All of the competitors in March Madness had to start somewhere, and from a game that started with a peach basket, some Portland boys got their hoop dreams off the ground by shooting through monkey bars on the playground.
They are the “Plaza Park Boys”, with a major assist from a second-year nonprofit organization called Off the Sideline getting kids in the game.
Dribbling through the puddles and making it rain buckets – these are the Plaza Park Boys.
“This means everything to me because I have some place to go and these guys are like brothers to me, not just best friends, like brothers,” said sixth-grader Argane Liban.
“Because we weren’t really professional and how we have been winning our games, I feel pretty good,” said eighth-grader Matti Berhe.
They won all but one of their contests in the Portland Parks and Rec league.
“It’s pretty nice to have this happen because we wanted it to happen last year but it’s a dream come true for me,” said Dawit Ferede.
The boys came together to form this squad of five from the Plaza Townhomes apartment community in north Portland.
“Originally we had monkey bars and we always used to play on the monkey bars,” said Berhe. When asked if they shot hoops on there, he said, “Yeah and we just love the game.”
“We all treat each other as a family because we all came from Africa. Just because we came from west or east, that doesn't make any difference. We all live in the same place so we are all family in there,” said coach Abraham Fofanah.
The Plaza boys are in the game thanks to a generous assist from Off the Sideline.
“It’s really about giving kids as many opportunities as possible so their families can find the sport and program that works for them because we know with more opportunities, kids are just going to be more active,” said Leslie Mestman.
Mestman is the founder of Off the Sideline, the first-year Portland nonprofit group increasing youth participation in sports by providing scholarships to low-income families.
“We typically focus on serving kids in fifth through ninth grade because we really want to focus on those core transition years going into middle school and going into high school because that is when kids tend to fall off the map,” said Mestman.
Off the Sideline served 80 kids a year ago and are expecting to at least double that in year two, while growing their footprint and continuing to join forces with groups like the Volunteers of America.
“It just builds community across these kids,” said Clair Raujol, youth prevention services manager with Volunteers of America.
Community partners building stronger and healthier futures for kids like the Plaza Park Boys.
“They’re the ones helping us make sure that we get the dollars where they are needed the most,” said Mestman.
Raujol said, “They’re just a group of boys that like hanging out and they asked us for help getting a team scholarship to play in the Goldenball league. We were able to connect with Leslie and get it done quickly.”
Despite not having a hoop to call their own, the Plaza Park Boys went from monkey bar baskets to real rims in real gyms to ball on weekends in the winter.
“We have confidence in each other. We put trust in each other that we will never give up. We just keep pushing at it,” said Stanley Saint Ville. “How we're all from different cultures is what really makes the team unique. I’m from Haiti. He's from Kenya. Those three from Ethiopia.”
Liberia-born 24-year-old Abraham Fofanah is a Plaza resident who serves as volunteer head coach to the middle school age buddies.
“I was like, ‘Well, I watched you guys grow up, anything to help you guys out,’” he said.
Fofanah added, “For them to have an actual league, play in a gym every Saturday? It's life-changing. They really love it and I can see it.”
Coach Fofanah passes along what he learned from playing at Roosevelt High.
If you’d like to assist, you can visit OfftheSideline.org.
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