The DMV is a hotbed for high school hoops, and at the start of the new year in a typical campaign, teams would be rounding into form as they prepare for conference play and postseason tournaments. But the start of 2021 will be anything but typical.
With winter sports in Washington, a majority of Maryland and some counties in Virginia, still on freeze due to COVID-19 restrictions, student-athletes are left searching for vital exposure opportunities, ways to work with their teammates, and momentary glimpses of what used to be normal.
Osman Bangura, director of basketball events at The St. James, an indoor sports complex in Springfield, Va., believes solitude and inactivity may be a larger detriment to teens than some realize.
“We’ve all played sports, and sports bring people together. So when you have a situation such as this pandemic, it’s almost like the world just stopped,” Bangura said. “And for these student-athletes, us as adults in this field are looked upon as mentors, as teachers, as father and mother figures, so we all have to get creative and invent opportunities for these kids, because it’s important and they need it.”
There is growing concern about the mental health of students, as many of them have been without sport or in-school instruction for nearly 10 months now. According to Bangura, athletics and competition serve as a release for many youth, allowing them to escape personal struggles at home. He believes students bereft of their normal in-person interactions for such an extended period of time could be at the root of their emotional struggles.
“I know, and we [St. James] know, we’re in a pandemic, but we have to really consider what isolation is doing to some of our kids,” Bangura said. “I say all the time, I’m worried about the folks who deal with mental issues that we don’t know about. And now you’re asking them to be confined in an area where they can’t go out and keep themselves busy. That’s what sports do, they allow us to engage in what we love to do as opposed to being trapped in what we don’t. Sports allow kids to be social and to be around friends and share things -- get out of that space of being at home all the time. The love that kids have for sports pretty much has been taken away.”
In an attempt to provide opportunities for student athletes, Bangura helped to design programs offering league play for high school-aged hoopers at the St. James. “The Bump” was played in the fall, showcasing nearly 60 boys and girls public, private and independent teams from the region. Teams did not wear their schools’ jerseys, nor did they play under their home schools’ names, but according to Maret junior Page Greenburg, the games gave students an opportunity to re-engage with their teammates and friends, and to sharpen their skills against top-notch competition.
“My main focus for the fall was to play together and develop as a team while playing against great competition,” Greenburg said. “We work so hard to get better and we want to see how we play against the top teams, so The St. James league was great because we got to go up against the best players in the DMV, which means the best players in the country.”
With a return to play still very much in question for much of the DMV, Bangura and The St. James plan to run it back with another 12-15 game season showcasing between 12-20 teams from the region, with both boys and girls being showcased. The league is not designed to replace AAU, which is still targeting its traditional start later in the year, nor should it be viewed as a substitute for the high school season. Rather, it will be an opportunity for student-athletes to stay sharp and be seen.
The season will begin in mid-January and feature a flexible schedule, allowing the option for it to commence by early February in the event student-athletes are permitted to re-engage with their home schools, or extend if not.
“This is really about building upon what we started in the fall,” Bangura said. “When you look at the ‘21 and ‘22 class, these young men and women have worked so hard to prepare themselves for a season, and with this pandemic happening, we feel like we’re obligated to create a platform for them to continue doing what they love to do and create a high level of competition for them.
“We want to give them a space where they can play and get film to be able to send out to coaches, hopefully get recruited and, like I said, just be around other students so that their mental health stays right as well.”
In November, the NCAA extended its recruiting dead period through April 15, prohibiting college coaches from visiting student-athletes in person. To assist, Bangura and The St. James will live stream competitions on their networks, providing exposure opportunities to student-athletes in need.
“When the pandemic hit, we asked ourselves, how can we be creative with this? What can we do to help? So, we knew we wanted to be able to get creative and find a way to give back,” Bangura said.
“In what we did in the fall, [college] coaches were able to pull up multiple games, and multiple student athletes received scholarship offers because of the league, and we anticipate even more success stories this time around. And the biggest thing is, we’re offering this for free, because it’s a pandemic and, ultimately, this is about doing our part to help the kids and the community.”
According to Bangura, the league is placing the safety of the student-athletes and all who attend at the forefront. The St. James is aware there will be community concerns related to playing contact sports during a pandemic, thus they believe themselves to be minding necessary precautions.
“We feel like we’re doing the right thing, so we absolutely want to do it the right way,” Bangura said. “We follow the state and the Governor’s guidelines, we allow a maximum of 25 spectators per court, we conduct infrared temperature checks upon entering the facility, and we require everyone not playing to be masked. We space all student-athletes’ seats six feet apart, we keep the balls sanitized and we have hand sanitizer stations throughout the facility.”
Basketball players aren’t the only student-athletes taking to The St. James in droves. The gym also offers similar high school leagues in volleyball, indoor soccer and 7-on-7 football. Student-athletes are not certain when they’ll be playing for their high school teams again, so league play at the St. James is one of their only options to stay ready for the coming of a season still not assured to arrive.
“It [the 7-on-7 league] was very important because even though our season has been postponed, we still have to focus and maintain chemistry,” Wise quarterback Jayden Sauray said. “We gotta continue to build our bond because that’s what championship teams do.”
As the pandemic continues to lend more questions than answers for student-athletes, Bangura and The St. James hope to continue to be a refuge for those looking for a space to play.
“I played sports in high school -- we all did. Sports add so much to a young person’s life, so I can’t imagine what it must be like for them, just not knowing if and when they’ll play for their actual schools again. So that’s why what we’re doing is important to me. That’s what we’re here for,” Bangura said.
“It’s always important to engage in the community, and what we’ve been fortunate enough to build is an outlet and a platform, whether the kids are looking for scholarships, looking to stay in shape or just looking to reconnect with their friends and teammates. We want to be able to give back and let people from the community know we’re a part of them.”