Father-daughter tandem trying to boost youth basketball in Penn Hills

Don Johnson referees youth basketball games and is always amazed at the traffic in the parking lot at North Allegheny. The school’s parking lot is always filled when he goes to call games. Johnson wants to see the same type of attendance grow at Penn Hills.

Johnson has been volunteering to help his daughter, Alicia, an assistant coach with the Indian girls program, grow an in-house league for kids living in Penn Hills school district.

While they don’t have the infrastructure for an in-house league, they have been able to organize skills work Monday and Wednesday nights in the high school gym.

But Johnson emphasized it’s more than just being a feeder program for the high school. He wants to see kids enjoy the sport.

“We have had a lot of praise from the parents in terms of having kids come out,” Johnson said. “A few said ‘I’m not athletic, but I’m glad I spent time with athletics.’ As far as I’m concerned, it’s come-one, come all. ”

There is no charge for kids to participate, and it is for kids from first through eighth grade. After the school board approved gym time, Alicia Johnson posted online encouraging for parents to sign up their kids.

More than 400 kids were signed up, and they split the groups between first and fourth grades and fifth to eighth-graders to play Monday and Wednesday nights.

“The response has been overwhelming,” said Alicia Johnson. “I expected between 50 to 60 kids. We had over 200 sign up. We are offering this to boys and girls. ”

Driving interest in the sport has gone by the wayside in the community over the past 10 years. Alicia Johnson said the youth programs took a major hit when Penn Hills’ Hebron Elementary closed. Basketball in the area was also hampered when the Penn Hills YMCA closed.

There were few opportunities for young players to add to their skillsets.

Alicia Johnson saw the effects of this first hand, as the Indians’ varsity program had only seven players available at the start of the season. Between the ninth grade, junior varsity and varsity programs, Penn Hills had only 15 players.

“Most of those kids were new to the game of basketball when they showed up,” she said.

The varsity program took the brunt of the lack of experience, finishing 1-18 overall, including 0-12 in section.

Developing a youth program and, potentially, a league is something Don Johnson hopes will allow Penn Hills to be competitive.

“Back in the day, when Penn Hills was competitive, it was because Penn Hills had an in-house program,” he said. “That way, kids can have a whole session and learn what basketball is. These kids are so far behind by the time they get to middle school and high school, they can’t catch up to the kids from other schools. ”

What Alicia Johnson is hoping to see is the initial enthusiasm for the program sustain itself. Because of the high numbers of people interested, Alicia has been relying on a few volunteers to help out.

Making this into a full-fledged league will require continual progression.

“To continue fostering this program, at some point we will need funding,” she said. “Right now, we are working to build skills, but to have a league, we would have to pay for referees. Everyone is volunteering now, but getting more people will require them to have all of their clearances. What we need is parental support. ”

Josh Rizzo is a freelance writer.

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