Training for life


Basketball program teaches big skills in short order

photo courtesy of Highwood Small Fry Highwood Hurricane A.J. Roskin prepares to take the ball inbound against Marquette Park.

Sixth-grader Ryan Johnson is just like other fledgling basketball players: He's learning to shoot, dribble, run and play as a member of a team. But he's different from most basketball players in one big way: He stands just 4-feet-9-inches tall.

Johnson, who lives in north suburban Beach Park, plays with the Highwood branch of Small Fry Basketball, a national program geared toward shorter players. The requirements are simple-players must be 12 or younger on Sept. 1 and stand 5-foot-1-inch or shorter.

"We feel very strongly about teaching the game," says Verne Reich, team Heat's varsity head coach. The shorter kids get individualized attention so they learn proper techniques.

The program modifies the game for the smaller players to help them learn the fundamentals. Ten-foot baskets are lowered to 8 feet, 6 inches. The ball is 28.5 inches in diameter-vs. the regulation-size 29.5 or 30 inches-to compensate for smaller hands.

There's another difference as well: The substitution rules ensure everyone plays. Half the team plays during the first quarter; the other half during the second quarter. After halftime, the game follows standard substitution rules.

For 35 years, the Highwood teams have started training in October with advanced skill fundamental camps. Reich says more than 200 boys, and the occasional girl, train on Saturday afternoons. Then, in December, the top 67 players are chosen to play on the varsity and rookie traveling teams. The season runs from mid-February to mid-April and culminates in the International Tournament and Friendship Weekend, April 12-15 in Orlando, Fla., this year. Every team has the opportunity to play in Florida, whether in the tournament or a friendship game.

More than 30 teams in the Chicago area compete against each other every weekend. "On our team, the kids are primarily from the northern suburbs," Reich says. "The kids we play against are very diverse. [There are] a number of inner-city teams."

The five Highwood teams share 10 volunteer coaches. Most of them are parents of the athletes, but the program does not allow parents to coach their own child's team. "It takes the politics out of who plays on the team," Reich explains.

Next year, Johnson will be old enough-and skilled enough-to play with the team at his school, Beach Park Middle School. He starts training with the team in the spring. He credits what he knows about the sport to Small Fry.

"I thought it was great," he says. "I learned a lot more than I would have from my dad." For information about the Highwood teams, call (847) 604-4355, ext. 2, or visit The national Web site is

Ashley Ernst


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