Walking around the basketball court at the Robert J. DiPietro Community Center, James Agbai carried a microphone and addressed a crowd of young, sneaker-clad athletes.
"You're about to do what many NBA players are doing right now, right here," Agbai, a Laurel resident, said Saturday, Aug. 17 at the Youth Basketball Skills Challenge, an event sponsored by Winning in Sports and Education, or WISE, a nonprofit organization Agbai launched earlier this year.
Imitating the NBA's annual All-Star Weekend events, the skills challenge featured a timed obstacle course and a three-point shooting contest, with prizes awarded to the fastest and highest-scoring players in each age group. Cut-out heads of professional basketball players were perched on top of posts marking the obstacle course, and competitors had to dribble around the larger-than-life faces in a certain way, as if they were pretending to get past real defenders.
The event attracted 52 basketball players ranging from second-graders to high school seniors, and exemplified Agbai's vision for WISE: Professional-style programs that encourage young athletes to succeed in sports and also in school and to teach kids that education and sports go hand in hand.
To meet the mission of WISE, Agbai said in the coming months he plans to organize study sessions, PSAT and SAT prep programs, NCAA eligibility seminars and workshops pertaining to life skills such as financial management.
Saturday's skills challenge was the official launch event for WISE, but Agbai hopes the nonprofit will grow into an organization with a reputation for guiding students to academic and athletic success.
"We want to put the kids through experiences that the pros go through," he said.
Agbai was inspired to start WISE after founding the Maryland Marvels in 2009, a semi-professional basketball team in the Eastern Basketball Alliance that is currently inactive. During halftime at Marvels games, Agbai would have youth groups take to the court and play, complete with announcers, music and chants.
"The kids were so receptive to that," Agbai said. "Parents loved it."
Once WISE gained its nonprofit status, Agbai scheduled a meeting with Laurel Mayor Craig Moe and several other city officials to share his ideas.
"The mayor is really trying to find ways to reach the youth of Laurel," he said. "[City officials] were overwhelmingly happy."
Laurel's Department of Parks and Recreation collaborated with WISE to host the skills challenge, and city employees were on the court facilitating the activities.
"I think they have a program that's really going to blossom throughout many communities," said Bonny DuCote, a Laurel Parks and Recreation program specialist. "We hope to have more events like this in the future."
Agbai and city officials agreed that WISE events could have a positive impact on young athletes by incorporating an educational component. At Saturday's challenge, the young athletes heard a talk on cyber security and safe online behaviors.
"When kids are having fun, sometimes they don't even know they're learning," Agbai said.
He's also planning programs that will directly reach out to high school student-athletes, many of whom have to maintain a minimum grade point average in order to play on school teams.
"What we wanted to do was take it one step further," Agbai said. "Let's create the environment and support the students to get that [minimum GPA]."
Agbai said he is excited about WISE 's future. In addition to upcoming events booked in Baltimore and Annapolis, the organization is working with the Prince George's County Public School System to give sports a greater presence in area schools.
"Our goal is to ensure the kids have a place to have fun playing the games they love," he said.
'Like practice for the NBA'
Saturday's skills challenge drew participants from as far away as Baltimore and Annapolis.
Wearing bright red jerseys, a number of players represented the Olney Jaguars, a youth basketball organization that competes in the Force One league.
"It's great to be out here," Jaguars head coach Elliot Hedley said. "It's a great event, and we're looking for many more to participate in."
Aiden Gibbs, who trains at the Marvin Cofield Basketball School in Beltsville, was the fastest 9-year-old on the obstacle course, a speed competition that tests each players' dribbling, passing and shooting skills.
"I usually don't play like that," Gibbs said.
For ninth-grader Isaiah Jones, the skills challenge was an opportunity to prepare for winter basketball tryouts at Springbrook High School.
"I think I represented Silver Spring well," Jones said.
Timothy Jones, Isaiah's father, said he hopes events like the skills challenge will help motivate his son to be successful on the court and inside the classroom.
"It was great seeing him out there pushing himself," Timothy Jones said.
Seventh-grader Iyanu Mehlek, winner of the obstacle course and the three-point shootout for his age group, had his sights set even further down the road.
"This is like practice for the NBA," he said.