In the world of AAU basketball, teams from across the country compete on an enormous scale, players dreaming of the chance to raise a trophy and maybe one day stand on an NBA court. It's a league the fuels competition in every season, games on any days. The Merritting Attention Basketball Club puts out teams of boys and girls to play in almost every level the AAU has leagues. That's a lot of games to attend and a lot of players. And so when their fifth grade under eleven year-old team won this year's National Championship in Lexington, Kentucky this summer, they were more than a little excited.
"The experience was incredible," says Larry Merrit, head coach and founder of Merritting Attention Inc. "We were used to going there every year but to be able to come out on top out of fifty teams says it doesn't matter where you come from and it's what you put in. It's an outstanding accomplishment for them."
The MABC Bengals beat a team from Pennsylvania for their title in a hard fought 59-46 victory on July 28. It was the program's first national championship in their short three year existence, but it was not the first sign of their prominence on the courts. They have proved proficient at winning games, with their fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh grade teams all advancing to the national levels, and in the past two seasons they have had a third place and a fifth place finish in nationals.
"We have had a lot of success and good coaches who volunteer and help us with these programs," Merritt says. "Wining the championship was like it was an opportunity to take a breath of fresh air. What you put in you get out of it, and we have been putting a lot of worry the last three years with this basketball program."
But the success on the basketball court only comes after they have their success in the books, as Merritting Attention focuses first on academics for participants.
"We have a very strong academic enrichment program where kids have to always go to study hall and turn in progress reports," explains Merritt. "Most of our kids are from the city of Boston. We have a very diverse group of kids, both socially and economically, kids from different financial backgrounds kids who just want an opportunity."
In between playing anywhere from 40 to 50 basketball games a year, Merritting Attention students must keep a grade point average of at least 2.7, or a B-minus average. They practice twice a week, but work every school day on their grades. The goal, according to Merritt is to make sure the kids go to college and get out of the violence and drugs that plague the city streets.
Merritt himself attended Cathedral High School where he used basketball to launch himself into college, earning a full four year scholarship to play at Merrimack College in New Hampshire. He was named a team captain and a team most valuable player while earning himself a degree in Business Administration. He says his time at Merrimack shaped his future in working with children and sports to make a difference.
"Having to sit back and watch and observe the game itself and become a student of the game helped me to become more motivated," he said of his start on the basketball team. "Going back home made me realize we have a lot of kids who were experiencing the same thing that I did &endash; drugs, violence &endash; and they need to have the same opportunity to play sports."
So Merritt started Merritting Attention Inc in 1998 and has been helping kids work their way through schools. The program has been successful but they don't have any way to travel yet, relying on helpful parents to drive. And they don't have any sponsors to help defray the costs of sending kids across the country to compete. Merritt is calling out for any help he can get. There are 150 kids in the program, but they need help to continue, especially since it isn't Merritt's only job.
He also serves as the dean of discipline at the Social Justice Academy in Hyde Park, and is the father of three girls. He spends a lot of time disciplining kids, but more so being a role model to whoever he can.
"I see myself as being a counselor when you work with young people and you are taking on everything that comes with you," he says. But Merritt says he gets back from the kids more than he could give. "I get the smiles. When I get to see young people smile and they come back and say thank you and they in turn want to help out with the organization, that's what I get."
And now he has a national championship as well.