Unable to operate the Tucson Summer Pro League for Kids the last couple of years because of COVID-19 restrictions never caused Corey Williams to doubt its return.
This is his creation starting in 2004 when college-age players, some of them Arizona players past and present at the time, competed during the summer at the Jewish Community Center.
In 2014, the league expanded to include boys and girls ages 11-13 playing together in their own division. The event, now played at The Gregory School, has only included youths since 2019.
Most of the participation fees for the youths is covered by sponsors The Bruce Foundation, Picture Rocks HVAC, Window Depot, Ace Hardware, The Moore Law Firm, Crest Insurance, Truly Nolen, the Pascua-Yaqui Tribe, Bruce Baca Real Estate and Casino Del Sol Resort.
Williams’ objective is to give local youths a chance to play summer basketball whereas their families may not be able to afford having their children pay to participate on a traveling club team.
“I was excited to bring it back,” Williams said Saturday at The Gregory School. “I was so disappointed we couldn’t have it the last couple of years. To be honest with you, it’s so much fun working with young people.
“Knowing what everybody was going through and kids not being able to play — I mean, the entire basketball world took a hit during the pandemic — once I saw the middle schools were open and the kids were playing for the schools, I knew that this summer we could come back with the league, so it was really exciting.
“It’s great for me because it brings back memories of when I was this age playing pickup ball. We told the parents we’ve got a lot of new kids because missing it for two years, we’ve missed an entire two groups of kids. Talking to the parents and explaining to them our philosophy on how we just want the kids to have fun and enjoy the game, that’s exactly how we were introduced to basketball when we were that age.”
Many of the same people are volunteering their time working with Williams to make certain the TSPL takes shape again without a hitch.
That group includes former Arizona softball and basketball standout and college hoops referee Felecity Willis, Arizona Daily Star reporter and ESPN Radio 1490-AM radio talk show host Justin Spears, Sierra Middle School educator and basketball coach Terrence Valerani-Knoblich, Arizona Housing Solutions president and broker Brenda Baca, retired Air Force veteran Eddie Crandall and Westward Look Resort & Spa tennis director/fitness supervisor Jeff Gallego.
Willis coordinates the officials for the games. The referees include local Arizona Interscholastic Association referees in addition to college officials, including former CDO and Pima standout Nadi Carey.
Spears, Valerani-Knoblich and Crandall serve as coaches in addition to helping Williams with day-to-day tasks at The Gregory School when games are played Saturdays and Sundays through July 16.
Gallego is the operations manager and Baca is the internship supervisor.
TSPL is again affiliated with the Pascua-Yaqui Tribe, which supplies young interns to Williams and his staff to help with a myriad of tasks, including keeping score of the games, running the scoreboard and shot clock and providing Gatorade to the players during the games.
“This is their first summer job, so it’s a paid internship,” said Williams, entering his eighth year broadcasting college basketball games for ESPN. “It’s really gives us a chance to get them on that road to employment and earn a little pocket money for back-to-school expenses. It’s a great program.”
Two new faces involved are former Arizona women’s basketball standout Desire Wheeler (now the Tucson Unified School District athletic director) and former Arizona football and basketball player Kelvin Eafon (a basketball club coach with Desert Storm the last 15 years).
Wheeler returned to Tucson two years ago to replace Herman House as TUSD’s athletic director after spending more than a decade at her native Chicago working in the populous school system there as an educator, youth coach and administrator.
She volunteers her time for TSPL as a referee. She officiated youth and high school basketball games while in Chicago.
“This is a crew that was around when I was around (at Arizona from 2001-05),” said Wheeler, referencing Williams, Willis and Eafon. “It’s phenomenal to see that they’re still involved, they’re still giving back whether it’s running tournaments, coaching or training. I’m like, ‘How can I get involved?’
“I haven’t officiated for maybe four years. … It’s just an amazing experience doing something like this for our community.”
Wheeler mentioned she may resume her officiating career locally, potentially as early as the upcoming school year.
“I was a licensed official in Illinois,” she said. “I want to make sure that my requirements and my jobs and obligations are taken care of with TUSD first. I think going into year three, it’s probably time to branch out and start officiating again.
“Being on several boards for the AIA, I know there is a shortage of officials. I told Brian (Gessner, the AIA director of officials) that maybe I’ll get back out there and maybe this would be the year.”
Eafon, a pre- and post-game analyst for Arizona football and basketball games on KCUB (1290-AM), is serving as a coach for the first time in the TSPL for Kids.
He was part of the original TSPL when college players participated. He helped coordinate and served as a coach for games at the Jewish Community Center starting in 2004.
Former Arizona players who played in the league at its inception included Miles Simon, Joseph Blair, Reggie Geary, Damon Stoudamire, A.J. Bramlett, Richard Jefferson, Jason Gardner, Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye among others. Top local high school players also participated.
The league became only for players ages 11-13 in 2019 because of the difficulty of fielding enough teams with adult players with current college and pro players being more restricted to compete for health and wellness reasons.
“It’s fun to add that element having the young players here because this is just strictly for the fun,” Eafon said. “But hopefully at some point we can get the college guys going again.”
Eafon was also the boys basketball coach at Pueblo High School from 2014 to 2018 in addition to his role with the Desert Storm basketball club.
He said coaching the youth of the community “means everything to me.”
“Coaches had a lot to do with saving my life by being positive role models to me,” said Eafon, who has made Tucson his home after coming to Arizona as a two-sports star from the Dallas area. “This is an opportunity to get to the youth and show them how to have good qualities in life.
“We can show them that there’s good people out here. I just love being able to give back and show them a good direction to go.”
Two TSPL alums — Will Menaugh and Jake Cioe — are currently part of Division I college programs. Menaugh, a Catalina Foothills alum, completed his freshman season as a walk-on center at Arizona in 2021-22. Cioe, of Salpointe, was a sophomore walk-on guard at San Francisco last season.
Here is the remaining schedule starting next week (admission is free to the games at The Gregory School):
11:00 am The Moore Law Firm vs Picture Rocks HVAC
12:00 pm Bruce Baca Real Estate vs Window Depot
1:00 pm Crest Insurance vs Casino Del Sol Resort
2:00 pm Ace Hardware vs Truly Nolen
3:00 pm The Bruce Foundation vs The Pascua Yaqui Tribe
11:00 am Window Depot vs The Bruce Foundation
12:00 pm The Moore Law Firm vs Casino Del Sol Resort
1:00 pm The Pascua Yaqui Tribe vs Ace Hardware
2:00 pm Bruce Baca Real Estate vs Picture Rocks HVAC
3:00 pm Crest Insurance vs Truly Nolen
11:00 am Window Depot vs The Moore Law Firm
12:00 pm Picture Rocks HVAC vs Crest Insurance
1:00 pm Casino Del Sol Resort vs Truly Nolen
2:00 pm Ace Hardware vs The Bruce Foundation
3:00 pm The Pascua Yaqui Tribe vs Bruce Baca Real Estate
11:00 am The Pascua Yaqui Tribe vs Crest Insurance
12:00 pm Ace Hardware vs The Moore Law Firm
1:00 pm Picture Rocks HVAC vs Truly Nolen
2:00 pm Window Depot vs Casino Del Sol Resort
3:00 pm The Bruce Foundation vs Bruce Baca Real Estate
11:00 am Ace Hardware vs Casino Del Sol Resort
12:00 pm Bruce Baca Real Estate vs The Moore Law Firm
1:00 pm Window Depot vs Truly Nolen
2:00 pm The Bruce Foundation vs Crest Insurance
3:00 pm The Pascua Yaqui Tribe vs Picture Rocks HVAC
11:00 am Crest Insurance vs Ace Hardware
12:00 pm Truly Nolen vs Bruce Baca Real Estate
1:00 pm Picture Rocks HVAC vs Window Depot
2:00 pm Casino Del Sol Resort vs The Pascua Yaqui Tribe
3:00 pm The Moore Law Firm vs The Bruce Foundation
11:00 am #1 seed vs #4 seed
12:00 pm #2 seed vs #3 seed
1:00 pm TSPL All Star Game
2:00 pm Championship Game
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.