The Fellowship of African American Men (FAAM) Youth Basketball League is celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall. While the program is known for providing a competitive basketball program, its mission goes well beyond that to include providing positive role models for middle school students and helping them to develop self-respect, good decision-making skills, and an appreciation of the value of education.
In 1968, School District 65 cut back on its athletic programs, leaving a void for athletic activities for sixth- through eighth-graders. FAAM was established to replace some of those activities, Bill Logan told the RoundTable. From the start, he said, it was about more than just basketball.
“Without question, both Gene Bell and Bill Logan were instrumental in founding FAAM,” Willie Miller, president of FAAM and a coach for 32 years told the RoundTable. “I believe it was Gene Bell’s brainchild in 1968 and then he and Bill Logan and Howie Barksdale, Ray Sanders, and Henry Whitehall got together and were the original founders.” Mr. Bell and Mr. Logan “continued to push the organization forward and have been the faces of FAAM for quite a long time.”
“In the early years, FAAM had four teams, probably with 8-10 players per team, and they were playing half-court basketball,” Bob Reece, a FAAM coach for almost 40 years, told the RoundTable. “It started out as an organization that was reaching out to African American kids, particularly at-risk kids, due to cut backs in District 65.”
Within 20 years, the league had expanded to include white students and girls teams; and the league attracted students from Chicago and neighboring suburbs as far north as Lake Forest and as far south as Harvey – likely because it provided some of the best competitive basketball around.
Some of FAAM’s players have gone on to be All-State high school basketball players, and some have played pro-ball. All of the basketball coaches at Evanston Township High School, except the head coach, went through FAAM.
This coming year, there will be 14 boys teams, 6 girls teams, and 2 cheerleading teams, serving approximately 350 sixth- through eighth-graders, said Mr. Miller. There are more than 80 volunteers, about 50 of whom are coaches or assistant coaches.
“To see FAAM grow, where there are probably 350-400 kids, boys, girls, black, white and from all social, economic, backgrounds has just been unbelievable,” Mr. Reece told the RoundTable.
Overall, Mr. Miller said FAAM has served about 7,000 students since it was founded.
Sixth-graders and other newcomers are drafted by coaches in the fall. During the 13-week season, each team practices twice a week and plays a competitive game against other teams at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center on Saturdays. The stands at Fleetwood are generally packed with parents and friends cheering on the teams.
Playoffs begin in February, ending with the championship and consolation games for the boys and girls teams, held on the same day as FAAM’s Annual Pancake Day Fundraiser. In March, FAAM holds an Annual Awards Banquet, a pot-luck dinner, where the league honors players for both academic and athletic achievements.
“While we bill ourselves as a basketball league, a competitive basketball league, basketball is the hook, and we give the kids who come to our programs a positive nurturing atmosphere that teaches them the value of teamwork and camaraderie,” said Mr. Miller.
“Not only do they learn the sport, but they learn to deal with other children who are not necessarily similarly situated,” continued Mr. Miller. “So they get a wide range of experiences and recognitions, and we think that’s a very positive experience.
“It also gives them structure. They’ve got to show up at a certain place at a certain time a couple of times a week. They know other people have to rely on them.”
“It’s always been more than just basketball,” said Mr. Reece. “We try to be role models for the kids – just teaching them what I call soft skills: respect, honesty, reliability, dependability, just showing up on time. I used to have all my kids wear ties to the games. You teach kids, who maybe don’t want to wear ties, these are our team rules. And if you want to play on our team, you have to follow the rules.”
Mr. Reece said he always made sure his team was integrated “because I think there’s so much that white kids and black kids can learn from each other.” He said he used to drop kids off at their homes after practices, and he would alternate, sometimes dropping the black kids off first and sometimes the white kids off first, so they could all see where everyone lived. “There were so many kids that had not gone outside their little neighborhoods,” he said. “The kids could learn more about each other.”
Mr. Reece told a story about a white sixth-grader who started at point guard for his team, the Sonics, and the team won the championship that year. Team members told the sixth-grader he would win the “newcomer” award at the Annual Awards dinner. The sixth-grader, however, did not win, and he was devastated. That night all the black members of the team, with their families, visited the sixth-grader’s home and told him he deserved the award, and they and their families stayed a good part of the evening. The mother of the sixth-grader told Mr. Reece the next morning, “What those kids and their families did was far greater than any award he could possibly have achieved.”
The sixth-grader went on to become Mr. Basketball of Illinois and played basketball at Duke University and in the pros overseas.
“Having been one of the longest tenured coaches, I see kids all the time,” said Mr. Reece. “Now, of course, they’re adults in their 40s, they have families, they have kids that are playing in FAAM. Whenever I see them, they always call me Coach Reece. For these kids, it was just a great, great experience, black and white. They develop friendships that are lasting a lifetime.”
Tosha Wilson, a player in FAAM and a coach for five years, said FAAM builds bonds. “Some of my best friends are still the same girls from 20 years ago that I played with at Fleetwood.
“It brings different sides of town together, whether they’re in the Fifth Ward or from the lakefront. If you played the game of basketball, you all became brothers and sisters. We still talk about it today as we’re approaching 40, and it’s something that’s important to us. FAAM just transcends, I’m proud to be part of it, then and now.
“A lot of coaches teach the layups, the free-throws and the other skills of basketball, but the coaches I know teach life skills, whether it’s on the girls’ side, how to be a lady, but it’s also how to stand up for yourself if it’s necessary. It’s beyond basketball.
“These coaches are businessmen and businesswomen, police officers, and community pillars, and they want to teach individual kids how to be better than what they think they can be. So you teach basketball skills, but the game is always going to be the game, but just the life lessons that they learn from coaches is awesome.”
Ms. Wilson said every player, at the end of the season, writes an essay about how FAAM has impacted them. One girl, who Ms. Wilson said was the shortest girl in FAAM, was running down the sideline in a game and she ran full speed into a girl who was one the biggest in the league. The little girl “went airborne.” The crowd gasped and became silent. “The girl stood up with so much energy, like ‘I’m still in it.’ She earned so much respect at that moment,” said Ms. Wilson. The girl’s essay won Best Essay at the Award banquet.
Mark Osher told the RoundTable he played in the FAAM league and that his coach, Clarence Fulce, has been in his life since then. “He has been like a second father to me,” said Mr. Osher, adding that for the last 21 years, he has been coaching with Mr. Fulce.
“He taught me respect, wanting to give back. What I’ve done now is try to continue to instill that in young men.”
“I can teach anybody the basics of basketball, but what I’m teaching is how to be a solid good man – how to respect your parents, respect your teachers, be a family person, give back to your community. These are the skills we want to instill.
“Many coaches see it as a long-term commitment, and as a way to give back, but we’re also cultivating the next group of leaders for our community,” said Mr. Osher, adding that many of the coaches stay in touch with their players.
“Coaches stick with kids beyond just those three years at FAAM,” said Ms. Wilson.” We actually become a family, and that’s where the term FAAM-ily comes from. It never stops.”
FAAM also tries to get kids to pay attention to learning. Mr. Miller said FAAM “instituted an academic standard that you have to have a C or better average, and if you don’t, instead of saying you couldn’t play, we put together a tutorial program.”
Twana Sudduth, the manager of the academic program, told the RoundTable FAAM has a homework/tutoring program where kids can come in to get assistance with their homework or completing their homework. She added that some students who have a grade point average above a 2.0 ask if they can come in for help, and they are welcome. Each season, about 50 or more students participate in the program.
She said FAAM works very closely with District 65 teachers and principals in designing the program. “We want to be sure kids are prepared for the next level,” she said. “We want to be sure they are prepared for the academic component at the high school.”
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
“When you look at where we started with just a few teams, and now it has 14 boys teams and 6 girls teams and kids of all races and an educational requirement for all our students, I think this has had a major impact on not only our youth, but on our founding members, our coaches and the community. It’s had a wonderful impact on all our lives,” said Mr. Logan.
“We didn’t do it alone,” Mr. Logan added. “We had the cooperation of District 65, the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, and many coaches and volunteers.”
“With the 50th anniversary, we’re looking at all of the things we’ve done in the past, trying to reestablish our mission and reinvigorate our volunteers and so we’re looking at different kinds of things to jump start again,” said Mr. Miller.
Some of the things he mentioned are a very intensive coaching orientation, an upgrade to the tutorial program, and a review FAAM’s strategic plan – examining, “How can we be better integrated in the community and better serve the youth in the community?
“I do believe it’s remarkable that we have survived for 50 years. We’re excited, we’re looking forward to the next 50 years. We give thanks to Gene Bell and Bill Logan for providing an organization that has an extremely positive impact on children.
“I like the fact that we have a chance to mold and shape young people’s minds because someone did it for me. I think it’s great to be able to pass it on. I had a lot of mentors and I still remember all those mentors. I think that’s what we’re providing to the children. I’m excited about that. I’m passionate about that.”