As the DJ introduced them, the middle school-aged boys ran onto the basketball court between blinking floor lights and fog machines. Parents, teachers and administrators applauded their presence, recognizing the journey that had brought them to this hot and humid gymnasium at Patuxent Valley Middle School in Jessup.

The League of Gentlemen All-Star game May 19 was an invitation-only event that had a little bit of everything — great shots, lucky shots, turnovers and an edge of competitiveness.

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Players earned their way onto the court by successfully adhering to standards established by the league, a mentoring initiative begun two years ago to give male students help academically, emotionally, socially and physically.

"Part of it is academics and how that is going to pay off in the end," said Patuxent Valley Middle School principal Robert Motley. "Another part is discussing what it means to be a gentleman. How to act. What the expectations are for you, not only at Patuxent Valley but in society as a whole."

Marcus Nicks, the Black Student Achievement Program Liaison at the school, spearheaded a group of three other teachers — Michael McLellan, Michael McCroey and Daniel Nemeth — to form the league.

Of approximately 30 students that participated this year, most were sixth- and seventh-graders. Last year's group was primarily eighth-graders.

Prince Poku, a freshman at Hammond High School, was in last year's group.

"It was a good program," said Poku, who played on this year's Hammond junior varsity basketball team. "It taught me to manage my time and that basketball should be my second priority and being a student comes first. It helped me get my act together."

From the stands, Marie Turner watched her son, Corey, play in the All-Star game. She said her seventh-grader wanted to join League of Gentlemen and has "really enjoyed it," adding that he has become "a little more accountable and responsible."

Said Corey: "They mentor us to follow the right path."

"It's reinforcing responsible life skills, things that we are teaching at home," said Turner. "They are surrounded by responsible role models and the boys can learn from each other."

Each Tuesday, members of the league dress the part — shirt and tie, khaki pants and nice shoes. After school, they meet for 30 minutes to discuss character development and academic assistance. Coaches go over students' grade sheets and attendance and behavioral reports. If everything checks out, students are allowed to go to the gym for an hour, where they work on their skills and conditioning before picking teams.

"We had to find a way to motivate some of these kids," said McCroey, an eighth-grade reading teacher who played basketball in college and professionally in Europe. "Some were coming from single-parent homes, some had never had success academically and some had never had extracurricular activities that were positive.

"So we created League of Gentlemen and the basketball piece was to hook them. But once we hooked them, we would put other measures into place — grade check sheets, behavioral check sheets and just give them something to belong to that is positive. And it's been a great success."

'Focus on the future'

Lydia Henry, whose son was in the league last year, has become a big supporter of the program. At halftime of the All-Star game, she was given flowers and a plaque for her volunteer efforts.

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"The mentors do a lot to get the students focused and to encourage them to perform at their best — both academically and behaviorally," said Henry, who helped staged the All-Star festivities. "They've done a lot to build their character and to get them to focus on the future."

For Nicks, it's about passing on life lessons. He played basketball at Mt. Hebron as a sophomore before joining the elite basketball program at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. Oak Hill graduates include NBA starts Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

"A lot of what these boys are trying to do, I've been there," said Nicks, who was a backup point guard at Oak Hill to current NBA star Rajon Rondo. "It's one thing to constantly preach to someone, 'This is the route to take' or 'You might want to try this.' But it's different when you've been where they're trying to go."

The Black Student Achievement Program's Nicks, who played in college and is in his fifth year at Patuxent Valley, said "I have both sides to present to these boys."

The program has produced noticeable results. Members of League of Gentlemen, comprised of socially and economically diverse students, have an average grade point average of 3.2, according to its mentors. According to Nicks, at the most recent school-wide Academic Celebration, "all of the sixth-graders and the vast majority of seventh-graders were on the third-quarter honor role."

For seventh-grader Andre Workman, the program works.

"I try to work harder and keep my grades up and respect teachers and people," he said. "I also get to work on my basketball skills."

Motley, the school principal, said the program has been a success not only for students but the entire school. He believes other schools in the county should have a program like League of Gentlemen.

"It has had such a profound impact on our boys here — their attitude, their academics and their overall interaction with both each other and staff. It's been phenomenal."

Nicks, who has invited basketball players from Howard Community College to talk with league members, emphasizes to students "to work at your craft. If you're going to play this game or do anything else in life, put everything you have into it."

Another important component of the league for the students is that "it gives them structure," said Nicks.

"We track and monitor them," said Nicks. "We track academics, their behavioral report and their attendance because in high school, if they want to play basketball, they have to meet certain criteria. Why not prepare them now at this age?"

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