At first, Kyree Thomas was not keen on attending the free, five-day basketball camp recently held a short distance from downtown Pontiac (Mich.).
She wasn’t feeling the early morning start times.
But after “encouragement” from her mother, she decided to participate in the camp sponsored by Platinum Equity founder and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores. On the camp’s final day, the Clarkston Community Schools student was glad she changed her mind.
“It challenged me to do things that I wasn’t comfortable doing,” Thomas said. “It took me out of my comfort zone.”
In a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan, the recent camp was the first of three that Gores will sponsor with the others being held in Mount Clemens and Eastpointe. A friend of Gores, longtime youth coach Dante Sarmiento, is running the camps. Skill development is a primary focus, but speakers and community leaders add an emphasis on life skills and health. An awards ceremony and pizza party will cap off the camps.
The sounds of bouncing basketball and shouts of encouragement from coaches filled the Pontiac Youth Recreation & Enrichment Center. Boys and girls listened intently as Sarmiento and others shared words of wisdom during breaks.
There was also merch, provided courtesy of Gores and the Pistons.
“The kids were excited about the gift bags and the shirts and most of them come from underserved communities,” B&G Club program director Tiffany Sula said. “(Gores) bringing this to us represents an amazing opportunity for our organization, but especially for our kids.”
It’s a way for Gores, who grew up in Flint, to help kids in the Detroit area that lack opportunities because of a dearth of resources.
For campers, it was a needed first step toward normalcy after months of being unable to gather in large groups because of social distancing measures designed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
“It means a lot for the Pistons owner to reach out to underserved communities like Pontiac and other areas to put something like this on for the kids,” Pontiac Youth Recreation Manager Robert Burch said. “It's free, so without the support of people like Tom, it'd be a lot more difficult to put on something like this.
“We wouldn't have had any of that if it wasn't for Tom.”
‘A really nice relationship’
Sarmiento did not hesitate to lend a helping hand to the camp.
His relationship with Gores goes back years. Working for a youth basketball program, he received a voicemail inquiring about private basketball lessons.
After an initial introduction, a few weeks went by, and then he received a follow-up call.
At that point, Sarmiento googled Gores.
His eyes widened.
“The first thing I saw was Tom Gores, owner of the Detroit Pistons,” Sarmiento said. “I stopped and I didn't look at anything else.”
Gores was looking for a personal coach for his son. He met Gores during the initial workout.
“We're working on his game and then Tom and (wife) Holly walked in,” Sarmiento recalled. “They were just so warm and so open. That was the start, so throughout the years, we developed a really nice relationship.”
Shortly into the relationship, Sarmiento learned of Gores’ affection for his home state and his vision of using the Pistons as a vehicle to help Michigan communities.
“We can use basketball to improve the lives of all of these kids and really start targeting underserved families,” Sarmiento said. “Tom explained that was his passion and he always talked about his deep connection to the Detroit community. He really loves this place.”
Burch said it was the first time since the pandemic the facility hosted a camp with a large group of participants.
Burch and Yula both said there was a pivot to distance programming during the pandemic. If in-person activity was permitted, capacity was limited with social distancing safety measures in place.
Some measures were still in place as masks were mandatory.
Still the scene was like what onlookers would have witnesses prior to COVID-19. Coaches yelled instructions to campers performing drills. The competitive juices flowed in 5-on-5 competition.
Camp counselor Jy Smith, an Avondale (Mich.) High senior guard headed to Graceland (Iowa) University said it was good to see the activity.
“It was a little harder with everything going on, being able to hear somebody, but to be able to see everybody come together, it was so great,” he said. “It was a great opportunity.”