Philadelphia 76ers give kids a chance to play with the pros

Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes ran calisthenics drills alongside shooting guard Jodie Meeks at one end of the court, supervised by Head Athletic Trainer Kevin Johnson. Underneath the opposite basket, forward Thaddeus Young practiced the “Mikan Drill,” shooting layups from either side of the rim.

But this wasn’t a Sixers practice, and it wasn’t the team’s coaching staff they were working with to stay in shape.

On Thursday afternoon, those players were joined by teammates Evan Turner and Tony Battie, along with members of the Sixers Dream Team dancers and Flight Squad dunk team, for the team’s second annual Fit for Fun event at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center near East Falls. Through a joint venture between the Salvation Army and the James L. Wright Recreation Center of West Philadelphia, some 150 children, aged six to 14, took to the court, the pool, and the stage as part of the NBA Live Healthy Week program.

Meeting the players

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Battie was stationed poolside to lead swimming games, championing the benefits of exercise. “It’s important for them to get out, stay active, and it can help their health in the long run,” the center said.

Separated into age groups, the children either got to swim with Battie, play basketball with Young and the Flight Squad, or play hopscotch and other fitness games with Hawes and Meeks. Turner also got to show off his moves with the Dream Teamers, emceeing a dance competition for some of the older girls in attendance.

The name of the game, for all involved, is health. This week, players and representatives from all 30 NBA teams are taking to the streets to promote nutrition and exercise among local youth, kids who see these athletes on TV and look up to them.

Latonia Tucker sat courtside as her 11-year-old son, Tyheim, ran through a series of basketball workouts with Young. “He woke up this morning talking about it,” she said, “and he’s been talking about them all day.”

Sydnee Reddy, 10, was also impressed that the Sixers, all of whom play significant minutes on the court, gave some of their off-court time to better the city they call home. “It was so cool that they came to hang out with us and see kids in the community,” Reddy said.

NBA labor strife lasted into December, knocking games off of the schedule; the 66 contests the team does play this year are condensed into a smaller time frame, limiting the number of off days between games. “This is a sacrifice for the players, especially in a shortened season,” said Amber Stuart, director of community relations for the team.

Encouraging physical fitness at a young age 

The team’s elder statesman at 35, and playing more than he has in three seasons, Battie could have been forgiven for taking advantage of his day of rest (Philadelphia was in the midst of a stretch of three games in four nights). But he wants to reach out to this generation of children, and develop in them the same habits that he had as a younger man.

“Especially in this day and age, a lot of the kids aren’t as active as when we were kids,” Battie said. “We used to run around outside all day, and it seems like there was a lot more physical fun for us.”

Randall Thomas, spokesman for the Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware division of the Salvation Army, concurred with Battie. “An event like this is paramount for kids in the community, important in committing to stay active. Part of becoming a professional athlete is maintaining a level of physical fitness – if these kids see the Sixers here having fun, eating an orange, playing simple games and jumping around, they realize that they can do those things too.

Of course, no one forgot what being a child is all about: fun. As Sixers Dream Team co-captain Annie said, “To be in a position to keep kids busy while having fun is truly a great thing.”

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