Duluth basketball program packs one-two punch

A girl plays basketball

A Salvation Army youth basketball program in Duluth, Minn. is teaching hundreds of kids two awesome skills: 1. How to play basketball. 2. How to win in life. 

The program – called the Rookie Basketball Association (RBA) – is Duluth’s largest and most popular youth basketball program. It’s also one of the best in the country, winning the Jr. NBA’s Program of the Year award for 2018 and a $5,000 grand prize.

Kris Mallett accepts a check from NBA legend Grant Hills“I didn’t think we would win – the other five programs (we were up against) are incredible,” said RBA director Kris Mallett, who spent most of the $5,000 on RBA scholarships for children of low-income families. “This award is a great honor.” (Mallett is pictured accepting the grand prize from former NBA star Grant Hill.)

The RBA operates year-round with clinics, leagues, and 3-on-3 tournaments. Almost 700 youth in grades K–12 participated last year, with the help of 68 volunteer coaches. (Register your child for the 2018/19 winter season.)

The program churns out incredible athletes. During the 2017/18 school year alone, 537 former RBA players participated in 16 high school sports, at seven schools, on 91 teams. 

However, basketball is secondary to the RBA’s ultimate mission: character building. 

“It’s not just about putting a basketball in a hoop,” Mallett said. “We want these kids to be young players of character.”

Life lessons

The Duluth Salvation Army founded the RBA 30 years ago on the idea that basketball could be used to teach youth about life skills.

RBA team building activityEvery RBA game, practice and clinic is infused with lessons about the value of teamwork, helping others, and having a positive attitude. These virtues are taught through discussions, team-building activities (pictured), curriculum from the Jr. NBA and the Minnesota State High School League, and other sources. 

The RBA’s focus on character development has led Duluth mayor Emily Larson to become one of the program’s biggest fans. Both of her sons played in the RBA as kids, and both are now high school athletes. (Watch Larson in a video testimonial.)

The RBA teaches kids “how to be team players, how to show patience and kindness, and how to give back to the community,” Larson said. “The friends (that my sons) made in the RBA are still their best friends now.”

Keaven and Nick BostromOther parents are quick to applaud the RBA, too. That includes Keavin Bostrom, whose son, Nick (both pictured), played in the RBA as a child and went on to play college football at St. Scholastica in Duluth.

“Nick learned the value of helping others achieve their own success,” Bostrom said. “He learned to work hard, to give it your all. The RBA celebrates the kids – the rules are altered to favor learning and participation by all.”

Mallett is happy with the RBA’s character building programs. But like any good competitor, she wants to make them even better. 

“We want to raise the bar higher,” she said. “We want these kids to learn all there is to know about love, joy and self-control through teamwork, loyalty and hard work.”

Positive role models

Salvation Army youth programs like the RBA are based on the world-renowned “Developmental Assets®” framework, which identifies 40 specific skills, experiences, relationships, and behaviors that children need to succeed. 

Kris Mallett teaches basketballThe RBA places a heavy emphasis on one Asset in particular: Adult Role Models. This Asset is based on the belief that in addition to their parents, children benefit from having close relationships with adults who model positive, responsible behavior. 

To that end, the RBA is chock-full of commendable adult leaders. Most are volunteer coaches, such as former Duluth mayor Don Ness, who coached two RBA teams last year and is scheduled to coach another one this year. Other leaders are volunteer referees, many of whom are athletes at local high schools and colleges. Still others are members of local 4H Clubs, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and other organizations.   

Together, their impact on RBA youth is outstanding.

RBA players shoot hoops“I would not be the same person without my coaches – they teach me,” said an 8-year-old girl named Katie, who participated in a 2018 RBA summer clinic. “I like working together and working with other people.”

Mallett credits the RBA’s success almost exclusively to its coaches and other volunteers.

“The RBA wouldn’t happen without them,” she said. “Their dedication to serving young people in the hopes of seeing them grow and develop on and off the court is inspiring. The impact these folks have made on thousands of lives over the past 30 years is immeasurable.”

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