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Little Dribblers program starts kids playing hoops at a young age

First second graders dribble length court during Little Dribblers sessions Fieldhouse-Merrillville Monday Sept. 16.
Kids as young as four years old

First and second graders dribble the length of the court during Little Dribblers sessions at the Fieldhouse-Merrillville on Monday, Sept. 16. Kids as young as four years old participate in the weekly youth basketball classes.

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Updated: September 19, 2013 11:10PM



Everyone’s got to start somewhere. And with the support of concerned parents, even some of today’s preschoolers are taking steps to becoming competitive basketball players — if not right away, then in the years to come.

Helping form 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds into dedicated athletes is still a challenge. One Fieldhouse-Merrillville program, however, helps put the youngest aspiring hoops stars on the first rung of the ladder of success.

Parents filed into the Fieldhouse with their youngsters on a recent Monday evening. The kids are fitted with the latest — and often brightest colored — basketball shoes. Their gear is mini-sized: in their small duffel bags is the rest of the gear needed for their hour-long training session, along with some post-workout refreshments.

Coach Yama Kader is waiting on a court to get the group of 1st and 2nd graders started on some drills. About a dozen kids make it to the second in a series of eight sessions of the venue’s Little Dribblers program.

Kader, 25, speaks to the youths in an encouraging but direct manner. He had just concluded a class with kids who are mostly one to two years younger than the group on the Fieldhouse’s blue court. Simple dribbling-in-place exercises commence.

“When I sat down to write our Little Dribblers plan I thought about all the things I wanted to do and then I realized most of these kids are not going to be able to do that,” said Kader, who grew up in California. “I had to simplify everything to the most basic thing (such as) doing a slow one-hand dribble and then to speed up a little.”

A 2013 graduate of Holy Cross College in South Bend, Kader said that he’s much more accustomed to working with at least teens up to college-age athletes. But in a tough economy he realized that people have to take the opportunities that come their way.

As a member of the Saints basketball team on scholarship from his sophomore to senior year, Kader put up impressive numbers as combo guard. He is second on the NAIA school’s all-time scoring list and holds records for points in a single game (44) and career 3-pointers made (139). He now plays for the Afghanistan National team, representing his parent’s native country.

Brothers Noah and Luke Petersen, 8 and 6, of Merrillville paid careful attention to the coach and generally performed the dribbling and passing exercises at or above the level of their peers. Between the two, an occasional smirk or a light punch to the back gave away the fact that the blonde boys were siblings.

Their dad, Mark Petersen, said that the home-schooled kids have many more formal opportunities than most adults had to learn sports skills at an early age.

“(At Little Dribblers) I want them to learn to be good sports,” he said. ‘I want them to learn the game but not take it too seriously until they’re ready. Even then, I want them to stay down-to-earth.”

The older Petersen sibling had summed up the experience for his parents.

“I told my mom that I had fun and you just do the game,” said Noah Petersen, who had also participated in a YMCA basketball camp. “I learned about passing and dribbling.”

Kader pointed out the differences in instructing preschoolers versus working with the older youths.

“It’s like night and day,” said Kader. “With preschoolers and kindergarteners, the ball is bigger than a lot of the kids, so it’s very difficult for them to even bounce it. And to get them to stay in line or stay on task is a lot different.

He added: “First- and second-graders are much more disciplined. I could tell them ‘come here and get in line,’ and they run over and they listen… It takes more work to get the younger ones to listen.”

Whereas the youngest Little Dribblers played on basketball hoops set at 7-foot level, the current class on court was aiming at a rim set at 8 feet. The basketballs are kid-sized as well.

After dribbling and passing exercises, a scrimmage ensued. The two teams competed fairly evenly on the full length of the court. Most of the kids could dribble and transition to a pass or a shot without losing the ball. But if traveling and double dribble calls had been made, the game would have taken on the appearance of a stop-action movie.

John Stroia, the Merrillville facility’s general manager, counts more than 30 years of college coaching experience. Though he wasn’t yet scouting for the talent of the 2020s, he believes the Little Dribblers fit into a continuum of sports development.

“You see the progression of kids practicing from week to week and embracing the success they’ve had,” said Stroia. “They end up feeling more confident at their skill level – and it starts at a very early age.”

The Irving family — Prentiss and Camesha and their 5-year-old son Christian — were preparing for their drive back to their home in Michigan City. Christian is the youngest and one of the smallest players in his Little Dribbler class.

Though their son trailed the others in some of the exercises, the fact that he was all-smiles after the practice showed them that he was on his way toward enjoying the athletic pursuit.

“I’m wanting him to learn to focus,” said Camesha. “That’s what I’m hoping he gets out of it… to focus on what his coach or teachers are saying.”



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