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Biddy League grooms young hoops stars for success 'Breeding ground' at Boys & Girls Club teaches skills as well as attitude, respect

NIAGARA FALLS -- What do Paul Harris, Greg Gamble and Rob Garrison have in common?

And Demondi Johnson, Franklin Jones, Jonathan Flynn, Willie Cauley, Darren Fenn, Katie Delsignore, Dewitt Doss, Carlos Bradbury, Tyrone Beaman and Regina Austin?

Here's a hint: Not all of them played basketball for Niagara Falls or the former LaSalle high schools. In Fenn's case, he didn't even go to high school in Niagara County, as he attended Canisius High before earning an athletic scholarship to play Division I hoops at Niagara University's biggest rival, Canisius College.

They all honed the skills that enabled them to achieve on-court stardom on the same basketball court on 17th Street. All are graduates of the Niagara Falls Boys & Girls Club's Biddy League.

Those alumni are just like today's youths who routinely take the court for Saturday games at the club during a three-month season. For years, there has been major talent in this league of players from ages 6 to 14.

"This is our breeding ground," said Tim Winn, former St. Bonaventure Unversity and LaSalle High School standout.

Winn currently coaches in the Biddy League and played against members of the league as a youngster.

"Everyone [who's done something] has come through here," he said. "This is the do's and dont's stage of basketball. This is the fundamentals. At this stage right here you get your confidence. You kind of get your swagger. You find out what you need to work on."

Dempsey Freeman, 14, plays in the city's modified league for Gaskill Middle School. He has been in the Biddy League for three years.

"When I first started off, I wasn't as good as I am now," Dempsey said. "I just increased my skill level practicing, being around friends and positive people."

Dempsey, like many in the league, hopes he has enough game to make the Niagara Falls junior varsity team next academic year. But with only one public high school in the city -- a school known across the country for its boys basketball squad -- he knows it won't be easy.

"Everyone in Niagara Falls has talent," he said. "You have to go hard. It's either go hard or go home."

The competition for spots is why Biddy League games feature lots of hustle and a style of play similar to Niagara Falls High School. Some teams favor a fast-paced game with lots of defensive pressure, yet they're also disciplined enough to run a set offense that relies on crisp passes, solid cuts to the basket and screens.

The league is open to boys and girls and runs from November to February. Games last about 35 minutes in real time. Start times for games are separated by 45 minutes. The action begins at 8:30 a.m., with the first of three A Division (ages 6 to 10) games. The last game tips off at 1 p.m.

There are six A Division teams and four in each of the B (11 and 12) and C (13 and 14) age divisions.

The Biddy Basketball League has been around since the early 1980s. Robert Bradley, the former club director, founded it before Mike Hamilton, the current director, took over in 1988.

For those keeping score at home, Harris (Syracuse), Gamble (University at Buffalo), Garrison (Connecticut) and Jones (University of Texas at El Paso) are Biddy League graduates who earned Division I scholarships.

Flynn, who is averaging nearly 30 points a game as a senior at Niagara Falls High School, is already committed to join Harris at Syracuse.

For nostalgia fans, Beaman was one of the first Biddy Leaguers to hit the big time. After a nomadic scholastic career that saw him play one season for Niagara Falls High before graduating from Jamestown, he played alongside former NBA player Dale Ellis at the University of Tennessee in the early 1980s.

Austin and Delsignore were among the first wave of talented girls to play against boys in this league. According to Hamilton, Austin was the first to play at the college level -- at Buffalo State. Delsignore played Division I hoops at Rider.

Current Niagara Falls senior star Destiny Harrison is a former Biddy Leaguer, who said playing in the league helped her game improve because it made her a tougher player.

Current C Division player Aquelia Thomas, a 14-year-old who attends Niagara Christian Academy in Sanborn, grew up playing against her two older brothers. All three of them played in the league together in the A Division, and she said it's easier for her to play against the girls because of her experience playing against boys.

She also holds her own against the boys. She's a quick, aggressive guard who isn't afraid to take the ball to the basket with authority, even though she's only 5-foot-4.

It's easier for coaches to instruct players because so many talented players have come through the league. It's also easier for players to trust their coaches.

With a who's who of basketball talent earning collegiate opportunities because of their Biddy League-tempered skills, it's a no-brainer to the players that Hamilton and his group of coaches know what they're talking about.

"Our coach [Damien Watson] is hard but it's not because he doesn't like us," said 14-year-old Niagara Falls freshman Bruce Hartinger, who hopes to try out for basketball as a sophomore. "He wants to see us do well in the future."

And not just in basketball.

Coaches in the league have been teaching the fundamental skills to put youngsters in the position to experience success in life off the court.

They teach the value of respect and education to all participants. The youths are taught to respect not just their opponents and authority figures, but themselves, too. In terms of education, if the youngsters don't make the grade, they don't play -- just like in high school and college. Student-athletes in those levels are required to maintain a minimum grade-point average to remain eligible for athletics participation.

"We try to teach them attitude," Hamilton said. "Attitude is big, not just in sports but in life as well. We try to teach them to respect teammates, opponents, officials because you never know who's watching you and you never know who's going to remember you later in life."

"You're teaching them the game of life using basketball as a bridge," Winn said. "If you're just going to preach basketball to the kids, then you're cheating them."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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