By Sharon Brown, Special to

Ball is life for coaches of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team the Tri-State Athletic Group. But instilling the fundamentals of hard work and dedication off the court is golden.

According to the team website: “The goal of the Tri-State Athletic Group is to lead, develop and support the youth of today, through athletics by promoting responsibility, hard work, sportsmanship, teamwork and fellowship within a safe and positive environment. The organization strives to develop boys into men through athletics; physically, mentally, and spiritually.”

The team’s inaugural season began in 2015. It is classified as a 13U team — which means an athlete can be no older than 12 on August 31, 2017 under AAU guidelines.

There has been some backlash from former NBA players regarding AAU programs. Kevin Garnett recently commented in an interview on NBATV with Kevin McHale, “Our league now is at a point where we have to teach more than anything. AAU has killed the league.”

“We have integrity. We teach our kids truthfulness, integrity. We teach them that they have to earn everything that they do,” assistant coach Tobey Shaw said of The Tri-State Ballers, which operates under the Tri-State Athletic Group’s organization.

Shaw wholeheartedly agrees with Garnett to a certain extent. He explained, “I’ve been actually saying that for years and I’ve always said that the AAU is actually a cesspool because of the unfairness at times.

“I know for a fact that kids are held back one, two years, so they can shine,” he continued. “Often times a kid that’s 14 years old is playing with 12-year-olds. But with our team, our kids’ ages are our kids’ ages. Their skill level is their skill level. If we feel like they need to be playing up, we’ll tell the parent, ‘Hey, your child, your child needs to be playing up.’

“It’s not about winning with us, even though winning is important. We teach life lessons first and that’s where integrity comes in.”

And players must earn their playing time — regardless of how talented they are or how vocal their parents are.

“We have 17 kids this year and last year we had 12,” Shaw said. “Playing time was limited. So we told the kids, ‘Hey, if you want to get out there and you want to earn a spot, you go on out there and you show, you play hard during practice. You show us something in the game, and you earn a spot. We’re not going to give it to you because this is an AAU team and your parents pay fees for this team.’

“That’s how we motivate these kids. We reward them with playing time. They make the most of their playing time when they get it.”

Head Coach Danny Trezvant knows the importance of giving back while doing it for his son and the community. “I played basketball basically, all my life since I was about six,” he said.

Trezvant offered a slightly different perspective regarding Garnett’s AAU comments. “I wouldn’t say that AAU has ruined but I would say that there are some that have taken advantage and caused it to have a bad name,” said Trezvant. “I would say what makes us different is we are teaching the kids the fundamentals, how to do things right. There have been several AAU teams I have been involved with prior to starting our own team and some things that I saw that I didn’t like. Integrity is the utmost and highest with us and that is what we are trying to teach these kids too.”

Trezvant has been coaching youth basketball for more than 20 years in the Mid-South. “Basketball is just an avenue to give back to teach kids teamwork, teach them responsibility and then in turn also teach them life lessons,” he added.

The Ballers includes a diverse group of kids who spend time together beyond the basketball court. Vince and Sarah Mashburne’s son Eli is a member of the team. They love the family atmosphere. “That’s very important,” said Vince Mashburne. “It’s one of the things that builds a team, not only in sports, but also as you go forward in life, you have to be close to the people who you work with if you want to be successful.”

Service . . . with a smile

There’s a unique approach to fundraising that the Ballers have developed. You won’t see this team on the street corners asking for money or participating in car washes.

Every month, the players work for tips at a McAlister’s Deli in Southaven, Miss. They work four hours in two shifts. For Trezvant, this is a meaningful way for his players to serve the community, to earn money and build a work ethic all at the same time.

“We feel like this teaches them more responsibility and how to treat people when you’re working in a work environment,” said assistant coach Barry Jennings. “When you [are] just washing cars or something, you are just washing cars and you get money. Here, you come in, you get the chance to understand how corporate America really works. Hopefully, they’re paying attention and realize this: ‘I have to carry myself a certain way; I have to treat customers the right because they are paying their money and they demand to be treated the right way.”

Jennings said they are establishing work ethic for the children. “It’s teaching them that no one owes you anything, especially the older you get. If you want something out there, if you’re not intending to take it, you have to go out there and work for it.”

Thirteen-year-old Elyas Peterson loves working for tips at the deli because it helps the team to earn money for out of town trips.

“It’s fun going out of town with the team.” Peterson said. He reiterated that working gives him experience for the future. “If I wanted to work at McDonalds or something, when I am older, I will already know how to do it,” Peterson added.

Damien Jordan, a 7th grader who attends DeSoto Central Middle School, talked about what he has learned while being on the team, “The team helps us prepare better for life as we get older. It also prepares us for our later jobs in life and how we can grow up as young men.”

This team has a distinctive motto which says: Academics First, Athletics Second. Coaches and parents are on the same page, which stresses education as an integral part of success.

Parent Kim Terry wholeheartedly agrees with that sentiment.

“The team motto really emphasizes what I live by in my household,” she said. “I have certain expectations for my child because I know what he can do academically.

“I’m the athletic director at home, because if those grades aren’t right, I’m gonna bench him and everything,” she said. “And so, it is vital for us that the coaches have the attitude you can’t play if you don’t have the grades in school.”

Shaw is not only a coach, he is also a 12 year veteran of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. With his experiences as law enforcement, he teaches his players how to interact with the police.

Last year, with a stream of officer-involved shootings and hostile encounters, Shaw’s players had questions and concerns about the police. Shaw brought in some of his co-workers to talk to the kids and performed scenarios exercises. After the session, “We changed their attitude as far as how they would act towards the police,” Shaw said.

Many of the players have hoops dreams and NBA aspirations.

Coach Shaw ended with, “A lot of these kids have basketball, NBA dreams. The harsh reality of it is, none of them will probably ever make it to the NBA, but you teach them life skills and they can take that through their entire lives and for them to live productive lives.”

Coach Trevant concluded, “We want to have a positive impact on their lives and that is why we do what we do.”

Through sports, the coaches of the Tri-State Ballers aim is to have a lasting impression on the lives of their players on and off the court.