At 10 years old, Rico Prince has already mastered a swagger like an NBA pro.
He made sure his teammate knew he was talking to a reporter. With raised eyebrows and a playful smirk, he laughed and joked, “I’m gonna be famous.”
His mother, Stephanie Prince, was all smiles when talking about her son.
“He’s got a personality on him like no other,” she said.
Rico, who dreams of becoming a famous basketball player when he grows up, has a dedication to the sport that landed him and his family at the University of Missouri Student Rec Center by 7:45 a.m. on Saturday. He was early and excited for his 8 a.m. game. As a fourth-grader at Field Elementary, this is his first year playing basketball for the Columbia Youth Basketball Association. The league comprises separate boys’ and girls’ teams ranging from a fourth-grade division to an eighth- and ninth-grade division. Teams, which are organized primarily by school, practice once a week to prepare for Saturday games. In his first year, Rico has been to all practices so far except for one, when going to grandma’s house took precedence.
“He was worried,” his mother said. “But his coach said it was OK, he’s here because he wants to be.”
The fact that Rico wants to play is evident by the smile on his face. Out on the court his strong personality shines as he directs and encourages his friends. He’s the first to congratulate a teammate’s basket with a high-five. His favorite parts about basketball include running up and down the court, and the fun of playing with his friends.
“And teamwork too.” Rico said.
Teamwork and sportsmanship, according to CYBA president Wendell Coonce, are the primary focus of the league.
“We do not keep league standings from week to week.” he said. “In fact, for fourth grade we do not even keep score, which has been one of the best rules we have ever implemented. It keeps both coaches and parents focused on kids having fun and developing skills.”
The league focuses on a different sense of what it means to win, which has developed in the form of its annual Matt Twenter Sportsmanship Banquet.
After each game, referees will rate the teams based on the sportsmanship of the coaches, players, and fans. The top three teams from each division with the highest sportsmanship ratings are awarded as winners at the year-end banquet.
“We feel this gives more than ‘lip service’ to the concept of sportsmanship and truly reinforces to the kids that it is a very important part of sports, let alone life,” Coonce said.
Susan Kreklow, associate head coach of the Missouri women’s volleyball team has a 10-year-old daughter, Ali, who plays in the fourth-grade division.
“The league doesn’t pay attention to winning and losing. They try to downplay that,” she said.
Ali, like Rico, seems to flourish in the realm of team sports.
“I just like the game. It’s fun to play because you’ve got friends with you,” Ali said.
For Rico, having friends on the team is a big part of the fun as well. He says they even practice together on the playground at recess.
For Ali, involvement in swimming, soccer, volleyball and dance means that the basketball court isn’t the only place where she shines. But today the team spirit that showed in her smiles and encouragement defined her prowess. Her coach even congratulated her after the game with a high-five, saying to her mother, “Did you see those rocket passes?”
This is the exact spirit of encouragement, so highly endorsed by CYBA, that surrounded all three courts the league had occupied. Parents, families and friends all gathered to offer support for the children as they played.
“It’s just so neat, all of the volunteer coaches, and people that want to get involved in the community and give kids a chance to play,” Kreklow said.
“The primary goal of children playing sports should be because they enjoy it,” Coonce said. “While sports are very much about winning and losing, you do not need to win to have fun.”