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More than a game

SIERRA VISTA — Once the high school season concludes, that’s the end of basketball for many of Sierra Vista’s athletes.

There are limited options for summer basketball, since the city league caps their age limit at sophomores in high school. Many of the options require traveling to Tucson, Phoenix or even out of state.

This spring, the gap without basketball in the area was filled with the AZ Prep Basketball Academy, which started in March.

The program is under the charity Operation 13:2, named after Hebrews Psalm 13:2 “Do not forget to show love to strangers, for by doing so some have shown love to angels without knowing it.”

Roughly 60 boys participated in the program to enhance their basketball, academic and community building skills. AZ Prep Basketball Academy was designed to give more boys opportunities to play basketball.

Academic Advisor for the AZ Prep Basketball Academy Stephanie Baker explained with the limited opportunities and the cost of other leagues cause many of the local kids to “fall through the cracks.”

“The cost free program opens the doors for a lot kids who can’t afford it,” she said. “The point of the program is to prepare the high schoolers for college. We help them with financial aid, applications and scholarships.”

Chris Billings, a senior and member of the Buena boys basketball team this past season, benefited from the program because it didn’t require travel to Tucson or farther for practice like the AAU teams do because of the cost or they aren’t invited to play.

“It’s more helpful for players like us who didn’t play AAU,” he said. “I wish it was around longer, but I’m glad we had one year to participate.”

Volunteer coach and mentor Sam Brown said this type of program should have come to Sierra Vista a decade ago to help the children in the area go places because those after them would have been given hope that they can make it to, and not just in athletics.

He said he decided to volunteer his time because it was his football and basketball coaches that helped him stay out of trouble.

“I felt the best way to give back was through sports since it helped me,” he said. “We take kids in the 14- to 18-year-old range who have the ability to play at the next level and teach them the intangibles. We make them a better citizen as well as a good athlete.”

Stephanie Baker, her husband Dennis Baker and her sister Kelly Flores started Operation 13:2 three years ago after seeing the large number of foster children in the state. Instead of focusing on just foster children, the trio decided to have their charity help at-risk kids stay away from drugs and homelessness.

“We’re here to break the cycle,” Stephanie said. “We want to get the kids to the next level of success, whether that’s athletics, academics, community building or character building.”

When the boys weren’t on the court they were giving back to the community. Last week the group traveled to Tucson to host a basketball camp for foster children and on Mother’s Day they held an event for all their moms. In the summer they are planning and hosting the organization’s back-to-school event on July 27.

It’s the giving back and community service that opened Buena senior Tre’ Foster’s eyes.

“It was pivotal for me to give back,” he said. “It’s charity funded so we focused on that. It was nice to give back.”

All the boys had to stay academically eligible in order to play, which both Foster and Billings admitted was another benefit of the program because oftentimes grades slide after the high school basketball seasons ends and the accountability is dropped.

The program was largely funded by the Legacy Foundation, as the grant money Operation 13:2 received helped with gym fees, equipment and jerseys. Stephanie said the program will be back next March as they have already received the funding for it.

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