Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of Ithaca Week, a weekly magazine produced by the students of the Advanced Multimedia Journalism class at the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College.

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Ithaca, N.Y. — Towering at 6 feet 10 inches, James “Rudy” Williams said his first love changed his life.

For the Missouri native, basketball was more than just a sport; it was a way out. A junior in high school when he discovered his raw talent, Williams was illiterate. He reached out for help and has since graduated from Cal-State Long Beach, played one year for the LA Lakers, and overseas for seven years. In Ithaca, he saw a lack of organized youth basketball teams.

“Where I’m from, you either can sing, rap or play a sport well,” Williams said. “Then you use that current and you ride that current through to college to get to where you want to be and be successful.”

James Williams

Williams and assistant Khalil Griffith, 19, coach two of four Amateur Athletic Union boys basketball teams, ages 11-17, under Ithaca Elite, a non-profit organization they co-founded last summer. They coach 11th and 12th graders, while the 6th and 10th grade teams were run by other coaches.

Currently, the coaches and new Ithaca Elite Board hope to expand the program, which had 45 players, through a new website and promotional videos. The program is merging with Ithaca College Administrative Assistant Patti Banfield’s own AAU team. Banfield also itemizes costs for students wanting to play, but who are not associated with Williams’ teams, board member Chris Barley said.

Most players are from Ithaca, while others are from Newfield, Rochester and Syracuse. Although from different cities, the players’ and coaches’ struggles are similar.

“Since I was in their shoes before, I know a shorter route to get through to them,” Williams said. “Some of them are a little harder to crack than others, but it’s the same story.”

Williams, who is African-American, added it is important for his African-American players to have role models who look like them.

Former Ithaca Elite player Solomon Magee, 18, said his coaches’ mentorship, and his teammates have helped his mental health during difficult situations both on and off the court.

“They gave me knowledge on life on how to turn a lot of bad situations to good ones,” Magee said. “Basketball is what kept me up when I was down dealing with my family.”

The coaches help under-served players by carpooling boys lacking transportation, providing student tutors from Cornell University and often supplementing costs for those who need it. Griffith admitted that for some it is difficult to afford tournaments, which can cost the entire team $300 and as much as $75 per player.

“We had some of our players drop out at the last minute, so that bumped up prices for the other players,” Griffith said. “These are the players that couldn’t necessarily afford [the costs] that weren’t dropping out because they need it.”

Former senior team captain Dom Stevenson, 18, said AAU helped with exposure and created recruitment reels for potential coaches as he looks to transfer from Saint Leo University in Florida to play college basketball. He believes Ithaca Elite molded him into the person he is today.

“They showed us, or me specifically, how to be responsible and be leaders,” Stevenson said. “Without AAU I think it would have been different. I may not have been at St. Leo at all and I don’t know where I could have ended up.”

While Stevenson is one of Williams’ success stories, he believes the true success of his coaching is measured in how his boys grow off the court, not on it.

“All of those things that you do on court, it translates into life. I try to teach these guys that it’s only a blink of an eye – these four years,” Williams said. “Now once these four years are up, what did you learn?”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.