WARSAW – There are not a lot of college kids who enjoy getting up at 7 a.m. and have to turn ‘it’ on. ‘It’ is not a reference to the TV or their cell phone, either. In the case of this week, ‘it’ is being the larger-than-life figures that basketball players can and sometimes are. For many area schools and service organizations around the Warsaw community, ‘it’ is very important.
Tuesday morning signified another day around the elementary schools around the area, kids settling in for a day of exploration and education. But some knew better, and were more than ready when the giants of the community, so to speak, entered the classrooms. FIfteen basketball teams that make up the NCCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championship fields (one had travel issues outside the area and could not partake) took to the 11 area schools, as well as four service organizations such as Combined Community Services and Heartline Pregnancy Center, to offer a bit of ‘give back’.
Grace College, as well as all of the men’s programs, started bright and early at Madison Elementary. The classrooms were waiting, and the equally-excited players got their assignments. Kindergarten and first grade classrooms. Two by two, the six-footers all headed to the land of the curious, and the results were unpredictable.
“Do you guys get to grow mustaches?” came from one student in Miss Schroeder’s class to Erik Bowen, who did what he could to answer the question with a straight face. “We can, if we want.”
When asking some of the students in Mrs. Tabor’s kindergarten room what they wanted to be when they grew up, Charlie Warner got more than he bargained for. “I want to be a princess, a chef and a farmer,” one eager girl said, to which one of her classmates quickly added, “I want to be a famous dunker!”
“This is always a fun trip for me,” Grace guard Stephen Halstead said. “It’s something I look forward to doing. Last year we got to be out on the playground playing with the kids. Today we were reading and letting them ask questions. Going into the classrooms, they think it’s so cool to have a basketball player in there. It’s just a good thing overall for us to be a role model for them and give them an opportunity for them to aspire to be something they want to be. I don’t look at it like having to wake up and do it, I look forward to it.”
Grace men’s basketball head coach Jim Kessler stood back and let his guys show their stuff as they rotated through different classrooms and activities. Kessler would pop in from time to time, seeing how things would go. Taking cell phone pics like a proud papa, Kessler knows this day is special as tomorrow ushers in the national basketball tournament to which eight teams in both brackets gather their differences back up and play for the big trophy.
“Our guys love interacting with the kids and reading to them,” Kessler said. “Keep in mind, a lot of these kids are just a few years removed from being grade schoolers and I think they remember what it’s like to having special things happen. They really look forward to it. Last year watching them play tag and jumping around outside, it made it really special for the young kids and our guys, too.”
In it’s first-ever NCCAA appearance, Crowley’s Ridge College from Paragould, Ark., had the chance to visit Claypool Elementary Tuesday afternoon to serve. Given the chance to work in the gym class with kindergarten and first graders, head coach Tye Clothier and his team couldn’t believe what was in store.
“They live for stuff like this,” said a beaming Clothier, who shared the news with his team they qualified for the tournament just this past Friday on a bus after a huge loss. “They responded to this opportunity about as wildly as they did when we got the call we got into the tournament. This service project, oh my goodness, this is great. To be able to come here, just look at them, all smiles, they are having a blast. This is good. How can we give back to the community? How can we give back? Basketball is a game. It’s fun, and I know we all sometimes take it too seriously, but this is a great reminder of what it is we are trying to do.”
The service projects are part of the opening day of activities for the national tournament, to which Grace has hosted for a good part of the past decade. Project organizer Jeff Raymond, who is the track and cross country coach at Grace, has found a nice rhythm with the activities, given most of those who receive the visits continue to request the appearances after years of positive experiences.
“One hundred percent of the places love to have the teams coming in, and some of them request the same teams to come back if they are in the tournament again,” Raymond said. “The elementary schools love it. It does take a little bit of work, and we have a grid that helps us out a lot in booking these, but things flow pretty well.
“It’s good to get the players out of their comfort zones a little, and the little ones at the schools absolutely love having them in their classrooms. It’s good for our community and for the people big and little.”