Last week’s heat wave did not stop 85 young athletes from attending the June 14-18 Basketball Jones Hoop Camp at Maze Middle School, the second of 11 basketball camps the organization is holding this summer.
Returning player Chase Connelly, 15, has come to the camp for four years, attending first when he was five years old and then again for the last three years.
“I love how much passion they bring to the program,” Connelly said. “Every day they come with a lot of energy and I love how exciting it is. You are working with kids you don’t really know and have to adapt to how they play, which is good practice. I have learned a lot of stuff, from fundamentals to complex dribbling moves, and how to play the game with energy. It combines learning and having fun and is the best camp I have ever been to.”
One parent who is happy to endorse the program is San Benito High School Head Football Coach Bryan Smith. His son, Cadence, has attended the camp for four years.
“Every year they do a great job in keeping the kids active,” Smith said. “My son loves it. It is a long day for him and he comes home tired but he loves it. The coaches do an amazing job providing energy and positive reinforcement. There is a ton of ‘Geno’ in this camp.”
“Geno” was Gene Cotter, who founded the Hollister-based sports organization in Humboldt County in 1996 with his brothers Ed and Will Cotter. Over the last 25 years, they have held over 275 camps for boys and girls between six and 15 years old, teaching basketball skills, teamwork and sportsmanship.
It’s an accelerated and intense program that takes what a normal sports program does over the summer and packs it into just five days, keeping the kids hopping from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“We start with a general warmup that leads into some games,” said Director of Operations Ace Koski. “We have coaches’ skits where kids get into groups and do basketball drills around a movie/theatrical component. We have three-on-three heats that impose different rules on them, then they play eight five-on-five games before a final tournament on Friday.”
There is an 8 to 1 ratio between campers and coaches and the staff is a mix of college players, high school coaches, and professional players who provide a level of talent the kids are not likely to get in a community program. The program is proud of its success rate, as over 10,000 campers have gone on to high school basketball and over 70 have gone on to college ball on scholarship.
Koski, who was born with a deformity to his left arm and left ear, has been with the program since the first year. He met Gene Cotter playing basketball in a gym in Willits, and was offered a chance to teach at one of the camps.
“Geno said, ‘Do you want to come up to the camp to meet my kids?,’” Koski said. “‘You have a gift that would inspire them, with you being born a little bit different. You have a message I want them to hear.’ I went up for one day and I decided I wanted to do this work for the rest of my life. I came in as a guest but he made me feel a part of something bigger than myself. Geno was like that—he found people who maybe had a little broken glass in their lives and helped them celebrate their differences.”
The love of the sport and love of teaching as exemplified by Cotter is a theme throughout the program.
“His networking, his energy, the way he brought people together for the good of kids and his passion for whatever they did was something special,” Koski said. “I owe a lot of my life to how he made me feel and I want to continue that essence he had, helping kids who are underserved.”
His death in a car accident on Route 156 at Lucy Brown Road in 2016 has served as the impetus for the organization to transition into the non-profit Live Like Geno Foundation, which works to give back to the community in Cotter’s name. Besides Basketball Jones, projects include building or reviving open basketball courts (like the 2019 restoration of McCarthy Park in Hollister) and providing six $500 scholarships to selected boys and girls in Hollister, Gilroy and Humboldt each year.
The camps could not be held last year due to COVID. The current program has been carefully designed to minimize risk to participants, with daily temperature checks, equipment sanitizing, contact tracing and maintaining stable cohorts. Even with those precautions, participation is down from the usual 120 or so kids who normally attend.
While the Hollister camp is finished for this year, there are upcoming camps in Aptos, Campbell, Los Gatos, Salinas, Santa Cruz, and San Jose. They will also be hosting their first-ever girls camp later this year in Carmel.
Besides the spring/summer camps, Basketball Jones also runs two-day winter skills and drills clinics. Next year they will be organizing travel teams with their Amateur Athletic Union program between February and May, with tryouts starting in January.
The cost of the programs varies, but Koski says that financial aid is available for parents who cannot afford to send their children.
“Thank God we have never had to turn anyone down,” he said. “We have a great program through our foundation for people who need it, and we try to meet the needs of kids who otherwise would not be able to come.”
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