Q&A: Get to know Auburn's Upward Basketball

By: Ike Dodson of the Auburn Journal
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These days the walls of Auburn’s Parkside Church echo the familiar pattern of youth basketball. Over 100 area children, scattered throughout 10 basketball teams and two cheer squads, are in the midst of another season of fun-filled instruction with Upward Sports.

Upward Basketball does not keep score for its lowest division (5-6-year-olds), or post standings, but stresses fundamental basketball and sportsmanship to area athletes desperate for knowledge on the hardwood.

League director Jeff Dickerson, the husband of Parkside Church family life pastor Michele Dickerson, took the time to answer some questions about this program Tuesday.

Auburn Journal: What can you tell me about Upward Basketball?

Jeff Dickerson of Upward Basketball: Established in 1995, Upward Sports is the world’s largest Christian youth sports provider. Upward Sports is the only organization that offers the 360 Progression, a uniquely designed total sports experience that adapts and expands as players grow in their personal athletic journeys. The 360 Progression develops total athletes mentally, athletically, spiritually, and socially — producing players who excel both on and off the field. Today, approximately half a million players at more than 2,000 churches in 47 states participate in camps, clinics, and leagues through Upward Sports’ Recreation Division.

AJ: How long has this program been around locally?

UB: We at Parkside Church have been running an annual basketball league since 2011. We added cheerleading in 2013.

AJ: How did it start?

UB: A fortuitous encounter between a pastor at Parkside Church and an Upward Sports representative in an airport led to our first season in 2011.

AJ: When/where do you put on these events?

UB: All practices and games take place at Parkside Church at 3885 Richardson Drive in North Auburn. We’re located right across the street from Regional Park. Players and cheerleaders have a single one hour practice and a single one hour game each week. We recognize that families are incredibly busy, and we don’t want to overburden them further.

AJ: What affiliations does it have with churches, leagues?

UB: Upward is a Christ-centered organization, but is not affiliated with any one church or denomination. While we host the league at Parkside Church, we have players, cheerleaders and volunteers from several other area churches.

AJ: How many kids are involved in the program? How many teams?

UB: We have 10 basketball teams and 2 cheer teams with a total of more than 100 participants from Kindergarten through 5th grade. We have over 25 coaches, assistant coaches and referees.

AJ: What is the format for competitions?

UB: We have three divisions. Each team plays only within its own division. Over the course of the season, each team will play the others in its division at least twice.

Each game consists of six periods. Each period is six minutes long (four minutes for the youngest players). One of the unique aspects of Upward is the substitution system. Rather than depending on coaches to even out the playing time, Upward has a rotation system that ensures that every player will play at least 50% of each game, will never sit out two consecutive periods and have the opportunity to be part of the starting lineup. Playing time over the course of the season will be virtually identical for all players on the team. In addition, the substitution system helps match players up with a player from the other team with roughly equal skill.

AJ: Who are the coaches, volunteers, officials? How do you staff these events?

UB: All coaches and referees are volunteers. Most coaches are parents or grandparents of league participants. Upward provides great resources to enable almost anyone to be a successful coach. The primary requirements for an Upward coach are a personal relationship with Jesus, a love for kids, and a willingness to work with them. Our referees are mostly younger men and women who participate in our adult basketball programs. We host an open gym on Sunday evenings and participate in the (Aburn Recreation District) adult basketball league. Most of the other volunteers, including our league commissioners, scorekeepers, announcers, halftime devotion leaders, snack bar crew, team parents, and setup/takedown crew are members of Parkside Church or players’ family members. Pastor Michele Dickerson (my wife) is the league director, and also the Family Life Pastor at Parkside Church.

AJ: What kind of community feedback have you received for this program?

UB: All the feedback we’ve received has been positive. Upward as an organization provides an incredible amount of resources and guidance to enable us to put on a successful league. Upward also teaches the circle of affirmation, where coaches, players and referees have a cooperative relationship, instead of an adversarial one. Referees serve as “on court coaches” not just calling violations, but encouraging and directing players to avoid violations in the first place. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, but even the criticism has been very constructive. Auburn Gymnastics has supported our cheer program by offering cheer clinics every other Friday throughout the season.

AJ: What is the objective of this program?

UB: We have several goals: We want to help kids develop as basketball players, as teammates and as children of God. We want to provide a safe place for kids to play and have fun, without too much competitive pressure. At each practice and each game there is a short devotional. Each year, Upward focuses on different character values. This year, we’re focusing on the values of joy, initiative and forgiveness. Every player/cheerleader is invited to church, and will get a personal invitation to accept Christ. We place a special emphasis on reaching out to those players and cheerleaders who don’t already have a church home.

AJ: How big a role do fundamental team basketball and sportsmanship play with the program?

UB: Upward places incredible emphasis on teaching the fundamentals of basketball at a level appropriate to each age group. Good sportsmanship is part of being a good player and a good person. Upward also has a fabulous recognition system for players. After each game, players get a game star recognizing them in one of five areas: Offense, defense, effort, sportsmanship and Christlikeness. Coaches are encouraged to make sure each player gets at least one of each star over the course of the season. Players love to display their stars on their uniforms.

AJ: Anything else you would like to add?

UB: At the end of every season, we hold an award celebration. Last year, world-renowned basketball ballhandler “SuperHandles” gave a demonstration, and this year we’ll have world-record holding strongman Jon Pritikin of Feel the Power. The award celebration is open to anyone, and will take place on Saturday, March 7 at 6 p.m. at Parkside Church. Signups for next season will begin in October. Contact the church office at (530) 823-9911 to get on the mailing list.