Lawyers work with Ozanam to give kids basketball training as well as tutoring

The goal is to help children ages 8 to 18 develop into responsible young adults


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Lawyers are known for their fierce battles in the courtroom, but next week members of the Allegheny County Bar Association will take that competitive nature to the hardwood to raise funds for a local after-school program.

The Ozanam Basketball Program provides Western Pennsylvania boys and girls with basketball training as well as tutoring. The goal is to help children ages 8 to 18 develop into responsible young adults through developmental training, including educational programming, athletic competition, social and cultural activities and support services.

"Basketball is just a hook to get kids interested, but they have to meet certain standards to be able to play," said Bob Lovett of Lovett Bookman Harmon Marks LLP.

Centered around the Ammon Recreation Center on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District and named after the Ozanam Cultural Center along Wylie Avenue, Ozanam (originally a Roman Catholic organization named after Frederic Ozanam, founder of the charitable Saint Vincent de Paul Society) was created in the 1970s as an after-school program for youth, eventually expanding throughout the city and Western Pennsylvania.

As the program grew, so did its reputation for producing some of the city's finest basketball players, drawing college scouts from across the nation.

But that ended when funding issues shut down the basketball program about a decade ago. The lawyers tournament, which launched last year, is meant to give more students a chance to benefit from the concept.

Building on last year's fundraising success, the Ozanam Attorney Tournament has changed its rules to allow for greater participation. Unlike the five-on-five format used in the inaugural tournament, this year's contest -- to be held from 6 to 8 p.m. March 19 at Central Catholic High School -- is opting for three-person teams.

More teams will mean "much more awareness, greater fundraising, and hopefully the opportunity for Ozanam to continue strengthening its programs and providing more value to the community," said Bill Price, a partner of Pittsburgh-based Thorp Reed & Armstrong.

Mr. Price has helped to organize and promote this year's event, which includes a post-tournament reception at Peter's Pub in Oakland.

While the basketball tournament is young, the partnership between the members of Pittsburgh's legal system and Ozanam goes deeper. "It's incumbent upon us to give back to the community and to give others the opportunity to have the same type of lifestyle that we get to enjoy," Mr. Price said.

Many members of the bar association have long ties to the program. Josh Marks of Gordon & Rees LLP, for example, participated in Ozanam as a child and says he is now proud to help the program continue to thrive.

Other alumni have returned in other roles. "Our core staff are former Ozanam participants," said Curtis Cureton, executive director. He has been involved with Ozanam since 1976 when he attended as a child.

Ozanam executive assistant Darelle Porter attended in his youth and announced his decision to play for the University of Pittsburgh's men's basketball team from the Ozanam Center. He went on to become the head coach for Duquesne University.

Other former Ozanam players include Danny Fortson, a Shaler High School graduate who had a 10-year career in the National Basketball Asssociation, and LaVar Arrington, a North Hills graduate who starred in football at Penn State University and became a three-time Pro Bowler for the Washington Redskins in the National Football League.

After 27 years, Ozanam began to gradually lose its funding from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1997. By 2002, the diocese was no longer contributing and Ozanam was forced to cut back on its after-school programs and eliminate the basketball league.

Now, through the work of program leaders like Mr. Cureton and partnerships with law firms and law students from Pitt and Duquesne, the basketball program is back and Ozanam has refocused its efforts on becoming one of the top after-school programs in the region.

"We have close to 900 after-school programs in Allegheny County, so it's important for us that we're providing a quality experience for our kids rather than just keeping them busy," Mr. Cureton said.

Each day, Ozanam participants receive an hour's worth of homework help and tutoring as well as a hot meal for dinner. About 350 children are involved in the program annually.

"Our goal is that every kid in the program will qualify for the Pittsburgh Promise. At this point, every kid in our program who attends 70 percent of the time or more is qualified" and carries a 2.5 grade point average, Mr. Cureton said.

The Pittsburgh Promise grants up to $40,000 as a scholarship toward higher education to any student who lives in the city, attends a city public school and maintains a GPA of 2.5 or higher. (Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs collects the GPA of each participating student and surveys tutors who provide help to Ozanam participants, to make sure the students are meeting their academic goals.)

In order to keep the program free and open to the public, Ozanam needs fundraisers like the basketball tournament. The program has started a capital campaign to raise funds and is soliciting local law firms for donations for the basketball tournament, said Mr. Price.

With the cost per team registration set at $100, this year's goal is to raise $4,000, which would eclipse the $3,000 earned in the tournament's debut last spring.

neigh_city - legalnews

Andrew Gretchko: agretchko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.


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