The Seattle Times: Hoop dreams that feed on education

Seattle Times staff columnist

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DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

(Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer shows off his defensive skills (with Brian McAndrews, left, closing in) at Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club.)

“So,” I asked Steve Ballmer, “did you suck?”

“I did,” Ballmer said of his days playing basketball at Detroit Country Day School. “It’s a cool game, and I always wished I was good at it.”

Despite that, the Microsoft CEO was willing to sweat through his shirt during a pickup game at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club in South Seattle on Friday.

“Steve was on lockdown,” cracked 13-year-old Isaiah de la Fuente, who was covering Ballmer. “He couldn’t get any points.”

It was all to promote this coming Saturday’s H206 Charity Basketball Classic, billed as a celebration “showcasing the contribution of basketball to the Pacific Northwest.” The event, at KeyArena, will include a pregame three-point competition, skills challenge and half-court shot, along with a ceremony honoring Seattle basketball legends such as Lenny Wilkens and Wally Walker. For more information, go to www.hoops206.com.

The cynic in me couldn’t help but see the event as a way to scratch the round-ball itch nagging Seattle since the Sonics left for Oklahoma in 2008.

Nor could I ignore Ballmer’s involvement. He was part of a local ownership group that committed to investing $150 million toward renovating KeyArena and buying the Seattle SuperSonics that year. To no avail.

And rumors persist about whether the $14 Billion Man might build an arena in Bellevue and buy an NBA team to fill it.

But Ballmer didn’t want any part of that. It was all about the H206, and the kids of the A PLUS Youth Program that will benefit from ticket sales.

“People are going to see a lot of good basketball and a lot of good guys, and it will be a lot of fun,” Ballmer told me. ‘Nuff said.

The A PLUS program, started by Lakeside School basketball coach Tavio Hobson, offers kids from any background a bigger view of what their futures might hold through academic preparation, athletic training and civic-engagement workshops.

The program is an outgrowth of the Youth Educational Sports Foundation started by Hobson’s father, Lou, a former basketball coach at O’Dea High School.

In just two years, Tavio Hobson has pulled together a dream team of boosters — not just the moneymen who once had hoop dreams of their own (Clearwire board member Brian McAndrews, Paul Pigott of Madrona Specialty Foods and attorney Rich Padden among them), but those who came up from neighborhoods just like this, made it to the NBA and will play Saturday.

“I was sitting in these kids’ seats,” said Brandon Roy, a Garfield High School graduate now playing for the Portland Trail Blazers, as we sat with some of the students. “They need the help of guys like me to show that what they want to do is real, that it can happen.”

Isaiah de la Fuente can sense that already: “My GPA is raised and my basketball game has gotten better at the same time,” he said.

If not for A PLUS, he wouldn’t be able to travel to places like Las Vegas and Portland for tournaments. And he’d probably spend a lot of time at home, “playing video games, doing nothing.”

Jamal Crawford, a Rainier Beach High School graduate now with the Atlanta Hawks, also has come back for H206.

“I’m looking forward to coming home,” Crawford told me, “but I also want to show these kids that working hard can make your dreams into a reality.”

For some kids, seeing a professional game is a dream.

“Without a doubt, we have been missing professional basketball in Seattle,” Hobson said. “It is still a wound that is deep in all of us. But a lot of these kids have never even seen a game.”

Kelton Williams, 12, is one of the lucky ones. He told me of attending Sonics games with his father, Otis, who once won a TV for wearing a Shawn Kemp jersey.

“I miss my dad talking trash to the players,” he said.

Hobson had to laugh, but then, like Ballmer, got back to the talk that had brought everyone together:

“We want to change the way competitive sports are in the inner city,” Hobson said. “We want our kids thinking as much about furthering their education as they do about playing basketball.”

It was enough to put the cynic in me on lockdown, too.

Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Her heart belongs to Dr. J.