Marlon Thomas said that when he came over to East Side Youth Center three years ago, the level of basketball wasn't where he thought it could and should be.
"I'll be honest with you, we saw a lot of terrible coaching," he said. "There was no skill development. It was just fun time. There was no teaching the game."
So, Thomas set out to change that.
He first did a camp that emphasized teaching the game's fundamentals.
It impressed Jay Radio, who had been one of the driving forces behind ESYC basketball for 30 years; an icon so respected that when a second gym was added to the ESYC complex on East Clair Street, it was named in Radio's honor.
"Mr. Radio liked our vision," Thomas said. "He presented us with an opportunity to run the program."
It's definitely an opportunity that Thomas and what is now known as the ESYC Elite program has embraced.
The basketball program has grown from 90 kids playing in primarily intramural leagues to approximately 230 kids with most of the older kids playing in competitive leagues.
Thomas, a 1994 Dieruff High grad who played on a Huskies team that reached the state tournament, saw an opportunity to revive a sport that he thought had slipped. Badly.
"When I played, we had the Antoine Hubbards, the Pete Lisickys, the guys like Gabe Lewullis … we had stars," he said. "The gyms were filled and every game was a battle. Every team had big names. It was competitive."
Thomas and ESYC Elite set out to produce future stars with kids playing in high-powered tournaments up and down the East Coast. He also brought in qualified instructors to do camps and training sessions, including a NBA-skills trainer in Micah Lancaster who has worked with Kobe Bryant and other stars.
He also began a fall elite training series every Saturday that brings in respected college and high school coaches such as DeSales' Scott Coval, Muhlenberg's Scott McClary, Allen's Doug Snyder, Parkland's Andy Stephens, Bethlehem Catholic's Mike Frew and Central Catholic's Dennis Csensits.
The result is that ESYC Elite, in Thomas' eyes, has become the face of basketball in the Lehigh Valley.
"Allentown is the third-largest city in Pennsylvania, so why can't we showcase our kids and community as the third-largest city basketball wise?" Thomas said. "When we were kids in the 1990s and when we played, it was competitive. Now we're trying to do the same thing for our kids. We're trying to bring back the competitive spirit throughout our community."
It's only going to get better, according to Thomas.
That's because this past spring and summer ESYC Elite had two youth teams that combined to go 91-14 on a national level.
The 11U team, featuring primarily fifth-graders, placed third in the AAU Mid-Atlantic district and advanced to AAU nationals in Hampton, Va., where they placed 16th out of 100 teams.
Often playing up against older kids, the 11s made it to either the semis or finals of every tournament they played in, winning seven titles. The highlights were winning the Hoop Group Philadelphia Jamfest and the Ocean City (Md.) Basketball Classic. They also made it to the finals of an invitation-only tournament that had its finals on the court at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Those future stars included Nick Filchner (Northampton), Julian Thomas (St. Thomas More), Shane Dezonie (Pocono Mountain), Jaylen Green (Catasauqua), Liam Garrett (Lower Macungie) and DeShawn Scarboro (Pocono Mountain).
The 14U team, fresh off of winning six tournaments when they were 7th-graders in 2012, followed through with a 44-7 season this year.
The talented group featured Talek Williams (Bethlehem Catholic), considered by many to be the best incoming freshman in area high school basketball, along with Sam Iorio and Zach Bross (Parkland), Jeremy Johnson and Jaohne Duggan (Liberty), Josh Snead (Saucon Valley), Jack Zamaicheli (Southern Lehigh), Javon Winslow (Dieruff), Isaiah Wiggins (Pocono Mountain West) and Jaxon Costello (Salisbury).
Many of these rising ninth-graders figure to get varsity minutes this season.
"The future of basketball in the Lehigh Valley is very bright," Thomas said. "Our mission to bring competitive basketball back to the community is on the right path. These kids are going places."
But Thomas said ESYC Elite remains about player development.
"We have developmental leagues in the spring and fall and my best moment during my tenure at East Side was seeing a young man who took advantage of all the instruction that we provide at ESYC and ended up becoming the Allentown Summer League All-Star MVP this year. He was a baseball player, but loved basketball and worked his butt off. Now he's a basketball player."
For more info about the program, go to http://www.esycbasketball.com.
BENEFIT FOOTBALL GAME
The Pennsylvania Dragons, a semi-pro football team, will donate all proceeds from its game at 4 p.m. Saturday against the Red City Outlaws at Bob Warke Field in Hokendauqua to the family of Rashonn Drayton.
Drayton, a star running back on Central Catholic's 1993 state title team, lost his home in a fire on Wednesday night. Drayton is a Dragons team captain.
For more info about the game or how you can help, call team owner Becky Wagner at 847-232-9746.
A local slo-pitch softball team sponsored by Lehigh Valley Polish Water Ice won an ASA national title in St. Joe's, Missouri, over Labor Day weekend. The team went 7-1 and won the championship game, 17-9, over a team from Waverly, Iowa. The tourney featured 28 teams.
The local squad featured Ryan and Travis Scanlan, Steve Klapy, Brandon Bellew, Ryan and Noah Hogan, Dray Wieller, Ray Trexler, Brian Hesler, Shawn Werley, Brian Stump, Tim Jedrejczyk, Rick Racz, Joe Parra and Jerame Curry.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun