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Hoops camps hope to breed young Suns, Mercury fans

By - Jul 11, 2016

Editor's note: The following is the first in a series of enterprise stories written by students in managing editor Jose Romero's sportswriting class at Arizona State University. The writers are, in order, Felisa Cardenas, Amanda Whitaker and Alex Didion. 

PHOENIX -- The dream of playing professional basketball is kept alive among Phoenix valley youth thanks to the Junior Suns and Junior Mercury youth basketball league and camps.
“No one probably realizes, ‘Well I can be a professional athlete, I get paid to play a sport,’” Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said. “That’s how I was growing up.
“And realizing that these avenues are available for anyone if you dare to dream, it’s a great opportunity to come and learn at the camp and hopefully get the opportunity to play at the highest level.”
Jr. Suns/Jr. Mercury Basketball
Youth all across Arizona have the opportunity to play basketball and sharpen their skills available year round.
Kids have the option of playing in a sponsored four-season league on a team or attend one of the two camps that are associated with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
“We partner with all the different YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs and some other City Parks and Recs here in the valley and throughout the state to operate our league,” Mark Gretter, the Jr. Suns/Jr. Mercury camp director, said.
You might have a kid that plays in the summer at the Y and then they come back in the fall and play in our league,” said Gretter.
Boys and girls 6-17 years of age and of all skills levels are welcomed and encouraged to sign up to play.
The camps offer one-on-one instructions in a safe and positive atmosphere that allows these children to learn all the drills and skills that will help them fall more in love with the game, according to the camp website.
Both Phoenix professional teams sponsor their camps during the off-season, summer for the Suns and winter for the Mercury.   
This year will be the third year that the Jr. Mercury camp runs and has some perks for those who choose to attend.
“I think it’s very important for youths to be active and just to get exercise,” Julie Hairgrove, Mercury assistant coach, said. “There’s a lot of things that can help youth and just being on a team, being a leader, and it’s just super important to keep sports going because it keeps kids out of trouble as well.”
Although the Jr. Mercury camp is fairly new, the Jr. Suns camp has been allowing boys and girls to play basketball here in the valley for the past 19 years.
It all started with former Sun Jason Kidd and former Arizona State University mens basketball coach Bill Frieder, according to Gretter.
Coach Frieder knew Kidd from recruiting him. Having been retired from ASU, Frieder heard that Kidd and some buddies of his were running their camps in Phoenix so he reached out to him and offered to run his camps, according to Gretter.
“He(Frieder) did that for three years,” Gretter notes. “When we traded Jason (in 2001 to the New Jersey Nets) we just kept doing generic Suns basketball camps, so this is the 19th year that we’ve done a kind of formalized basketball camp for the Suns.”
The goal of these camps and leagues: to make the youth of today fans forever.
The Jr. Suns/Jr. Mercury plan is similar to that of a little league baseball model, according to Gretter. The idea being that if you’re a kid who played for a certain team growing up, you’re more likely to grow up and follow that team.
That team here, being the Suns or the Mercury.
“It’s our hope that they become young fans,” Gretter said. “And it’s just trying to develop young fans that turn into lifelong fans.”
Girls and the WNBA
“Without basketball I don’t know what I would be doing,” Isabelle Harrison, forward for the Mercury, said, reflecting on her time playing under the late Coach Pat Summitt.
“I think, as a person today, I’m a lot more responsible, respectable and I work hard and that comes from what I learned as an itty-bitty kid.”
Although the WNBA is in its 20th season this year and Phoenix is one of the few markets that has both an NBA and WNBA team, Gretter notices an alarming pattern that still exists in young girls.
“Anytime we do an event it always seems to me that the boys know more about the WNBA than the girls do,” Gretter notes.
Aside from not knowing much about the league or the teams, Gretter notices that when they conduct Mercury events you most commonly see a girl in attendance wearing a Stephen Curry or LeBron James jersey.
“The way things are now, she can’t ever grow up and play in the NBA,” Gretter said. “But she can grow up and have positive female role models so why isn’t she wearing a Diana Taurasi jersey? Why isn’t she wearing a Candice Dupree jersey?”
The Mercury encourage all youth around Arizona to attend these camps, especially their camp.
“I think everyone needs role models,” Brondello said. “And you know, we’ve got some great role models here, we got the best players in the world here and have an opportunity to come and learn the game.”
Harrison notes that being a role model is something these players are highly aware of.
“There’s a little girl looking up somewhere saying, ‘I want to be a basketball player one day,’” Harrison notes. “So you got to remember that and when you have those hard days it’s something that gets you through.
“There’s people who wish they could do what you do, so be appreciative and go out there and give it your all.”
Hairgrove sees the role these professional athletes play in the inspiring young girls first hand.
“I know my kids want to play basketball because they see Diana (Taurasi), Penny (Taylor), Brittney (Griner), and Dewanna (Bonner),” Hairgrove notes. “So I know kids look up to that.
“I think it’s super important and (the WNBA) being 20 years in, I think a lot of young girls want to play basketball.”
Youth Basketball Camp Attendance
Around 16,000 youth go through the program in a calendar year playing in the Jr. Suns/Jr. Mercury leagues.
The camps sell out pretty quickly depending when you log on to register your child.
“We do a day camp here in Phoenix and we do an overnight kind of sleepover camp up in Prescott,” Gretter said. “They’re both five days and we get about 250 kids at each camp, so 500 total.”
These summer camps are Suns’ gear specific—camp shirts, hats, basketballs, a ticket to a Suns home game, the chance to play on the Talking Stick Resort Arena court before a Suns game and appearances from Suns players.
The Jr. Mercury camp started its first year with 80 campers, said Gretter. The following year they were at 100 campers and they are projecting a cap of 120 campers for this coming year.
Campers receive an official Jr. Mercury jersey, a special program gift, such as a hat or basketball, a ticket to a Phoenix Mercury home game and a chance to meet and learn some tricks of the trade from Mercury players.
The dream of playing professional basketball is brought to life as campers also get a keepsake photo with the championship trophies.
The execution of the camps is always kept the same, campers always get the same experience of coaches from Phoenix basketball—whether it’s a former player, former coach or even former ASU coaches.
“But for us,” Gretter notes, “when the team is really playing well it just seems like the Suns are more on people’s minds.”
And when the Suns are more on people’s minds it tends to lead to having to turn kids away for the summer camps.
“When the team’s not playing as well they’re just kind of not in the forefront of everybody’s mind,” according to Gretter.
Meanwhile, the Mercury are three-time WNBA champions but the camp is so new that there hasn’t been much time to see if the pattern holds true for the Jr. Mercury camp, Gretter notes.
Popularity of the WNBA Among Youth
Hairgrove believes that the improvements in the WNBA in the last 20 years will cause a growth of interest in the youth.
“I don’t think you’re going to see so many blowouts anymore because teams are so evenly matched up,” Hairgrove notes. “There’s some great athletes, I mean there are some great kids that are coming out that are super athletic, super quick and bring a different skill set.”
If teams start drawing more fans into seats and promote the team well in the community, Hairgrove believes that WNBA will continue to draw fans to games.
“That’s why we like to get out and do camps here in the community in Phoenix,” Hairgrove notes. “Because it’s more fun to play in front of a big crowd.”
According to Hairgrove there is a one major factor that also contributes to growing WNBA fan bases and drawing bigger crowds to games.
“It’s all about winning too,” Hairgrove said. “Because you know people kind of jump into that when teams are doing well.”

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