By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – Percy Smith credits the Newburgh Zion Lions with making a huge difference in his basketball play. However, it’s his personal growth that he has felt the most powerfully.
“Over the last two years, the organization has really helped me grow as a man,” reflected Smith, a 2019 Newburgh Free Academy graduate, whose future plans include attending college and continuing to play basketball. “Just the way the coaches push you on and off the court has really helped me develop my work ethic, taught me the importance of responsibility, something I really saw when we were in Florida, where we all had to wash dishes, have our cell phones turned off and put away at night, and be at the van on time or not play.”
And playing ball is something Smith and his 17U teammates wanted to make sure to be doing early last month at the National Championships at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports. Here, amidst a pool of 32 teams from all over the country, the talented squad grabbed a prestigious second place showing. It was an energetic, hard-fought run that seemed to gain momentum as the highly competitive Tournament progressed.
“At first we didn’t know each other that well, but as the National roster came together, we started to really bond,” explained Smith. “Going down there and seeing all the incredible talent, you get to really see all different levels of play, and that really helped as well.”
It’s that level of exposure that the coaches of the Newburgh Zion Lions are incredibly grateful their players get to witness and participate in virtually each summer. The vital out-of-state, traveling experience provides countless opportunities for growth, both on and off the court.
“This was a very special trip and experience for the players and the program; this is all about the kids, teaching them about life and such things as discipline, hard work and commitment and how they are tied to basketball,” said Brian Smith, the Newburgh Zion Lions’ 17U Head Coach. “When you want something bad enough, you will work hard enough for it which is what these kids did.”
Despite that strong desire of the whole team to chase National success, some obstacles did lay in their path, chiefly financial. Thanks to the help of some generous people and businesses, this year’s trip was possible, but it was a tight squeeze.
“Out of all the trips we have gone on to Nationals since 2003, this past one was the toughest financially,” said Harold Rayford, Director of the Zion Lions of Newburgh as well as the Assistant Coach of its 17U Team, who pointed out what a great group of kids this year’s group was. “Thank you to all those who contributed to help make this trip possible; in the future we are going to need more help.”
The “payoff” of assisting with this cause appears well worth it. So many of the players will cherish this memory for a lifetime, and not just for the large trophy they secured but the other priceless intangibles.
“It was a great experience; we got to travel to Florida and play at the ESPN Gym, getting to play against teams from all over the country,” said Jaden Shelby, who will be entering his senior year at NFA in the fall. “We became bigger and closer as a family, really bonding, and playing better as a team as the season went on.”
It’s that type of magic that the Newburgh Zion Lions Coaches are hopeful continue to happen. After all, it’s a program that’s aimed at making better youth…in an assortment of ways.
“There is one thing I really try to teach them,” said Head 17U Coach Smith. “I say to them that just because something may be hard, doesn’t mean it can’t be accomplished.”