More Than a Game: Recent Graduate Mentors Local Youth Through Basketball

By Dan Verderosa, July 12, 2016

More Than a Game: Recent Graduate Mentors Local Youth Through Basketball

Recent graduate Khalil Griffith knows the difference basketball can make in the life of a young person who is struggling. He knows because he has experienced it firsthand. Ask him, and he’ll tell you that without his mother’s hard work and the support of his high school basketball coach, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

It is that knowledge and experience that drove him to establish a non-profit youth basketball club after only his first semester at Ithaca College. As Griffith departs Ithaca four years later, his club continues to provide young people in need with the opportunities his mother worked so hard to give him and the role models it took him so long to find.

The Ithaca Elite Basketball Club

Even before he created the Ithaca Elite Basketball Club (IEBC) in the spring of 2014, Griffith was involved in local Ithaca sports.

As a freshman in college, he joined the Ithaca High School boys’ basketball team as an assistant coach. Griffith had been coaching younger children since he was 13 years old, but at age 17, he was now the same age as some of the players he was coaching.

“I saw it as an opportunity to relay my personal experience and knowledge to a different group of individuals here in Ithaca,” said Griffith.

Along with a fellow assistant coach, James Williams, Griffith saw that there was a lack of opportunities for students to keep playing basketball once the high school season ended. They co-founded IEBC to give those kids — and others in and around the Ithaca area — a chance to continue playing.

IEBC is an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) travel club for kids in fourth through 12th-grade. The club’s teams play in AAU tournaments, and IEBC hosts practices, clinics, camps and tournaments of its own. When Griffith and Williams started the club, IEBC had just 10 kids. Today, the number has swelled to around 125 boys and girls playing on 13 teams. The players are mostly local, but some have come from as far as Pennsylvania.

Griffith and Williams founded IEBC as a non-profit organization so that they could raise funds to provide scholarships to neighborhood kids whose families couldn’t otherwise afford to pay for tournament fees, uniforms, travel and other costs.

In Tompkins County, N.Y., 13.1 percent of families with children aged 18 years or younger live below the poverty line. In the City of Ithaca, the overall poverty rate is 23.3 percent when college students are factored out. The African-American and the Hispanic populations are disproportionately affected, with around 50 and 34 percent respectively living in poverty. For children growing up under those conditions, playing basketball can be a luxury. They’re often the ones who most need the structure basketball provides.

“I don’t think that’s fair, to limit a kid based on their financial situation,” said Griffith.

Running a non-profit is as time-consuming as it sounds. In addition to his course load at Ithaca College, Griffith coached two IEBC teams and was responsible for administrative work, such as registering for tournaments and planning for travel. He was also the face of the organization, a role that required him to attend practices and interact with parents, players and coaches.

Griffith’s coursework as a sport management major gave him the expertise needed to get the job done.

“A class like Sport Event and Facility Management has played a crucial role in my ability to plan tournaments, plan clinics, have them organized and structured in a way that is effective for everyone involved,” said Griffith.

Even a class like Financial Accounting, which Griffith half-jokingly refers to as “absolute hell,” proved invaluable for tasks like budgeting and filing taxes. It was worth it because Griffith knew that what he was providing for local youth is also invaluable. Not too long ago, he was in their shoes.

Facing Life’s Full-Court Press

Griffith’s life before Ithaca College was difficult. He said his father was abusive toward both him and his mother, and she took Griffith away from him at a young age. He hasn’t seen his father in nearly 18 years.

“Having that vacancy in my life, that void of a father — even when that vacancy was filled — the experience that was there in terms of the abuse was very difficult for me,” said Griffith.

Griffith’s mother worked multiple jobs to provide for him, which meant that he frequently stayed with relatives or friends. She eventually remarried, but Griffith describes his relationship with his stepfather as “on and off.” The fatherly void was finally filled by Joe Serfass, Griffith’s high school basketball coach.

Serfass taught Griffith and his teammates to be accountable to each other and to themselves, on and off the court. And he was tough. Those that ignored the message, even those with special talent, could expect to be benched or kicked off the team. But Serfass was also a nurturing presence, often acting as a confidante for those needing support.

He became a father figure for Griffith and helped put him on the road to success.

And he’s still helping. When Griffith had to decide whether to remain in Ithaca as a coach after graduation or return to Connecticut to pursue a graduate degree, he called Serfass to talk it out and ultimately decided to enroll in the University of Connecticut sport management graduate program.

“He gave me a vision of where I wanted to go, where I could be, and what I needed to do to get there,” said Griffith. “Words really can’t describe what he meant to me during my high school career and what he will mean to me until the day I die.”

Bigger Than Basketball

When Griffith was deciding on colleges, he interviewed and was invited to be part of Ithaca College’s Martin Luther King Scholars program. He told his interviewers that his life’s mission was to help others.

“I want to give others the opportunities that I didn’t have when I was in their shoes,” he said. “I want to prevent others from making the same mistakes that I made when I was in their shoes.”

Through the MLK Scholars program, Griffith’s social consciousness was intensified. He learned that socio-economic issues like poverty often pose barriers to children who could benefit by participating in a sport. 

For Griffith, the purpose of IEBC is to do more than give young people opportunities to play basketball. Its purpose is to guide young people to be successful in life. In IEBC, he has found a way to deliver on his mission to provide opportunities to those in need.

“What we’re looking to do is continue to develop the skills of the youth and high schoolers using basketball as a tool for post-high school plans like college,” said Griffith.

Many of the kids who play for IEBC and attend its camps have difficult home lives. Some have not matured as quickly as their peers and are prone to fighting in school. Some have low grades. As a coach and mentor, Griffith doggedly pushes them not only to become better players, but better students and better people.

Griffith’s own life experience allows him to relate to his players and gain their trust.

“Not everyone has had that experience, so not everyone is able to see or understand what these kids are going through on a daily basis,” said Griffith.

He feels a personal connection to his players and has a strong sense of responsibility to help them succeed. That’s why his decision to leave the Ithaca area was so difficult to make. It’s also why he plans to remain involved with the IEBC while in graduate school.

Just a short time after Serfass helped guide him on the path to college, Griffith has come full circle. He smiles like a proud father when he talks about the growth some of his players have shown, like one IEBC player who seemed like he wouldn’t even graduate high school when the two first met. Now, he has earned a scholarship to a university in upstate New York.

“It’s definitely rewarding to see these kids buy in and see what they could be, and to see them fulfill that potential, considering where they came from, and where we started with them,” said Griffith. “It’s inspiring to say the least. We don’t do it for our own gratification. We do it for them.”