On New Year's Day, the Bay Area Basketball Academy launched its campaign to spread skill, knowledge and passion for the sport with an inaugural free clinic aimed at local youth ages 8 to 14.
The nonprofit was co-founded last year by five seniors and a sophomore spread across different high schools in the Peninsula and South Bay:
– Gene Wang, president of the academy and a 6-foot-2 shooting guard at Harker;
– Ray Wang, his younger brother;
– Joseph Chen, a 6-2 forward at Leland;
– John Duan, a 5-9 wing at Cupertino;
– Ian Tai, a 5-7 point guard at Lynbrook;
– Roy Yuan, a 6-1 guard at St. Francis.
Recently, the 10th such free clinic took place at Blach Intermediate School in Los Altos.
"All the other camps that we were helping with, kids had to pay to come – and, I guess, that we decided that we could do it for free," Gene Wang said. "And we could bring our own separate experiences to the table and really teach these kids not only how to play basketball, but also all the other stuff that we've learned as student-athletes."
How did these boys, scattered across the Bay Area, get to know one another?
"We met through basketball," said Tai, adding that the connection dates back to middle school, except for one.
"They recruited me from Canada," Duan interjected to laughter.
All of them play for the Silicon Valley Basketball Club, which is invited to compete at Asian tournaments in California.
Who is the best player among the bunch?
"If you ask different people, you're going to get different answers, for sure," Tai said.
One thing everyone could agree on?
As volunteer assistant coaches with younger teams on the club over the past couple of years, the boys felt an urge to also impact the community at no cost.
That's what prompted the creation of the Bay Area Basketball Academy, with a mission to inspire anyone who attends the monthly clinics to continue playing basketball in the future.
"In high school, there's a lot of discrimination toward Asian basketball players," said Yuan, who as a junior broke the record for most 3-pointers made in the West Catholic Athletic League. "If you look at the top leagues and a bunch of other schools around here, you won't see many Asian kids, and most of the kids will be of some other ethnicity – and it will probably lead to a lot of kids quitting basketball. So we want to show them that even when you get to high school, you can still follow your dream and play basketball."
Chen added: "We've been through everything they've been through. And I think we've been able to balance all the other extra-curriculars that we've been a part of."
"We've been able to keep basketball in our lives for as long as we have and I think it's important to us," said Gene Wang, who also enjoys coding and plays the violin. "And if it's important to them, we just want to show them that it's possible."
Growing pains in this enterprising venture were to be expected, beginning with New Year's Day.
"I'm not going to lie, it was kind of messy," Tai said.
"It's hard to come up with things to do for two hours," Chen added.
"We knew drills, obviously," Gene Wang explained. "But we had to tailor them to the separate skill levels and fill two hours to where we weren't just really standing around."
Teaching the fundamentals – how to dribble, pass, shoot – meant corralling 40 to 50 kids at a time.
"You really have to put yourself out there and project your voice so the kids can hear you and respect you as a coach," Duan said.
"I remember I lost my voice the first time," Chen said.
"I lost my voice now," Ray Wang said.
"Controlling them is really hard," Tai added. "It takes a lot of energy."
"Some of these kids, they love to defy authority, while other kids will listen to you," Yuan said. "You've really got to see what their personality is like and cater to them."
One of the biggest challenges to keep the nonprofit going comes during the winter, when high school basketball tips off.
"I think all of us can find three hours," Gene Wang said. "I think the biggest difficulty is to find three hours where we're all free together."
"Each of us have alternating schedules and all our basketball teams, we don't really have practice at the same time," Yuan said. "So we just have to plan ahead of time and plan accordingly. It involves a lot of communication and it teaches us about teamwork."
Prior to each clinic, the guys gather to discuss the format for drills and figure out which specific group of kids is assigned to one another.
"Most of them are, I feel, a lot more skilled than we were at that age," Gene Wang said. "And I think it's up to us to figure out which ones aren't picking up the skills as quickly and really make sure that they're getting it."
"There can be a big skill gap," Ray Wang said. "Some of the kids have been playing basketball a long time and they're really good. There's also a lot of other kids who never played basketball before and they just come to the camp to maybe get some exercise. So you've got to keep in mind that there's a lot of different skill levels and you have to adapt to every single one."
The free clinics in July, August and September rotated between Egan Junior High and Blach, which are four miles apart in Los Altos.
It's not surprising to see the same faces appear every month.
"A lot of these kids, they come to every single clinic," Ray Wang said. "A lot of them are on the same team, so I've gone and coached their team. Me, personally, I would say that I know half of them by name."
"I think it makes it easier knowing the kids and knowing their personalities," Chen said.
The continuity also helps build camaraderie between the kids during the two- or three-hour sessions.
"I know some of the camps that I've been to, I've gone in and not known anyone," Ray Wang said. "It's really hard to have a good time because you don't know anyone, you can't talk to anyone, you can't have fun with anyone. But, I think, a lot of these kids as they go to more clinics they start to make friends with each other. So there's very few kids that are stuck alone without any friends to talk to, so they're all going to have a good time."
It's particularly important to the guys that the kids enjoy their time on the court in order to imprint the same passion for basketball in the younger generation.
"Even though at our camp our main focus is trying to improve them, I think a big focus of it is making them love basketball," Tai said.
"Going off what Ian said, a lot of the kids come because their parents force them to," Yuan said. "But then over time, I think they realize basketball is really fun and then they develop a self interest for getting better."
For its six co-founders, the Bay Area Basketball Academy more than exceeded any expectations.
"It made us realize that we all like to help people, and that's what started this in the beginning, right?" Chen said. "And when you see those kids listen to you and respect you and follow your directions, it makes you really happy."
But what will happen when the five seniors depart for college, leaving only the younger Wang to carry the torch?
"We'll come back," Duan said.
"We'll stop by to help him out and whoever else is doing this," said Gene Wang, who added there's an application on their website seeking coaches for next year. "But, I think, the goal is to keep the whole organization running for as long as possible, even after all of us are gone. Hopefully some of these kids, when they get to our age, they'll want to help out and join the organization."