Built Thunder Strong: Youth Basketball Spreads Hoops Passion

By Jimmy Do | okcthunder.com

Three full-scale camps were launched in the fall. Not to mention the Thunder Fit clinics and private camps held at various gyms in between. Another 2,250 miles and hours of sweat equity slated for the summertime. This was just the beginning of Thunder Youth Basketball’s campaign for the love of the game.

Countless high-fives and a legion of new hoops devotees later, Youth Basketball Programs Manager Michelle Matthews and her crew wrapped up their Green Country stop at the Tandy Family YMCA in Tulsa to signal that camp season was in full tilt. In early April, Matthews, the architect of Thunder Youth Basketball, tipped off the whirlwind week in Oklahoma City at The Hive with the aptly named Hustle Camp.

Thriving on these highly anticipated day-of-camp appointments, Matthews jump-started her mornings with early sunrises and breakfast bars chased by coffee buzz and thumping beats to accompany the drive to her hoops sanctuary as a sacred game-day prep ritual.

Fist-pumping and fist-bumping away two camps during the throes of spring allergy season, before the capricious weather gods of Oklahoma could change their minds, was fueled by the excitement and demand for Thunder basketball, setting the stage for the program’s upcoming summer peak season.

Since its 2008-09 inception, the hoops institution has generated more than 4,000 young roundball disciples, instilling the tenets and values bound by a strong sense of pride — the fabric of Thunder Basketball.

Under Matthews’ leadership, Thunder Youth Basketball, presented by Cox Communications, surged forward with its campaign, culminating on a filled-to-capacity Winter Camp session, and never looked back.

There are eight camps in Oklahoma, with the one being in Kansas City: Generating tons of momentum to start the spring and revving up for a big summer of nine camps, which includes eight across Oklahoma and an out-of-state rendezvous, the program set out to reach new heights.

Thunder Pride. Since its 2008-09 inception, Thunder Youth Basketball has generated more than 4,000 roundball disciples, instilling the tenets and values bound by a strong sense of pride—the fabric of Thunder Basketball.

In order to do so, part of the blueprint called for nurturing current and establishing new relationships with hoop centers in and out of Oklahoma.

The plan continued to come together backed by a revamped landing page (okcthunder.com/youthbasketball) to feature more dynamic content such as upcoming dates, video tutorials, selected photography and important announcements.

Not to forget, designing programs to maximize what made these camps fun and unique by adding new twists and wrinkles to time-tested drills and exercises was essential to deliver the best Thunder Basketball experience possible.

Matthews sat down to talk about the vision of Thunder Youth Basketball along with providing insights on a favorite drill incorporated at the camps.

Q&A With Michelle
Michelle Matthews is the manager of youth basketball programs for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Her focus is to take the Thunder brand and basketball instruction to all corners of the state and larger regional territory to create the largest database in the state related to youth basketball coaches and venues.

She started her career with the organization in 2009 as a PR intern in Tulsa and began her full-time employment as an account executive in the sales department in 2010. During her ascension to manager of the sales development team, Matthews played an integral role with the creation of Field Trip Day, moving the D-League franchise twice, setting franchise ticket sales records and overseeing a successful sales crew.

As a graduate of Oklahoma Wesleyan, Matthews was a multi-sport collegiate athlete playing for the Eagles’ basketball, softball and soccer teams. She earned a roster spot on the Oklahoma Indian All-State Basketball game after averaging 28 points a game during her senior year at Canadian High School.

What values do you see this program teaching?
We are seeing more than just increased skill development and comprehension on the court. We are seeing camp communities get behind values such as teamwork, encouragement, sportsmanship and respect of others. We are seeing kids attend their first basketball camp and walk away with a new inspiration to continue playing the sport.

How do you keep drills and events fun and engaging while still trying to reach the goal of teaching and developing fundamentals?
We aim to cater each camp experience to the camper’s ability level, which leaves room for our coaches to be flexible in their instruction. We like to keep the drills fresh and add a little bit of friendly competition in there to keep up the engagement. Using basketball camps as a way to encourage physical activity even after the camp concludes is a pivotal goal.

What is your favorite drill?
One of my favorite drills is called 4-Turn — a defensive drill. It is all about how much heart you play with (a little Russell Hustle).Within a designated lane of cones (usually baseline to baseline), one player takes the offensive position in triple threat and one player takes the defensive position. The player on defense must “turn” the offensive player four times prior to them reaching the opposite baseline. A turn is qualified as making your opponent change directions during their attack, or if the opponent dribbles outside of the designated lane. The best thing about this drill, besides it being defense, which is my favorite, is that it rewards never giving up on the play. More often than not, the defensive player gets beat on the first step, but has the capacity to sprint back in front of their opponent, buckle down into the defensive stance and go to work, making them change directions with defensive pressure. Not to mention this drill has a reverse effect of giving the offensive player experience with ball pressure and keeping their head up.

Big Summer. From June 9 through Aug. 2, Matthews and company are expected to see 1,380 campers communities statewide and in Kansas City, MO.

What is the most rewarding thing for you when working with the youth?
The immediate gratification is seeing a camper’s reaction when they finally conquer the skill or task at hand. But the biggest reward is walking into the gym as united Thunder fans and walking out as a Thunder family – ready to take what we learned together and impact the community through the sport of basketball.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome so far in designing the program?
We took building the customizable camp curriculum very seriously, with an emphasis to keep it fun and engaging while also tackling those key fundamentals was a big task. We also wanted to be cautious of the ongoing trend of young athletes over-extending their bodies through year-round competition – but we feel that we have created a nice balance that benefits all young athletes despite where they land on the ability scale.

What is the biggest challenge in working with the youth and delivering the Thunder Youth Basketball message?
Ensuring that each camper walks away with a new skill or the framework to develop that skill is a big challenge – especially since each community we visit brings an array of talent. The consistent message of playing with HEART despite the sport or life challenge is a camp message that always seems to hit home with the campers.

What excites you most about the future of this program and why?
Working to extend this program in a way that lends support to our state-wide youth basketball coaches. From the community volunteer to the high school head coach, these leaders are on the front lines of impacting our youth. We are excited to bring new tools and accessible resources to those community leaders across the state and beyond.

From your accomplishments with the sales department combined with your experience as a college athlete, what helped you find success within your new role?
Never turning down an opportunity to learn something new – not allowing yourself to be compartmentalized is tough, but the benefits of continuous learning is invaluable. Also surrounding yourself with good people has certainly been a key to success, people that are in it for the right reasons and never settle for average – it is a mentality that is contagious.

Describe your free throw routine?
It is all about that muscle memory! Mine is to line up, two dribbles and then settle in – boring, but I had to pick something that wouldn’t take me hours just to get up 100 shots.

What was your earliest basketball memories?
I would have to say back to my YMCA days in Lawton, I was the only girl and had one job – dribble down and throw it o the tall kid. Not much has changed.

Who was your biggest influence or inspiration?
My list of influential people is too long to list – as it certainly takes a village.

Did you have coaches growing up that made an impression on you? What were some of their attributes that you try to carry over in working with young players?
Just one – my mom. I have had countless coaches in various sports growing up, but that one consistent voice telling me to keep my head up, be a better leader, get off the couch and get some reps in has always been my mom. Her big thing was always hard work and consistency – which is the biggest part when getting young players to grasp those key fundamentals.

What moments, anecdotes or lessons stood out to you during your athletic career that helped shaped your perspective, especially when defining a vision for teaching youth basketball?
Each kid learns and is motivated differently – you have to have several various approaches ready to get the same message across.

Describe your morning routine before a camp event?
Feeling confident about the day is all about the prep! I wake up earlier than necessary, one more cup of coffee than necessary, eat breakfast (something usually in a bar form) and go over the camp agenda for the day. But the real touch is all about the pump-up music on the way over! Camp day is the best day!

What are some of your hobbies, interests, favorite movies, TV shows and music that you would like to share to readers in getting to know you?
I love summer time, so anytime I am not at camp or in the office prepping for camp you can find me at the lake! I am a big fan of underdog sports movies, romantic comedies and could eat popcorn every single day!

For more information on Thunder Youth Basketball, visit www.okcthunder.com/youthbasketball.


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