- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - Rod Call knows the signs and can pick them out anywhere, from a rural northwoods forest to a bustling urban center.

A bushel basket lashed to a tree. A milk crate with its bottom kicked out.

Somewhere close by, Call knows there’s a kid who has the heart for hoops, but probably not the gear, the Traverse City Record-Eagle (https://bit.ly/1SGY9MT ) reported.

It takes one to know one: Call, who grew up in Flint, was a milk crate kid, he said.

“We lived in a trailer park and every lot had a spot for a shed. We didn’t have a shed,” Call said. But the shedless concrete slab was to become Call’s basketball court, complete with his own makeshift net made from wood and a milk crate.

This court space, and others like it, became a sanctuary for Call, a constant, as his family moved around a lot - too often for organized sports, he said.

“Basketball was a comfort, it was consistent,” Call said. “I could just go out and get lost … and pretend like I was Michael Jordan.”

Forward bounce to today. Call runs a Traverse City branding and marketing company out of his home, and has rolled out the Milk Crate Basketball nonprofit project to give kids a game-style assist.

Call raises money through donations and merchandise sales to get more kids in the game, covering registration fees and buying basketball gear. Area kids need more help than you’d gather from the travel brochures, he said.

“I learned that the problem is a lot more widespread than I thought. Traverse City is not just ‘Top 10’ lists, wineries and houses on the bay,” Call said.

Janna Deering backs him up. Not all families can afford the district’s pay-to-participate sports and extracurricular programs in the elementary and middle schools, said the director of the Traverse Area Public Schools’ Learning, Enrichment & Athletic Program.

Many - about 40 percent - qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, Deering said. LEAP scholarships pare the price back, but it’s still a challenge for many families.

“Even if it’s a $10-registration compared to $40, it can still be ‘an extra,’ especially if you’re worried about buying groceries,” Deering said.

Call’s offer to cover registration fees was accepted. Then he asked to do more, Deering said.

“Now he’s going way above and beyond,” Deering said.

Call now presents young players with new basketballs, warmups and shoes. He pays entry fees when needed, but also helps kids who play informally, alone or pickup with friends.

“It doesn’t have to be an organized sport,” said Call, 41, who now plays pickup games twice a week. “It’s time away from electronic devices.”

Families contact him through LEAP or the Single MOMM organization. Call gets the sizes and specifications for the player, and then takes his daughter Savannah, 5, shopping for the players. Shoes get special consideration - there’s no better feeling then stepping on the court with high-end, comfortable shoes, he said.

“We’re not going cheap on the shoes - it’s Under Armour or Nike,” Call said.

Heather Palmer’s son was “shocked” at the amount and quality of the gear Call bought him to prepare for his first basketball team experience at Traverse Heights, she said.

“It was great that they were able to help out,” Palmer said, referencing the entry and jersey costs covered by Milk Crate Basketball, plus the gear.

“We’re thankful for the help, and hope that we can give back something to someone else,” Palmer said.

The “simplicity” of the program makes Call’s offer very accessible to families, said Jennifer Finnegan Pool, executive director of the Single MOMM organization. Giving a kid a new basketball may not seem like a big deal, but a kid can pivot on less, she said.

“Every kid loves getting a new ball - it’s ownership and it’s theirs. It can point them in a good direction to spend energy and time, and the gift of a ball for sports, whether they play individually or in a group setting, gives them both something to do on their own and as a part of a community,” Pool said. “It’s invaluable.”

For Call’s part, he hopes to do something for kids growing up like he did. He also hopes to teach his own daughter about the game-changing value of participating in an assist on life’s court.

“All it takes is one person who sets you on the right path,” Call said. “If I help one kid or 100, it’s more than I helped before.”


Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, https://www.record-eagle.com

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