March Madness may be the best cap to a season that any sport features. Despite what has gone on for the last six months, when the brackets are released, pitting the best of every conference in college basketball against one another, it seems that nearly everybody has a chance. The push to find the Cinderella, the underdog small school team that can pull the big upset, is one of the best stories in all of sports. That Cinderella aspect is not only limited to college basketball courts however.
Across the nation, there are millions of underdogs that are working to make a life out of the game of basketball, but struggle to grasp the academics needed both make it in the game, and more importantly, in life. On the South side of Chicago, a team of hardworking individuals has made it their mission to embrace the very essence of “college” and “basketball”, and is redefining the means to the end both on and off the court.
The Swish Dreams program is taking a unique approach to academic preparation, by taking basketball and turning it from only a cultural interest, and morphing it into an academic one as well. Through the statistics, geography and structure of the NBA, this program is teaching not just the strategy of the game, but the math, reading, geography and even business management that surrounds it. Started in 2006 by Joshua Mercer, who after returning to his hometown of Chicago after college, saw a clear need for the youth of the area to have an outlet to see beyond the often-difficult surroundings they were growing up in. Heavily influenced by the game of basketball his entire life, and having the gift of vision that a Business degree from Howard, and later a Master’s degree in Education from National-Louis University provides, he sought to start a program where he could spread the needed tools to succeed and overcome the rough environment of inner city Chicago, via one of the great influences and passions of the city: basketball. It was from this vision that Swish Dreams was born.
Initially funded through Mercer’s own resources and money he collected from opening up the gym of the school he was working at to his friends on the weekends (at the price of $3 per day), his vision began to take shape. Also required of those who attended the gym was to contribute their time towards mentoring and tutoring the kids that were beginning to make up the Swish Dreams program, who got to run games on the court early Saturday morning before the pay-to-play games started up. This original model has continued to grow and thrive, as the program has grown in support, outreach and capacity. Now Swish Dreams has a strong core of directors that contribute to growth of both the in-class and basketball IQ of those who take part in the program.
“The problem with education is there is one standard, and everyone can’t learn that way”, says Mercer. “We use basketball to get the fundamentals of school out in a new way the kids can relate to.” Although it is a year around mentoring program, Swish Dreams took its impact to the next level in July 2010, by hosting an intensive summer camp, where the participants not only got continued educational support and in-depth instruction in the game itself, but had both elements combined into an inclusive experience in school and the sport. The summer camp league is constructed from the ground up and supervised by a team of volunteers, however it is run by the kids themselves. The camp’s league program includes an NBA-style training camp & draft, league play & playoffs, team management and fitness training. Through these processes, the participants’ personal and educational skills are honed and continually put to the test, with interviews to increase communications skills, mathematics development through in-game statistics accounting and learning about health and the human body via what puts it in the best shape to perform on the court.
Much like the stats that kids learn to compile for themselves, the proof of the impact in the program’s approach is in the numbers and results of the participants off the court. “There was a 27% increase in overall math scores and 3% improvement in reading scores by the end of the camp across the board”, reported Executive Vice-President Jason Campbell. However, for as ambitious and proven as the program is, it needs more help to expand its reach. Many kids were able to receive partial sponsorships to participate in the program last summer (with a writing a personal statement essay to be scholarship eligible being a requirement), however the program needs more help to expand its reach, not only to those already in its fold, but to further expand throughout the entire city. Mercer states that around $400 can sponsor one camper throughout the entire program, but that any contribution can go towards empowering Swish Dreams to do more.
The best testament to what is being done here is from the kids being impacted by the program. “Swish Dreams thought me through basketball that I don’t have to be just a basketball player”, said 2010 camp participant Aaron Ashraf. He also made it clear that playing in a competitive league was great fun, as was keeping a written journal of quotes from famous basketball players and discussing them, which helped his reading efforts. He later received the camp’s reading award for his literary progress. Aaron also made it clear, with no hesitation, that Chicago Bulls star (a native Chicagoan) Derrick Rose is his favorite player.
Swish Dreams is making it possible that not only can there be more Derrick Rose’s that rise up from the city, but that there will also be more men that use basketball to reach higher levels in life overall, whether they continue to play the game, or take the lessons of it along with them in high school, college and back into their community (and the program) as well. Through Mercer’s vision, and a little help from his friends, he is assigning a brand new spin on what being a student-athlete truly means.
For more information, upcoming events, further program details or the make a contribution, please visit www.SwishDreams.org or contact Josh Mercer directly at firstname.lastname@example.org