As a former captain and three-year starter for Georgia Tech men’s basketball, Jon Babul easily noticed what often happened to his eight-year-old daughter when she would attend a basketball camp.
“I know when she comes to a camp and sees 80 boys – some of whom are older – in the gym, young females can become apprehensive when they walk in and just see that environment,” Babul said.
As the NBA has struggled to attract young girls to basketball, the league’s resource for introducing youth to the sport, called the Jr. NBA, launched the “Her Time To Play” program in 2018. Co-created with the Women’s Sports Foundation, the national initiative provides a free curriculum dedicating itself to helping girls and women engage with basketball – both on and off the court.
The Atlanta Hawks have made the initiative its own, and hosted its second annual clinic on October 14 at Northside Youth Organization in Chastain Park. At least 60 girls attended the event, participating in basketball drills and hearing from guest speakers such as U.S. Women’s Wheelchair Basketball National Team Athlete Bailey Moody and Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery.
“It’s such a huge value for girls to walk in and be around other females and see female coaches, leaders, WNBA players, gold medalists – just all around,” Babul said, who’s now the Hawks’ vice president of basketball development. “It’s a great experience for the girls and we get so much positive feedback from the parents and coaches of these young females who say, ‘hey, can you do more?’ There hasn’t been a focus on [girls’ basketball participation], and I think that’s why the NBA is championing this cause.
As youth sports participation rates have declined 7% since 2008, youth basketball – especially amongst girls – is witnessing a similar downturn. The Women’s Sports Foundation found statistics showing that by age 14, girls drop out of organized sports at roughly twice the rate that boys do at that age. The disparity is most evident in high school; during the 2018-2019 academic year, girls basketball participation was at 399,067 – a 7% decline from 2016-2017 and the lowest it has been since 1992-1993.
Already, Babul says that Her Time To Play has motivated females – regardless of their age – to take up basketball. When it debuted in Atlanta last fall, he estimates that there were 45 participants and a handful of coaches on hand. This year drew between 60 and 65 girls and 10 coaches – seven of whom were female, said Babul.
Another key difference between the 2019 and 2018 programs was its guest speakers. By the time Moody was 10 years old, she was a three-sport athlete, starring not only in basketball but also tennis and softball. One day, she felt soreness in her leg; visiting the emergency room, she was diagnosed with stage four osteosarcoma, a cancerous tumor that led to the amputation of her right leg.
That didn’t stop Moody from pursuing sports. The 17-year-old – who turns 18 on November 16 – has been a member of the U.S. women’s wheelchair national team since 2014. After developing a relationship with Blake Johnson, the Hawks’ senior coordinator of community basketball programs, she volunteered at this year’s Her Time To Play clinic. Even if it’s only the second year of the program, Moody loved the engagement she saw from the nearby participants – and wants to see it grow over time with the initiative.
“I just hope that it keeps getting bigger and that we can reach out to more kids and more girls, specifically,” Moody said. “I just think it can keep spreading and get more people to get involved because it’s really special.”
Every professional athlete endures hardships throughout their journey, and Montgomery was no different. When approaching her teenage years, she was unsure about her basketball future – whether it was making a team or finding playing time. Instead of letting it drain her interest in basketball, she did what many have done in her position – work harder.
While playing for the University of Connecticut under Geno Auriemma, she capped off her college career with an undefeated 39-0 season and a national championship in 2009. Since her Huskies days, her professional career has taken her everywhere from the WNBA, where she’s won two championships with the Minnesota Lynx, to Russia. Now with the Atlanta Dream, she wants to pass her love of basketball onto the younger generation of female players.
“[Her Time To Play] tells these young girls how to play the game,” Montgomery said. “I teach you the fundamentals and then they add fun into it – I love to be apart of any camp like that. I know the kids had fun, so that’s always a good thing when the kids have fun – they learned a lot today, but they had fun while doing it. I was a part of them being excited about the game of basketball, which in turn helps grow the game.”