STEUBENVILLE — When the Rev. Jason Elliott of the E.D.G.E. Sports youth basketball league got a phone call from the Cleveland Cavaliers, he almost could not believe it.
That conversation was the start of the league becoming a part of the NBA franchise’s Junior Cavs program, which led to the Cavs Caravan making a stop inside Steubenville High School on Tuesday night to pass out jerseys and tickets to a game to the youngsters. The team’s merchandise trailer and several other fun activities were also set up.
“It was a cold call that came on an August afternoon. To be honest with you I thought it was a telemarketer calling,” Elliott said. “To see them reach out to us, it was very humbling. From their prospective, they said that their values lined up with our values and they wanted us as a partner.
“The Cavs have been awesome to work with. They use the word family. When they invited us, they said, ‘We want to you to be a part of our family,’ and that is what it has been like to work with them. They have bent over backward to bring 14 or 15 of their people to Steubenville, which speaks volumes in just our first year of partnership with them.”
The goal of E.D.G.E. from its inception, according to Elliott, is to teach and develop the kids on and off the court.
“The E.D.G.E Sports concept came together about five years ago when a group of retired coaches and educators were getting together for Bible study,” Elliott said. “We were trying to look for a way to reach out to kids and promote Christian core values. We kind of brought together the communities, the schools, the coaches, the churches and everybody to start to teach the kids about basketball, but the real goal is build Christian core values in these kids.
“Each team has its own chaplain, and those are representatives of many different denominations here in the city. We want this to be a community event, which is what you see here (Tuesday).”
Elliott, pastor of the First Westminster Presbyterian Church, and the rest of the E.D.G.E. steering committee members did not imagine anything like what happened on Tuesday night when they came up with the idea for the E.D.G.E Sports program some five years ago.
“We did not,” he said. “Looking at some of the E.D.G.E. steering committee members that are here and the smiles from the small group of guys that met for Bible study, to see how that vision has come to the place that it is now, it is pretty amazing. We just give God the glory.”
Making Tuesday night happen has been a product of a lot of hard work by a lot of people behind the scenes.
“It takes a lot of hard work,” Elliott said. “It starts with corporate sponsors, Steubenville City Schools for opening up their facilities to us to hold an event like this. It’s a credit to the coaches who have put the blood, the sweat and the tears into really forming and creating values in these kids, to the custodians that turn the last light off and do things like put the tables back. It is a community effort.”
The program, with leagues for boys and girls in grades one through six, has grown to around 275 participants this season. The growing institution, Elliott hopes, will receive another big boost from the Cavaliers visit and partnership.
For Scott MacDonald, the Cavs’ manager of youth sports and sales development, Steubenville and the surrounding area already seemed like a perfect fit, despite it being his first visit to the area.
“It is a two-hour drive from downtown Cleveland, which is not difficult,” he said. “It was an easy trip down here and we know there is a lot of sports history in the area. I grew up in the Youngstown area, so I saw a lot of similarities driving down here to wear I grew up. We have 70 Junior Cavs partners, which are partnerships and affiliations with the local community basketball program. We have 70 partners that impact over 21,000 kids. Not only do we want the kids and their families to come to Quicken Loans Arena and experience a Cavs game, but it is more important for us to get into the respective communities.”
According to MacDonald, the Junior Cavs program is far-reaching across the globe.
“A couple weeks ago we were in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.,” he said. “A couple months ago some of our youth coaches were in China impacting kids, and now, here we are in Steubenville to hand out 300 jerseys to some youngsters in the community. We have the unique platform through the Cavs and being affiliated with the NBA to utilize our platform to help guys like Jason Elliott and the board at E.D.G.E. Sports to support what they are doing in Steubenville.”
The mission of the Junior Cavs program, according to MacDonald, goes beyond just the court and extends to the youth coaches.
“The kids will always be our first priority,” he said. “They will always be the ‘1A,’ but the ‘1B’ has to be the volunteer coaches that E.D.G.E. Sports and Steubenville trusts to stand in front of the kids and teach them the game of basketball. We utilize our coaching staff to help these coaches put together a game plan, a practice plan, for these coaches that have a full-time job.
“Basketball is just the platform to reach these kids. They think that we are teaching them the game of basketball, which is a small part of it. We are teaching them to be a good teammate, be able to take direction from coaches and adults, and learn to be leaders in the community.
“Adam Silver took over as NBA Commissioner in February 2014, and one of his four big rocks was the emphasis on the development of youth sports. Our philanthropic responsibilities as an NBA entity are to use our resources and get in the community.”
Carrying out that mission is something he takes to heart, with young athletes of his own at home.
“I’ve got three kids at home, and my oldest are 10 and 11, which are the ages we are going to impact here,” MacDonald said. “For me personally, this is my 14th season with the Cavs. We can work anywhere from 60-, 70-, 80-hour work weeks, but I volunteer to coach my kids teams. I live it as well in my own community. It is huge to me.”
The Big Red basketball teams were involved in the festivities as well, with the girls team helping with jersey distribution and the boys team operating the lights inside the Crimson Center. Boys coach Mike Haney and girls coach Jeff Lombardo are both a big part of E.D.G.E.’s program.
“It is great,” Lombardo said. “When we envisioned it, we were just trying to get some of the kids out here playing. In the short time period, we’ve got 260-plus kids, three divisions of girls leagues. It just keeps growing every year, now we reached the point where we can have an event like this. It is exciting to see how excited the kids are.”
Lombardo also has seen firsthand the impact the program has made on the basketball talent in the area.
“The greatest thing is the kids are learning,” he said. “I noticed since I started coaching the kids aren’t learning at a young age. You’re having to teach them so much when they get into middle school and high school. Now, we have girls that started four years ago that are now in our fifth- and sixth-grade league. When we go to our fifth- and sixth-grade practices and games, the talent level is an astronomical difference because these girls have been playing for three years and they learn the game in first and second grade, and it is showing.
“Those girls are going to start filtering up into the middle school and high school programs in the area, and that is a great thing for high school sports.”
For Steubenville Principal Ted Gorman, having the event inside the high school made perfect sense.
“Jason Elliott put the group together, and we thought that this would be a fantastic kick off to out E.D.G.E basketball season,” he said.
“It is up and down our county, it is not just a Steubenville thing. I think it is a wonderful opportunity for the school to host (Tuesday’s event). It is always a perfect venue. We have wonderful facilities. It just makes for a wonderful venue to host a lot of people.”
Big Red assistant athletic director Ross Ivkovich was happy to see the Cavs involved with continuing to grow athletics in the area.
“This is beyond exciting,” Ivkovich said. “Just look at the faces of the kids and you can see the happiness. The Cavaliers are doing some great things reaching out to the communities like this. This is a beautiful situation. It is like a community function here. It is awesome, and it can only help basketball become more recognized in the area. The E.D.G.E. league itself has helped, and this boost (from the Cavs) is going to help even more.
“You see kids walking around with Cavs shirts on, even before they got here. Kids here love basketball and they love sports.
“The Cavs are our area’s basketball team, and it is great they are trying to get people from our area involved. We are good distance from Cleveland, but this kind of pulls Cleveland and Steubenville together.”
*Courtesy of the Herald-Star*