Atlanta Hawks forward Onyeka Okongwu (left) poses with Lakers legend James Worthy (Amanda Scurlock/L.A. Sentinel)

The NBA Cares 75th Live, Learn or Play Initiative will provide Esperanza Elementary School with a green schoolyard; the refurbished yard will be done in partnership with Kaiser Permanente, NRDC, the Living Schoolyards Coalition, and the L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust.

Esperanza Elementary hosted a groundbreaking ceremony on Friday, Lakers legend “Big Game” James Worthy, former USC Trojan and Atlanta Hawks forward Onyeka Okongwu, and NBA Cares Ambassador Jason Collins was in attendance.

“I’m a huge basketball fan and to know that the NBA understands the importance of what school campuses look like and that they are taking a stand … so that children can ultimately thrive more at the places they’re getting their education, it means the world to us,” said Esperanza Elementary principal Brad Rumble.

A rendering of the renovations that will be done on Esperanza Elementary (Amanda Scurlock/L.A. Sentinel)

The renovations will remove asphalt to make way for grassy areas, a running track, a basketball court, outdoor classrooms, habitat areas, and more trees. The 75th Live, Learn and Play Initiative was created to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NBA; the initiative will create 50 Live, Learn or Play Centers during the 2021-22 season.

Worthy shared stories of his youth with the students, talking about his experiences with gardening. He noted how planting not only nourishes people, but heals the earth.

“When you think of what’s happening to our planet, with climate change and all of the things that we need to be aware of, it’s important to teach our future, Our future politicians, our future CFOs and CEOs all about it,” Worthy said. “We need to further that cause and these kids are doing a great job.”

Worthy high fives fifth-grade student Trinity King (Amanda Scurlock/L.A. Sentinel)

Esperanza Elementary has been focused on environmental science, Rumble removed 10,000 square feet of asphalt to have a garden of California-native plants installed so children can study plants, insects, and birds.

“It’s really doing great. At first, it didn’t look like a habitat at all, it was just dry land” said Trinity King, a fifth-grade student who said a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony. “And now everything is just blooming, you can’t walk through the pathways that used to be there because the plants just took it all over.”

The students shared their studies via a guided tour to the attendees of the groundbreaking, including Worthy and Collins.

Jason Collins poses with students during his tour of the habitat at Esperanza Elementary (Amanda Scurlock/L.A. Sentinel)

“Just being here in this habitat and knowing that it was basically concrete to where it is now, it’s incredible to see,” Collins said. “Listen to the kids and how they like looking for different butterflies and it’s cool seeing life come back because of this habitat.”

After the groundbreaking, the students engaged in basketball drills and activities that related to sustainability and mental health. The California Natural Resources Agency gave a grant to the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust to put more trees and plants on Esperanza’s campus. The project aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost the mental and physical health of students.

Okongwu is an L.A. native who played for the Compton Magic and the Chino Hills boys basketball team (Amanda Scurlock/L.A. Sentinel)

MacArther Park Communities of Schools administrator Dr. Charles D. Smith mentioned how the new schoolyard will encourage the students to appreciate nature.

“Imagine coming outside their classroom for recess and for lunch and for even after-school opportunities to play on grass,” Smith said. “That’s gonna be amazing.”

Justin Cox, the founder of Ol’ Dirty Planters, had his basketball-inspired planters on display at the groundbreaking. His company “upcycles basketballs into more sustainable décor pieces for plants.”

“This is where it’s supposed to be,” Cox said. “I would love for people to think about the NBA and think about sports and also think about horticulture.”