Houston third-fourth grade boys' basketball coach Bill Ramsey huddles with his team before a game in the Houston Park Department's youth basketball league. Pictured are, from left, team members Brecken Adey, Josh Stell, Paydon Dixon and Skyler Frazer.

Charlie Malam remembers the initial practices four years ago with his third grade basketball team. From double dribbles and layups to how to form a huddle or check into the game, he said he had to teach the players every simple detail of the game.

“You have to teach them because they don’t know,” Malam said. “The free-throw line — where’s that at?”

Those were practices. The games were even more challenging.

“Some kids couldn’t get the ball up to the net, let alone the rim,” Malam said. “If we scored four points, it was a high-scoring game for us.”

Fast forward four years. After several years of instruction under Malam and competing in the Houston Parks Department basketball league, the group is now one of the best in its age group. The team capped its growth from awkward-playing third graders to skilled sixth graders by winnings its division to complete the 2010 season.

Not bad for a team that struggled to score just two baskets in an entire game four years earlier.

“It’s taken a tremendous amount of patience,” said Malam, who has coached basketball for more than 20 years. “This year was the biggest jump in improvement I’ve seen yet. Not just skills, but their ability to learn all the things that go beyond physical skills.”

Malam’s team is one of the many examples of the impact the league has had on Houston’s youth and many surrounding communities. Under the direction of Parks Director Jim Root, the league focuses on player development and instruction, not competition and winning at all costs.

Root and the Houston Parks Board implement rules that give each child an equal opportunity. Every player participates in at least half the game. Younger age levels are prohibited from pressing or trapping outside the 3-point line. Older groups cannot press when a lead stretches to 15 points.

Root has received complaints that the league is not competitive enough. But the overwhelming majority of those involved, including Malam, believe the focus on instruction and participation sets the league apart from others.

“I’m proud of our league,” Root said. “We’re designed to meet the needs of all the kids, not just the ones that excel. We want to help everyone.”

Twenty-seven teams representing Houston, Mansfield, Ava, Norwood, Hartville and Raymondville competed in this year’s league. It includes boys and girls in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

Root said discussions to start the league began when the director of a similar league in Licking left. Although someone else took over and the league continued, plans were already in place to begin basketball in Houston.

Root said his league, which began in 2006, wasn’t designed to pull teams away from Licking. The Houston league instead emphasizes development and participation. Root even instructs his officials to explain their calls to players during the course of a game.

“I think a learning league is an entire different thing than just going out and playing basketball,” Root said. “We won’t know if we’re successful until a few years from now when these kids get into high school.”

Malam understands the importance of developing children — both as players and people. He was the head coach at Houston High School for more than a decade and is currently the superintendent of Raymondville Schools.

“The league gives them the opportunity to be a part of it early to see if they like it. If they do, at that young of an age, they can develop the skills to be successful as they get older,” Malam said. “But just the opportunity to participate in a basketball league with their friends and do something positive, it’s a win-win for the kids and the city itself.”

Root said the league benefits the entire community. Between 600-700 people come into Houston eat Saturday during the slow winter months. Many spend time at businesses and eat at local restaurants. He also allows Relay For Life to earn money by working the gates and concession stands. Root said the group made about $2,000 this year.

But the biggest advantage of the league is the development of the children.

“I think we’re making better people out of these kids,” Root said. “That goes a long way in a community.”

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