Nine-year-old Bennett Wilsey hurled a basketball into the air toward a hoop in the University of San Francisco's War Memorial Gymnasium on Sunday. The ball bounced off the backboard and dropped into the net.
“I got my first basket!” the San Francisco boy joyfully exclaimed, turning to make sure his father, Peter Wilsey, had seen.
“Yeah! Way to go, Bennett!” his father cheered. “Good shot, buddy.”
Bennett turned back to the other children and coaches — mostly players from the USF men's and women's basketball teams — participating in the final E-Hoops session of the year and continued to practice dribbling and passing.
“I'd never seen him make a basket and now he's making baskets regularly,” Wilsey said of his son, who is on the autism spectrum. “He's doing a lot better passing the ball and catching the ball and socializing and talking to people.”
Wilsey credited his son's improvements with the game to E-Hoops, hosted at USF for the first time this fall as part of the international program E-Sports that started in the Bay Area in 2000. The organizations team up children, both with and without special needs, and volunteer coaches, emphasizing athletics as well improving social skills.
This fall's partnership between E-Hoops and USF saw six sessions in which student-athletes from USF and others, including a Washington High School freshman, volunteered on Sundays to teach basketball basics to around three dozen kids — many of whom had never played the sport before.
“The 'E' stands for exceptional,” said Ray Kim, director of the E-Hoops program. “It also stands for education. We create an inclusive environment [in which] kids [are] being trained and mentored by these great athletes, these Division I athletes.”
The student coaches benefit from the program as well, Kim noted.
“All the things that went into getting them to this level of playing Division I sports, just the basic and fundamental things they've learned, can go such a long way in helping children,” said Kim.
Derrell Robertson, 21, who plays center for USF men's team, began mentoring an 11-year-old boy during his first session and the two quickly bonded.
“I met Alex a couple Sundays ago and he's a really good kid,” Robertson said. “His favorite drill is the keep-away drill, where I dribble and he tries to steal it from me, and he dribbles and I try to steal it from him.”
Julie Martin, director of operations for women's basketball at USF, said she has spent each session working with 13-year-old Joyce, whose shyness disappeared when she consistently made baskets by shooting overhand for the first time Sunday.
“It's been so fun because you make that relationship with them, and you get to see the progress,” Martin said.
The program is expected to return to USF in the spring, after basketball season, which begins next weekend.