COLUMBIA — Wale Aliyu has had the desire to help youth ever since he was young. Aliyu spent more than 80 hours during lunches and after school as a student at Rock Bridge High School tutoring his peers.
Six years later, Aliyu is still doing what he has always loved – helping kids.
Off the court, Wale Aliyu works with a lot of the same youth he coaches in Moonlight Hoops at the Armory Sports & Community Center as a journalism instructor. Aliyu teaches his students the fundamentals of journalism, and as a group they created a website that is frequently updated with articles and media that the children produce.
“I have always loved kids,” Aliyu said. “When I was young, so many people invested so much time in me, so I wanted to do the same for others.”
Aliyu, a 24-year-old graduate of the MU School of Journalism, brought together his passions for basketball and for helping children two years ago by forming a team in the Moonlight Hoops Summer Outdoor Basketball League in Columbia. Every Tuesday and Wednesday night during the summer, 110 boys and girls ranging from 13-16 years of age gather at Douglass Park courts to participate in the five-on-five outdoor basketball league.
As a coach, Aliyu has become a part of an effort to keep Columbia youth safe and out of trouble.
"Every hour that a kid is out here on these courts is an hour that they are staying out of trouble," said Roy Stephens, a referee for the league that played in a similar program at Douglass Park when he was a child. "Not only do they play in their own game, they will stay and watch their friends too. It's a great program."
Coaching teams in the league has allowed Aliyu to learn about himself while at the same time instilling values in his players that they can apply in life on and off the basketball court.
Aliyu first found out he liked inspiring basketball players as a sophomore at Rock Bridge when he became the manger for the boys basketball team. He rolled his ankle the week before tryouts and did not get a spot as a player, but the coach assigned him to stat-keeping duties. Aliyu enjoyed the role, but not because he was particularly good with numbers.
“I got so into watching the games and yelling encouragements to the players that I would forget to take stats,” Aliyu said.
After taking a break last summer, Aliyu returned to the Moonlight league this year to coach team Buckingham. While Aliyu recognizes that his players want to win games, he also understands that teaching values is something that his job description needs to include. Aliyu said he makes himself available to his players if they need advice or help with something that is bothering them.
"I am always open to outside issues that my players bring to me," Aliyu said. "They know they can always come to me, and I want to spend time with them outside of the basketball court."
Aliyu's attitude about coaching basketball demands a level of respect that he easily gets from his players. Earlier this season in the outdoor league, one of Aliyu’s players received two technical fouls on one play that both the player and Aliyu found unfair.
“Most players would have mouthed off, but my guy bit his tongue and said ‘Yes sir,’” Aliyu said.
The player was immediately ejected and suspended for the next game. But with Aliyu’s encouragement, the player came back the next week and cheered his team on from the bench.
“Humility is so important in sports," Aliyu said. "I tell my players to play within themselves, and to only do what they can do. Trusting your teammates, especially on defense, is another value that I focus on with my team.
“Through winning in sports and having friendships with your teammates, you’ll always value being on a team.”
Because he is still young himself, Aliyu is a coach that can level with his players as someone who once dealt with some of the same things they are dealing with.
“I do my best to relate to my players before I jump on them with issues. I know I was there once, so I try to just open myself up to the kids,” he said. "If I don't relate, and if I'm not approachable, then I'm just a guy talking."
Aliyu is the main reason that DeAnna Trass lets her son Roman Trass, one of the captains of team Buckingham, play in the league.
"Wale is that older brother that Roman never had," DeAnna Trass said. "The kids see him (Aliyu) as a role model. He is around us all the time, and they would be embarrased if Wale found out about trouble they were getting into."
Aliyu said he feels like he's getting something out of the relationships with his players, too.
"I learn something from the kids every day. I can always tell now when they are working as a team and when they aren't," Aliyu said. "I've learned that when I can get my players to buy into a system with all of their hearts and minds, we can do whatever we want."