When the Atlantic City Starz youth basketball organization started six years ago, it had just one team of nine fourth-grade boys. Now it boasts more than 50 athletes ages 9-13 spread across six teams, three each of boys and girls.
On June 28, the growing program held its first-ever showcase at the Jerome Avenue basketball courts in Margate, drawing dozens of community members with a series of intra-program contests.
Keith Fader, who co-founded the program with fellow Atlantic City High School basketball alumnus Frank Gilliam, said it was time to show the community what it has to offer.
"It's just a chance to bring our whole organization together and show the talents, what these (players) are doing," said Fader, who lives in Margate. "Outside, in the summertime, at the Jersey shore - you can't get better than this."
The program, which is composed of the boys' Atlantic City Starz teams and the girls' South Jersey Starz teams, was established by Fader and Gilliam as a way to increase basketball's prominence in the area.
The AAU-affiliated teams play year-round, practicing in Margate, Longport and Ocean City and playing mostly tri-state area teams, though they occasionally venture further. Unlike most traveling teams, though, Starz teams aren't based on skill on the court, but on character. Players wear shirts printed with the teams' motto of "Home, school, hoops" - written in order of priority, Fader said.
"We get bad reports, you're out - we don't want people like that," Fader said. "Second is school, and it's not just about grades, but being a leader, not bullying and not thinking you're above anybody else, and obviously, hoops, and all the other sports they play."
All athletes who meet the team's conduct standards are invited to participate, and while the team does not screen players based on basketball ability, their emphasis on character often translates to wins. Participants are also successful off the court, and all are honor roll students, Gilliam said.
The team itself is not nationally ranked, Fader said, but they do play nationally ranked teams, giving their players good experience.
Brielle Smith, a 12-year-old rising seventh-grader from Mays Landing, participated in the June 28 showcase. She joined the team this year after hearing about it through a friend's mother.
While Smith has some prior basketball experience through a Galloway Township-based league, she said being part of Starz has made her a better player and introduced her to some new people she wouldn't have met otherwise.
"It's a great experience, it's a great way to make new friends," Smith said. "It's really good to know their strategies, because next year we're going to go to middle school, so I'll be playing against them."
The program has come a long way since it began six years ago, and so too have the nine young men who founded the program. Gilliam is proud to say seven of nine started for their respective high school teams this past season, and all nine at least bypassed their school's freshman squads, playing instead on JV or varsity levels.
These players weren't superstars when they signed up, but because of their mix of character and athleticism, had potential. If others are willing to put in the work, Gilliam said, they too can have this success.
"We don't have a normal system, we have an open door policy," Gilliam said. "If you're willing to come and learn the game, we're willing to basically teach you."
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For more information about the Starz basketball programs, find them on Facebook or visit eteamz.com/atlanticcitystarz.