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Hutton: Portage High School student pitching event for charity runs into roadblocks

Portage High School student Michael Spears 16 South Haven is trying help family friend with appearance Harlem Wizards May Portage

Portage High School student Michael Spears, 16 of South Haven is trying to help a family friend with the appearance of the Harlem Wizards in May at Portage High School. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 29, 2013 6:40AM



Is half a good deed better than a full one?

That all depends on who you ask and whether or not Michael Spears can come remotely close to getting a decent crowd for the Harlem Wizards game at Portage on May 6. The Wizards, a funky, slap-stick version of the Harlem Globetrotters who use teachers and school personnel as their on-court props for an evening of goofy basketball entertainment, typically sell well in Portage. They have visited twice, drawing 900 fans once and around 1,100 another time, according to Shelley Helton, the sales rep for Indiana.

The Wizards were in Portage in December but they decided to add a spring trip after a request from Spears, a sophomore, who asked if he could organize a Wizards game to help raise money for his mother’s friend who was suffering from cancer.

The deal with the Wizards works like this: They split a percentage of the ticket revenue with the school or whoever sponsors the event and they get to sell their merchandise after the game. Typically, the money raised from the evening goes back to the school in some form.

It all sounded so great, so perfect for Spears — helping out a woman afflicted with cancer, working with a school advisor to get the event shepherded through and, finally, getting to spend a night watching his beloved Wizards — until one major snag popped up.

Portage was on board, well, sort of.

The school approved use of the gym, waived all fees except for janitorial and is allowing use of the scoreboard.

Even the president of the school board, Cheryl Oprisko, jumped in with both feet, offering to mix it up on court with the Wizards. She also donated money from her business.

There was one monumental string attached: The Wizards couldn’t promote the event in the school.

Really. No posters (Ok, well just a few), no team visits to the grade schools, where they could rev up the little kids and then send flyers home.

Here is the question: If the Wizards stop in Portage and play a game but no one is there to watch it, does it really count?

Helton isn’t sure what the answer is to that one but she feels bad for Spears, who was dealt an awful hand, unintentionally and perhaps unwittingly by the board.

Getting butts in the seats is a grass roots effort for the Wizards and for them, these events are their livelihood. They are in Valparaiso tonight, where they expect to have a crowd of between 1,500 and 2,000. They did 12 community visits to grade schools in the system to promote the even. They sent flyers out. They had programmed calls made from the schools to students’ homes to make people aware of the event. Part of the gig requires a full-scale professional promotional push from the Wizards.

They’ll do zero school visits for Portage, send home zero flyers and make zero school approved phone calls for the event. They typically close their sales with their final day promotional pushes.

They couldn’t’ do any of that because school policy only allows the school to be used for events that directly benefit the school. Elise Jones, a teacher at Portage and the school sponsor for Michael, understood the board’s position.

“It just opens up a Pandora’s box for them,” she said. “Everybody would want to use it.”

In December, Portage did get a full-scale marketing blitz from the Wizards in an effort to raise cash for the football team.

Feel free to make your own value judgment about which cause has a higher value: raising money for the football program or a kid from the high school trying to help out cancer victims.

Rachelle Spears, Michael’s mother, was caught off guard when they went before the board and it refused to budge on its position about promoting in school.

“It’s very disappointing,” she said. “We’re doing a fundraiser for the whole community.”

Said Michael Spears: “I was pretty disappointed when they said they couldn’t do it.”

It was a frustrating moment for Helton, who believed the board would make an exception for Spears, when she learned they couldn’t get into the schools. She is basically closing her eyes, taking deep breaths and hoping it works out.

“This is a student, quite frankly, who was taking on a good initiative to do something positive,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if he was raising money for chimpanzees in Africa. It’s still a positive cause. I think it’s crazy.”

Michael Spears has been resourceful in the face of the barriers that are up. He started a Facebook page and he and his mother have dropped off flyers at local businesses to try drum up interest. He said he had sold around 150 tickets, maybe less. Stacy Kennon, Rachelle’s friend who has cancer, said she decided to donate the money to “Relay for Life”, a cancer charity, since she has good insurance.

She said Michael’s initiative to host the event is “a wonderful thing.”

Yes, it is. It’ll be more wonderful if they can fill up the gym. Michael has his fingers crossed, but he needs help here.

For ticket information, contact Rachelle Spears at (219) 707-2209. Tickets are $10.



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