Philly’s Hoop Dreams

Inside Philly Youth Basketball’s Plans To Create A $30 Million Education and Empowerment Center

by Calvin McCall, contributing editor

In December, Philly Youth Basketball broke ground on what will be its new home: a 100,000 square foot, $30 million center that holds seven basketball courts, five classrooms, a healthy food commissary, medical facilities, and more. Kenny Holdsman, the nonprofit’s CEO since its founding in 2015, calls this a holistic approach to empowering the 1,200 middle school and high school boys and girls PYB serves every year. “When it opens, this will be the most comprehensive and impactful youth development center in the country,” he said.

Located in Nicetown, the center aims to integrate sports with personal development by providing programs around topics of financial literacy, job training and community leadership. Reaching beyond the 1,200 middle school and high school aged boys and girls it serves every year, PYB is creating an 80-person civic dialogue theater and a business incubator for high-potential, black-owned businesses.

Slated to open in April 2023, The Alan Horwitz “Sixth Man” Center, named for the avid Sixers fan who donated the initial $5 million to get the project started, is an ambitious step forward for PYB and its CEO Kenny Holdsman.

McCall: Are you modeling this on programming that exists at another center?

Holdsman: There are a handful of sport-based youth development centers around the country – in Harlem, Palo Alto, San Antonio and elsewhere – that have pieces of what we’ve incorporated into a more substantial design. But no organization has yet integrated youth development with workforce and leadership development, community development and job creation, with an explicit commitment to Black empowerment and participation. No one has threaded that needle at this level of scale and intentionality.

McCall: Why did you select Nicetown?

Holdsman: Nicetown is a high-need community and it is geographically accessible by bus, subway, train or car from anywhere in the city or suburbs in under 30 minutes. We also needed a space that had room for seven courts. The majority of industrial buildings in Philly are not wide enough to accommodate the courts.

McCall: Why include a civic dialogue element?

Holdsman: Young people need opportunities to create critical thinking, advocacy skills and a love of learning. There’s no better way of doing that than engaging kids in the issues of the day. Those issues include things that professional athletes are writing and speaking about, like mental health and wellness, gun violence, institutional racism and leadership. It’s about reading, writing, building a point of view and expressing it civilly and constructively.

McCall: How has the pandemic impacted operations at PYB?

Holdsman: We decided in July 2020 that young people in the city of Philadelphia did not need more virtual, Zoom-based programming. The overwhelming majority of kids in our programs are in Philadelphia public schools and were learning virtually. On August 1 2020, we resumed in-person programming with masks, hand sanitizing and all health and safety precautions. We repurposed the 23rd Street Armory, turning it into five classrooms and two basketball courts. We operated from 8 am- 8pm for almost a year. We ran learning pods throughout the year and provided breakfast, lunch and other services. We were the first youth program to reopen and we’ve been in-person ever since.

McCall: What kinds of positive changes have you seen since PYB was created in 2015?

Holdsman: We have seen the power of culturally relatable coach mentorships delivered in holistic programs that uplift kids socially and emotionally, academically and intellectually, civically and vocationally and athletically. Young people can grow quickly in the way they interrelate with peers, adults, and the community.

McCall: Why basketball instead of another sport?

Holdsman: In Philadelphia, basketball is iconic. It’s a game that is a great unifier. It cuts across lines that typically divide people: ethnicity, religion, economic status. When you’re on a playground or in a gym, the only things that matters are if you are a good teammate and play well. Everything else falls away.

For more information, visit phillyyouthbasketball.org.

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