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Skills for success

Former college and NBA star and his brother help local youth improve their basketball skills

Posted: March 9, 2009 1:24 a.m.
Updated: March 9, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Former NBA star Kenny Smith runs "Aim High," a youth basketball foundation that teaches kids the fundamentals of the sport out of the Powerhouse Gym.

 
On a Friday night at the Powerhouse Gym in Santa Clarita, Marsalis Ellison is working up a sweat.

The 16-year-old student at Blair High School of Pasadena is practicing his footwork by executing the same crossover dribble and pull-up jumper until it becomes natural.

He's being instructed in a private session with Vince Smith, brother of former NBA champion Kenny Smith. In half an hour, a group of kids ages 7-13 will receive similar instruction from Kenny himself during practice for the Aim High Foundation.

Two weeks ago, Vince was whipping point guard Stephon Marbury back into shape before he signed with the Boston Celtics.

"They all have the same fee," Kenny says, folding his fingers to hold the number zero in the air. "Commitment."

The Smiths have been committed to improving basketball in the Santa Clarita Valley since they brought the foundation to the area four years ago.

Aim High is an Amateur Athletic Union program that funds youth teams all over the country. Last year, the foundation added a high school team to its group of Santa Clarita-based squads.

The roster included local stars like Golden Valley's Maverick Ahanmisi and Steven Thornton and West Ranch's David Franklin and Hakeem Bradley.

But Kenny says an instance at an early practice exemplified the need for the foundation.

"We asked, ‘Who here has played against a guy who played Division I?'" he says. "Nobody raised their hand. Not one player. I grew up in an area where we had 12 Division I players on a team, so it was a totally different mindset out here. What I said is we're just going to raise the expectation level."

The Aim High teams have made trips to tournaments in cities like Houston, Atlanta and Las Vegas, and the Smiths pay every dime of the expense. The foundation also has hosted the Kenny "The Jet" Holiday Classic in the Santa Clarita area for the past six years.

Those events give the players an opportunity to test their skills against top competition.

"We have a lot of footwork drills leading up to shooting," Vince says. "We have a lot of mental drills, which lead them to seeing two plays ahead. Eighty percent of it is mental. The rest is physical and repetition."

Players can get that repetition at the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Clarita Valley, where the high school team is currently holding tryouts on Saturdays from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Younger players can join the program at the Powerhouse, where Aim High holds open practices every Monday, Tuesday and Friday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. for kids anywhere from age seven to middle school.

There is no fee to attend the open practices, and no players will be turned away.

"We learn ball-handling, shooting, basically everything that basketball covers," says Larry Bush, a 13-year-old Simi Valley native who has been with Aim High for two years. "The program's perfect for pretty much all ages."

The Smiths have been giving young players that opportunity since they established Aim High two decades ago in New York City.

Kenny was a star point guard at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, and he attributes his success to the program his brother and father put him through.

"Over a summer, I had a dramatic jump in talent, and everyone was trying to figure out how," Kenny says. "It was all the drills that (Vince) did and the work ethic that we put forth. From there, he became the Pied Piper of our neighborhood. All of a sudden, I became first-team all-American when people had never really heard of me that much outside of New York City."

Kenny went on to become a rare four-year starter at the University of North Carolina, and he won back-to-back NBA championships as the starting point guard of the Houston Rockets in the mid-1990s.

Since its inception, the Aim High Foundation has helped more than 350 players sign with either Division I or Division II schools. Several current NBA players took part in Aim High as youngsters, including Marbury, Lamar Odom, Speedy Claxton and Rafer Alston.

"They have really good players who played for Aim High," says Cameron Carroll, a student at Rancho Pico Junior High School who has been with the program since third grade. "When I hear names like that, it inspires me to be a better basketball player."

The results on the court inspire the coaches.

"It's a great satisfaction, because you come into the game and all the work has paid off," Vince says. "It's like if you're an actor and you did all that work before your scenes, and then suddenly you have a great movie."

This past season showcased the Santa Clarita Valley's basketball talent, as two-thirds of the Foothill League schools reached the CIF-Southern Section quarterfinals in their respective divisions.

Aim High is hoping to improve upon that success, starting with the 12-and-under teams and extending all the way to the high school squad.

"At this age there's really no good players, there's just kids who are faster and stronger and quicker," Kenny says. "Commitment is the first thing and the second thing is character. It won't show until about four years from now. The basketball level in this area is going to increase."


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