Jr. NBA Conference returns for 1st time since before pandemic

The Jr. NBA holds it's first in-person conference since before the pandemic.

ESPN NBA analyst Cassidy Hubbarth, and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert (from left to right)

The Jr. NBA Conference held its first in-person event since 2019 last week. Every year, the Jr. NBA honors the league’s commitment to connecting the global youth basketball community in a variety of ways. 

The Jr. NBA is a worldwide youth basketball initiative for boys and girls, promoting essential basketball skills and values. Its central objective is to enhance and expand youth basketball while offering a comprehensive, free curriculum that covers all skill levels.

Annually, the Jr. NBA conference unites global youth basketball stakeholders, including coaches, program administrators, referees, players, and parents. This conference is apart of the Jr. NBA’s enduring pledge to make a positive impact on youth sports.

The event highlighted multiple aspects around youth development, including community and empowerment. Participants had the opportunity to listen to NBA and WNBA greats in intimate discussions, as well as keynote speeches by industry experts and panel talks on developing youth basketball. The day started off with opening remarks from Kathy Behrens followed by a fireside chat with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. 

Coming off another successful WNBA season, followed by an exciting NCAA Women’s tournament, Engelbert expressed her eagerness to push girls youth sports more than ever, telling Cassidy Hubbarth that “The time is now!”

Engelbert touched on the impressive performances from the Women’s NCAA tournament, saying it was “inspiring” for young girls and even “life-changing”, for viewers and players alike. “We are finally seeing some deserved recognition.”

Three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes gave similar comments during her panel discussion. Swoopes spoke about her upbringing and the impact community relationships had on her life. “Women’s sports continues to grow and is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves,” she stated. More college and high school athletes are taking full advantage of NIL opportunities.

Similarly, Swoopes and three-time NBA All-Star Richard Hamilton were given the opportunity to talk about a homogenous topic in their general session on youth basketball experiences as a whole. 

Both of the respective legends had much to say about their upbringings growing up with limited access to mentors and resources to become great players. They had to fight their way to the top and create their own opportunities.

When asked about the importance of building up youth sports in struggling communities with lack of access, Rip Hamilton started with this:  “As we look to the big cities for advice, it can’t always translate to what is going on in your own area. There are more than enough resources to go around for smaller towns to utilize and take advantage of, but it all starts with building the infrastructure” 

What Hamilton was referring to aren’t physical structures, but the foundations that build a person up for success. He refers to proper mentorship, teaching, and coaching that can mold youth support systems.

“Being able to have a community center, mentors, and youth activities that built me into the man I was when I got to college saved my life.” 

NBA Legend Richard Hamilton, sharing some wisdom.

Because Hamilton was from a small town, he always felt like he had to be in war mode.

“Everyone isn’t against you,” he said. “Just because someone isn’t where you want to be in life, doesn’t mean they can’t help you achieve your goals.”

Hamilton continues to be an asset to kids from his hometown, providing mentorship and support to those who may not have access and teaching kids how to use basketball as a platform for life success off the court. 

Simple basketball concepts such as teamwork, communication, and perseverance are applied to everyday life. Teamwork helps achieve common goals with others, communication can help avoid misunderstandings, and perseverance can help overcome challenges and reach desired outcomes.

David Hollander, author of ‘How Basketball Can Save the World,’ has 13 guiding principles he feels apply directly to life experiences and the world’s problems. He teaches a class at NYU strictly centered around these principles. The concepts range from human alchemy and gender inclusivity to no barrier to access and transcendence. 

One concept Hollander feels is essential for people trying to increase access for youth sports in communities is “positionless-ness.”

“If you’ve ever run a fast break, you have to be flexible and open to being wherever,” Hollander says. “Today’s youth feels like they are stuck where their feet are. It is important to find opportunity in an ever changing world. In basketball, it pays to be a positionless player. Being able to guard multiple positions while spreading the floor, being an offensive threat, rewards.

“When the world changes, a basketball mind, a positionless-ness mind, can stand in the middle of that change and figure it out, think originally, and think independently.” 

The rest of the conference was preference based for attendees. They could pick and choose from a variety of breakout sessions offered. The sessions ranged from inclusivity and skill development, to training and self care for coaches and officials. Various areas were offered for people to generate ideas and new initiatives to bring back from the conference. 

The NBA Live Session on the back half of the day was action packed. Former players Muggsy Bogues, Jason Richardson, Joakim Noah and others talked about a wide range of topics including coaching and mentoring best practices to positively shape athletes’ futures. Many of the anecdotes shared came from personal experiences within their college and pre-professional careers. 

Former Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, speaking to the value of intercultural literacy.

Joakim Noah, a two-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year,  shared thoughts about the access he had to youth sports growing up in his home country of Cameroon.

“There is one indoor court in the whole country where I’m from,” Noah said. “Joel Embiid was the MVP this year from that same country. It’s important for kids today to travel and experience so they have perspective about life outside the walls they are ‘confined’ in.” 

In today’s environment, children can be raised to be NBA players instead of developing a true love for the sport. Identical to David Hollander’s principle, it is important to be positionless in life. Jason Richardson embodied that throughout his upbringing. He played a multitude of sports because he simply loved to play. His competitive spirit drove him to be good at multiple aspects of the game which eventually led him to a successful career.

“Be busy, be active, be well rounded through life,” is the advice Richardson took to get to where he is today. He continues to instill that advice onto his kids while he is learning to differentiate being a coach and a dad at the same time. He often has to remind himself that there are other kids he has to look out for, not just his own while coaching. 

To cap off the action filled day, the Jr. NBA team held a networking event where attendees were able to converse amongst each other, as well as enjoy an hour to network with some of the speakers. 

The Jr. NBA conference is a resource for any and all who attend. It provides perspective to the listeners they can use to make youth sports better one step at a time. It is a team effort, and youth success is what is being played for. Constant growth in community access for kids and young minds is the next step, and huge growth has already been seen sports engagement.