When the Maryville College men’s basketball team arrived at the Western Heights Boys and Girls Club to host a basketball clinic for the second year in a row, head coach Randy Lambert wasn’t expecting a large turnout. That changed when several gang members showed up with their friends, all with intentions of participating.
One of the young men approached Tom Garner, MC alumni and founder of Harbours Gate, the community service-based organization that coordinated the clinic:
“A clinic? What kind of clinic is it?’
“I ain’t going to no clinic, Tom. They’re going to draw blood work– I’m [expletive] high.”
“We’re not drawing blood today. Come on in.”
In the summer of 2013, Garner invited Lambert to Western Heights for ‘Community Unity Day,’ an event also coordinated by Harbours Gate. More specifically, Garner wanted Lambert to check out the basketball tournament held among the community members at the event.
Lambert accepted Garner’s invitation and was both impressed by the talent of the players and moved by the stories Garner shared about the struggle of the youth in the Western Heights area. It was then that Lambert offered to bring his team out to host a basketball clinic.
Harbours Gate acts as a “neighborhood peace corps” in blighted communities in the Knoxville area. The organization practices a hands-on approach, working actively from within the communities. Garner contacted the local Boys and Girls Club in Western Heights, and they were more than willing to host the clinic in their indoor gym.
A second older attendee approached Garner as well, also skeptical about the event:
“Another guy came out there, and he said, ‘You know that I missed that court date two months ago, and there’s warrants out there for me.’ I said, ‘I know. The police are driving up and down, and if they see you, it’s your own risk. But you’re welcome to come on in.’ And he came inside.”
Garner had grown to know many of the young adults that entered the clinic in years spent around the community and assured that the environment was safe. Garner noted the conditions that many of the attendees face in their daily lives:
“Many of them come from a broken-home situation. A lot of their parents are either incarcerated or dead or have abandoned them; some of them are being raised by their grandparents. A lot of them really struggle in school; a lot of them have never had a good base elementary school education, and by the time they get to junior high and high school, they’re hurting. The ones we’re seeing have usually dropped out. The Boys and Girls club does a great job with them, if they can get the kids to come in there.”
The clinic ensued in smooth fashion. Lambert opened the day with a segment about setting goals and establishing priorities. He used the Scots’ three seniors, Oscar Butler, Christian Ford and Spencer Peake as living examples, giving brief outlines of their lives and what they plan to do with their college degrees.
“I expressed to them that at some point in time, [the seniors] had to realize that they had to chase their dreams, and therefore their life needs to be different than those around them… their goals are higher, therefore they have to make the sacrifices in order to meet those goals,” Lambert said.
After the opening segment, the team put the attendees through basic ball handling, passing and shooting drills, as well as played some shooting games such as the popular “Gotcha.”
“Most of them were at the beginning stage of their game, but there were four or five that had played on a junior high team, and they were actually pretty skilled,” Lambert said. “They actually beat our players in a shooting game one time, and that had them all fired up.”
Once the games were over, the Scots prepared to say their goodbyes to their new friends at Western Heights. Before leaving, however, they gave out some gifts. Anaconda Sports, maker of “The Rock” basketball that is used by the MC basketball program, provided the Scots with ten basketballs to give out, eight of which were given to children that had been waiting since 10 a.m. for the clinic at 1 p.m..
A few of the recipients asked the players to autograph their basketballs, which according to Lambert was a first for some of the players. One of the younger children approached Garner toward the end of the clinic, holding up his basketball with a big smile.
“He said, ‘Wow, I got a big-time basketball player to sign my basketball. That is awesome,’” Garner said. This brought Garner to a realization:
“I realized for the first time that, to these kids, this was the ‘Shaq O’Neal.’ This was the big-time for an inner city neighborhood— that a college came out to spend time with them that day. I went up there yesterday, and there are kids out there on those basketball courts dribbling those balls. One little girl won’t dribble her basketball, because she doesn’t want to lose the signatures.”
Lambert said that this would not be the Scots’ last trip to Western Heights, and that the team looks forward to going back next year. He also spoke with Garner about getting the children out to an MC home game this year.
The event marked the third act of community service by the Scots this year. They have also volunteered at the Alzheimer’s Walk and read to children at John Sevier and Coulter Grove elementary schools.
“I think it’s good that our players learn to give back to the community… I’m proud of who they are, not just as basketball players, but as people,” Lambert said. “We’re all so blessed in our own lives, and I think we need to try our best to serve those who are less fortunate.”
The Scots tipoff their season on Saturday, Nov. 15 at home against Centre College on Randy Lambert Court.