Go, Friendly House! Basketball team is tops!

By Jeffrey Turgeon

The Friendly House gymnasium on Wall Street in Worcester is a well-worn and Spartan facility with few of the amenities a new gym has; the basketball court with multi-purpose floor allows for only one game to be played at a time, the scoreboard is missing a few light bulbs, the concrete walls are kept without any fancy decorations, and the halls outside the gym are packed with donated clothes and food awaiting distribution to those in need. So why then, with all these limitations, do youth come from all throughout Central Massachusetts — including many from the area’s most affluent communities with the big, fancy gyms – to play basketball in this aging gym? The answer lies not in what the facility has or doesn’t have, it lies in the people that volunteer to lead the program. These volunteer coaches (along with the scorekeepers and referees) are extremely dedicated and caring individuals and are a reflection of the program’s director, Jim Williams.

The Friendly House youth basketball program serves youth eight to fifteen years old. The program includes leagues for three age group divisions; 8-10 year olds, 11-12 year olds, and 13-15 year olds. The program also offers three “travel teams” for youth in grades 5, 6, and 7. The youth basketball program was established back in 1982 by local sports legends Tony Poti (now the Executive Director of the Webster-Dudley Boys & Girls Club) and JP Ricciardi (now the General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays) with just six teams. It now has 32 teams and over 450 kids practicing once per week on Monday through Wednesday nights, and then playing league games Thursday through Saturday nights. The program starts in late October and runs through early April.
The travel teams play against a variety of area league all-star teams, local community programs and also compete in a number of area tournaments. These travel teams are more competitive in nature than the house leagues and allow the kids with more advanced skills push themselves a bit. Every year for the past several years, Friendly House teams have traveled by van and car polls to tournaments down in Bayonne, New Jersey and Lebanon, Pennsylvania. This past year, the Friendly House 5th grade team won the Lebanon tournament, as did the 6th grade team. The 7th grade team finished close to the top as well, rounding off a great trip. “More importantly than us winning, the kids had a great experience,” says Williams.

Says Jim Trumble, whose son Jamie had played for the travel team in the past, “The whole program is great, the hours that Jim and the coaches put in to help these kids is incredible.” Says another parent, Kristine Goodwin, who comes from Holden with her son Jared who is in the program, “this league is straight up, wholesome fun competition. It gives my son a chance to get to know many kids that he never would have gotten the chance to know if he didn’t play here, and all the parents get along great too.” Another parent Bob Berman agrees, saying he wanted his son Zack to play in the league precisely because of the diversity it offers. “Zack has been able to get such a great life experience as well as a basketball experience from being a part of this program.”

Williams, the youth basketball program’s director since 1985, grew up in Worcester and started working full time for Friendly House in 1986 after graduating from Springfield College as a psychology major. He started his professional career at the Central Branch YMCA in Worcester and spent a summer working with the City’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Says Williams of his career path, “I new I loved working with kids, especially those in need. One day I met Gordon Hargrove and we talked about his vision for Friendly House and the basketball program and the rest was history.” Williams’ love of developing young basketball players is matched only by his desire to ensure the development of young people in general. “A lot of people think of us as a basketball program,” says Williams, “but the reality is, we really try to do much more than that.’ He also notes that beyond basketball, the Friendly House has a child-care and afterschool programs for young people that is offered for about a dollar a day to participate. For this, kids take part in arts classes, recreation, and get academic help. He says programs are funded through grants, including grants from the United Way, as well as donations.

It is easy to see why the program has such a great reputation in the community. Parents do not coach their children. Instead, Jim recruits others to volunteer as coaches, freeing mothers and father’s from the pressure to balance the relationship between coach and parent. It also allows Jim a chance to get top quality basketball minds to teach the fundamentals to the kids, such as Worcester State College star Al Pettway, and Holy Cross College star, Ernie Floyd. Many coaches are themselves former program participants that come back to help out.

And it’s not just adults that come back. At the recent championship game in the 13-15 year old division, a slew of young adults were there to give Williams a hand in running the show. These included rising hoop stars from the North High School basketball team that made it to the district finals this year, Ike Osafo and Emmanuel Tarwoe. They both credit Jim Williams and the Friendly House program for teaching them the fundamentals of basketball and for preparing them for the competition they would face at the higher levels of high school ball. They also credit him with teaching them about succeeding in life. Says Tarwoe, the starting point guard for North, “Jim never gives up on kids – as players or as individuals.” This is echoed by Osafo, who says the Friendly House program opened up a lot of doors for him since he was able to find and develop his talent for basketball and how to be a better person. They were joined at the game by their long-time friend Kennedy Dennis, a sophomore at Holy Name High School who said he’s been coming to Friendly House since he was “mad little.” He remembers when he first started playing basketball — he was wearing jeans and didn’t know anything about the game. “Now, I have a lot of confidence as a player and as a person, thanks to this league. I was able to make the varsity team as a point guard at Holy Name because the coaches at Friendly House made me a smarter and a mentally tougher player.”

In the 13-15 year old league championship game this past week, the team that Williams coaches, the Bulls, were playing against the Lakers, coached by former local basketball standout Rob Bailey. Williams paced the sidelines giving instructions to his players on the court, and as each came to the bench for a rest he had a special message for each; some were given a pat on the back, others a stern word or two followed by encouragement – his psychology education put into practice one child at a time. His team lost to the Lakers, but that didn’t seem to bother Jim much as he heartily congratulated the Lakers and presented them with their championship trophies at center court after the game. Remarking upon the loss, Jim smiled and said, “you know, my team lost tonight, but all the kids in this program I consider my kids, so I am happy that some of my kids won. Besides, it’s not about the score, it’s about the person”

Leave a Reply