As the USC men's basketball squad gears up for a packed schedule of Division I action, it would be easy to overlook the vertically challenged team they faced recently in Watts, California. Although their scrimmage on blacktop was not a rivalry matchup or a nationally televised bout, it isn't a game they will soon forget.
Taking time from their busy schedule of practices, media days, poster shoots, and midterms, the Trojans visited the Eagles of 99th Street Elementary as a part of USC Athletics' new SCORE Initiative. The day, which included an educational session and a friendly game of five-on-five, not only served future generations, but provided a reminder of the past.
Assistant Coach Tony Bland grew up in the Southland, and attended 99th Street Elementary before playing college ball, turning pro, and coaching at the collegiate level. An audible gasp echoed in the auditorium when Bland told the kids about his past. "Which house did you live in?" one student asked, "Who was your second grade teacher?" asked another. But amid the curiosity and excitement, Bland turned his life story into a single challenge for the young children of Watts: dream big. "Everybody needs a dream, and you have to work every day to make it come true," said Bland.
The positive messaging didn't stop with the coach's pep talk. Los Angeles native, Devon Pflueger, spoke to the group about the necessity of daily exercise and balanced nutrition. Samer Dhillon, a pre-med student, discussed the importance of dedication in the classroom. Sophomore Darion Clark highlighted the benefits of teamwork, while shooting guard J.T. Terrell completed the session by imploring students to take care of their community.
The significance of these messages was not lost on Assistant Principal Marissa Borden Conley. "The kids have been asking us all week, `When are the USC players coming?'" said Borden Conley. "It's so important for them to have positive role models."
After the presentation, the 99th Street Eagles hit the court to show off their skills and learn a few tips from their new mentors. The game, which featured dunks, steals, and more than a few three pointers by the younger team, ended in smiles all around. With an extended autograph session and a series of pictures, the team said goodbye to their newest fans, but not before inviting them to an upcoming game at the Galen Center.
"I can't imagine having something like this back when I was in school here," said Coach Bland. "It must mean so much to them."
The day represented one of many October events for the SCORE Initiative, which aims to educate local children on issues of fitness, academics, and team building. With Soccer and Sand Volleyball beginning similar partnerships, student-athletes seek to expand their local impact as role models and community members.