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Sil Dan runs up and down the court wearing a whistle and a black and white striped shirt.

Technically, he's the referee for the girls' basketball league.

Actually, he's like another coach.

"Shoot for the front of the rim," he tells one of the girls who just missed her first foul shot. "Relax."

Another time, all the girls run down the court after a made bucket, with no one to take the ball out of bounds. So, he inbounds it himself to one of the girls.

Not a problem. This isn't the WNBA or a Connecticut-Tennessee game.

It's just another Sunday afternoon in the gym at Blessed Sacrament in Kenmore and another five basketball games for the 150 girls aged 12 and under who play in the Police Athletic League of Buffalo's Winter Basketball program.

"It's really a nice chance for the girls to play because not only do they learn how to play basketball, but they also learn about things like sportsmanship," said Cheryl Walsh, who coaches her daughter's team from St. Edmund's in the Town of Tonawanda. "They really get a chance to learn the basics, and what's nice too is the way the referees are. They try to help out the girls and tell them what they did wrong. As the season goes on, they'll start making more calls as the girls learn the sport."

That's the basic principal of the three-year old league - teaching girls the sport and giving them the opportunity to play.

It started a few years ago when Paul Catalano and Ray Eldridge of Blessed Sacrament wanted to start a girls' basketball league. Four years ago, they started a 14-and-under program, which plays at Gloria Parks Community Center on Sunday afternoons. Shortly after that, PAL came along and offered to sponsor that program.

Three years ago, the same duo wanted to start something for younger kids. That year, they had just two teams. PAL again came into the picture last year, when the league expanded to four teams.

Now, they're up to 10 teams, six sponsored by Blessed Sacrament with girls primarily from the Tonawanda-Kenmore area and four teams coming from other grammar schools or Boys and Girls Clubs.

"PAL looked at our program and liked the way it was run and decided to sponsor it," Catalano said. "It was a blessing in disguise. We do all the administration and run the league, they provide all the game day necessities - officials, scheduling the games, keeping the score book and the clock."

Of course, if Catalano had his way, there would be no score book or scoreboard. The father of two daughters, he's intent of giving the young girls equal exposure to basketball.

"Our philosophy is we want every girl to handle the ball. We want to make sure everybody plays," Catalano said. "I want them to enjoy playing and learn the game. This is the time when you lose kids. If you have a bad coach or a bad experience, it can turn a kid, especially a girl, off from sports for life. The flip side of that is this is the time that if you get them and give them a positive experience, you have them for life."

Even at the older level - the eight teams of 14-and-under girls who play at Gloria Parks - the emphasis is on instruction and development, not on winning. The payoff comes later in a girls' athletic career. For instance, at one point during the high school season, nine of the 10 girls who were playing junior varsity for Kenmore East and Kenmore West had played in this program.

That's a source of pride for Catalano, who's ready for his next challenge - starting a league for older girls who may have been cut from their high school varsity teams, but who still want to play.

"It's really tough to get anything going in the winter for older girls because we run into a lot of problems with high school coaches," said Jeff Leibner, the director of athletics for PAL. "I do whatever I can and I try to offer as much as I can for girls . . . and once it gets going it always seems better than the boys. There always are a lot of parents at the games and we've gotten a lot of good feedback."

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