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When parents and potential players gathered earlier this spring for the inaugural meet-and-greet with the coaches and founders of the Colorado Impact girls' basketball club, the main message was all about...losing. And not just letting a few squeakers slip away, either.
"We will get thrashed," coach Gary Anderson promised. "And," he warned, glancing at the parents, "if you can't stay in the stands and understand our vision without getting all whacked out, then this is not for you."
Nervous chuckles: It was a joke, right? But Anderson, who has coached the Arvada West High School girls' varsity basketball team for the past six years, had still more bad news to deliver. "He told us, 'If you're a hotdog, here to showcase your skills, then this isn't for you, either,'" recalls Kurt Hansen, whose daughter Amelia signed up that night.
"He said that the club wasn't there to get scholarships or be promoted or get [recruiters] to come watch the girls," adds Denise Ashford. Despite the coach's dour outlook, her daughter Whitney signed on, too.
Is this any way to start a competitive sports club? After all, this is the age in which kids' athletics has become as serious -- and occasionally as fun -- as organ donation. Youth sports -- year-round tournaments, practices, travel -- have replaced vacations in the rhythm of a family's year. The Colorado Rush, a private soccer club, boasts a sponsorship from Nike. Crested Butte Academy prepares students for life as professional snowboarders. The Colorado Hoopsters, another girls' basketball club, whups ass across the country and promotes itself as a player pipeline to tuition-free college-basketball bliss.
In today's busy athletic families, who has time for losing?
But Anderson is convinced that his retro approach will work. "If I'm gonna do club basketball," he says, "I'm gonna do it right. We're about team basketball, sportsmanship, competitiveness. And community service."
Oh, right: Among the Impact's to-do list of what it takes to make a crack basketball player, there's even more bad news for jocks who think the stock market opens and closes with their latest jump shot. In order to join the Impact, each player must commit to performing ten hours of community service, too.
"If we can humble some of these kids a bit, perhaps they'll turn out to be better people," hypothesizes Ronnie Simson, another coach and founder of the club.
Better people? What does being human have to do with playing serious hoops?
"When I was growing up, it was a privilege to play basketball," explains Anderson. "It was a privilege to get in a game; it was a privilege to wear a uniform. Now that's all seen as a right. I want my girls to understand how grateful they should be."
Tim Neises looked into several other girls' clubs before bringing eighth-grader Courtney to Anderson's tryouts. "He told us, 'We're calling this the Impact because we want to have an impact on your lives,'" Neises recalls.
He adds that he was impressed that when tryouts were over, Anderson invited the girls who didn't make the team to come to club practices anyway so they could improve their skills. One of those who stayed ended up making the squad. Neises also compares the Impact to his son's competitive traveling basketball team, which costs seven times as much and stopped practicing together once tournament play began. The Impact teams, by comparison, "have practiced twice a week, religiously."
"It's been a breath of fresh air coming to this club," says Neises.
Anderson is convinced that this is the right way to do it because he's seen all of the ways that aren't. A girls' basketball coach for more than two decades, he'd already experienced firsthand all that modern youth sports had to offer. It wasn't pretty: Screaming, red-faced parents who shuffle their children from program to program because Junior or Jane doesn't get enough court time. Elite squads that serve as showcases for a few superstar players trying to attract the attention of a Division 1 program. Eight-year-old prima donnas factory-installed with a sense of entitlement simply because they know their way around a ball and a pair of high-tops.
Hell, Anderson had even done it himself. A half-dozen years ago, he coached the Colorado Wildcats, an elite girls' basketball team based in Arvada. From the day school got out for the summer until the beginning of fall, he dragged the girls to prestigious tournaments from San Diego to Oregon to Washington, D.C. The costs were astronomical. He estimates that each kid had to fork over more than $4,000. At times the team was on the road for nearly two weeks straight. "And for what?" he wonders.
About three years ago, he met up with Simson, who offered to coach some of Anderson's youth camps. A native of tiny Walden, Colorado, Simson brought his own history of what basketball should, and could, be. An astoundingly mediocre player as a youngster -- "with thick brown-rim glasses and two left feet," he recalls -- he scrapped and hustled to make his JV team. Actually, he says, "I was fortunate enough to live in a small town, so everyone always made the team."