William "Billy" Porter III, who founded the Venice Park Summer Basketball League in 2000, didn't just help his athletes on the basketball court - he helped them in life.
Porter's No. 1 rule for his athletes, many of whom struggled with the negative influences of the street, was that they stay out of trouble. His No. 1 rule for himself, Shermaine Gunter-Gary said, was that he never let any of his players go without.
Gunter-Gary, who works for the Atlantic County Council of Youth Programs and worked closely with Porter on the basketball league, recalled a time about five years ago, after a fire destroyed the home of a league member, when Porter took it on himself to help get the family back on its feet.
They were looking over the list of items they needed at Martin Luther King School, where Porter worked as a custodian, when he went into action in the way only he could.
"He went up to somebody - Billy was crazy, he was a funny guy - and said, 'I need a toaster,' and I said, 'Billy, that's not how you do it," said Gunter-Gary, who lives in Atlantic City. "And you know what? That person bought him a toaster."
Porter died in June at age 51 after a year-long battle with cancer. On Aug. 24, the city rededicated Lagoon Playground Park in his name in a short ceremony before the final games of the year.
Porter, who was passionate about Atlantic City, created the basketball league to provide a summer outlet for city youth who would otherwise struggle to occupy their time during the summer.
Gunter-Gary first met Porter in 2000 during the planning stages of the league, when a mutual friend sent Porter to her for help in putting it together. At their first meeting, they butted heads and vowed never to see each other again, but they soon bonded over a mutual interest in the city's youth.
This season was the league's first without its founder, which Gunter-Gary said was hard for her and many others.
"He was extremely passionate, extremely dedicated," Gunter-Gary said. "Billy would call me five, six times a day, every day, about something that we could do better with the league."
Many members of Porter's family, including his mother, Theresa Walker, his long-time partner, Joanne Fletcher and their five children, attended the Aug. 24 ceremony to see city officials and others touched by Porter over the years pay their respects.
Tamia Walker, Porter's sister, traveled from Maryland to see the ceremony. Among those who spoke were city officials and former members and organizers of the youth league, and the anecdotes they shared about Porter put a smile on the faces of the family, Walker said.
"It was so meaningful, and it just highlighted exactly who he was and what he represented," she said. "He never looked for accolades. "He always worked in the background, and his joy was seeing the success of others."
Last year, the city merged its own youth basketball effort with Porter's, creating the Atlantic City Recreation Venice Park Summer Basketball League.
With Porter now gone, the league is under the direction of Atlantic City High School assistant basketball coach Jason Lantz and James Brown. Porter's son, Jerrell, also pitches in.
Porter made a point of impressing on his athletes that they stay out of trouble and be respectful toward others. This message is one the current organizers hope to continue. So far, Lantz said, it has.
"We had a lot of people from Atlantic County who just came to watch the games, and they all said the same thing - 'Man, these kids are great, the way they speak,'" Lantz said. "That was his thing, and it was left, and it just shined that much this year. I wish he could have been there to see it. I think it was just wonderful to see."
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