The majestic trophy presented to Ace Hardware after its victory in the championship game Saturday against Bruce Baca Real Estate was almost as tall as some of the participants who are in middle school.
That trophy was symbolic not only of the rewards from the work put in by the young competitors but of the grand commitment of former Arizona basketball player Corey Williams and his Tucson Summer Pro League for Kids staff making this annual tradition possible at The Gregory School.
“It was a great league. The kids came out and played hard from beginning to end and they had a lot of fun,” Williams said. “That was the main thing for us. Having 120 kids playing in one league, making sure everybody enjoys themselves is not always the easiest thing but we did a great job of that this year.”
The league had an added impact on the community this year employing 25 youths from the Pascua Yaqui Tribe to help Williams and his crew with game management operations.
The TSPL at first featured college-aged players during the summer when it was founded by Williams in 2004. In 2014, the league expanded to include boys and girls ages 11-13 playing together in their own division. This year was the first that only the youths were part of the competition.
Despite only kids involved, that did not prevent high-level officials from helping Williams. College ref Felecity Willis,a former Arizona women’s basketball and softball standout, and high school ref Nida Carey officiated most of the games.
Williams said they will try to possibly bring back the college-aged players next year. It is obvious with the amount of interest from parents and families who attended the games at The Gregory School, that the TSPL can thrive on only the boys and girls playing on weekends in June and July.
“For us, it’s about developing talent and giving the kid protection, having them enjoy themselves,” Williams said. “What propels you through basketball is your love of the game. Basketball eventually becomes difficult. You move up and get to higher levels where it’s not as fun.
“We try to make sure the kids enjoy the game and hope that will carry and stay with them during the high school season.”
The All-Star game preceded the championship game Saturday and each went down to the last shot.
Aiden Whetton scored 11 points to lead the Blue team past the Red in the All-Star game. His parents showed up to the game wearing NAU garb because they were going to celebrate their older son Julien going off to Flagstaff to study mechanical engineering at NAU.
Julien is coming off a successful career at Salpointe in basketball and volleyball. He takes credit for helping Aiden develop in sports by working with him.
Although the competition can get fierce — the All-Star game went into overtime — Aiden touched on the fun aspect of playing in the TSPL for Kids that Williams has stressed.
“My Pascua Yaqui team was the best because we were thriving off each other,” he said. “We would make some laughs and not get serious. We would do what we want, whenever we want, win or lose, so we just had a good time.”
In the championship game, Ace Hardware held off Bruce Baca Real Estate despite the towering height and size of center Robert Soto, who Williams said people should keep an eye on as he goes into high school in a year. He led Bruce Baca with 13 points.
Roberto Flores and Adam Bernal of Ace Hardware are also names of players Tucsonans will be reading and hearing about in the next few years.
Flores led all scorers with 18 points and Bernal had five pivotal points in the fourth quarter in addition to his lightning quick playmaking skills and finishing ability with the left hand.
When asked if he sees potential in himself in high school — he wants to attend Salpointe and play basketball or wrestle — Bernal answered, “College … I want to go to college.”
Flores played football when he was younger but loves basketball. When he was asked about why he devotes himself to basketball, he had a simple answer:
“I like to see the ball go through the hoop.”
The basics of the game. The basics of life for a youngster. Get the ball in the hoop. Have fun.
Williams’ operation continues to do that for the city’s youth going on 16 years now and the community is thankful.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.