisions. ”
“It’s a fun, safe environment,” added his friend Kevin Brown, 15, who plans to become a nurse or doctor. “We’re more like brothers.”
Youth pastor Lamar Holloway, 27, said he started playing in the Crossover leagues when he was at James Rutter Middle School, where Turner used to coach and many of the program’s kids come from. “There was lots of peer pressure, so for me, the program was transformational,” said Holloway.
Turner said Crossover helps youths to develop in four areas: character, confidence, responsibility and faith. “If a kid can’t have faith or hope or believe in something, how could they have a purpose in life?”
To play one season in Crossover’s recreation league costs $95, while the elite teams, which travel, can cost from $700 to $1,000 a season per player. But the program offers subsidies through donations, and most kids pay a small portion of the cost, said Turner.
For more information call (916) 857-0660 or go to www.CrossoverBasketball.org.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.