Early in the morning on the first Friday of August, little bustle came from the lofty expanse of UNCG’s Kaplan Center for Wellness. No one sized up a set of weights. Nobody struggled across the bouldering walls, or tired on a stairmaster like Sisyphus. Only the ripples from air-conditioning disturbed the water in the cavernous pool beyond the thick glass windows at the center’s end.
But from a tucked-away pair of activity courts — in quick bellows of guidance, banter and discipline — a poet’s voice echoed out through the empty halls.
“Get up on him! Gotta pass it! Keep your head up!” Clement Mallory called to young competing players.
The morning of Aug. 4 marked the final day of Mallory’s Kids Poetry Basketball summer camp. Designed for girls and boys ages 4 to 13, Kids Poetry Basketball aspires to develop creative and critical thinking skills for its campers, as well as encourage self-confidence and a healthy lifestyle through physical play.
After a group breakfast and shoot-around starting at 8 a.m., Mallory ended the first hour of the day by facing off Team Metaphor and Team Simile. Before anyone could attempt a shot, their team needed to pass the ball to each of its players, spelling aloud words such as “tone,” “haiku,” “form” and “lyric” in the process.
The final week of camp brought out 25 kids, including 17 from UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians, a resource that helps newcomer populations bridge cultural divides with existing communities in Greensboro. Five other campers were from Greensboro Urban Ministry’s Partnership Village, a transitional housing facility for families resettling after experiencing homelessness. This year, two members of Mallory’s staff live at Partnership Village, too. Thanks to fundraising and scholarships, the camp had only one paying parent in its final week.
Though Kids Poetry Basketball has been around since 2010, this is the program’s first year at UNCG and the Kaplan Center. Mallory hopes the setting could add another level of inspiration for the campers’ and their futures.
“Bringing the kids to a college campus, it’s cool because this is a literary program,” Mallory said. “It’s sort of like a miniature tour.”
As the morning continued, Mallory stood at center court, holding a basketball and bouncing it occasionally as the kids collected their poetry folders and gathered around him. He began to beatbox, swaying and rocking to his own rhythm as he held out his hand from kid to kid. Each camper recited the definition of a different poetry word that Mallory had assigned at the beginning of the week — “stanza,” “theme,” “poetry,” “symbol” and more. As soon as a camper finished, Mallory swung his finger to the next, never breaking the beatbox or stopping his bop to the rhythm.
The Brooklyn-native has been a poet and a basketball player for much of his life. Yet it wasn’t until watching the NBA All-Star Game in 2010 that he realized how he could connect his seemingly disparate interests and use them together to instruct others.
“I was watching the All-Star Game, and I saw the different activities being done,” Mallory said, referring to the 3-point contest, obstacle course and other activities included in the NBA event. “I said to myself: ‘What if, when a basket is made, instead of a number being shown as a point, a letter is turned around, and the first team to spell out their poetry word wins that game?’”
Mallory has now developed dozens of activities that bring together poetry and basketball on the court. He hopes the diversity of his activities can help reach all the young minds at his camp.
“One of the aspects of Kids Poetry Basketball is being patient… and understanding that every child has a different learning ability,” he said.
Sometimes Mallory and his staff must overcome a language barrier as well.
“Last year [some campers] were really teaching us some Arabic, like for real,” Mallory explained, adding: “I was hoping they wasn’t cursing me out.”
Before a medal ceremony to wrap up the final day, Mallory had one more basketball skill to teach his young campers.
He addressed the kids: “Alright, the first basketball move we learned was…?”
“Jump shot!” they called back.
“And the second basketball move we learned was…?”
“The third basketball move we didn’t learn ’cause y’all had to run suicides,” Mallory reminded them.
But now they learned the skill: Hook shot.
As the kids practiced the difficult maneuver and then returned to their folders to identify and label drawings of players completing a jump shot, layup or hook shot, Mallory stepped out to pick up pizzas.
The Kaplan Center hummed a little more now in the late morning. As Mallory exited, gym-goers glanced his way, curious about the origin of the distant commotion, the odd and delightful confluence of kids, poetry and basketball.
Kids Poetry Basketball holds two hour-long sessions at Partnership Village on Aug. 10 and 17. More info at kidspoetrybasketball.com.
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