The NBA announced on Monday that its youth basketball program is launching a new personal development initiative aimed at teaching young players skills in leadership, mental health and civic engagement to help better prepare them for careers in the sports industry.
The Jr. NBA Court of Leaders is a youth-led council made up of basketball players, ages 15 to 16, who have, according to a news release, “demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities” during previous Jr. NBA programming, and who the NBA seeks to provide comprehensive support for through their basketball journey.
The 18 participants (eight boys, 10 girls) will be assigned mentors from the NBA, WNBA, G League and NBA 2K League offices who, through regular virtual meetings, will expose the young players to career opportunities in sports, including digital media, marketing, community engagement, law, youth basketball development and business operations.
“We wanted to establish a platform that recognizes the force of young athletes to drive change and empowers them to find and develop their voice and for us to be able to amplify their voice,” said Adam Harper, the NBA’s associate vice president of youth basketball development.
When choosing council members, Jr. NBA executives sought players who exhibited exceptional leadership qualities.
Council members were chosen from the competitors in the 2018 and 2019 Jr. NBA Global Championships, a tournament that features the top 13- and 14-year-old teams in the world. According to the NBA, in 2019, more than 15,000 players from 75 countries participated in the regional competitions ahead of the tournament. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 tournament was a virtual skills challenge rather than an in-person, on-court competition.
Two of the members of the council are S’mya Nichols, a sophomore wing from Overland Park, Kansas, and Amani Hansberry, a sophomore forward from Washington. They won the 2019 tournament’s Respect Award, which recognizes players who “respected all teammates, coaches, opponents and officials” and “were considerate, had a positive attitude and demonstrated great sportsmanship,” according to a news release at the time.
“It feels nice knowing the organization trusts me and others to be the voice for the youth,” said Nichols, who represented the Midwest in the 2018 and 2019 Jr. NBA Global Championships, which her team won both years.
“I’m just happy that people saw potential in me to become a good leader and possibly a better player on the court and off the court,” said Hansberry, a member of the Mid-Atlantic team in the 2019 Jr. NBA Global Championship. Hansberry, who plays for Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant’s AAU team in Washington, currently has offers from DePaul, Rhode Island, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech.
Though the program was announced on Monday, the participants have already met with people and brands during monthly webinars and workshops, including Gatorade, and Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier, who along with Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr., will serve as a co-chair of the Court of Leaders.
Due to the events of the past year, including the coronavirus pandemic and the movement sparked by the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans, the Court of Leaders will emphasize mental health, social justice and gender equality.
Mental health, in particular, has taken on new importance over the past 14 months, as many kids across the country have been stuck at home due to COVID-19. A National 4‑H Council survey from June 2020 found that seven in 10 teens admitted struggling with mental health in the early months of the pandemic.
The Court of Leaders will provide resources, education and awareness to the participants about mental health, Harper said. The hope is that the participants will take that knowledge and share it with the other teenagers in their lives.
“Letting teenagers know they have resources, they have people who care for them, are there for them, that are willing to listen and give them good advice, as well as just knowing that mental health is a thing everybody struggles through,” said Hansberry.
“Depression is a thing. Anxiety is a thing.”
The young men and women will also meet with the NBA’s youth basketball development team quarterly to offer insights on improving the youth basketball experience, which, mostly through AAU, has been facing a burnout and health crisis for many years.
Nichols and Hansberry pointed out the pressures of social media and constant competition among their peers as ways youth basketball can be improved.
Hansberry mentioned how other kids he works with worry about how not being featured on popular basketball websites such as Overtime may affect their ability to be recruited.
“I just have to keep reminding them that it’s not really about the big dunks, the big plays. You just have to do the little things,” he said. “The little things add up.”
The two cherish what youth basketball teaches them about teamwork and perseverance.
“You’re learning how to cope with certain things, and you’re really improving yourself mentally, too,” said Nichols.
Success for the Court of Leaders will be measured not by how the players perform on the court, but by the difference they make in their communities. The participants desire to at least make it to the collegiate level, but their dreams are not solely aimed at professional basketball. Nichols wants to be a plastic surgeon, coach sports or work in advertising. Hansberry could see himself as an entrepreneur or, like Nichols, coaching basketball.
“We see this as a unique opportunity to … emphasize that there’s so much more to basketball than what takes place between the lines,” Harper said.