After five months of practicing, the season has finally begun.
Although the program is about a lot more than basketball, players in the Home School Communicator Basketball League had eagerly awaited the first round of games. Saturday morning they donned their shirts reading “We Move Together” and headed to West Junior High School to play.
The game between Benton and Derby Ridge elementary schools maintained a surprisingly fast pace for fourth- and fifth-graders. The kids ran up and down the court, some consistently making quick lay-ups and nearly-three pointers.
Enthusiasm, built from months of just practicing, was finally released as the kids hustled on and off the court with each time-out, sprinting to the water fountain at half-time and cheering their schools’ names before heading back out to play.
It was clear Saturday that the program, which requires participants to meet attendance, behavior and grade requirements to play, has succeeded in teaching cooperation and teamwork, as well as basketball skills. The players passed the ball, shared the shots and encouraged each other when switched in and out. Those sitting on the bench stayed focused on the game, eagerly awaiting their turn to play.
The game kept the crowd engaged, too. Bleachers on both sides of the gym held parents and teachers supporting their teams with shouts of “Keep your hands up!” and “Come on, Bees!” School spirit was apparent from both kids and adults, with smiles and cheers keeping the energy up until the final score, 27-11 Benton.
The Home School Communicator Basketball League, which began about 10 years ago, is an extension of the Home School Communicator Program created in 1968. Home school communicators created the basketball league as an outlet for students in need.
The league includes co-ed teams of fourth- and fifth-grade students, who play every Saturday until the tournament May 16. This year there are 12 teams from seven Columbia elementary schools. Each team has about 15 students, but there is no cap on participation.
“If there are more we just make a second team,” said Cathy Cox, Benton Elementary home school communicator. “They try out, but we don’t cut anyone.”
Although kids of various backgrounds participate, many are drawn because they can participate free of charge. Any fourth- or fifth-grader is eligible to participate in the league, and scholarships are available to those who cannot afford the $20 fee for T-shirts and trophies.
“The bottom line is we never turn a child away because they don’t have the resources to pay,” Cox said.
Students can be cut from the team, however, for not meeting behavior or academic requirements, she said. Problems with classroom behavior, suspensions, missing homework, excessive tardies or lack of attendance can lead to suspensions from practices, games or the league entirely.
“Each school is different, but we have three rules at Benton: Be safe, be respectful, be a learner,” Cox said. “We expect our students to be leaders in the classroom, on the playground and in the lunch room.”
Benton’s team started with 17, but lost one due to attendance and another due to transportation problems, so it is now at 15 players, Cox said. The students know the policies, but are even more influenced by their coach, Aaron Tatum, she said.
“Our basketball coach is pretty tough,” Cox said. “He has a real strict policy on doing your job in school first. They would much rather do well in school than have to face Mr. Tatum in practice.”
Home school communicators sponsor the teams and find coaches, often coaching themselves. Cox said the coaches try to keep focus on things other than the score, using the program to teach both basketball and life skills.
“It’s unique. We try and not make it competitive,” she said. “But the kids are all vying for that first-place trophy.”
Parents also appreciate the emphasis placed on behavior and grades, which motivates students to work harder in school, they say. The league gives students something positive to get involved in and take pride in, as well as being convenient for parents because practices are right after school.
The Home School Communicator Program was created to help with the integration of Columbia public schools in the 1960s, Cox said. She said home school communicators then were primarily professional African-Americans brought into the school system to help ease the desegregation transition.
Since then, the position has stayed but the role has expanded to helping all students – particularly those considered at-risk – adjust to and succeed in the elementary school environment.
“Most of the home school communicators are still African-American, but we no longer deal primarily with African-American families,” she said. “Our position has really blossomed in the last few decades.”
Cox said the job varies from school to school, but most home school communicators spend their time assisting families in need. They help families find clothing and transportation, manage their finances and bills, and locate resources for behavioral issues and substance abuse.
“It’s any services that families need for students to be successful in the classroom,” she said of her job requirements. “I do the very best I can to make sure the students are here and have the very best resources to learn.”
The Benton Bees began practicing in November, and meet for two hours, twice a week. Tatum began coaching the Home School Communicator Basketball team five years ago, when his son participated in the league, he said. Prior to that Tatum coached for Columbia Youth Basketball and Columbia Youth Football leagues.
“A lot of my kids were playing at Benton anyway, so I took over coaching there, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.
His son, now 16, helps him coach the team, along with two others who also played on Tatum’s first home school communicator team, he said. He said many of his former players come back to visit at practices at games.
“I feel my kids are always my kids,” he said. “I keep in contact with them.”
Tatum said he enjoys the opportunity to work with such young players.
“For a lot of the kids this is the first sport they’ve played, so you have to teach them the game,” he said. “I love to teach them. It’s about allowing these kids to enjoy some of the things that I enjoy.”
Tatum also appreciates the unique program this league comes from and the benefits and education it can bring to the children.
“They get to be in a team atmosphere, so they learn how to work with others better,” he said. “And a lot of the kids who start playing here continue to play later on into high school.”
He said he tries to use basketball as a means to teach his players beyond the sport.
“I try to make them accountable for more than just basketball,” he said. “I try to make them accountable for the rules and how they behave in school.”
And while he is sensitive to the background of many of his players, he said it is still a great group to work with.
“You deal with at-risk kids, so you have to realize there are going to be times when they’re not there,” Tatum said. “But for the most part, they’re good kids who just need somebody to take time to show a little love and let them know you care.”
Tatum’s wife, Terri Tatum, regularly comes to Benton’s games, even though she no longer has a child on the team. She praised the unique offering of the league, which is more affordable and convenient for parents than other youth leagues, she said.
“This is reaching kids who are at a disadvantage,” she said. “This is a population of kids who might not get to play in a rec league.”
Watching her husband coach the team for several years now, she has come to see the long-term benefits beyond the sport.
“It’s more about teaching life skills than just basketball,” she said. “Behavior and grades are tied in with basketball, so it gives them an incentive to come to school and work hard.”
Tatum said she thinks parents appreciate the league more, too, because it’s tied to school, “instead of just pay money and play games.”
Parents in attendance at Saturday’s game said they chose the Home School Communicator league for reasons including cost, convenience and the community that develops.
“It’s nice that they can play with their schoolmates, so it’s kids they know,” said Lora Andrews, whose son plays on Derby Ridge’s team. “He just likes sports. And it’s an inexpensive way for him to explore basketball.”
She said the kids often have more school pride from playing in the league, which is unique at the elementary level, and it’s convenient for parents because practices are held in the school gym after school lets out.
Coming to games is fun for the parents, too. They see each other at games and practices and have gotten to know everyone quite well.
“There’s a sense of community. Everybody’s starting to know each other’s kids,” said Maurice Gordon, whose twins Marea and Marya Brown both play on the Benton team. “You can’t beat that.”
Parents also value the experience the league provides participants.
“He gets a sense of accomplishment,” Becky Chapman said of her son, Deric Hern, who plays for Benton. “And he’s learning discipline and accountability because he has to commit himself to the team.”
She sees a lasting appreciation in the student coaches as well.
“They could be involved in lots of other things, but it must’ve meant something for them to want to give back,” she said of the three teenagers who assist Aaron Tatum.
Tatum’s son, Michael Tatum, enjoyed the Home School Communicator Basketball League and his father’s coaching so much that he has stayed involved with basketball and the program. Now a sophomore at Hickman High School, he still appreciates the benefits he gained from participating in the league.
“I use a lot of the life lessons that I learned, like perseverance and just challenging myself all the way,” he said. “The league was so much more than just basketball. It was about life, commitment, responsibility and productive ways to have fun.”
Tatum said the way his father ran the team really helped guide many of the players in the right direction.
“I saw benefits for a lot of the guys I played with,” he said. “They grew as people and stayed out of trouble.”
Knowing how much the experience had helped his team, Michael Tatum felt a responsibility to stay involved and continue the program.
“I thought I should help other kids who aren’t as fortunate to get the same opportunities that I got,” he said. “A lot of these are troubled kids who don’t come from great backgrounds, but here they learn life lessons they will carry with them.”
Aaron Tatum said he strives to make his team about more than just the sport.
“There’s days when I have people come in and talk to the kids about things besides basketball, things that are going on at that age or coming up at that age,” he said.
He makes himself available and open to his players, giving each of them his phone number and encouraging them to call him.
“Things they’re thinking about and don’t want to talk to their parents or teachers about, they can talk to me about,” he said. “If they have problems, we work together to try to figure out how we can correct those problems.”
Tatum also enforces strict school and behavior policies for his team. But they work.
“They know if they get in trouble they’re not going to be able to play,” he said of his players. “When basketball starts, the behavior changes.”
And the benefits last beyond the season. Tatum said he has had players who got in a lot of trouble in fourth grade, but came back in fifth grade and followed the rules. Some of his former players who had difficulties with grades are now making honor roll in high school, he said.
Michael Tatum agrees that his father has high expectations unrelated to the action on the court, and this teaches his players the importance of things like cleaning their rooms, listening to their parents and doing well in school, he said.
“He has these other standards to meet, before you even get to basketball, and those apply to the rest of your life,” he said. “The great thing is seeing all the knowledge that accumulates in this league and seeing it pass on to the younger kids.”
He believes the league helps everyone on the team, whether they play for just one year or end up in the NBA.
“To me, it’s so much more than basketball,” he said. “For some of them, this is the last time they’ll play, but as long as they improve themselves and it makes them happy, it’s worth it.”