ESYC Elite is trying to take area hoops to the next level

Program based on Allentown's East Side is developing the area's rising stars.

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.

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