The Town Courier April 24, 2009 - Page 8
By Atwan Kwan
The “Be Like Mike” dream has become a reality for local youth. Gaithersburg is home to the Jr. NBA’s largest league, which plays all its games at Lakelands Park Middle School. The season championships, held on Saturday, March 21, marked the sixth year of the league. It can be argued that only a few lucky ones are born to have the confidence and passion to be Michael Jordan, but Gaithersburg’s Jr. NBA league is cultivating these championship qualities in its young players year round. The “air-like” skills were on display in the 9- to 12-year-old championship game when 11-year-old Kyle Sagger hit a last second, game-winning floater to lift the Pistons to a 26-24 victory over the Thunder.
“You can see it from beginning to end that the thing is confidence,” said Tony Ellis, father of Pistons’ 12-year-old guard Sam Ellis. “It’s getting the kids opportunities to play and mixing them in. Not just playing the top five, every kid feels like they can contribute to the team. Kyle was at the right spot at the right time and, boom, he hit it. They’re not afraid to take the shot.” Despite leading all scorers in the game and scoring all of the Pistons fourth quarter points, Ellis dished off the ball for the last play to Sagger. Sagger followed up by icing a 7-foot teardrop shot from the left baseline in traffic as the game clock hit 0:00. “Our guys are all calm,” said Pistons coach Greg Lefelar. “I mean, they’re excited, but nobody’s nervous. That’s the thing that’s remarkable to me. I’m more nervous than they are.”
In 2002 Gaithersburg’s Jr. NBA was born with only 50 players registered. Today, with 600 registered kids, the league is capped at 24 teams. Its players enjoy everything from experienced coaches to personalized jerseys to in-game stat keepers. The games maintain a high level of competition, attracting serious year-round ballers. “I’ve played in other leagues before, but I like this because it’s so intense and there is so much emotion in it,” said Sam Ellis. “I’ve played in Rising Star, I-270 and some AAU, but this is one of my favorites. The difference is I’ve gained more confidence and learned to play together here more. It’s less about independence and more about the team.”
So which company is endorsing this league in search for the next big talent? Not Reebok, Nike or Adidas. Manns Investment Banking Group (MIBG), a Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities (CMBS) conduit located in Kentlands, subsidizes all the league’s expenses. MIBG even offers financial aid to any child who wishes to play but can’t afford to register.
Marcus Mui, MIBG’s managing director, is also the program director for Gaithersburg’s Jr. NBA. Running the largest Jr. NBA league in the world does take its share of resources, but Mui puts in all his time and money voluntarily. “I never looked at the league for financial gain,” said Mui. “Even though there is huge vertical growth pattern for [Gaithersburg’s Jr. NBA], advertising and sponsorships is not what I had in mind for this. The kids’ progressive growth is my reward.”
Consequently Gaithersburg’s Jr. NBA league has been much more than another superficial elitist basketball camp for kids. To the contrary, this youth league bases its game play on equality with a draft before every season. The 9- to 11-year-old championship game featured the last seeded team against the top seeded team. Girls had already started to play in the league three years ago. “A lot of the elite leagues have tryouts,” said Mui. “At this age for kids I believe it’s about building confidence, not dealing with rejection. Rather than a cut-throat environment I want a family-friendly environment for the kids.” The league was established as an alternative to deficient local recreational basketball leagues. The goal was to create a youth basketball league with an organized basketball format that taught its players to run structured plays within a cohesive team system.
Mui was always interested in working with kids. In college, he earned a master’s degree in children’s clinical psychology along with an MBA in finance. As founder, Mui made it a point to maintain the league’s integrity by focusing on youth development as much as basketball. Marcus implemented a unique set of rules in upholding these objectives. One of the biggest rules isn’t even for the players: At every game booing is prohibited. Also, each draft order is undisclosed, keeping each players rank unrevealed.
“I wanted [Gaithersburg’s Jr.NBA league] to be a benefit,” said Mui. “It was an opportunity for all kids to play and get the experience of top organized basketball.”