By Kara Witherow, Editor
It’s hard to play basketball with a broken basketball hoop on a cracked and worn court. But that’s what the young men of the St. Marys Methodist Home for Children and Youth played on every day after school.
That is, at least, until the St. Marys and Kingsland communities, Oprah Winfrey’s “Lovetown, USA” television show and the Harlem Globetrotters stepped in to help.
Jaws dropped and eyes were “as big as grapefruits” when the Harlem Globetrotters, the world's most famous exhibition basketball team, stepped off their bus on the afternoon of Friday, March 23.
Spinning basketballs and clad in their trademark red, white and blue uniforms, the team, which had a game scheduled in Jacksonville that evening, was in St. Marys to help dedicate the Methodist Home’s new basketball court. Unbeknownst to the Home’s 11 boys, they were also there to challenge them to a game of basketball.
“You should have seen my face,” said Victor Rose, a 19-year-old recent graduate of Camden County High School. “I’ve never met a professional basketball team, so I was excited and happy to see them come out to our home and play with us.”
The new court, built by a hardworking group of community volunteers, was organized and orchestrated in part through a Methodist Home auxiliary board member who was also a member of the “Lovetown, USA” volunteer team. An Oprah-Winfrey reality show slash social experiment based in the Kingsland area, “Lovetown, USA” is designed to help the community and the people spread more love, share more love, and give more love.
A new basketball court for the St. Marys’ campus had long been a known need, but the funds hadn’t been available, said Methodist Home Regional Director Devon Loggins.
“The auxiliary board had been trying to come up with money to get us a new court, but we just didn’t have what it would take to get the size court we needed and wanted,” he said. “Then all of a sudden Oprah Winfrey, the OWN Network and BBC Worldwide Productions started to do ‘Lovetown, USA’ and they were looking for projects to do within the community.”
Things started rolling from there, and film crews came out to the Home and filmed the groundbreaking, concrete pouring, and everything else that accompanies the building of a basketball court.
When the court’s dedication, originally scheduled for a Tuesday, was moved to a Friday afternoon, it prevented the staff from taking residents to their annual Harlem Globetrotters game in Jacksonville.
A “Lovetown, USA” show producer heard this and told Loggins that the Globetrotters had heard of the project and wanted to participate in the court’s dedication.
“The game came to us!” Loggins said.
The Home’s residents, though, only knew about the new basketball court, not that the Globetrotters were coming to help dedicate it.
That Friday afternoon, the air was electric and the excitement was contagious. More than 100 volunteers attended the dedication and all waited in anticipation.
With the cameras rolling and the boys on the court, one of the “Lovetown, USA” hosts, Paul Brunson, asked if they wanted to play a real basketball game. After being told yes, he asked if he could pick his own team of anyone he wanted. The boys said that he could, and even suggested a few older spectators.
“So Paul says, ‘here comes my team right now,’” Loggins said. “As soon as he said that the Harlem Globetrotters’ tour bus pulled into our parking lot. The kids were in shock.”
Playing “true team ball,” the Methodist Home team beat the Harlem Globetrotters that day, capping off a remarkable, memorable day.
“The experience of playing with them was phenomenal,” said 19-year-old Alfredo Rivera, who recently graduated from Camden County High School. “They weren’t trying their hardest because they could have beat us, but that experience is something I’ll never forget, and I have memories I’ll never forget either.”
The Globetrotters didn’t just play ball and run; they joined the young men for lunch and stayed to talk with them. Globetrotter Will "Bull" Bullard spoke with the boys about his time in foster care as a teenager and how he did not let his hardships keep him from achieving his goals.
“One of the kids said that it’s a story that he’ll be able to tell his kids one day,” Loggins said. The kids will never forget this experience. The words and phrases I heard over and over from the boys was about how special they felt, how much love they felt, not only from us at the Home but from so many members of the community and people who don’t know them to make that happen for them. It was a special moment for them.”
The experience was a joy and a blessing, said Rivera, as is the basketball court.
“It’s a true blessing. We all appreciate it. We just love it. We’re out there every day.”
But the true blessing, he said, is the support and love he and the other residents feel from the community.
“The community has always been a huge support; they’ve been our backbone. That’s what we’re known for – our community. We’ve always been blessed through the years to be a part of this great community.”