03/25/09 — Opinion -- Blazers program more than just hoops

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Opinion -- Blazers program more than just hoops

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on March 25, 2009 1:47 PM

Leonard Compton Sr. stood on the sidelines, his arms folded and a whistle around his neck as he barked out instructions at a recent practice.

Compton, the head coach of the AAU Wayne County Blazers welcomes the privilege of molding a collection of basketball players from high schools across the county into what he sees as a family.

Once players join the Blazers, the natural boundaries formed by school affiliation cease to exist. Rivalries and egos are traded for friendships that transcend the basketball wars that are waged during the school year.

"At the very beginning we tell them to put it to the side," said Compton Sr. "You're not playing for Southern Wayne any more. You're not playing for Goldsboro, Eastern Wayne or Spring Creek. We're all a family. There's no longer a rivalry, but a friendship."

Players admit shrugging off what transpired during the high school basketball season and learning to trust one another can take more than a motivational speech from a head coach.

"With Eastern Wayne it wasn't that hard for me to talk to those guys because we beat them both times during the year," said Goldsboro point guard Mike Langston said. "With the Southern Wayne guys it took me a while because they beat us. We're just balling, so it's nothing serious."

It's with the Blazers, a program in its fourth year, that area teenagers that don't participate in a spring sport are afforded an opportunity from late February through July to hone their basketball skills in tournaments up and down the East coast.

Currently 135 players ages 10 through 17 compete for the Blazers, including a newly-formed girls' team.

With the elimination of ninth-grade sports at schools throughout the county coupled with the fact that area recreation basketball leagues cut off at age 13, Compton sees a growing need for basketball to be offered elsewhere.

Not only do the Blazers preach excellence in basketball, but the instruction stretches off the court. Many of the program's alumni, including Charles B. Aycock's Khendra Reid, often return to tutor young members in the classroom.

"In this county there's nothing for a child to do past the age of 13," said Compton Sr. "A lot of these kids aren't playing baseball and they'll have nothing to do until football season. We don't only do basketball, but we're also helping them in the classroom."

The 16U Blazers won their first tournament of the season, the Reebok Hoops Festival in Greensboro and will participate this weekend in the Adidas Invitational in Columbia, South Carolina.

AAU basketball has given Compton's players a glimpse into a world of basketball that up until now they've only dreamed about. Traveling up and down the East coast, staying in hotels and feeling like a part of something bigger than themselves continually stokes the fire of each one of these young men to play collegiately.

"It makes me want to strive to play college basketball," said Southern Wayne forward Khari Faison. "It makes me want to get my grades up, too. Going to tournaments, staying in hotels and eating together is fun."

Tournament basketball in an unfamiliar gym several hours from home can often feel like a far cry from the comfort provided by the reassuring roar of a home crowd and the familiar voice of a high school coach shouting from the bench.

This environment, combined with facing multiple opponents the Blazers know nothing about in the course of a weekend, can make for an incredibly unifying experience.

"Our bench is cheering the five guys that are out on the court," said Langston. "When those five come out and the next five go in it's like all we've got is our bench. No matter where we go, if we win or lose, they know where we came from."