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Brothers bring lessons learned to Lansdowne 'gym of dreams'


On one basketball court, a coach teaches her 11-year-old players the fundamentals of man-to-man defense. On the sidelines of the other court, a parent cheers on a son playing in a scrimmage.

Upstairs, a teenage softball pitcher works on her delivery. In the basement, boys take turns in the batting cages.

The new Leadership Through Athletics gym in Lansdowne is bustling.

With fond memories of the lessons they learned playing and coaching youth sports, two brothers bought a two-acre lot with an old house on Hammonds Ferry Road property three years ago. There, they would build a gym.

It would be perfect, they thought -- a place for the young people to play, a place where coaches didn't have to beg for court time, where players could find an empty room to do homework. Where someone would always be around, willing to talk and shoot a few hoops.

Michael and Pat Grace are nearly $2 million in debt now. But since the gym opened its doors last month, players have been flocking to the two full-size courts with six baskets each, the multipurpose training room, the indoor batting cages and pitching mound.

"I feel like what I've done for my kids, I can do for other kids," says Pat Grace, a 46-year-old UPS manager with five children. "In the big picture, it's more than about basketball or sports. It's about helping people."

Eventually, the education room will be filled with computers donated by a local company, and courses on such topics as time management and drug and alcohol abuse prevention will be offered.

"Education is a big part of our mission," says Christian Metzger, who is in charge of the fund-raising for Leadership Through Athletics. "We all love basketball and team sports, but this is also a place to teach communication skills and leadership. It isn't just a gym. We care about these kids, about them graduating, getting good jobs, going on to college."

Growing up less than a mile from the new gym with his three brothers and four sisters, Michael Grace says he remembers spending Saturday mornings in the Lansdowne High School gym, where Jack McKenna, the athletic director of Saint Clement Academy, kept the local kids out of trouble.

"I saw the things he did for the kids, and it made an impression," says Grace, a 47-year-old attorney and executive with the Fountainhead Title Group who also has five children. "It's about friendships, the responsibilities you learn when you play competitive sports."

He and his brother founded Maryland Sureshots, an American Athletic Union organization in 1996. When they saw a place to build a gym next to an old two-story house that was zoned for commercial use, they knew they had to buy it. With two friends, they created the Leadership Through Athletics nonprofit group in 2002.

Kent Politsch, a father of two from Catonsville and a Sureshot coach, quit his job with a transportation company to become the executive director. He and another coach, Bob Mallory, helped rehab the house on the property, which is being leased to a company that installs basketball courts.

In April 2002, they broke ground on the 20,000 square-foot complex. With $150,000 contributed by small businesses and individuals, the Graces took out personal and business loans to cover the rest of the $2.3 million complex.

Mo Kellaher, who with her sister coaches the Howard County Lightning, a new travel team, says the story reminds her of the movie Field of Dreams.

"It's the gym of dreams," Kellaher said. "With them, you really get the feeling it's not just sports, it's about being a good person, too."

For parents and coaches in the area, the facility offers much-needed space for practice and games. "It's just wonderful," says Rob Luck, whose 11-year-old son plays basketball. "There are so many other kids of all ages who are going to benefit from this."

Leagues and players pay fees now, ranging from a $40 for basketball clinics to $500 to rent a court for 10 games. But the Graces say that when they have paid off the loans, they plan to lower the rates, charging just enough to cover utility bills.

They're waiving fees for some players. For example, Politsch lets a group of local teenagers use a court after they help him with chores.

"It's great. We help him out, mopping the floors, putting the portable rims away, and he lets us play," says Josh Malcolm, 15, a Catonsville High School freshman who, along with his brother and two friends at Lansdowne High School, have become fixtures at the gym.

Theresa Lowry, vice president of the Lansdowne Improvement Association, says the gym is a boost to the area.

"There's no community center here," she says. "But we have a lot of children and young people moving back to the area because the houses are affordable. ... And these guys really seem to care."

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