The NBA kicked off its preseason this week and fittingly, like a younger sibling tagging along, Jr. NBA Week will start Saturday. It’s the seventh year that Jr. NBA, the league’s global youth basketball program for boys and girls, has devoted a week to celebrating and promoting some of its unique partnerships and initiatives, and this year, the focus is on getting kids back on physical courts.
“I’ll say in particular this year, we felt an urgency to focus on expanding opportunities for boys and girls to participate in our sport and to make sure we were providing access in an equitable way,” David Krichavsky, Senior Vice President and Head of Youth Basketball Development at the NBA says over the phone. “And that really comes off the experience of the past 18 months and the COVID-19 pandemic, when sports were taken away from young people. And really, the experience of the past 18 months as well shined a bright light on the lack of equity across communities, including access to sport.”
It was in examining where that lack of equity stemmed from that helped to guide Krichavsky and Jr. NBA to partnerships with Girls Leadership and Laureus Sport for Good, along with the new initiatives with these organizations designed to remove barriers to participation in youth basketball.
One especially troubling statistic emerging from the pandemic’s effect on youth participation in sports overall is that kids from low-income houses are quitting sports at six times the rate as those from high-income homes. By the age of 14, girls drop out of sports twice as often as boys. As such, the partnership with Girls Leadership, a non-profit leadership development organization that teaches girls to exercise the power of their voice, feels especially urgent.
“We have had, since 2018, our Her Time to Play program, which is a program in partnership with the WNBA to provide girls opportunities in the sport of basketball and women increased opportunities to coach youth. And we’ve had a tremendous amount of success with that program,” Krichavsky says, adding, “but have a new partnership with Girls Leadership that’s intended to provide enhanced curriculum, also very much focused on social and emotional learning and leadership development.”
That program is targeted to reach 20,000 girls over the next NBA season, increasing and enriching girls and young women’s engagement in sports. One part of that enrichment is poised to come from an effort to go full-circle on who youth first encounter organized play from. In partnership with Laureus Sport for Good, an organization focused on improving the lives of young people through sports, Jr. NBA will launch an online training program for youth basketball coaches, organizers, and educators focused on curriculum that includes social and emotional learning, leadership, and player-coach relationships.
“What we thought was a really important point of opportunity and expansion for us,” Krichavsky says, noting Jr. NBA’s existing suite of resources developed to support coaches, “was giving coaches tools to develop their players off the court. And so this online training with Laureus has really focused on social and emotional learning, and helping coaches educate their players around issues like leadership and mental health and building empathy and collaboration with their teammates.”
Krichavsky referred to the new initiatives with Girls Leadership and Laureus Sport for Good as two pillars out of the groundwork his team used to develop Jr. NBA’s new partnerships and their desired impact, with the third being perhaps the most important.
“The third pillar really comes from the fact that schools give us the greatest opportunity to reach the largest number of youth,” Krichavsky stresses. “We’ve had a number of programs in the school setting previously, but we’ve doubled down on that commitment and we’ll be reaching an additional 3,000 elementary and middle schools in the year ahead, again with enhanced resources and curriculum to support basketball in the PE setting, as well as the afterschool setting.”
It makes sense — to reach the youth who have been shut out of sports over the course of the pandemic, whether through barriers to access or as fallout of fielding the pandemic itself, the most direct way is to bring basketball to them. To do so, Jr. NBA uses an existing network of non-profits to help identify schools across the U.S. with basketball programs that are looking to do more.
It’s on that note that I’m prompted to ask Krichavsky, personally, what excites him most about these new initiatives and the work Jr. NBA is doing. His answer is two-fold, and fits the ethos of these new partnerships and initiatives perfectly, though it’s entirely personal.
He immediately touches on the concentrated efforts in these programs to reach and impact girls, adding that he’s a dad to two young girls himself, and brightens as he notes that Jr. NBA’s first in-person event since the pandemic began will be taking place Sunday, the day after Jr. NBA Week starts, with an outdoor event in New York at Brooklyn Bridge Park focused on play in accordance with the NBA’s health and safety protocols as well as life skills and off-court development.
“All the kids will be masked and we’ll be playing in accordance with the protocols designed by our NBA health and safety team,” Krichavsky says, noting that as successful as Jr. NBA At Home program was, “we’re all very, very excited to get back out there and hear the bouncing ball in person.”