FAAM teams play at Fleetwood-Jourdain gym. (Photo by Teel Miller/FAAM)

It’s the final Saturday in February and the FAAM faithful have gathered at Fleetwood-Jourdain for the last regular-season games. Playoff berths are at stake, and the crowd can sense it. The gym buzzes with chatty parents, players sizing up the competition and community members offering unsolicited advice. Basketballs thump and a whistle blows. A toddler runs through the stands. The gym quiets momentarily for the tipoff and then explodes in sound as The Jazz get the ball. Directions come firing at the players from the sidelines and stands: “Rebound!” “Hit that!”

The game is underway.

The FAAM website says, “The men who founded FAAM were inspired by ‘Harambee,’ a Swahili word that means, ‘Let us pull together.'” (Photo by Teel Miller/FAAM)

Founded in 1968 in response to a need for after-school activities, the Fellowship of Afro-American Men, or FAAM as the organization is more commonly known, began offering basketball as a means of teaching life lessons to participating Evanston middle school youth. Fifty-four years later, FAAM is after the same goal.

Operated entirely through a volunteer structure and supported through the sustained affection of the larger Evanston community, FAAM has weathered the pandemic, though not without some difficulty.

“It’s been interesting and challenging, as it has been for everyone,” reports FAAM President Willie Miller. “We took last year off, which was very difficult, but we came back this year.” Opting to follow District 65, FAAM resumed a modified season, requiring masks, pausing when COVID-19 numbers were high and eliminating handshake lines following games. None of these were easy decisions, explains Miller, “But we wanted to get our kids out running and jumping and being as safe as possible.” 

The FAAM Pistons and Trailblazers battle for the ball at Fleetwood-Jourdain. (Photo by Teel Miller/FAAM)

That FAAM had the well-being of players in mind is not surprising. It is FAAM’s attention to the development of the whole child that sets it apart from other basketball programs.

“Other leagues are trying to develop talent,” says Miller. “We are trying to get the kids out to learn team spirit and camaraderie. We are teaching life lessons.” 

These lessons are reinforced through FAAM’s unique multi-age team approach. When children are assigned to a FAAM team in sixth grade, they remain with the same team and coaches for three years, maturing as both player and team leader.

The 2021-22 FAAM champions, the Spurs, pose for a team photo. (Photo by Teel Miller/FAAM)

“It was such a good experience for my child,” reports Amanda Linder, whose eighth grade son is in his third year with the league.

“He knew he had to earn his stripes and that the sixth graders didn’t go in until the third quarter, no matter how good they were. It was humbling,” she reflects, “and I loved FAAM for that.” 

In addition, notes Linder, “FAAM proved to be so much more than basketball. They were really coaching the whole child, and not just on skills.” 

FAAM has been teaching life skills via basketball to Evanston middle school youth since 1968. (Photo by Teel Miller/FAAM)

In a typical season, FAAM requires players to maintain strong grades and offers an essay contest through which players can reflect on their own growth and change.

Tawana Ross, a member of FAAM’s Executive Committee whose children all came through the program, knows the source of this care. “FAAM is and will always be the best game in town because we give from our heart for the love of the youth and the game.” 

FAAM co-founder William “Bill” Logan Jr. watches the basketball action. (Photo by Teel Miller/FAAM)

Many of FAAM’s coaching staff came through the program themselves and view their commitment as a way to give back. “We give our personal time to the kids because we were once those kids,” reflects Coach Ty Bondon. “Going to FAAM was like a getaway from a long day at school.”

Bondon believes that by coaching he is now paying it forward. “I like seeing when the kids grow up and remember some of the things that we taught them.” 

(Photo by Teel Miller/FAAM)

Kathy Slaughter, an Evanston resident whose daughters played in the league and whose husband Bob Slaughter was a coach, agrees with Bondon about the personal nature of the commitment. For Slaughter and her girls, “FAAM was all about families coming together. Whether it was a mom or dad coaching their own kids, or coaching other children in the community, the team became like family.”  While her husband manages to lead his team to the championship game on FAAM’s traditional Pancake Day, “I don’t think the Timberwolves ever won a championship. However, lots of his girls made the varsity basketball team at ETHS, which was a source of pride for Bob and the girls.”

With gathering restrictions still in place, Pancake Day – FAAM’s chief fundraiser – was a casualty of the pandemic, as was its annual trophy dinner. In addition, FAAM’s overall player numbers were down this year, so much so that the organization suspended its girls program, partnering instead with another local league so that interested girls could still play. Fortunately, FAAM leadership believes that these are temporary setbacks. Sound fiscal management and consistent program fees have managed to keep FAAM afloat. As it looks to the coming year, the organization hopes to return to full-scale programming.

Back at the gym, it’s halftime and players huddle with their coaches. A ref takes a seat in the stands and strikes up a conversation with some fans. The toddler has dumped his Goldfish crackers on the gym floor, and the clock ticks down the seconds until play resumes. Despite the many challenges of the last two years, the stands are full and rowdy. At the sound of the buzzer, the players take the floor, and, when the game resumes, it is easy to understand Miller’s optimism for the future.

When asked what he most wants Evanston to know, he muses for a second and then laughs, “I want them to know that FAAM is back, baby!”

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